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Conservative Laugh Track
A Graveyard of Comedy

Everybody loves safety: Comedy in a conservative age

Cheryl and I, edging toward the point in life where girth, gravity and the grave settle in for that long Once-Upon-A-Time-In-The-West-like stare-down known as middle age, inevitably and embarrassingly have fulfilled the other requirement of suburban ripening: we have picked out our various television shows, tagged them, appropriated them, even taped them (to watch, Tivo-less that we still are, at our decrepitating leisure), and what’s worse, one of those shows had been, for two or three of its final years, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” one of whose stars, Peter Boyle, died on December 12. A lurid and worse than Rousseauist confession, I admit, but not nearly as inexplicable as why “Everybody Loves Raymond” was ever so popular, at least as a comedy. Cheryl and I watched it as part of our fascination with the CSI series (same network, same theme, more violence). We just called it CSI: Marriage, with Patricia Heaton, that astoundingly accomplished sexless bitch with Navarone guns for breasts (I mean that regarding her fictional character, to be kind to her real self, which, politically speaking, rates a circle of hell all its own) playing the recurrent role of murderer; with her mother and father in law as accomplices; and Raymond, the perpetual whipping boy, as the willing and unquestionably perverted victim, or rather bystander: what got bludgeoned, decapitated and buried in lye-deep pits of ill feeling every week was love and humor. But then, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” as sexless as it was apolitical, as emotionally arid as it was socially irrelevant, was a period piece: it dared nothing, because it was the product of a cowed and tired engine.

There isn’t much you can say about the state of American comedy these days. You look around and what you see is an old stable of ageing standards—the Robin Williamses, the George Carlins, the barely undead Cosby, the too-soon-departed Pryor—still overshadowing the younger class the moment they lift an eyebrow (even when they’re six feet under: Richard Pryor dead is funnier than most warm young comedians at their best), because no one has broken out except as fragmented, genre comedians: the redneck types, the coarse Christian types, the cuss-less black type, the post-feminist type, and so on. It’s saying quite a bit about comedy proper when the only break-outs to speak of, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, host hybrids of reality-mockery that depend on their rigid templates to survive: For all their talent, and it is vast, they’re not comedians with universal appeal. They could never be the lead in a movie, or even a sit-com of their own. That’s not a criticism. It’s merely an observation about the fragmentation of culture down to talent’s pigeonholes. Attempt a break-out, and the culture is liable to punish you with the wrong kind of laughter and plenty of forgetting. What “Everybody Loves Raymond” was, above all, was safe.

Back in the days of Voyager I & I, the two spacecraft fired off toward the unknown in the 1970s (after their tours of the Solar System), it was believed that by including a time- and culture-capsule like “golden record” about Earth on both spacecraft, some intelligent life form out for the cosmological equivalent of a bison hunt in space might one of these days catch a Voyager, discover the golden record, and, well, connect with us back here. As NASA described the record, Carl Sagan and his associated “assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim,” that old Nazi whom Peter Boyle could have played rather well (had Hollywood ever figured out what sit-com potential a series based at the UN could have had in these diversity addled times).

I’ve imagined once or twice what even rudimentary, amoebal forms of intelligence in the Great Beyond might think if they were to capture the television waves of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” They’d think kindly of our world wars, considering the devastation and bitterness of domestic family life on display in this show week after week—the metaphorical slashing of genitals, the totalitarian nature of in-laws, the infantile and gluttonous nature of men, the hopelessness and stupidity of old age, the utter poverty of domestic life in a reign of resentment and total absence of sex (except as a bargaining chip with Kissinger’s face minted on it).

The customary prohibition against speaking ill of the dead is silly: who best to speak ill of if not the dead, who are neither here nor there? In this case though Peter Boyle doesn’t rate post-mortem darts. He was one of the brighter bulbs, and bulbous presences, on the show: His revulsion at the “sit” in sit-com was all over the place, something you could grab onto and enjoy, something to excuse your own inability to look away from the show’s weekly car wreck. It’s the series itself, now dead but not gone (thanks to syndication, the closest thing we have to eternity), that keeps looping all over the place, beaming its signals spaceward and hellward like postcards from dysfunction—not the dysfunction of Raymond’s family particularly, but of our narrow and unfunny culture, where the cult of safety dominates to the point of asphyxiation. There’s another word to explain all this purposeful restraint, this fear of daring that makes even liberated—and yes, licentious—laughter too subversive a challenge to our staid suburban climates. It’s called, in the most literal, sedating sense, conservatism.

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