What is a joke? How/why a joke works? The psycho-cerebral mechanisms behind laughter etc., are vast topics themselves. But suffice it to say that humour is often constructed around the boundaries of absurdity and breaking the subconscious censors in our mind -- visual, semantic or otherwise. Humour becomes a socially potent force when it is transgressive and subversive. This is the point where capitalism and media consumption come together.
Modern capitalism -- perhaps, capitalism in general -- is predicated on creating 'new' things. New products, new markets, 'new improvements' and so forth. Something that is capable of invading existing structures and colonizing parts of it, if not all. It exploits a weakness (if you can call it that) in most humans: we get bored of the same thing over a period. (Familiarity breeds contempt -- how succinct?)
In my observation, humour in television and movies (American and British) have consistently broken boundaries than other genres. Because, jokes risk being not funny if they played by old rules -- it's an inherent necessity. While, a great percentage of sitcoms still derive humour out of reinforcing established and normative rules, series like South Park and Family Guy have thrived in subversive humour. They may not be quite political, but their contribution to the public discourse is significant (good or bad). They enable the fluidity of the rules of engagement by slaying holy cows whenever they acquire an imposing stature. This is one of the biggest failures of the Indian visual mediums.
Let's take the Tamil case: as Thamizhavan argued elsehwere, the Tamil obsession with morality has greatly stifled the subversive potential of humour in television and films. Being preachy has been a feature in a lot of Tamil humour for decades. It's even a benchmark for assessing the comedic worth of something -- "sirikka veikkanum, sindhikkavum veikanum" (it should make you laugh and think too). Of course, not everyone who says this truly believes in it. It's just one of the many things that mark the hypocrisy that is all too common for the Tamil society (and the subcontinent itself, perhaps). Their refusal to be transgressive has only preserved the rigid cultural mould and with it the hypocrisy as well.
For all the self-aggrandizing opinions about Tamil humour, it's a largely underdeveloped genre in visual mediums. In over 15 years of cable television's existence in Tamil Nadu, there hasn't been one decent sitcom. It took years for something like Lollu Sabha, which barely whips the holy cows of Tamil cinema, to come to the fore. (They had to apologize even for that.) It might be decades before there's a South Park or a Family Guy. But given how far we've 'progressed' in the last five decades, even that is doubtful.
Even the capitalistic drive to 'expand horizons' doesn't seem to apply in the Tamil case. Tamil television has gotten every bit as imitative as any except the part where it requires some creativity. That's why hybrid talk shows and reality TV -- hybridized simply by throwing cinema into the mix -- have made a smooth migration while others haven't. Tamil society doesn't even seem to have the desire to consume something different -- better or not. The fact that these television channels exist, and have been making profit just dishing out garbage, is testament to that.
Tamil humour, unlike its western counterparts, exploits something else: the hypocrisy in Tamils' cultural norms and two tongued nature of their language. In doing so it has the unique ability to generate humour -- or what is perceived as humour -- without pushing any boundaries or being subversive.
These are the moments I find myself in support of people like Larry Flynt. It seems that you need one kind of regressiveness to disrupt and dismantle the other -- at least as long as profit making is involved.