I have been thinking a lot about why Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up had such a chilly welcome. I have a hypothesis, and I really hope I am wrong.
My hypothesis’s starting point is a fact: comedy is based on an accepted truth, more often conveyed through the setup. The subsequent punchline can be false, as we observe in absurdist comedy, but the best ones are also truth, as they shed light on an overlooked or unexplored aspect of the factual truth of the setup.
Of course, the accepted truth can be false: racist comedy only resonates with those who share racist beliefs, for example, hence the strongest type of comedy is based on a type of undeniable truth, one that can’t be refuted leading to a laugh that can’t be avoided.
Now, we live in times where truth has been more relative than ever. A vast swath of the population spouse fictional conceptions of reality and are, in great part, very aware of what they are doing. They are clinging to lies and they know it. I can’t think of a less fertile ground for comedy, especially when that’s paired with a hostility among the more rational part of our society toward comedy and its potential to hurt. That segment was particularly grumpy at McKay’s film, claiming it was bad. I don’t think it was bad at all, but maybe out of historic place.
I don’t think this impotency of comedy, if a fact (again, it’s just a hypothesis) is a historic novelty. I’m sure that there were moments when comedy and its potential ebbed. And comedy bounced back from those moments.