Hey, did you hear the joke about the Great Recession of 2008-10? You'll be laughing all the way to the poorhouse, or the federal penitentiary in Bernie Madoff's case. (Bah-DUM-bum?)
Oh, we've got a billion of 'em, folks. Make that 700 billion if you're a banker with powerful friends in Washington. For instance, take Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers -- please.
For the tens of millions of Americans who've lost their jobs, homes and dreams in the current economic downturn and the millions more who've witnessed the disaster with mounting anxiety and fury, there's nothing very funny about the financial crash of 2008 and its roiling aftermath. And the scalding Tea Party populism that apparently fueled last month's upset Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race should make politicians shudder, not chuckle. The Coco-Leno-Letterman snark wars aside, there's little cause for mirth these days.
But you might not guess it from tuning into U.S. popular culture lately. In movies, television and elsewhere, comedy and satire, albeit of a frequently cynical and absurdist vein, appears to have become the default mode for dealing with our economic malaise.
The yuk-fest started even as the stock market was going into free fall, and it hasn't let up. A Vanity Fair cover from the disastrous autumn of 2008 depicted actors Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel wearing top hats, tuxedo collars, wooden barrels and hangdog expressions next to the headline "Brother, Can You Spare a Laugh?"
An online site proffering gag gifts for the downwardly mobile hawks T-shirts with such slogans as "Dude Where's My Bailout?" Is that righteous anger we detect or jokey resignation?
Characteristically, the entertainment industry is doing its best to mirror the national mood while avoiding sentiments angry or bleak enough to make audiences stop buying flat-screen TVs and movie tickets and go march in the streets. Even or perhaps especially when it's evident that a movie, novel or TV show's sympathies lie with the economically destitute -- hello, HBO's “Hung” -- it seems there's an unspoken consensus that the bitter pill of unpleasant realities must be sweetened with a modicum of one-liners.
In writer-director Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," for example, the charming, debonair corporate hit man played by George Clooney engages in banter that could've been lifted straight out of a 1930s screwball comedy while flying around the country laying off people. Just swap Clooney and his costar Anna Kendrick for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and you've got a designer-label update of the Frank Capra classic comedy “It Happened One Night,” which came out at the height of the Great Depression. But there's one crucial difference: Capra's films never strayed from their populist fan base, whereas "Up in the Air" necessarily maintains a sense of detachment from the human suffering on the ground.
In adapting and updating Walter Kirn's 2001 novel, Reitman slips in a touch of social conscience in the form of a moving montage of interviews with real nonactors who've recently lost their jobs. But the movie, like Clooney's nattily attired Ryan Bingham, seldom wades beyond knee-deep into the messy travails of working people. In one interview sequence with a laid-off office worker, who earlier gave up his life's dream of being a chef, the movie even dares to suggest that unemployment can be a disguised blessing, an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Maybe. But try telling that to the man or woman who just got canned, with no health coverage, a mortgage and kids to put through college. "Up in the Air" is a feel-good, feel-bad flick that takes a passing swipe at heartless corporatism but satirizes rather than seriously questions let alone challenges the status quo.
Today's dominant strain of mildly curdled, shoulder-shrugging humor represents a narrower response to bad times than emerged during the 1930s and '40s. That epoch -- admittedly more prolonged and severe than our present one -- generated a wide range of cultural reactions: from the earnest social realism of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" to the documentary advocacy journalism of photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans, to the national narrative-building mural projects, to what one scholar refers to as the Marx Brothers' "anarchic embrace of the absurd" in sending up the Jazz Age idiocies that precipitated the 1929 crash.
Of course, Depression-era Hollywood also diverted (distracted?) audiences with visions of glamorous high-society parties and rampaging gangsters. And Preston Sturges, in his satirical masterpiece "Sullivan's Travels," weighed the benefits of escapist entertainment versus earnest social crusading during hard times and came down in favor of escapism and against patronizing artistic appeals to the "common man."