I’ve been playing the Grand Theft Auto trilogy remasters that came out about three weeks ago, and it’s been interesting viewing them through the lens of 2021, distorted as that vision may be. It’s got me wondering (and worrying) about the state of satire and comedic expression as a whole, and if society lost it’s sense of humour for the most part. It seems we cry more than laugh now.
Some of the old GTA humour holds up, some doesn’t, but it also comes from an era where developers where more restricted by law and government, and less afraid of ‘cancellation’ from the left than from the right. Censorship was focused more on sex, drugs and violence than anything else, with gaming still viewed as primarily being a youthful endeavour, not yet fully embraced as an adult medium. It’s a product of the times, and should be viewed in that context alone, not through the lens of the self-important weaponized morality of today.
Coming from a town and era where sarcasm and pisstaking were the order of the day, I was long conditioned to be able to take and dish out humour of the non-PG variety from a young age, in times where satire was perhaps the dominant strain of popular comedy. The likes of South Park and Beavis & Butt-head were skewering stereotypes left, right and centre, and even in music comedic artists thrived – we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously to have a good time just yet.
It’s been enlightening to see how this retro media, and the creators of it, are perceived by Gen Z and late Millenials in the context of modern culture, where the cultural focus is on kids and not adults. The notion of ‘growing out’ of certain kinds of entertainment is largely mocked as an archaic Boomerism by many young people now, and there is a fear of aging and an obsession with remaining young forever that goes far beyond any real natural order. Nuance is lost, context is rarely (or falsely) applied, and the spirit of eras past is always ignored, all in favour of kneejerk emotional reactions to humour and art that somehow goes completely over the head of this more ‘enlightened’ contingent.
Classic satirical comedy was often couched in the parody of stereotypes, and the public’s perception therein. What a lot of people born more recently don’t understand that many of those same stereotypes weren’t parodying the specific demographic represented, but general, often bigoted perceptions of said demos. South Park frequently skewered the racist perceptions of black, Asian and other cultures, but somehow people in their 20’s now get it less than kids and teenagers did in an era where we were supposedly more ignorant (we were in some ways, but less so in others). Black and Asian kids got it back then too, so don’t go blaming white privilege.
Where the youth of today may watch Beavis and Butt-head and only see their moronic misogyny, they miss the intention that said behaviour was always their downfall. The message actually being sent was that treating women as sex objects was deeply inappropriate, and likely to be unsuccessful in intergender relations. It was their obsession with “scoring” which always prevented them from doing so, and we laughed at them as much as with them. They were bad examples – that was the point. It’s not like we weren’t having advanced discussions about sexism, rape culture and gender relations back then, even if some younger folks like to imagine we were dragging our knuckles and rubbing sticks together for fire.
Such culture was from an era where fictional characters and their creators weren’t socially obligated to be role models. As far as I’m concerned, they still aren’t. Not everyone is meant to be a hero. Being decent is enough; the obnoxious insistence that everyone should behave perfectly, and only create art or characters that are universally inoffensive creates a climate of guilt and fear that stifles expression, eliminating true creative diversity.
Not only that, but critical culture surrounding said art is reduced to the level of borderline irrelevance – we might as well be sending professional restaurant critics to McDonald’s, or putting kindergarten student drawings in museums and galleries. One only needs to take a look at what the Grammys became in the last 20 years for an example of this degradation in maturity, diversity and quality.
Critical culture has already been devalued far too much by social media, where toxic, idiotic amateurs affect the incomes and reputations of those with actual talents and skillsets. Any veteran of the modern culinary industry can tell you all about it – I have stories for days, some so ridiculous I hardly believe them myself. Ignorant amateur critique is just about everywhere now, and is lowering the bar to the point where a lot of us don’t even want to hear feedback of any kind anymore.
When it comes to old sitcoms and standup, much of the criticism comes from people viewing clips of the aforementioned media instead of the entire presentation. It’s a great example of the influence of clickbait culture, with it’s emphasis on headlines and feelings instead of context and intellect. You may as well be reviewing an album after listening to one or two tracks. But people just HAVE to be right, and MUST be heard. Facts are optional.
What it amounts to is essentially modern youth demanding a place in adult dialogues without being qualified for the conversation – it’s great that they want to participate, but the right to an opinion is not the right to wilfull ignorance. There is also the notion that a certain amount of opinion needs to be based in practical, real world application and not just social study and critical thought, let alone with the benefit of hindsight. There must be a balance between idealism and realism, or else we’re dealing purely in the theoretical. To change tomorrow one must understand today, and also not try to alter yesterday, so as to paint over the mistakes that we should learn from.
On a side note, it’s also kind of laughable that modern teens and adults in their 20’s are supposedly so much more mature, yet are more to happy to cling to lamer 90’s staples like Pokémon. It’s kind of hard to act critically towards classic adult culture when your view of the 90’s is through the perspective of the worst children’s entertainment of that era, and the rampant mass consumerism that surrounds it – but ‘the enlightened’ still do it.
This retrospective contempt for the culture of eras past is arrogant, myopic, and at times laughable – especially in light of the pathetic infantilism of what has succeeded it. For example, many decry excessive sexualization in pop culture and advertising in the 80’s and 90’s, but at least it was less patronizing and persistent than the childishness of the modern equivalents. Every other ad is some awful choreographed dance routine with ‘music’ so shallow, stupid and quantifiably abysmal, it cheapens the public perception of both music and dance as means of individual expression. Everything is sensory assault and intellect insult, all geared at the maturity level of a spoiled adolescent with severe ADHD.
It’s great that we live in a more inclusive era in terms of certain demographics, but it’s a less inclusive one for mature adults who can take a joke, and don’t want to act like their values, feelings or egos are the centre of the known universe. Meme culture dominates humour now, and while most are harmless and many hilarious, over time it conditions people to lose the nuance required for the more layered humour of eras past. Attention spans aren’t long enough for a five minute joke, so they just react to a couple of specific sentences and miss the point entirely.
It also forsakes the crucial fact that for many of us, humour was the most effective weapon at deconstructing and challenging negative stereotypes. It’s often a far more effective and less exclusive tool when it comes to educating the masses, many of whom are tired of being lectured about how to think and feel by anyone, even if they agree on principle.
From what I’ve seen of a lot of modern stand-up comedy and satire, it seems to be going the way of music – too afraid to upset anyone, thus miring itself in relatable mundanity. This is how disposable art gets made, and that which is designed only to fit the era in which it emerges rarely stands the test of time. You can’t please everyone, and it’s folly to even try – it’s also grossly inauthentic and artistically compromising, but then again what once was called ‘selling out’ is now just ‘cashing in’.
We’ve become something of a society that begs permission when sometimes it would be better to ask forgiveness. The obsession with perfection, morally and otherwise, is robbing us of the ability to learn from error and imperfection, and as such the growth of performers and creators is stunted. We made a kid-friendly world at the expense of the adults – you know, the ones actually buying the products, paying the taxes, and bearing the consequences. Those adults are getting more ill-equipped for reality by the day, partly from living in bubbles of idealism of all kinds, curated and conditioned by metrics. That, and a culture hellbent on maintaining a high school mentality all the way up to the highest level of politics, culture and even economics.
If you want to hold the naivete and ignorance of the past accountable, then be willing to not only learn more about that era, and to think of what it was to be in it, but also to be able to tolerate criticism of the modern era also. If you want to talk about the violent misogyny of gangsta rap, then accept that it still exists in modern hip-hop – it’s just that the current sound is more homogenized, normalized, and easily duplicated. If you wish to criticize Seinfeld, by all means – but also acknowledge that reality TV is cultural cancer, and a source of rampant narcissism for high-rolling low achievers following a template for sociopathy.
Above all, don’t go criticizing older culture aimed specifically at mature audiences when all you listen to is teen pop (yes, it IS still teen pop) and you only play games like Minecraft or Fortnite – nothing wrong with those games, but they are for younger people, and at some point it’s time to graduate. Mature content warnings are not just disclaimers for violent, drug related or sexual content – they exist so that nuanced themes may be approached with the proper respect, in the right context, by people prepared to process them correctly.
The old ways aren’t perfect, and they don’t always hold up, but newer and nicer isn’t always better. It’s frustrating defending great works that stood the test of time to people whose cultural palates are about as refined as those of a culinary critic who only eats fast food, mostly Burger King. Then again, said art was made in eras where nobody was morally ‘obligated’ to love or hate anything.