Pron, comedy, and an increasingly jaded culture (but don’t give up all hope)

[2018: I’ve updated this post from 2013 to change a word to “pron,” where it appears, including in “pornographic.” I’ve also cleaned up, or intentionally misspelled (e.g., “nekkid”), other language to which Google AdSense might object. Apologies for the apparent misspellings. If this were a recent post, I might have taken a stand, but this is a low-traffic post from years ago that I doubt anyone will ever look at again.]

I overheard two women talking the other day. One told the other that her teenage son was looking at internet pron. Worse, her husband wouldn’t help her stop this behavior because, as he said, “I used to read Playboy when I was his age, and it didn’t hurt me.” Is it really possible for the father of a teenage boy to be that clueless? This daddy’s ignorance about internet pron is so great that it may prove that reading Playboy when he was a teen did hurt him.

Playboy nekkid ladies were wholesome. I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but the Playmates were like the girl next door, except without clothes. For at least the first twenty or more years of Playboy‘s history, these gals were an every man (or boy) fantasy brought to life. The teens and young men perusing the pages could easily pretend that Miss January was that cute brunette down the street, or that Miss July was the hot girl you admired on the other side of the classroom.

Marilyn Monroe Playboy picture

Eventually, though, the pleasure centers in male consumers’ brains stopped getting a thrill from “mere” nekkid ladies. They started gravitating in greater numbers to magazines such as Penthouse or Hustler that showed women who were not only undressed, but were also engaging in sexual acts.

With the advent of the internet, though, the old-line magazines, both hard and soft core, couldn’t keep up with the gravitational pull of the internet. And in the internet world, where pron is king, purveyors had to keep one-upping each other if they wanted to keep traffic coming to their sites. Changes to content, instead of happening in human years, over the course of decades, happened in fruit fly years, over the course of weeks or even days. If I’m a pron site mogul, I show nekkid ladies, but lose traffic to the guy who shows nekkid ladies playing with themselves, so I up the ante by showing two nekkid ladies playing with each other, so he ups the ante by adding two men and, perhaps, a dog or two. And so it goes, with each competitive iteration getting more perverse in a never-ending effort to catch the attention of an increasingly jaded viewing public.

Eventually, you end up with scenes such as this one, which I’ve censored appropriately to remove any and all pronographic or distasteful images:

Black square

The result of this rising tide of pron that goes into realms far beyond “hard-core” is that, unlike his clueless Dad, the teen I introduced you to in the first paragraph is not looking at wholesome young things who, quite miraculously, seem to have lost their clothes. Instead, he’s looking at depravity that would have delighted the Marquis de Sade and variety that would have exhausted even Casanova. Moreover, the same fully-nekkid and splayed shots that could once get a publication into trouble with the law are strewn about in the open air on University campuses (and I’m sure parents and taxpayers are very happy to fund these pronographic exhibitions).

What happens, sadly, is that teens’ pleasure centers become so calloused that they can no longer respond to real women in a loving, monogamous relationship. These jaded teens, many of whom have never actually touched a real woman, find ordinary sex boring from the get go. Why bother, then, with a real woman, who won’t act out your depraved fantasies involving whips, chains, Great Danes and, God knows how, three on a chandelier. It’s better to develop a deeper relationship with the pron on your computer monitor.

Incidentally, the allusion to whips, chains, Great Danes, etc., comes from Martin Mull’s humming song:

It’s obvious that, if Martin Mull did his funny humming song now, there’d be no humming at all. He would describe in painful and graphic detail precisely how that sordid little orgy proceeded. It would be shocking, but it wouldn’t be clever, and anyone with a mental development beyond that of a 13-year-old boy wouldn’t laugh. Which gets me to humor in our modern age.

The essence of humor is surprise. The perfect joke is one that leads in one direction and then, in a clever, witty way, veers off in a direction we never anticipated:

Lady Nancy Astor: “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

Winston Churchill: “Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

In the old days of American humor, when dirty jokes were relegated to burlesque shows, comedians who didn’t want to perform only in tawdry dives endlessly honed their craft, leading their audience in directions no one anticipated.

These comedians were good. Really, really good. I defy any but the most jaded not to laugh when they see Lucy advertising Vitameatavegamin or Abbott and Costello riffing effortlessly through “Who’s on first?”

What’s fascinating about these clips is that they’re long. In a humorous world that wasn’t limited by its audience’s painfully short, MTV attention span, comedic geniuses had a lot of space in which to develop their jokes. The other fascinating thing about this hysterically funny humor is that it’s wholesome. The laughs come from clever, unexpected behavior, not salacious language or crude insults.

As television grew more popular, and as cable TV added ever more channels to the old five- or six- or seven-channel line-up, the competition for audience attention increased. Writers and comedians discovered that the best — and also the easiest — way to stand out in a crowd was to be shocking. The surprise that led a startled audience to laugh wasn’t that the joke was witty, it was, instead, that someone would have the temerity to say something gross, or sexual, or mean-spirited.

We’ve gone downhill quickly from the first “shock” humor shows such as All In The Family or Laugh In. Once upon a time, George Carlin did fairly clever riff about the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Now, if you turn on any HBO or SHO comedy show, whether a narrative show such as the staggeringly unfunny Louie K or a stand-up comedy act by just about anyone, these same words are thrown around with abandon. Jon Stewart, who throws his puerile infants around on Comedy Central, gets bleeped every third or fourth word, but everyone knows what he’s saying.

These comedians aren’t shocking anymore — and they also not funny. They’re just out there, revealing that both writers and comedians have large, empty pockets in their brains that have dirty words floating around like dust motes.

But with dirty words, insults, and ugly sexuality now de riguer, what’s next? One “comedian” decided to try revolting scatological and sexual jokes about the Queen and Kate Middleton:

Controversial Frankie Boyle took comedy to a disgusting new low last night as he made vile jokes about The Queen and Kate, the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge during a TV fundraiser.

The Scottish ‘funnyman’ was booed by the crowd as he joked he wished the Queen had died and made an unprintable gag about how Kate fell pregnant.

In a revolting 10-minute routine on Russell Brand’s Give It Up For Comic Relief event at London’s Wembley Arena, Boyle also drew gasps from the 12,500-strong audience with a particularly crude jibe at Oscar Pistorious.

Boyle’s routine was deemed in such bad taste that it was axed from the ‘almost-live’ broadcast of the show on BBC Three.

Boyle may have been booed and banned today, but you can bet your bottom dollar that, as comedians aim for ever more shocking material in order to stand out in the crowd, Boyle’s material will become ordinary and, after a falsely anguished debate amongst TV executives, will be streaming into living rooms very soon.

All of this — whether we’re talking about pronography or what passes for humor today — is depressing. But I do believe there is some good news. Envelopes can only be pushed so far. People eventually become jaded about being jaded. This happened at the end of the utterly debauched Georgian era, when the middle class social and religious values that had been bubbling in the countryside exploded into full-out Victorian repression. After decades of rampant alcoholism, gambling, and sexual depravity, the culture looked for something fresh and new — and that “freshness” and “newness” came in the form of prudery and respectability. Debauchery didn’t vanish, it just hid in poor neighborhoods and rich houses. The staid middle class controlled social mores and managed to do so for a hundred years.

I don’t know if we’re at the tipping point yet, but I think we’re getting near. Interestingly, I see it in the children in my community. Ten years ago, the teenage girls dressed like street corner hookers — and these were girls at nice middle class high schools and middle schools. Now, the girls are starting to dress more like girls. Decolletage is rising, belly buttons are hiding, and shorts aren’t quite so short. There are still sexting and sex scandals, but the kids who engage in these aren’t admired, they’re ridiculed.

When things get old, we look for the new. So perhaps the comedy and pron of today, despite frantic efforts to remain relevant by being disgusting, is starting to bore the public. The next big thing will be the comedian who comes out and shocks everyone by saying “I’m a virgin and I like it” — and then proceeds to insult those who haven’t stayed so pure. Steve Crowder, for now, is in a minority of one, but I think that’s going to change. Or at least, I hope that’s going to change.