I'm no expert or anything (Adam Carolla says that everyone believes themselves to have a great sense of humor and only 10 percent of people actually do), but I've been watching this season's Last Comic Standing, and it's a bleak bunch. Other than Iliza Shlesinger--and even she's more hot than funny--and that bald British guy who plays the double bass, no one makes me laugh. The contestants on LCS fall into two traps of modern comedy, both of which are getting more and more popular. These two things are not funny:
(a) "OMG THAT'S SO RANDOM." Really, I think this mistake is the product of overshooting. Detail is funny, no doubt. One of my favorite commercials right now is the Cars.com spot where the woman tells the salesman that she mixed up brownies with horse laxatives. The detail makes that joke funny. "Horse laxatives" is 50 percent funnier than just plain "laxatives." (The joke would be even funnier if it were "donkey laxatives," both because "donkey" features the komedy k sound and because donkeys are inherently funnier animals than horses.)
But there's a limit, and once a joke begins getting too detailed, it moves into "OMG THAT'S SO RANDOM" territory and stops being funny. One of the contestants on LCS, for example--I can't remember his name, but it's the guy with the "creepy stalker" persona--said that he can't get any laughs because he "smells like old squash." That joke doesn't make me laugh because it's not tied to anything in reality--it's a detail that could have been funny if it came from something real, but it doesn't. "Smells like failure" would be funny because the comedian actually does.
The most overrated comedy on television, Family Guy, does this all the time. Think of the psychotic monkey that lives in Chris Griffin's closet. That running gag assumes either that we think monkeys are funny in and of themselves or that we'll be amused by the "randomness" of the reference. Neither is true, at least for me.
For even more examples, look at Napoleon Dynamite--which I truly and utterly abhor--or that Chuck Norris website that was so popular until Chuck tossed his support behind Mike Huckabee.
(b) The Straight Reference. We've seen an increase in this type of "humor" with the Date/Superhero/Epic/Disaster/Scary Movie franchises. There are some fantastic parody movies out there--The Naked Gun and Airplane! being the two best--but this recent crop of comedies aren't really parodies because they deal with recognition rather than with humorous change. That is, they just present us with the reference as if our recognition of a bald Britney Spears is funny in and of itself. It's not.
In stand-up comedy, impressionists are more often than not guilty of this. Marcus on LCS gets way too much mileage out of his stock Christopher Walken impersonation. (News flash, professional comedians: Since everyone can do Walken, Jimmy Stewart, and Arnold Schwartzeneggar, they are no longer useful or entertaining impersonations.) A good impressionist can make me laugh until my sides hurt, but doing the impression is worth nothing without snappy writing. Marcus isn't smart or snappy, and so he comes off as a frat-boy douchebag. He entertained the Playboy Bunnies (and I knew he'd get the immunity), but a good rule of thumb should be that if the Girls Next Door think you're the funniest thing ever, you ain't.
Hey, once again, Family Guy is guilty of this. The show frequently just presents us with unchanged references to pop culture. There's the time the Griffin kids sing "Sixteen Going On Seventeen," and then there's the time Stewie sings "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." I kept waiting for the joke, and one never came. But the show filled two minutes with each of these bits.
Oh, and a bonus warning: Parody can be very funny, but only if you use it to get at the truth. I loved "Weird Al" Yankovic growing up, and he's fantastic at this. "Smells Like Nirvana," for example, is funny because of what it says about the source song--it crawls inside of it and understands it. Likewise, "Living with a Hernia" (a parody, of course, of James Brown's "Living in America") is great not only because of the research Yankovic must have done into hernias but also because of the way it plays with James Brown's mannerisms. Maybe his screeches and shouts are the result of a medical condition.
God's Pottery, mercifully eliminated from Last Comic Standing, got an obscene amount of laughs from people who have apparently never met an evangelical. The evangelical virginity movement is ripe for parody, it's true (King of the Hill has a wonderful and insightful episode called "Luanne Virgin 2.0"), but God's Pottery has a tin ear and no affection for the movement. (Parody doesn't work as well if it's mean-spirited.) They seem to have formed their impressions of Christians from Rod and Todd Flanders from The Simpsons. Rod and Todd are funny characters, but not because they're like most Evangelicals; they're funny because they are exactly the type of child Ned Flanders (who, while exaggerated, is much more rounded and true-to-life character) would have.
Once again, an example from Family Guy: The Griffin family moves to the Southeast with the Witness Protection Program. The writer of the episode had obviously never been south of Rhode Island because the episode doesn't ring true with anything in reality. One bit that made me particularly livid was a throwaway line: The radio DJ says, "That was Merle Haggard, with 'I Kissed My Sweetie with My Fist.'" Obviously, the writer has no understanding of or affection for Haggard in particular or country music in general. There are very few country songs promoting spousal abuse (and almost none since the '40s), and Haggard is exactly the type of singer who would never sing one. Parodists with a tin ear for their topics end up being aggressively unfunny.