It is unknown who, exactly, coined the phrase, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." But the truth of it remains constant. Tragedy is easier work than staying funny.
Tastes change and the political and social climates change. What was funny a few years ago has people on edge now. And then there is the simple matter of fatigue – viewers become tired of repetition. It is enormously hard work for writers and actors to constantly enliven an established character with an entrenched set of tics, attitudes and responses. Sometimes, a successful new series launches with a batch of hilarious episodes and then goes stale.
There are so many sensitivities to take into account. Right now, most of the media in Ireland is in an uproar about Irish actor Saoirse Ronan's participation in last weekend's Saturday Night Live sketch that mocked the Irish national airline Aer Lingus. It's been called "unfunny paddywhackery" and the Irish Independent thundered that "Saoirse took part in an Aer Lingus spoof that managed to insult, belittle and sneer at her homeland all in one fell swoop." Me, I'm Irish and travelled with Aer Lingus and I thought it was hilarious.
Let's look at two vastly different comedies in the ever-changing context of funny. One is relatively new and local and the other has just finished its ninth season.
Kim's Convenience (Tuesday, CBC, 9 p.m.) arrived last year with a lot of force behind it. Adapted from the acclaimed and wildly popular play by Ins Choi, it emerged from the get-go as funny and charming. Since it's about the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in downtown Toronto, the CBC, in its gormless way, decided to describe it as "heartfelt" as well as funny. It was best enjoyed as just funny. The heartfelt bits were minimal.
The series returned this fall with new episodes and instantly seemed tired. We know Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) is a crusty-but-lovable dad. We know, we know.
Recent episodes have, on the other hand, been stellar. One episode, built around the hoary old idea that dad had hidden cash in an old TV and somebody had unknowingly given the TV away, introduced the topic of recent refugees and immigrants arriving in Toronto. This is where one felt "heartfelt" might loom. But it didn't.
The episode had fun with the over-attentive Canadians who want to crush-hug refugees and new immigrants with gifts and attention. They keep bringing the new arrivals food that's a mystery to them. Meanwhile, the new arrivals just want to watch TV and get their bearings.
An episode about estranged son Jung (Simu Liu) and co-worker and roommate Kimchee (Andrew Phung) throwing a party in their tiny apartment evolved into a delicious farce that took aim at millennial consumption and young-male idiocy. And there have been segments that present Jung as a ripped dreamboat that are both funny and mischievous in presenting a different lens on beauty.
Kim's Convenience is improved and funnier when it mocks sacred cows and moves away from formatted family-dynamic laughs. It should stick with the former, not the latter. And no mawkishness, please.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO Canada), meanwhile, concluded its ninth season on Sunday. Good riddance, say some.
Larry David's revival of the series after a long hiatus exposed its severe limitations and David's fossilized style of cringe humour. Once, David's persona, the filthy-rich privileged older white guy without filters, was breezily unconventional in its beyond-the-pale humour. Now, in a more sensitized, Trump-in-office era, it looks like self-indulgent slapstick.
David's character spent way too much time demeaning and attacking those less privileged, usually in the hospitality or service industry. The crassness crosses over into tone-deaf cruelty. Defenders of the show say David mocks the privileged egocentric men of his age and wealth but it's just impossible for some viewers, including me, to find him a lovable curmudgeon anymore. Yes, comedy is hard, but pointless cruelty is too easy an option.
Outrage is in the air these days and it is the oxygen breathed by countless amateur critics on social media. Everybody doing comedy these days requires a panoramic awareness. Some can do it better than others.