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

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I am thinking about one of my all time favorites; Caddyshack. Other than fashion styles, this one doesn't really date itself. Billed as "snobs vs the slobs" its a class warfare play. More than that, its an interesting story about Danny and his options for the future. We are treated to a vicarious story about a young man learning the paths in life can be earned or can be delivered through conformity. Also, a gopher gets the better of a socially inept groundskeeper.

Looking over the thread I can see why this film is able to transcend genre for some folks such as myself. It has a story, its smartly written, and there was a lot of love put into making it. Perhaps lightning in a bottle, but Rodney Dangerfield's lack of acting experience, and Ted Knights overabundance, allowed for a spectacular experience. Also, the personal animosity between Chase and Murray was palpable. A lot of off screen antics allowed an act naturally aspect that really showed in the film.
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.

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.
Honestly, I think that's the core of the problem. It mostly comes down to people judging comedies by the criteria of dramas. "It's funny but it didn't make me think deep thoughts (with Jack Handey)." Okay? So what? It's not meant to. That's neither the purpose nor the goal of a comedy. Did it make you laugh? Then it did what it's supposed to do. Did it lighten your mood for a few hours? Mission accomplished. Did it make you temporarily forget your worries? Then it's a brilliant comedy. Judge comedies as comedies, not dramas.
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.
It's also an aspect of verbal comedy. When you go wider and examine physical comedy, that problem almost disappears. Watch stuff from Jacques Tati, Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean), Oleg Popov, Slava Polunin, Bill Irwin, The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and a lot of the Marx Brothers. Most if it still holds up. It's also why exported physical comedy is more popular in other countries, you don't need to translate a physical gag. There's nothing to be lost in translation.
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.
As a fan of comedy RPGs, I gotta say part of the problem is how they're designed vs how players want to play them, generally speaking. Most players when they are presented with a comedy RPG think it's time to be stupid, force the "humor," and generally cut loose. Which generally destroys the actual funny bits. There's a rule in improv where you're not supposed to try to force the humor. The comedy will come naturally from the premise, the game, the setup, etc. You trying to force the jokes is just going to wreck the scene. Let things flow naturally and the funny bits will pop. Most gamers fall into this same trap. The trick is to design the game mechanics to produce comedy while the players don't have to be inherently funny themselves. If they just play the game, comedy happens. It's the difference between a truly funny game of Paranoia...and the absolute shambles that is zap play. It's the trying to force things that kills it dead. Thankfully, comedy RPG designers have started to figure this out. The upcoming Monty Python's Cocurricular Mediaeval Reenactment Programme even has a callout box just for this. It's paradoxical, but play it straight and the comedy will flow.

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There's some fascinating reading on the topic:

 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
There's some fascinating reading on the topic:


I do love the topic!

That said, a long time ago I took an undergraduate class on the Philosophy and Rhetoric of Comedy, and ... that was the LEAST funny class I ever took.

Although I still occasionally enjoy thinking about Aristotle's view of humor. Ol' 'Stotle (that's what his friends called him, right?) thought most comedy was about making fun of the misfortune, stupidity, and general ugliness of other people. The, um, "inferiority" theory of humor.

I mentioned the class was really unfunny, right?
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I do love the topic!

That said, a long time ago I took an undergraduate class on the Philosophy and Rhetoric of Comedy, and ... that was the LEAST funny class I ever took.

Although I still occasionally enjoy thinking about Aristotle's view of humor. Ol' 'Stotle (that's what his friends called him, right?) thought most comedy was about making fun of the misfortune, stupidity, and general ugliness of other people. The, um, "inferiority" theory of humor.

I mentioned the class was really unfunny, right?
Sadly, punching down never seems to go away.

While on the subject, I think the Kids in the Hall really knew how to do this right. They had many sketches mocking our culture and societal norms, but where able to do it from a general sense and not one of a specific one.
 


Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
I think the same could be said for Jim Carey. He became famous for his screwball antics in movies like Ace Ventura and the Mask, but I would argue his best work is in movies like the Truman Show and the Majestic.
He was surprisingly scary in The Cable Guy. The bathroom beat down scene performance was almost a nod to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
Ol' 'Stotle (that's what his friends called him, right?) thought most comedy was about making fun of the misfortune, stupidity, and general ugliness of other people. The, um, "inferiority" theory of humor.
1) I think of him more as an “Ari” (Harry)…not that we’re buddies or nuthin’.

2) You’re assuming he had friends. He might have been more like Biff, from Back to the Future.
 

pukunui

Legend
He was surprisingly scary in The Cable Guy. The bathroom beat down scene performance was almost a nod to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter.
Yes, that's true. I watched that movie so many times as a teen but haven't seen it in like 20 years now ... Speaking of Hannibal, though, one of the stand-out scenes for me is his Hannibal homage at Medieval Times with the chicken skin.
 

I do love the topic!

That said, a long time ago I took an undergraduate class on the Philosophy and Rhetoric of Comedy, and ... that was the LEAST funny class I ever took.

Although I still occasionally enjoy thinking about Aristotle's view of humor. Ol' 'Stotle (that's what his friends called him, right?) thought most comedy was about making fun of the misfortune, stupidity, and general ugliness of other people. The, um, "inferiority" theory of humor.

I mentioned the class was really unfunny, right?

I minored in philosophy and my impression is philosophers were not a particularly witty bunch. Steve Martin managed to turn it into comedy, but the problem I always run into when I hear a theory of comedy (philosophical or otherwise is it seems like that often just turns into a straight jacket). Comedy should make us laugh. That is the point. And I think everyone likes to laugh. It is very hard though to establish rules or oughts around that. Some of the stuff that makes me laugh hardest (for example physical comedy), I can't explain. People can reduce this to things like the element of surprise, or whatever but I don't think that really captures what is going on with humor. You can have the same physical routine, performed by two equally skilled physical performers, but one of them just has some charm and charisma that makes you laugh and the other doesn't.
 

Sadly, punching down never seems to go away.
I am not averse to it. There are definitely comics who do this that I don't care for, so it is an odd line. But I think so much of what makes peopel naturally laugh is a person saying or doing something they are socially not supposed to do. My mom is a pretty strict person when it comes to politeness and social rules but my cousin could always make her laugh by blatantly crossing those lines and saying things she found 'awful'. Also this is more complicated a topic than people make it out to be. I have some disability issues and have been in groups for this on various platforms. Plenty of people have my problems, don't want it made fun of. But I feel the opposite. I find it cathartic to laugh about it and for people to joke at my expense (again there is a line and intent does matter). Sometimes this kind of humor can also bridge divides between people because it is a great leveler and a great way to break the tension. It just depends on how it is done
 

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