A few years ago, the always-enlightening Cracked podcast discussed the changing landscape of American comedy. The hosts talked about “pop culture expiration dates,” and concluded that we decide what’s funny based on a myriad array of contextual features. The 1980s have a very specific “comedy agenda”, as do the 70s, 90s and ever era before or after. Even what we find funny today will go stale eventually, with future generations finding little joy in the comedy superstars of today. See for yourself. Go ahead and check out an episode of The Honeymooners, and then compare that to something more recent, like Seinfeld. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find more to laugh at with the latter. It’s more modern, relevant and engaging, whereas The Honeymooners may seem dated, or some of the jokes may not even apply to a contemporary audience. Both shows have their merits, and different people will have different interpretations, but I personally find the more recent Seinfeld to be funnier.
Moving even farther back from the Honeymooners, we find the 1895 Lumière film “L’Arroseur Arrosé” or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled.” Here we have a farce that is almost infantile in its comedic portrayal. A man waters his garden, only to be interrupted when a prankster steps on the hose. The man is sprayed by the hose, a chase ensues, and the prankster is spanked (weird). That’s it. The movie is 45 seconds and the actual joke is, for lack of a better word, stupid. But this was the first comedy film ever. Out of this one joke erupted an endless possibility of humour. Moreover, this was regarded as the first narrative live-action film as well. The influence is vast; from the smallest indie flick to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
The filmmakers responsible for L’Arroseur Arrosé , Louis and Auguste Lumière, understood what Edison didn’t. While the American moviemaking crowd was busying themselves filming mundane, everyday events, the French Lumières devised a novel genre of stories to entertain their customers. They relied on classic vaudeville theatre to devise a simple bit of slapstick bliss, all while presenting a clear plot, character and theme. Audiences loved it, and the general moviemaking trend speedily shifted towards adapting theatre or fictional works.
It’s dumb by 2016 standards, but this is the well from which The Honeymooners, Seinfeld, and all of our other favourite comedies sprung.