Comedy of Eras
The following is from Larissa MacFarquhar's New Yorker Profile of Michael Moore, which appears in the current issue (February 16 & 23, 2004).
During the Vietnam War, comedy had been on the side of the left, because the left was taking the materialist position: while the right espoused lofty goals like saving the world from Communism and establishing freedom, the left wanted to prevent people from dying. But after the war the left became preoccupied with abstract issues: it stopped worrying about death and started worrying about dignity. A large part of what came to be called political correctness in the eighties consisted literally of prohibiting jokes. Meanwhile, much explicitly political comedy migrated to the right -- not the religious right but the party-of-prosperity right, the right of money and Martinis and Wall Street. One of the emblematic right-wing humorists of the time, P.J. O'Rourke, appears on one of his book jackets dressed like an investment banker from 1985 -- suspenders, striped shirt, loud tie, cigar.
It wasn't that after Carter comedians suddenly started voting Republican -- comedians then as now were a liberal bunch. But for a decade their comedy for the most part ceased to be political. (The TV show "Rosanne," of course, was a notable exception.) "Everything had been about politics for so long that we got bored with big issues and started talking about weird hair," Merrill Markoe, who worked on "Letterman" in the eighties and was a "TV Nation" correspondent, says. Randy Cohen, who in the ninties contributed to the political humor at "TV Nation," was famous in the eighties for inventing "monkey cam" -- a stunt on "Letterman" in which a small camera was tied to a monkey who ran around the studio. In the past few years, Al Franken has been writing political books that, like Moore's, have become best-sellers; but during the five years in the eighties when he worked at "Saturday Night Live" there was a tacit agreement at the show, he says, not to take a particular political position. The most popular comedy show that the decade produced, "Seinfeld," advertised itself as the show about nothing. The Seinfeld, weird-hair style of humor was about as far from political rhetoric as it was possible to get: while Seinfeld and other standup comics talked about things that were such intimate, familiar parts of daily life that they didn't even have names -- the annoying little silver tape in CD packages; the creepy warm feeling of a seat that someone has recently sat on -- politicians talked about things that were so abstract that they were only names: terror, freedom, truth....
Recently, comedy has switched sides again. The right has once more become the party of abstractions -- the party of terror, freedom, and truth -- while humorists on the left like Moore (and Molly Ivins, Jon Stewart, David Cross, and Janeane Garofalo) have reoccupied the low ground of material need.