EDITORIAL: Like much else, comedy must change with times

York Dispatch Editorial Board

There’s an old adage in writing: Don’t tell, show.

It’s a rule of thumb that should be adapted more often to everyday life.

All those radio stations that made such a big deal about declaring they would no longer play the lecherous seasonal classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? If their concern was that the song’s content no longer fit the times, they could have simply dropped the ditty from their playlists. Because the announcements — meant, it is to be imagined, to garner some social-consciousness cred for said stations — also succeeded in drawing yet more attention to the song.

Same thing with the producers of the low-brow animated Fox comedy “Family Guy.” They recently announced that they are working to phase out “gay jokes” on the program.

Of course, when it comes to targeting segments of the population in their comedic crosshairs, “Family Guy” getting rid of “gay jokes” is like Baskin-Robbins getting rid of pistachio almond.

The Seth MacFarlane-created cartoon takes no prisoners when it comes to dishing out the disses.

But again, show, don’t tell.

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Executive producer Alec Sulkin said in an interview with TVLine last month that, “Some of the things we felt comfortable saying and joking about back (in 2005 or 2006), we now understand (are) not acceptable.”

Fair enough. But this raises a question: Is it the subjects of the jokes or the jokes themselves? And is the LGBTQ community the only group that should be reconsidered under an updated comedic lens?

A far more thoughtful strategy might be for the writers and producers of television sitcoms (and sketch comedies, and stand-up routines, and movies) to view the entire human condition with new eyes.

Does this mean political correctness run amok, squeezing the humor out of life? Of course not. But it might mean working harder to find the humor in modern times.

One need only refer to a rerun of, say, Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” to see the lowest-common-denominator humor that was standard fare in the 1970s and ’80s:

Comic: “My mother-in-law is so fat …

Audience: “How fat is she?”

This type of humor had its day. But a new generation brought new ideas, new perspectives and new awareness to comedy, changing the rules — often, but not always, for the better. And often, if not always, for the funnier.

It’s hard to believe that members of the LGBTQ or any other community are bereft of humor. Or can’t laugh at themselves. But there’s a difference between being in on the joke and being laughed at.

A better strategy than placing certain populations off limits might be to invite them into the tent. It isn’t that humor directed at a certain group can’t be entertaining, but when it is directed from outside that group it is too often hurtful, stereotypical or just plain tone-deaf. Whereas humor directed from a place of familiarity is more knowing, more nuanced and very often more successful.

So, if the gang at “Family Guy,” which, remarkably, just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the program’s debut, want to change with the times — and good for them for recognizing they need to — they might worry less about what they’re making fun of and consider more deeply “how” they’re making fun.

They’re not alone. “The Simpsons,” an animated forebear that has been around a decade longer than “Family Guy,” has wrestled with changing mores of late in the form of its treatment of Apu, a South Asian character voiced by a white actor.

Again, inclusiveness can lead to better informed humor; less us-and-them, more we’re-all-in-it-together.

There are, thankfully, no rules that say only certain types of humor are funny. There are many, many examples of successful comedy from generations ago that, today, would not only fall flat but elicit pain or even hostility.

Comedians and comedy writers have evolved from that baser, lazier shtick, and that evolution continues — or ought to — today.

The answer — or, at least an answer — is not to place some populations off limits, but to ensure all populations have a seat at the comedy-writing table.

And when they do, don’t tell us. Let the comedy show us.