Despite the Roaring Twenties nickname, journalist James C. Young diagnosed a phenomenon sweeping the country in 1921, in his article “The Prohibition of Laughter”: people intentionally seeking out sad forms of entertainment.
Returning players gather in little knots on the Rialto and repeat the same theme — people decline to laugh any more. Victor Herbert was one of the first men to isolate the germ of the new ailment, and even he could not prescribe a remedy. Apparently, people no longer visit the theatre to be amused, but, like the famous Louis of France, they want to be miserable together.
In the old times the typical Broadway theatre crowd came from home or restaurant dinner in a mellow mood, glad to escape the day’s trials and ready to join in the fun on the stage. But nowadays they are grim and glum. Their troubles come with them and they sit in critical state on the comedians’ efforts.
Perhaps it was precisely because times were good in 1921? World War I was finally over, as was the 1918-19 flu pandemic — which, by the way, was far worse than the current COVID-19 pandemic. Time and again throughout history, popular culture demonstrates that people seek out more upbeat entertainment to escape their troubles when times are bad, and are psychologically better able to withstand “sad” entertainment when times are good, whether for movies or television or music.
Look at the highest grossing movies of certain years. During the great economies of the late ’90s and mid-to-late 2010s, Titanic was the top movie of 1997, Saving Private Ryan in 1998, American Sniper in 2014, Rogue One in 2016, and Infinity War in 2018. You don’t really see that same phenomenon of tragic movies dominating during “down” years economically, which might explain why the escapist Avatar dominated the box office in 2009, the worst year of the Great Recession.
Same thing for music. Researchers have found that a better economy correlates with chart-topping songs featuring slower tempos and more minor keys. But in 2020, one of the worst years in recent memory, Billboard‘s #1 song of the year was Blinding Lights by The Weeknd, among the fastest tempo chart-toppers of all time at 171 beats per minute.
That correlation holds true for the masses, at least. Among the (supposed) cultural elites, it’s a different story.
In recent years, professional critics and awards voters have seemingly grown to love the depressing and morose more than ever. That was perhaps never better exemplified than this past year, 2020, a year when we certainly could have used lighter films. Best Picture used to be awarded to comedies, from Annie Hall to The Artist. No longer, it appears. Bill Maher lambasted this year’s despairing Best Picture nominees in an April segment on his show Real Time.
This is one reason why Godzilla vs. Kong stomped at the box office last weekend and finally got people back to theaters: because it’s Godzilla vs. Kong, not Godzilla vs. Kong and his Crippling Battle with Depression.
It’s such an odd psychological quirk. I keep asking myself: why so many liberals have this seeming desire to want to be sad? Could it be because being sad allows you to feel like you’re doing something about a problem, without actually having to do anything?
The Prohibition of Laughter
Published: Sunday, June 5, 1921