The Virginian Pilot Ledger-Star, May 4, 1986:
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Travis Charbeneau 3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
email@example.com Phone: 804 358 0417
Boomer Humor: "It only stops
hurting when I laugh"
Not that long ago, when people like Steve Martin took to the road,
they were often relegated to opening concerts for famous rock bands.
This was nothing if not the equivalent of the baggy pants burlesque
comic stalling an impatient, abusive audience as they waited for the
_real_ show to begin: the naked women. Today, pity the poor rock act
which must open for Steve Martin. The current "comedy explosion," is
now fragmented into two, full-time TV networks, one from HBO, another
from MTV, hours and hours of standard TV prime time, movies, albums
and over 300 professional stand-up comics working over 3,000 comedy
clubs. But why?
Blame it on the baby boom, 76 million laugh-starved trend
setters born between 1946 and 1964. We are doing now for comedy what
we long ago did for rock and roll, and for very similar reasons.
In the final analysis humor -- boomer or otherwise -- will not
tolerate much analysis. But there is a reason the first boomer comics
had to work rock concerts. A common denominator exists for a music
which works almost exclusively at the visceral level and a humor which
begins at the same place and then typically ratchets up to at least
somewhere above the collar bone. If you are both a rock and comedy
fan, you have probably noticed that a comic on a roll burns from the
same place as a possessed guitarist blistering a groove ("'Scuse me
while I kiss the sky.") Further, he or she burns _you_ in the same
place. There is a similar tingle of excitement, hilarity and almost
sexual satisfaction to be had from both experiences. And both, not
coincidentally, are either incomprehensible or downright offensive to
what we used to call "the older generation."
The common denominator, of course, is pain.
Why should a pampered generation raised in unprecedented
affluence, with unprecedented freedom and unprecedented education be
obsessed with pain? Why should we choose early in life musical
anthems derived from the excruciating African-American experience of
slavery, namely blues-based rock and roll? Why should we be so
ferociously pursuing as we approach "fortysomething" the perpetual
analgesia of comedy, whose laughter bursts forth as a by-product of
dissipated stress -- or pain?
Three essential reasons: first and foremost, to the extent Boomer
Humor exists at all, it is inseparable from Our Friend The Bomb.
Almost all of the new humorists use satire, black comedy and, beyond
all else, a keen appreciation -- perhaps even an obsession -- with the
absurd. "Take my wife ... please!" is simply inadequate to the
nuclear era. Humor which does not address the existential dilemma of
the species, including our primary fear of self-annihilation, ignores
the primary tension of modern life. As all Psych 101 survivors will
recall, humor exploits tension. We laugh in relief as tension is
dissipated. ("Take my planet, please!")
Now I can't think of too many comics who do overt Armageddon
jokes. But there's absolutely no need for overt, or even for "jokes"
as such. Boomers appreciate subtlety. All that college tuition
bought something (even if it wasn't a job. See below.) Further, the
"duck-and-cover" tension with which we grew up exists by now at the
subtle level of psychic background noise. We are rarely consciously
aware of it. Indeed, to be constantly aware of such an eminently
plausible possibility as nuclear holocaust is to invite catatonia.
The end of the Cold War came too late to affect these sensibilities.
Today, in fact, we face a fate even more absurd than dying for a
dubious cause. The potential for some accidental, Strangelovian press
of The Button or the headline "Islamic Jihad Nukes Manhattan" is more
with us than ever.
Further, now that we have cranked up the voltage of future shock
with environmental, economic, infectious and even vocational
holocaust, our appreciation of the absurd grows apace.
At its roots, of course, this is the innate, perennial absurdity
of the human condition, a cosmic joke Shakespeare exploited in the age
of edged weapons. Like all else in Boomerland, though, we reap the
harvest of amplified technology to the point where getting "That Big
Promotion" and playing the banjo with an arrow through the head make
about equal sense. The cataclysm factors mount, rather than diminish,
as we approach fin de millennium, the end of a thousand-year cycle and
the onslaught of Post Industrialism. Each boasts the potential to
render _all_ points moot.
Second, but perhaps equally profound to the development of
any boomer sensibility, was "our" war. "Our" war was not a "good war"
like "Their War." War-wise, boomers definitely got the booby prize,
not the John Wayne Macho Medal all those WW II movies promised we
would get. Engaging in warfare, yet backing away from victory, as one
forever must in the nuclear age, invites absurdities of the highest
order. My Vietnam vet friends said "Apocalypse Now" came the closest
of all the Vietnam films to re-capturing the experience for them. It
comprehended the Dadaesque ambience of the war, something essential
which grittier and probably better movies like "Platoon" nevertheless
failed to express. John Milius wrote the famous, "I love the smell of
napalm in the morning" line as a toss-off, assuming it would never
make it past the first cut. Wrong. Good boomer humor. We lived with
this deadly absurdity for a decade, enjoying Watergate as a sort of
sideshow along the way. ("And now, from those same wacky guys who
brought you Vietnam ...") Both programs, naturally, were televised.
Finally, in the late '70s and early '80s we got the generational
punchline: "Hey, suckers -- no jobs!" Depressed by the post-OPEC
embargoes and the emerging world marketplace, flooded with boomers
eager to sell out and waving their multitudinous degrees, the by-now
multinational "American" economy refused to deliver on the promises of
the '50s. Not in housing, not in the capacity to afford and raise
children, not in stable marriages; certainly not in that '60s vision
of "meaningful work." A generation born at the crest of human
material fulfillment -- the "American Post-War Miracle," -- a
generation which dared to look beyond "get a job" to an era of
"self-actualization," is now competing with subsistence labor in the
Pacific Rim happy for a few bucks a week.
It's not just a matter of being spoiled rotten. "The American
Century" deliberately raised expectations to Olympian heights, only to
begin fizzling out in the mid-'70s. As it fizzles, the jarring
incongruities of an empire in denial and decline are just too
painfully funny to bear. A nation which could afford two manned
bomber programs in the advanced missile age, but didn't teach it's
kids how to read surely must have a joke lurking somewhere up its
sleeve. Who could watch Ronald Reagan's shenanigans or listen to the
fractured syntax of George Bush and avoid the choice between laughter
or tears? And who needs more tears?
Facing all this, boomers with some justification perceive
themselves to be a put-upon, even a depressed generation. We even
invented the "human potential movement" to avoid the onus of going to
a shrink. (And comics don't charge nearly as much.) More
objectively, there can be no question that we are the designated
demographic at the wheel as American history, indeed, our entire human
evolutionmobile, approaches dangerous and disturbing turns in the road
-- all to be taken at a tidy 8000 MPH. All the literally
Earth-shattering questions of the Trans-Industrial Age and their
too-long deferred answers lie ahead, a road rally from hell potted
with land mines. This is life perpetually on the edge, replete with
the persistent stench of burning rubber, the grinding of abused
transmissions and the caustic taste of adrenaline drooling out in 48
Of course, Boomer Humor stars have not gotten rich by offering
thoughtful analyses of the post-war boomer dilemma, but by poking fun
at all its subtle manifestations, from broad stuff like crime,
divorce, drug use, racial unrest and work habits to specific licks
like the transparent annihilation metaphor virtually all comics use,
"crash and burn" air travel humor. In so doing, boomer comedians have
become the antidote to a severe case of cultural poisoning, people to
whom the baby boom generation probably owes what little remains of its
sanity. Yes, we look to the likes of Bobcat Goldthwait for sanity.
If there is a key to understanding the latter half of the 20th
century, perhaps this is it.
The Boomer Humor phenomenon merely reflects the awesome,
if diffuse, power of a demographic cohort 76 million strong to
influence popular culture. The same influence was evident in '50s as
we bought Davy Crockett caps and hula hoops, in the '60s as we flew
the Viet Cong flag and fragged our officers, in the '70s as directed
consciousness gave way to disco, and in the '80s as combo
physical-fitness/gourmet-ice-cream parlors fought with crack houses
for prime real estate. We'll see it again in the next century as the
geriatric market booms. ("New Robo-Dentures for Boomers With Busted
We may be living in a period of tragic decline, the sunset of
empire. But we seem determined to leave it laughing.