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Funny Philosophy

Intro | Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture Excerpt

Ken Jennings holds the record for most consecutive Jeopardy wins and spends a lot of time thinking about comedy.

When I asked comedy guru George Meyer about the new joke saturation, he remembered something a professor once told him: "Throughout history, man has screwed up good things by concentrating them." When people were drinking beer, that didn't lead to a lot of problems, but once we figured out how to distill beer into liquor, drinking alcohol became a harsher experience. Incan coca tea begat powdered cocaine, which begat freebasing. We bred stronger and stronger strains of marijuana until eventually people just started inhaling dabs of pure THC. "At some point," Meyer observed, "you're on the catastrophic side of the hill."

The comparison between drugs and laughs isn't just hypothetical. Movie directors today can use digital editing and recorded test screenings to precisely shape comedy for audiences. They're timing jokes down to the exact twenty-fourth of a second to maximally jolt the brain, the way Chuck Jones used to do in animation. Comedy, in other words, isn't just a minor relaxant now. We've engineered it into a designer drug: ever faster, smarter, stranger, crueler, more ironic. We may be pushing the envelope of just how refined it can get.

It's not a coincidence that our bizarre and rarefied comic sensibility, so "advanced" that much of it isn't even recognizable as jokes to those not in the know, developed in a time of new abundance. Our sense of humor has evolved—or mutated, given the pace of change—to suit the fact that comedy is now the dominant voice of our culture. When taste and technology allow you to hear hundreds of jokes a day, novelty becomes more important, and that's what pushes speed and absurdity to new heights. It also makes topicality essential. Can you imagine a late-night staff trying to write dozens of joke candidates every day without twenty-four hours of new headlines to prime the pump? I don't think they could handle the volume. The conversation is now moving too fast for many kinds of joke-tellers to keep up with demand, so a chattier voice has replaced the glib, prepared "routines" of the past. And faster, smaller, more reactive jokes can squeeze their way into ever more corners of modern life, so even more jokes get told. It's a feedback loop of nonstop hilarity!

In the end, the twenty-first-century ubiquity of jokes and the escalation of everything about those jokes aren't two different things. They're the same savage more-ness. They're driven by the same insatiable appetite.

The stakes are higher now that comedy has been weaponized by its newest establishment practitioners: corporations, political parties, governments. Billions of dollars and the shape of the future are now at stake when organizations crack jokes. It's easy to imagine a world where the co-opting of jokes by the Man defanged them, reduced them for the lowest common denominator to an inoffensive mush. But in our world, with powerful voices deploying jokes on all sides, it started an arms race. No one's going to remember the slightly silly ad when there's a very silly one coming up right behind it. No one's going to laugh at the prepared zingers of an affable political candidate when there's an unpredictable force of sheer id on the debate stage. And as long as these jokes are told with a sufficiently ironic wink, the agendas behind them are harder to criticize. Not everyone crafting and telling these jokes is a gifted comedian, of course, but that's almost beside the point. There's so much comedy in our culture now that everyone's internalized its tone and tropes. Anyone can sound like they're being funny, whether they've genuinely made a real joke or not.

We've caught on to the influence of jokes enough to police them more carefully in ourselves. We indulge in long debates over what targets are appropriate for jokes, and which jokes are on the right side of the issue. But as carefully as we're now monitoring the ethics of comedy, we haven't really turned that same careful eye on the most powerful joke-tellers. No one is asking if presidential debates should be funny, if the CIA should be funny, if a huge demographic should be getting most of its news from comedy shows. It all changed so gradually we didn't really notice it.

Are powerful organizations getting quippier today because we are, or are we getting quippier because of them?

Excerpted from 'Planet Funny,' by Ken Jennings. Copyright 2018 by Ken Jennings. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.