Cheap laughs don’t amount to much

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 10/9/19

My best friend growing up had a lot of wonderful qualities, not the least of which was a willingness to put up with me. Michael — yes, we shared a name — was brilliant, industrious, talented, and …

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Cheap laughs don’t amount to much


My best friend growing up had a lot of wonderful qualities, not the least of which was a willingness to put up with me. Michael — yes, we shared a name — was brilliant, industrious, talented, and really adept at working with people. But, after all these years, the thing I remember most about him was his fiendishly quick wit: he was incredibly funny. And not just slapstick and puns and low humor of that sort — he was able to make broad references and drive through much of the fog of everyday teenagehood in an incisive and clever way.

And, when I think about it, it seems to me that many of the most brilliant comic minds are those that have an insane grasp of a wide array of subject matter and the sort of rapid recall that is usually common among geniuses. In particular, I think of people like Dennis Miller, whose humor is sometimes so deep that I have no idea what he’s talking about. But, then I think of people like Steven Wright, Eddie Murphy, and George Carlin, and especially the manic genius of Robin Williams, and I am convinced that the best humor comes from great intellect and broad learning.

And, yeah, I know — old school. I’m sure there are really talented younger comics working today with similar talents. I just don’t know any of them by name.

And, also, it’s possible that my tastes are outdated. It seems these days, a lot of what passes for humor is just goofing around and trying to be disruptive. I think of it as “clown culture,” and everybody wants to be a part of it.

Where does clown culture come from? To my thinking, it started somewhere about the time that a crazy talented young man from Philadelphia was getting his start as a humorist/rap star making the jump to television as “The Fresh Prince.” The Prince, on the television show, was notorious for constant attempts at simple humor and a tendency to waste his talents in the pursuit of cheap laughs. His legacy was passed on to the entire canon of Disney Channel shows, all of which seemed to feature smart aleck kids and buffoonish adults.

I’m sure clown culture started before The Fresh Prince. Vinnie Barbarino, Eddie Haskell, even Gilligan — all of these characters had similar modus operandii. But, all of these characters were part of an ensemble, not carrying their shows on their comic backs. And there were always adults somewhere.

Why does this concern me? Because I am starting to see a trickle-down effect in the schools that I teach at, and it worries me. At the same time that we in the schools are more concerned than ever with test scores and Advanced Placement and high-anxiety achievements, what I’m seeing from the students is a reversion to the clown culture.

NOT UNIVERSALLY! But enough, especially compared to five or 10 years ago, that it worries me.

Kids — mostly, but not exclusively, boys — seem quite a bit more interested in entertaining their peers than in accomplishing anything; they seek the cheap laugh, rather than the challenging skill. After all, why bother learning how to play beautiful melodies by Mozart and Beethoven when you can make flatulence noises, instead.

What’s the big deal? Aren’t kids — especially boys — always going to be kids? Of course they are. And I also think boys are terribly served in the schools today. Why else would women outnumber men in college enrollment by 50% now?

Have boys given up on being the great achievers and, instead, embraced the role of court jester? I hope not; but I also know that our microwave society has taught kids to seek instant rewards, and a Disney-esque laugh track is a lot quicker than an “A.”

I just hope there are enough Michaels and Robins and Dennises around show kids that you can be both.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Charon’s Blade,” is available at, on Kindle, or through” His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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