An Important Lesson on the History of Sex in Comedy

Trainwreck Sex

‘The History of Comedy’ returns with a look at the importance of comedy for sex, and vice versa.

Deconstructing media is our job as critics and historians, and yes it can seem to ruin the enjoyment of movies, television, and other entertainment when we’re busy breaking down the meaning of everything we’re viewing. No media literacy is more necessary or potentially dampening, though, than the survey and understanding of comedy. Fortunately, in most cases, laughter is a thoughtless reaction to something funny. Enjoyment of a joke or a gag precedes our consideration of whether the material is appropriate. Laugh, but realize what you’re laughing at or with.

That is why the history of comedy is so interesting, and sometimes it can be frustrating to someone who wants to just keep on enjoying a classic stand-up routine or movie despite the humor therein becoming retroactively determined to be sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise politically incorrect or dated in their handling of a sensitive subject. Appreciating the significance and the context of the comedy of the past, however, can allow us to enjoy that stuff anew, maybe not with a laugh out loud but at least a nod and a chuckle, and maybe a raised eyebrow.

Every critic and every fan who wants to be media literate should take courses in the history and the analysis of comedy. Or, if not full-on study, for starters watch a basic primer on the subject such as CNN’s documentary series The History of Comedy. As I wrote last year when the program first debuted, the series is pretty serious about comedy, and that first season dealt with a lot of what was most essential for our times, such as comprehension of political comedy, parody and satire, and the psychology of comedy. Now, the second season is kicking off with another very timely discussion of something that can be tricky in comedy: sex.

The episode “Carnal Knowledge” explores the prevalence of sexual content in comedy from the days of Mae West and innuendo in old movies to the rise of R-rated sexual comedy TV series, mostly courtesy of HBO. As usual, our guides are mainly relevant professionals more than academic historian figures. So you’ve got Judd Apatow and Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan and comedian Nikki Glaser discussing why the awkwardness of sex is always funny. And you’ve got the notoriously raunchy and non-PC comedian Jim Norton on the timelessness of dick jokes, as well as the importance of honesty in stand-up.

And there are a lot of women, including Rachel Bloom, Mo’nique, Whitney Cummings, and Sex in the City writer/producer Cindy Chupack, talking about (among other things — they’re not just experts on their own gender) the empowerment of sexual funny ladies, going back to West and party record icons like Belle Barth and LaWanda Page through to the recent rise of sex comedy movies and shows focused on the female perspective, such as Trainwreck and Girls. We learn not just about why women doing blue material is increasingly crucial and rampant, but also how there have been female comics paving the way for decades.

In the discussions of sexual women’s comedy and much of the rest of the subjects covered in the episode, there’s more than a deconstruction of humor. This installment, better than most due to the focus, gets into how humor is a deconstruction in the first place, of taboos and truths and human behaviors and social etiquette and what’s private or hidden or deemed offensive. Sexual content in comedy has helped move culture and also respond to it. Comedy can be progress and then commentary on the progress that then also continues to push the progress, in a cyclical manner. We laugh uncomfortably then familiarly then consciously, over and over again.

One area that the “Carnal Knowledge” episode has trouble with, though, is with the male-perspective sex comedies of the ’70s and ’80s. On the one hand, there’s an approval of such movies as Animal House, Porky’s, and even Zapped! for how they deal in wish fulfillment for teen boys. The context of the culture of the time is, as with any comedy, important to consider in order to appreciate their significance. On the other hand, the reason they’re also problematic today and why most sex comedies of the period are now scrutinized for making light of non-consensual acts that would now be deemed sexual assault is never really addressed.

While it’s fine for comedian Jim Jefferies to recall his titillated amusement in Scott Baio magically disrobing women, nostalgically thinking back to the reality of young men’s desires, he offers nothing further. So, he and therefore the series seem to claim such a gag is still funny. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see boobs suddenly pop out of blouses. But it’s not something to celebrate when done by force as if it’s just innocent play. And if The History of Comedy is going to showcase male-centered sex comedies to follow the line to modern female-centered sex comedies (sadly, Blockers must be too new to receive mention), there should be more of a discourse on how some sexual material can become rightfully taboo later on.

Porkys PeepholeWhy don’t we get any women commenting on that kind of dated male fantasy humor? Not a lengthy examination of the idea of sexual objectification or crimes against women being considered funny but at least some acknowledgment of how that stuff looks in the #metoo era. The episode does get off a little easy by explaining simplistically why it existed in the first place and by focusing on an iconic punishment of a peeping tom in Porky’s that segues slightly into a statement of how injured penises are funny as a sex-based form of slapstick.

The good thing is that by watching an essential series on the history of comedy, your literacy for such things is expanded. As a whole, the second season of the series continues to dissect different kinds of humor and showcase how they dissect life in their varied ways (so far I’ve also seen the episodes “Drawn to Be Funny,” which chronicles the history of animation as it provides humor to kids and adults alike and separately, and “In It Together,” which celebrates chemistry and collaborative performance in comedy teams and duos). The more you watch, the more your brain gets going and can work out the stuff omitted or covered sparingly on its own.

For instance, we don’t need the “Carnal Knowledge” episode to spell out everything in terms of certain changes in the evolution of sex comedy. Sure, it appears to simply lump Superbad in with Porky’s and Zapped! during its thread on teen sex comedies. But at least by acknowledging Superbad, the series may trust that, if the viewer is familiar with the titles and a knowledge of the timeline of their release, they will realize there’s greater maturity and respect, both in the characters and the writing overall, in such a movie today. Hopefully.

Anyway, if the only flaw with this series is that it overlooked that one issue, The History of Comedy is still commendable for having such a strong focus on women in comedy, from devoting an entire episode in Season 1 to that segment of the industry to constantly recognizing little-known figures in comedy such as Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, Rusty Warren, and (in the episode “In It Together”) the Hal Roach-paired team of Zazu Pitts and Thelma Todd. The series is better at showcasing than evaluating, but providing a thorough foundation is always a great start to any historical discourse.

The History of Comedy begins its second season with “Carnal Knowledge” on Sunday, July 15th, on CNN. Other episodes that follow focus on such subjects as sketch comedy, family-friendly humor, and comedians who’ve died too soon.

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.