Yerington: Alternative humor leads the 2nd golden age of comedy

In a time where comedians like Eric Andre and comedy duos like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are loved by young people; I sat down with UI lecturer and playwright Megan Gogerty to dive into the rise in popularity of nihilistic and absurd comedy.


File photo

Megan Gogerty performs in “Lady Macbeth and Her Pal Megan,” a one woman show.

Austin Yerington, Opinion Columnist

In a time in which comedians such as Eric Andre and comedy duos such as Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are loved by young people, I was very interested in what that says about us as a generation and why we love this wacky shock-filled form of comedy. I thought of no one better to talk to than University of Iowa theater and standup-comedy Lecturer Megan Gogerty.

When talking about this time, Gogerty spoke about our being in the second Golden Age of Comedy, with the the first being in the 1970s. Gogerty noted that comedians such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor were pillars of helping to create a new form of comedy built around anger and calling out political injustices in the world. That all changed about the time of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.

“Watergate shifted this anger and disillusioned a lot of people about what is ‘justice’ … America loses its taste for political/confessional comedy, and we get instead a thing called ‘Anti-Comedy.’ ”

This “Anti-Comedy” was led by comedians such as Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman. They caused audiences, as Gogerty put it, “[to] laugh in spite of the joke.” It skewed showbiz tropes and comedic traditions. The form was so popular because of the emotional distress caused by the late-1970s; America rushed to see such bits just to see something totally ridiculous and funny.

This comedy has now shifted to people such as Andre and comedy duos such as Heidecker and Wareheim, but now with a great focus on nihilism and a higher dose of absurdity.

A great example of this is the “Who Killed Hannibal?” bit from the Andre show. For those who don’t know this bit/show, it plays out like a normal talk-show monologue in which the host tells the audience the nightly monologue but in the middle, a generic joke about climate change. Andre turns to sidekick Hannibal Buress and proceeds to shoot him with two clips from a handgun. Then he turns to the camera and says, “Who killed Hannibal?”

The sketch on paper sounds horrible and dark, but because of the comedic “Tonight Show” host and sidekick tropes being thrown on its head, we laugh.

We laugh because the jokes he was saying before don’t matter; talk shows are all rehearsed and produced before they are filmed. There’s no “real banter” that ever happens between the two. So when we see that, it doesn’t matter that Andre shot Buress because it’s just absurd.

Finally, I asked my big question: Why is this new form of “Anti-Comedy” becoming so popular for people in this time? Gogerty responded with, “If I was to hazard a guess, one of the reasons this nihilistic comedy and absurd comedy is popular among certain populations, is 1) The internet let people have niche comedy … and 2) This feeling of powerlessness, this feeling of nihilism, of everything is absurd.”

I asked what could possibly be the cause of this absurd nihilistic comedy, Gogerty responded with, “It’s very difficult to analyze our current moment because we need distance,” but she went on to note that time periods such as the 1970s and our current times are seen as “High Stress Times.”

“No matter if you feel good about it, we are in a high-stress time,” Gogerty said. “We have a senior official in the *New York Times* being like “P.S. we’re running a shadow government”; that’s alarming.”

Gogerty doesn’t believe that this presidential administration is what totally caused it, though. She cites an article by Frank Rich in which he argues that this point in America can be traced back to the recession in 2008. The event signals that American’s trust was broken. “Not a single banker spent a night behind bars, so there is a feeling of: Is there justice; are there rules?” Gogerty said.

In a time in which we see rules not applying to people who inhabit the 1 percent and in which we feel powerless, this crazy, weird form of comedy helps fill a hole in which others may enjoy a bit of laughter. As a student about to enter the real world, I feel it is always good to have a bit of comedy to help with the obstacles that will come.