That's Not Funny

By Adam Blair

Why are today's film comedies so bad?
A few years ago, when the American Film Institute came out with its list of the 100 best comedies ever made, it was hardly a surprise that many of the films were more than 10, 20, even 50 or 60 years old. This kind of thing is inevitable when you're trying to quantify a century's worth of movies-it takes time to certify something as actually classic, and not just this season's "comedy smash." Tastes change, and what seemed to be a scream in 1957 can be unfunny or downright embarrassing in 2002.

Still, it's a bit disconcerting that there doesn't seem to be anything even remotely close to "classic" status released during either the 1990s and early double-O's. Maybe all the humor in the 1990s was being sucked right out of us by Monica and the Clinton follies.

Nor do I think this is one of those "irony died on September 11" deals. Some of the funniest comedies ever made came out during the Great Depression and World War II-neither of which were exactly laff riots (oh, those bank failures are so hilarious! almost as funny as the Nazis overrunning Europe!).

For the record, none of the 1990s movies on the AFI's list made it into the top ten or even the top 25, and some of the choices are questionable at best. They are: There's Something About Mary (1998, #27); Groundhog Day (1993, #34); Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, #67); City Slickers (1991, #86); and Fargo (1996, #93).

Disclaimer: I tend to distrust lists like these in most cases, but especially in picking comedies. For an art form that's designed to be enjoyed as a group experience, film comedies evoke extremely individualized reactions. Other types of films do this as well, of course, but judging comedy requires a deft mix of aesthetics and gut reactions that doesn't apply in other film genres. For example, one might admire the achievement of, say, Citizen Kane or Ingmar Bergman's movies, without particularly enjoying the films. I personally love Citizen Kane, but I'm only impressed with the Bergman films I've seen. I understand his importance to film history but I'm not running off to rent his movies. It's admiration, not love. Still, I'd have no problem if a film or two of his ended up on a world cinema ten-best list.

But with comedy, laughter - inexplicable, individual, idiosyncratic laughter - is really important. Simply nodding and saying "yes, I can see why you'd think that's funny" won't do it. And just to make it even more complicated, just evoking laughter isn't enough. I laughed at Mary and Mrs. Doubtfire when I saw them but I don't feel comfortable calling them great in retrospect.

I would submit that there are only a few movies produced in the last dozen years or so that I can look back on with fond chuckles. (Not wincing when you remember the movie is a crucial first step on the road to classic status.) Clueless and My Cousin Vinny were both priceless, and the latter holds up well on repeat viewings (Marisa Tomei did deserve the Oscar for her performance, I don't care what anybody says). Groundhog Day and Rushmore, both with the invaluable Bill Murray, are strong contenders as well, despite long humor-free patches. As funny as Fargo is - and it can be hilarious at times - it's probably only accessible as a comedy if you can key in to the weird wavelength of its creators the Coen brothers. If you can, seek professional help, or see a bunch more of their movies, or both.

It's a pretty steep decline after that. City Slickers dragged after Jack Palance bit the dust. Mrs. Doubtfire was disgustingly sappy and sentimental despite flashes of the old Robin Williams wit; if Chris Columbus has to be represented on the list, why not for Home Alone or either of the Gremlins movies (none of which made the Top 100)? The Austin Powers movies have fantastically funny moments, but genre spoofing can be a dead end, as Mel Brooks discovered about halfway through High Anxiety. Mike Myers also shares an unfortunate trait that Mel developed later in his career: he doesn't know how to let go of a joke, so he spoils a lot of the best laughs in both films through deadening repetition. Unfortunately, Myers might only get slower. Mel himself has been reborn on Broadway with "The Producers" - maybe he'll remake his own movie as a full-scale musical? Just kidding, Mel - please don't do it.

"Smart" comedies like Dave, The American President and In & Out were all uneven and ultimately too preachy or too timid. American Pie was better than the average crop of teen sexcapades, which is probably the ultimate in backhanded compliments. Being John Malkovich was hip and extremely funny in spots but probably a bit too weird for mainstream tastes. Smart, sour satires like Dick and Election failed to find a wide audience but they may well be rediscovered and re-appreciated by future audiences.

I think there are several reasons for the current comedy drought, whether it's real or simply perceived (critic James Agee, in a famous essay from the late 1940s, lamented the decline in film comedy since the advent of sound and the retirement/diminishment of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, et al, so people have been pining for a Golden Age since, well, the Golden Age.)

1) The video/DVD effect: Before videocassettes, once a movie finished its theatrical run it was pretty much over - except in the memory of those who had seen it. Oh sure, there might be re-releases of especially big movies; there might even be movies made on the pattern of earlier successes (screwball comedies, horror films, "service" comedies during W.W. II). And there were movie series, and not just with B-movies like Charlie Chan, Andy Hardy or the Bowery Boys. Hollywood also did A-movie series, with the same actors in the same or similar roles (e.g. William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" movies, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the "Road" movies, etc.).

But these new movies didn't have to compete directly with older movies as an entertainment option. This works to the disadvantage of new movies in two ways. One is direct comparison. You can go see a relatively feeble comedy like Road Trip in the theater, complain (or enthuse) about it to your older brother, and be told that if you want to watch a really funny gross-out comedy about guys raising hell and trying to get laid, to go rent National Lampoon's Animal House. Or even Risky Business. Or, God help us, Porky's. In any case, Road Trip comes up short.

The availability of old movies on video also accentuates the "things were better back then (and suck now)" syndrome because it preserves the best and discards the rest. Our memories may do this as well, but everyone's works in a different way, remembering different movies with different degrees of affection and admiration. Video ratifies the idea that there were indeed good movies (and by extension, funny comedies) in the past - otherwise why would there be a video version of it?

Video stores, especially mass marketed ones like Blockbuster, perpetuate this skewed vision. The classic (generally black-and-white) comedies they carry exist side-by-side with what seems like every crummy, sleazy little comedy made in the last 20 years. Even the old comedies that are feeble (Abbott and Costello in virtually anything, for example) gain a patina of "4:30 Movie" nostalgia in this environment.

It's not just video that contributes to this Golden Age of Comedy feeling. Cable television, with its endless recyclings of movies both old and recent, is an extension of the video effect. Anyone watching American Movie Classics would think the old studio system produced, if not actual classics, then at the very least a whole slew of great (or at least competent) movies.

The truth is there were a batch of real stinkers and a huge "middle class" of mediocre movies that are only seen now by the true aficionados of awfulness - the late, lamented "Mystery Science Theater 3000" bunch, for instance - if at all. Film preservation is a great concept, and I'm all for it, but if we really preserved and watched everything Hollywood ever produced people might recoil in a horror so profound that they'd never make, or go to, another movie again. Hollywood then was a lot more like television is now - lots of choices, a fair amount of crap, a lot of mediocrity and a smattering of greatness. And speaking of the boob tube:

2) Television: It's easy to blame television for everything, but it is undeniably playing a role in the film comedy drought. Television has matured considerably in the past 10 to 15 years, taking on much of the territory that it had formerly ceded to movies: adult themes, nudity, curse words, etc. In doing this it's also gained a lot more respect, such that writers and directors are no longer ashamed to work in TV, or feel they've fallen into a minor league from which they'll never return. Work in TV - some precincts of it, anyway - is seen as pretty much parallel to working in film. I'm thinking of writers and directors like Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball and Barry Levinson, all of whom have worked effectively in film and have moved with a fair degree of success into TV ("The West Wing," "Homicide" "Six Feet Under").

Television's maturity not only drains potential comic talent that could be working in movies; it has also eliminated the special nature of movies as entertainment. When the average episode of "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under" or "The Sopranos" contains as many curse words, violence, nudity and laughs as an entire feature film circa 1974, it's clear people don't have to leave the house to see those entertainment elements.

But "Six Feet Under" is a drama (albeit one with a lot of humor) and we're talking about comedy. TV comedy has traditionally been of two types: sitcoms and sketches within variety shows. Well, sitcoms have also grown up considerably. For example, gay characters on sitcoms are now not only allowed, they are almost required. Roseanne's eponymous sitcom made it acceptable to deal with economic failure and social class issues within a comedic landscape. "Frasier" has made the spoofing of intellectual pretensions - previously a once-a-season gag - into a long-running theme (it's also almost single-handedly rescued multiple-door sex farce from the British stage).

Sketch comedy and variety shows are virtually dead in mainstream TV - the early seasons of "In Living Color" were the last successful ones I can recall, besides the zombie that is Saturday Night Dead. This is also bad for movie comedies - if TV provided a better format for sketch comedians, they wouldn't make so many lousy movies that are essentially extended sketches (The Coneheads, A Night at the Roxbury, It's Pat, Stuart Saves His Family, etc.).

3) The Political Correctness and Irony Gluts: Let's face it: humor is about making fun of something or someone. The first caveman (sorry, abode-impaired male) to laugh probably saw his fellow caveperson trip and fall during the big wooly mammoth hunt, or thought his friend's cave-nose was too big for his cave-face. Look how far we've come.

Even though political correctness is no longer the big bad it used to be, its effects still linger, and they are on the whole bad for comedy. Now understand I'm not saying political correctness is in and of itself a bad thing, nor that it's necessarily inimical to comedy. Sometimes the limitations of political correctness force comic writers and directors to work harder and more cleverly than they would have otherwise (in the same way that Hollywood's Hays Office forced moviemakers of that era to show eroticism, violence, et. al. via more subtle means of indirection). Non-P.C. humor often just means cheap, easy laughs. At worst, it's Polish jokes (or Helen Keller jokes).

But as anyone who has found him/herself unable to stop laughing at the latest variations on a Helen Keller theme (How did Helen Keller burn her hands? She tried to read the waffle iron) knows, sometimes the shortest distance to a laugh is a straight line over some very distinctly un-P.C. territory.

The general acceptance of P.C.-ness has been hardest, I think, on Mel Brooks (he also ran out of definable film genres to spoof). Think about Blazing Saddles (which did make the AFI's list). This was a movie designed to shock, to outrage, to horrify. Much of its humor is at the pre-teenager level (the infamous farting serenade, for instance). The caricatures of various ethnic groups and sexual persuasions are cartoonish. The sexual humor itself is crude, as when the black sheriff (Cleavon Little), destined to be sexually enslaved by the irresistible Lily Von Stupp, instead literally screws her over to the good guys' side in a display of sexual derring-do that would warm the scrotums of the Jameses Bond and T. Kirk.

And yet, and yet - Blazing Saddles also brilliantly reveals how implicitly racist, sexist and stereotypical Westerns, and other Hollywood movies that we had all absorbed into our collective consciousness, were and are. The movie's crude energy is a blowtorch that burns away a crust we didn't even realize was there. It's a high-wire act - mocking the very things it seems to exemplify - and it's only with repeated viewings that one can appreciate just how fine a line the movie walks. And it's still very, very funny.

The problem is that Mel couldn't make a movie like Blazing Saddles today. Most people wouldn't get it. They would see the movie's super-swishy gay boys ("Throw out your hands/Stick out your tush/Hands on your hips/Give 'em a push!") and scream "Homophobia!" (Never mind that at least one of them pairs off with a rough, tough cowboy.) Mel's own Yiddish-spouting Indian chief, or his cross-eyed, lecherous governor? Forget it. And even if there was someone as insanely talented as the late Madeline Kahn to fill the lederhosen of Lily Von Stupp, German-Americans would be offended by her accent. (All right, I'm exaggerating - but just a little).

Comedy film connoisseurs could refute the P.C.-is-ruining-comedy argument by pointing to Parker and Stone's South Park movie (and their fairly funny Baseketball), as well as the Farrelly Brothers' oeuvre (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and the list-making There's Something About Mary). They could also point to the one-man comic repertory company known as Jim Carrey (Liar Liar had its moments). Point away. I'm assuming animated movies are out of our consideration anyway (otherwise why didn't Aladdin, Antz, A Bug's Life, Toy Story, etc., etc. make the AFI's list?), so South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut gets cut.

As for the Farrellys - I admit I'm probably too old (the big four-uh-oh) to really appreciate them, just as I will never, ever think that anything Adam Sandler does is funny. That said, the lengths they have to go to to shock, outrage and dismay (the dog in the full-body cast in Mary) show how difficult it is to make comedy in an age of been there, done that, seen-it-all irony and self-consciousness.

When everybody gets the joke, even about themselves, it's tough to make comedy. Remember William Shatner's Priceline commercials, where he belted out 1970s hits like "Convoy" to hawk an Internet service? We're not laughing at him; we're not even laughing with him; he's laughing at us by laughing at himself.

Comedy thrives in eras when there's a clear set of values against which it can fling wads of slippery goo, combined with enough freedom to let people laugh without feeling that every chuckle is destroying the rainforest or damaging someone's self-esteem. Our era, unfortunately, has values in flux, combined with notoriously humorless identity politics, as well as a notoriously humorless Attorney General.

Is the lack of good film comedies such a bad thing? What's the harm if television takes over the comedy franchise from film?

I think there is some harm, if not of the world-shaking variety. TV, like the Internet, is essentially a solitary pursuit. There's something extremely liberating about laughing in the company of others. It's not only an acknowledgement of a common language and set of values; it's a way of sharing joy and good times that doesn't require condoms. And laughter of this kind really is a public phenomenon. I worked at a movie theater when I was younger and determined that every auditorium had a laughter quotient. No matter how funny the film, the audience had to fill 15-20% of the seats in order to overcome each individual's self-consciousness. (This probably isn't as much of an issue today, when the "big" theater in a multiplex means it contains a whole 200 seats.)

And just to contradict myself again - thinking about movie comedies will do that to you - there's also something wonderful about seeing a movie where most of the audience doesn't get the joke, but you do. It can be embarrassing, but laughing out loud when most of your compatriots are silent is a wonderful way to identify and proclaim your own individuality - without the long-lasting impact of tattoos and body piercings.

So yes, movie comedy is a form worth saving. Let's stand up, and sit down for, better, funnier, smarter, sillier flicks.

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