Last night I watched the Super Bowl with the sound off. It was nice not having my nerves jangled by computer generated whooshes and bombastic apocalyptic football-music and the chatter of Joe Buck (sorry, Joe, but you're not your father Jack, nice guy though you may be). I heard later on that the pop star who was supposed to sing the National Anthem blew it. I'll bet, though there's no way to confirm this, that she doesn't understand what the words mean. And I'll bet she's not the only singer who doesn't.
I did also glance at the commercials, and, for a moment or two now and then, at the halftime show. And I asked myself, "If I were a creature from another planet, or, maybe more outlandish still, somebody transported to this day from 1940, what would I guess about the people who apparently find this stuff appealing?" Let's see, then. If such things are evidence, I'd say, "Their favorite color is black — they film everything as if under a metallic blackness. They enjoy spitefulness and cruelty. They don't really understand human creativity, but confuse it with bells and whistles and cheap tricks. They put no premium on kindness, grace, gentleness, nobility. Their women are harsh, their men are either softheaded boors or monsters. There is nothing childlike in them. They think they appreciate the beauty of the human form, but they don't; they wish to transform it into something mechanical. They will say that they are just joking, but that too is revealing. Why should they find nastiness and spitefulness funny? More to the point, why should they find only nastiness and spitefulness funny?"
Ugly sure is expensive. If you had a fine marching band out there, all right, maybe technically they wouldn't be as "talented" as some of the image generating geeks are, but they wouldn't be ugly. You have to go well out of your way to be ugly. You have to try hard, spend a lot of money, twist and wrench things out of order.
People will say, "That's comedy, and comedy has always been that way." No, it hasn't. Was there a nasty streak in some of the comedy Americans enjoyed before, say, 1970? Yes, here and there. It was never a dominant note. W. C. Fields played a nasty child-hating cad, and I guess that's why I never liked W. C. Fields, but I don't think we were supposed to approve of his nastiness — the joke was on him. Milton Berle was, I've heard, an extraordinarly nasty man, and some of that leaks through into his comic routines, though that was not his intention. I guess some people would say that Groucho Marx plied the comedy of nastiness, but I don't see that, and when in later years he hosted You Bet Your Life, he was smart, gracious, a trifle bawdy, and self-deprecating. After them, you get a lot of people whose personal lives were pretty rocky — Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Lou Costello — but whose principal aim, in their prime, was to make people laugh, and in Jackie's case, to make people laugh with tragic sympathy for a poor sinner who never seemed to learn a lesson. Jackie was, in his prime, one of those comedians you couldn't laugh at unless somehow you also laughed with, enjoying and forgiving the human foibles: Jack Benny, Gracie Allen, Jerry Lewis (when he was young), Bob Hope. Then there were the immensely appealing geniuses of physical comedy and clowning — Jackie and Lucy were here too, and Art Carney, and Costello, but also guys like Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and, of course, Chaplin. Cary Grant was a comic actor of impeccable timing, but one who also knew that for his comedy to work it could not skid off the rails into hardness or meanness. If there's a Cary Grant out there now, that would be news to me.
Even in the 1960's, the television comedies were not nasty. Most of them could be divided into two groups: the zany, and the lovable rubes (and sometimes both at once). Paul Henning, who produced the Burns and Allen Show, took that offbeat humor and made hay with it, producing the quirky and often satirical (at the expense of city slickers and rich folks) Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. They might have been the best of the zanies, but there were plenty: Get Smart, Gilligan's Island, McHale's Navy, Sergeant Bilko (a tad of nastiness there), F Troop, The Munsters, The Addams Family … Some of these hold up pretty well. The lovable rubes could be seen in The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies … That's not counting the best comedy of the decade, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which doesn't fit either category, and, if it had been made nowadays, would be thoroughly nasty.
What will people say about us a hundred years hence, when they see what we laughed at? "What happened to them?" So I'm guessing.