What's so Funny, Anyway: Is it Time to Comedies Seriously?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
In a recent thread ranking Coen Brothers movies, @Whizbang Dustyboots wrote the following-

What I'm getting from this list is that you're not a big fan of screwball comedy. You have ranked Intolerable Cruelty, Hudsucker Proxy, the transcendent O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona way too low as a result.

Also, you like depressing movies, which isn't what I would have guessed.


And while I responded to the comment in-thread (I do, in fact, love comedies!), the comment really stuck with me. Comedy ... it's hard. Ask any struggling standup staring out into the abyss that is a silent audience. Or think of anytime you've seen a supposedly comedic movie that is a massive misfire. And yet, while we all know that comedy is hard, whenever we look at what people think of as important, we rarely think of comedies. Look at the most recent Emmys (which I just recapped for you here, because I am nothing if not your faithful servant). I love ... absolutely LOVE The Bear, and think it is one of the best and most vital television programs airing right now. I think that it deserves every award it can get, and it received a lot of awards.

But it won all the awards in the comedy category. Shows like Ted Lasso, Jury Duty, and Abbott Elementary. As much as I love The Bear, and while it has moments of levity, I know for a fact that I laugh less during that show than I do while watching Succession, the winner of the drama category. But we see that a serious show triumphs over shows that merely provide humor.

This example is repeated over and over again when it comes to critical praise. Take the Oscars (PLEASE!). In the entire history of the Academy Awards, there are almost no comedies even nominated for Best Picture ... and the last true comedy to win an Oscar for best picture was Annie Hall in 1977 (no, The Artist doesn't count). Or look at the AFI's list of the greatest American Films (100 years, 100 movies). You have to get to number 14 (Some Like it Hot) to find a true comedy, and throughout the list, the pickings are slim ... although DUCK SOUP! YES!

Looking back at my own list for the Coen Brothers, I think I was very fair (I did have their comedies at numbers 3, 4, and 7), but I also noticed that I clustered many of their comedies toward the back. Heck, I acknowledged that I love Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading, but ranked them below Inside Llewelyn Davis ... despite the fact that I have joyously rewatched the two comedies multiple times, and have never returned to ILD.

So what's the deal? Why do we generally see that people reward those things that bring us down, and yet we usually denigrate the things that bring us joy?


1. Comedy May Be Hard, But We Don't Value It, and It's Also More Specific

I am going to be brief in my analysis, since I think it boils down to three simple factors. First, we have a societal bias toward treating serious issues ... seriously. Yes, we can use comedy to provoke, offend, and shock ... and it can have a real message (if you doubt that, watch Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator). But while comedy can be used to make important points (see also The Lobster), the main point of comedy is to make people laugh.

Many of the greatest comedies are great because they start you laughing, and they never let up. I have never, once in my life, turned down an opportunity to watch Talladega Nights or Anchorman. Are they making deep philosophical points? No, they aren't. But did they make me laugh so hard that certain scenes and turns of phrase were etched into my brain? Yes, yes they did.
Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.
I like to think of Jesus as an Ice Dancer, dressed in an all-white jumpsuit, and doing an interpretive dance of my life.

I'm sure we can all think of similar movies (Monty Python, anyone?). But when a movie is solely trying to get you to laugh, it often has to do so at the expense of any larger themes. I love Airplane!, but it didn't make me ponder the meaning of life, so much as make inappropriate quotes to various people after seeing it. And for that reason, some of the most successful comedies are often viewed as lesser-than because they don't explore deeper issues. The comedies that are highly regarded (Dr. Strangelove) are usually the ones that, instead of just going purely for the laughs, are doing so for some other reason.

Which brings me to the second point- this societal bias is both internalized and reified by critics, serious moviegoers, and the people making movies. If you're a person who likes "good movies," then you believe that the best movies mean something. And if you're an actor, you will likely want to appear in serious and meaningful roles and movies. Adam Sandler has made a lot of money making comedies, but ask any real movie fan about him, and they'll go on about how he needs to make more movies like Punch Drunk Love, Uncut Gems, and Funny People.

Finally, there is the third factor. In my opinion, more than any other genre, comedies often will be "of their time." Think of the two movies I mentioned- Talladega Nights and Anchorman. They date back to 2004 and 2006. They are still funny, and yet there are parts that ... haven't aged perfectly. Or Tropic Thunder, from 2008, a film that was an amazing comedy, but certainly has hard-to-explain parts today ... sixteen years later. A lot of comedy can be boundary-pushing, or it can be topical, or it can otherwise reflect the zeitgeist of the time in a way that is required for the comedy to work. While other genres also necessarily reflect their times, comedies are different because the purpose of a comedy is ... to evoke laughter, and once certain connections to a period of time are broken (or recontextualized) that fails. It's not always true- certain styles of comedy, such as more absurdist comedy, can age better (again, such as parts of Monty Python), but generally comedies age less well than most other genres.


2. Okay, So What?

Well, normally I have a bigger point to make here, but instead I'll just leave with the Zack Snyder Postulate- grim is easy, but just because something is grim, doesn't mean that it's good. I think that we can fall into the trap of overvaluing dark and serious, and forgetting just how hard comedy is to pull off. Truly great comedy (on the screen) is an alchemy of great writing, acting, chemistry, and timing. Whereas anyone can just make things grimdark and brutal and throw in a reference to how someone is dying for our sins, just like that other guy.

That said, making truly transcendent and serious works of art does matter. I love certain comedies because they always make me laugh, but there are other films that will stick in your head for weeks and months and make you really think about them. I might have watched Anchorman a lot, but I haven't given any real thought to its cinematography, or its deeper themes.

I also think that we can see this play out, to a certain small extent, in our own TTRPG sphere. Comedy is hard, really hard, which is why there are so few games that are comedy-first. Paranoia. Toon. Kobolds Ate My Baby! On the other hand, we often see games go dark (horror, grimdark) because, for lack of a better term, it's easier. It doesn't mean that it's good, but it's generally easier.


Anyway, wanted to throw out those thoughts, since I've been thinking about them since the comment. Have at it!
 

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I miss having regular comedy movies come out. I think some of the issue is more unique to this period in filmaking (while comedies are of their time, growing up comedies kept coming out every decade and it was common to go back and watch classic comedies, even from times before you were born (heck I grew up in the 80s and was watching I Love Lucy daily on re-runs). Not sure why. I am sure feature comedies will make a come back though at some point. People need to laugh. It is such a cathartic act
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
On the flip side, comedy gets to enjoy the "because its subjective and hard to do it gets an automatic C" type criticism.

I do have to say, The Good Boys is easily the best comedy to come out in the last 1 years probably even 20.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
@payn

Why the wow? I haven't seen every television show and movie ever made. Yet.

You've seen my prior posts ... I don't think anyone in the history of ever has told me, Snarf, you really need to get a more voluminous and varied media diet.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
@payn

Why the wow? I haven't seen every television show and movie ever made. Yet.

You've seen my prior posts ... I don't think anyone in the history of ever has told me, Snarf, you really need to get a more voluminous and varied media diet.
Not every wow is like "wow at you" sometimes its wow at whats being said. Though, The Good Boys is very under the radar I suppose.
 


CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing (He/They)
I don't have anything particularly insightful to add to Snarf's original post--it's concise and well-written as always. I especially appreciated the comments about Adam Sandler's films--he's billed as a comedian (and he is a comedian), but some of his best film work is in dramatic roles.

I'm still scratching my head over him being a fashion icon, though. Like, seriously?
 



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