The Joker is arguably the most recognizable character in all of pop culture. He has appeared in countless films, TV shows, and comic books over the years and even now, decades later, people are still finding new ways to appreciate him. But even The Joker can’t stay popular forever, and after many successful appearances in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his popularity began to decline. In fact, in some countries, the Joker now has a bad reputation along with other classic characters like Scarface and Martha Stewart. So what makes the Joker’s Joker so frustrating?

The Comedic Timing Is Everything

While the rest of the world was busy laughing at the antics of The Joker, the comedy world was busy trying to figure out when to laugh and when to be offended. In his seminal work, L.A. Noir, critic Lewis suggests that these contrasting reactions made the ‘70s and ‘80s one of the most interesting periods in American film. He calls it the “golden age of comedy” thanks to filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, who mastered the use of humor to great dramatic effect and suspense, and Woody Allen, who blended dark comedy with crime-fighting action to create some of the great American films of the 20th century. In both cases, the humor in the film isn’t meant to be taken too seriously; it’s there to highlight the characters’ deficiencies and enable the audience to see their weaknesses more clearly. So although The Joker is a comic figurehead, he really functions more as a symbol of these other filmmakers’ genius, highlighting the ways in which they innovated and pushed the boundaries of humor in film, especially in regards to crime stories and psychological thrillers.

The Demise Of The Classic Crime Film

With the rise of the superhero movie in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was a period of creative innovation that is often hailed as the “golden age of crime films.” Though this is somewhat of a misnomer, the phrase does highlight the fact that for a bit, films like Dirty Harry, Escape from New York, and Death Wish all offered something new and exciting to audiences. And at the very least, they provided a respite from everything that was going on in the world outside of the theater, particularly in the early ‘80s, when the world was still trying to recover from the shock of Ronald Reagan’s election as President. But that creative moment quickly passed, and today, we’re left with a legacy of great comedians like Elle MacLeman and Gilbert Gottfried playing twisted, one-dimensional versions of themselves. Though these films might still have comedic value, their only real function is to remind us of how awesome the ‘70s and ‘80s were and how much more we’ve lost since then.

The Decline Of The Animated Series

The early ‘90s saw a renaissance of sorts for the golden age of comedy, with the release of a number of acclaimed animated series that put a spin on beloved comics characters like The Smurfs, The Simpsons, and Batman. These series offered a more introspective take on humor than the straightforward comedies of yore, enabling creators to explore character psychology and the dark secrets behind their crimes. It was in this decade that we began to see the emergence of supervillains like the Joker who wouldn’t have been out of place in the classic radio dramas of the ‘30s.

While these series undoubtedly offered something new and exciting for audiences, it was also clear that this was a passing moment. As popular culture shifted towards “traditional” superheroes and cartoon violence, audiences turned their backs on these “glamorous” comics characters and their dark, sophisticated humor. Though some have endured (The Simpsons and Archer remain among the most popular and beloved series of all time), today, seeing these iconic ‘90s cartoons is pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh, but try as hard as you might, you won’t be able to take the stories seriously.

The Rise Of Virtual Reality And Immersive Gaming

More recently, we’ve seen the rise of virtual reality and immersive gaming, which offer the promise of placing users directly into the worlds of these comics characters, offering a more realistic, visceral experience. Though these new platforms still have plenty of kinks to work out (for example, the lack of a physical keyboard for text input), they at least allow for more creative exploration of stories that might not have been possible previously. While The Joker and other classic characters remain popular on social media, especially on TikTok, where they often appear as avatars or as short clips incorporated into other content, the vast majority of people are here to have fun, not to be reminded of a tragic past that might not have even occurred. The Joker, like many other classic characters, has found a new audience in a new era.