Letterman’s on Top, After All

The Sept. 18 issue of Rolling Stone is an instructive ride through time with comedy greats like Groucho Marx, Johnny Carson, Conan O’Brien, and David Letterman with its feature package “What’s Funny Now?” The articles revisit what defines humor in contemporary American comedy, in the context of the last century’s comedic greats. A rather complex history and contextualization of humor is crammed, rather efficiently, into unusually few words. Just about any reader, pop-savvy or not, will gain a satisfactory understanding of the state of humor in contemporary society.

With a package titled “What’s Funny Now?” RS set out to define exactly what humor is nowadays in pop culture and how it got there. The lead article, a three-pager by Jim Windolf, clearly illustrates where humor stands today and where it comes from. He takes us to the uncomfortable situational “deadpan” humor embodied by shows like “The Office,” and traces the style’s origin to key comedic traditions of the past, like radioman Jack Benny’s “trademark pauses” in the 1940’s.

Then follows a quick-hitting analysis of the transition from the good old punch line to modern humor.

Windolf tells us that the punch line is fading out in today’s comedic media, at least when compared to the old “wisecracks” that reigned in yesterday’s movies. Now it’s the likes of Borat, Napoleon Dynamite, and The Office that have redefined the humor world with a more amorphous, situational punch line. (Although he quotes Conan O’Brien saying that a combination of these two styles prevails: “I think people still appreciate a good joke, but more and more, if something seems rehearsed or slick, it doesn’t smell right to a younger audience.”)

RS lines its walk through humor history with short, punch-packing quips from leading comics laid out in a one-theme-per-page format.  The funny people answer questions like “what are comedy’s biggest influences?” and “who do you wish you’d met?” The editors even print some of the comedians’ favorite jokes.

This whirlwind visit of the past, present, and future of comedy is crowned by a Q&A with none other than David Letterman, who embodies the oldschool zinger-punch line style as well as the more modern situational irony better than anyone, according to Windolf’s article

The interview by Jason Gay drifts away from the heavier comedy analysis that was the tone for the rest of the package. Rather, the piece is an intensely personal 1-on-1 with the experienced comic, touching on subjects from his heart surgery to his perennial second place to Jay Leno’s ratings.

Nowhere to be found is Letterman’s input on what defines funny nowadays. It seems he would be the man to ask, since the RS issue frames him as the king of comedy; “…the comic who did the most to replace ba-da-bump gags with awkward realism was David Letterman,” writes Windolf.

Nonetheless, the Letterman interview is an effective reminder that the comedian is a well-seasoned veteran who has earned his place at the top (or near the top): a former Johnny Carson protégé, Letterman has been tried and tested throughout the years. Most importantly, he pushed the envelope, RS says, by bringing realism to center stage and keeping a show in the frontlines of comedy

-Ricardo Ramírez


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