11. My Take On…Comedy

In his book What is Cinema? André Bazin differentiates between slapstick (such as the films of Charlie Chaplin) and comedy (such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).  We take a step back at this.  Isn’t slapstick a form of comedy?  And just how can we consider Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a comedy?  Already, we enter the delicate realm that is comedic understanding.  It is a realm even more difficult to fathom than that of action and suspense films, hence it plays the third and final role in my “My Take On…” series.

Comedy has long been a part of human entertainment, as a genre, as a way of life, and as an escape from the darkness of reality.  Film has become the singular medium for expression of comedic desire, since film is also to act as an escape (a slice of cake instead of a slice of life).  Other than the occasional un-filmed stage farce, no form of comedy is free from this phenomenon: even stand-up comedy has to hit it big with a film release.  Film and comedy have become inextricably linked; the legitimacy of one perpetuates the existence of another.  But, the real perpetuation of comedy is life.  Where action and suspense films are expressions only of our imaginations and fears, comedies reflect a twisted form of reality.  We are covered in jokes and laughs all the time.  All our conversation is based on laughter, particularly in large groups and at parties.  All of our most significant stories are funny ones.  Our memories are sealed with a chuckle—sometimes even a full crack-up.

So, a comedy has a lot to live up to.  In no way does Arnold Schwarzenegger need to worry that his most recent film featuring bazookas and Abrams Tanks will be old, been-there-done-that-type news to his viewers.  But, if he wants to make them laugh, he does need to worry.  People only go to movies to laugh if they think they can’t get better laughs elsewhere, or if they think there may be more to the movie than just sheer guffaws.  If you disagree, I suggest that you reconsider the movies you choose to see.  A really, really good comedy either 1) makes you laugh harder than you do in real life, or 2) gives you something to think about while letting you laugh a little (or a lot) on the side.

You see, that’s what makes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a comedy.  It gives you a lot to think about, but can also give you a few laughs.  It’s not a heavy, sad or frightening film.  It’s actually quite lighthearted, and gives you a satirical picture of government corruption littered with images of a goofy, awkward man fumbling over himself to get the girl to like him.  Our problem today in regards to film is that we often struggle to see comedy inside of, or within, drama; but in real life, we often find that comedy despite the drama that defines us.  A director of a comedy believes that even the hardest of lives can be interrupted for a good laugh.  The laugh doesn’t take away from the pain or the trial, as a matter of fact, it contextualizes it.  It gives the trial that is life grounds to be considered trial.  Everything in life requires an opposite: good, evil, happy, sad.  Without the opposite, the element could not exist as presently understood.  As Syndrome says in The Incredibles, “If everyone is super, no one is.”  If everything is hard, nothing is.  Comedy not only brings an escape to life, it gives it is veracity.

This history of comedy in film corresponds directly with the emergence of sound.   Whatever seems logical in the flow of things is the most probable, as William of Ockham would put it.  What is associated with sound?  Voice, dialogue, music.  So, how were jokes manifest after the sound era?  Through voice, dialogue and music. In the silent era, therefore, the acting would be physical, focused on slapstick and pantomime.  The following sub-sections will document the various genres of comedy and how they were manifest historically.

The Beginnings of Comedy: Pantomime and Slapstick

Slapstick as an acting form had been around since as early as Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.  In many of those Victorian era plays, chase scenes and beatings were featured to elicit audience participation through laughter.  The term “slapstick” is actually derived from the literal translation of a battacio, an actual “slapping stick” incorporated in the Italian commedia dell-arte movement in the 16th Century.  People would slap each other with a stick.  It made others laugh.  This evolved into an accident-prone, physical-style comedy that still prevails today.

As for pantomime, its origins go even further back, to as early as the classical era of Greece and Rome.  When it comes to Rome, as stated by R.J. Broadbent in his A History of Pantomime, Nero himself actually acted in mime every now and again.  Now, there is a difference in the term “pantomime” and the term”mime”, and I admit to my own guilt in mixing the two up, but the difference is becoming gradually nullified as American-English progresses, so for the sake of this, the two term will remain interchangeable.

Again, let’s let William of Ockham help us out.  Pantomime and slapstick coalesced with the development of film because of what?  First, film had no sound, so mime was a must in acting.  Second, slapstick didn’t require sound, so what better comedic genre to utilize.  One can only imagine a Richard Pryor stand-up routine on inter-titles.  But Charlie Chaplin getting beat up in a boxing match that he has unexpectedly found himself “cornered” in?  Definitely.  William’s “Razor” would assert that mime and slapstick were the perfect candidates of the pre-sound era.

The most prevalent silent comedians were Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  The works of these men—particularly Chaplin—are perhaps the most significant in their role of preserving film and leading it through the trial that was the sound era.  While montage theorists and dramatists like Lang, Griffith, Dreyer, and Eisenstein were crippled (if only temporarily) by the mere idea of sound perverting their “pure film,” the comedians were able to transfer their style into the sound era and therefore save movies from the biggest threat they would face in the early 20th century.  It is difficult to say that slapstick wasn’t an important genre to film purists, especially considering that the Lumière Brothers released as one of their first films a movie called L’arroseur arrosé, or Watering the Gardener in 1895 which featured François Clerc, the Lumière’s actual gardener, being pranked by a young boy.  The boy stands on the spraying garden hose that the gardener is using to water the plants, stopping the flow.  As the gardener looks down the hose to check for clogs, the boy steps off the hose, and the water sprays the gardener in the face.  The gardener then pursues the boy and spanks him.  It’s still funny today; it’s quality slapstick from the heart of the cinema pantheon.

This is manifest in the slapstick carryover by such artists as Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and the Three Stooges.  Abroad, the most important preserver of these old comedy styles was Jacques Tati and his Monsieur Hulot character.  Of the sound era comedies, Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), along with the other four movies featuring his character (which includes Bed & Board from film master François Truffaut), are the most significant in preserving the legacy of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Further builders on this silent-film foundation include Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character and the many animated characters (particularly Loony Tunes) that we have come to love so much.  (Did you ever stop to consider Tom, Jerry, Wile E. Coyote, and Roadrunner as silent movie characters?)

After the Sound Era: Anecdotal and Screwball

It seems obvious to us, 86 years later, that sound was inevitably going to come and integrate itself into film, turning the seventh art into the Gesamtkunstwerk.  (Please read everything else in my blog to fully understand this principle, as the theory and its accompanying terminology is unique to my writings and no one else’s).  But, in the late 1920s, it came as a shock in the arm of movie-makers.  It’s influence was unknown, mysterious, and frightening for many investors.

How would it influence comedy film?  Again, William of Ockham would lead us to the most logical response: jokes—verbal jokes, not physical ones.  The style of joke at the time was very formulaic: a stimulus leads to a response leads to clever outcome.  This is not unlike the dialectic triads put forth by Hegel and Marx (again, you have to read some of my other stuff—in this case, I’m referring to the last section of the first part of the examination on montage theory).  There is a thesis (a verbal or physical stimulus) that should lead to a logical outcome, but the two are somehow reconciled into a joke.  In essence, it is a joke-punchline dynamic.  What makes comedy work is the degree to which it violates the norm or the Newtonian concept of immediate response.  The “reaction” is not bound by laws of physical science, and therefore needs not be “equal and opposite.”  Therefore, the synthesis in the dialectic is not a reconciliation per se but an unexpected anti-synthesis.  If, to the montage theorists, Thesis A+Antithesis B=Synthesis C, then to the comic movie-maker, Thesis A+Antithesis B=Unassociated D.

Previous to its incorporation into film, there were two mediums for such verbal comedy.  The first of these artistic media was the farce—comedic theater.  Comedy as a genre dates back to Greek and Roman theater, and was normally referred to as a genre wherein the ending of the given play was happy…the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and their “happily every afters” come to mind.  The term came to evolve over time, particularly during the era of Shakespeare and Gogol, to reference plays with happy endings that carry with them a lighter tone…in this case, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is understood to an even greater degree as a comedy.  More historically poignant is Dante’s The Divine Comedywhich is called a comedy because of its adherence to this criteria.  Prevailing forms of comedic theater were slapstick comedy and “comedy of manners”.

The farce was the predominant comedic genre of the pre-film era. As comedy became more and more light-hearted, the development of farce was inevitable.  Farce, by definition, is “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.”  The use of farce goes back as the Italian commedia dell’arte as well as the Japanese Kyōgen, which was used during the serious Noh plays as an intermission or form of comic relief.  Farce was certainly riotous and even, at times, impossible to understand, but the comedy was ubiquitous.  While the plot contributed to the comedy, it sometimes was lost in the buffoonery.

The second form, or medium, is often overlooked.  As early as the eighteenth century, music halls in the United Kingdom featured artists such as Max Miller and Ken Dodd.  They would perform comedic acts which would, today, fall under the entertainment genre of “Stand-Up Comedy.”  What stand-up brought (and still brings) is the dependency of the performer on “schtick,” which is, in essence, the common theme that a comedian carries with him into a given picture.

These two comedic media (farce and stand-up) acted as progenitors for two forms of comedy that prevailed in the early sound era.  I do not submit that these forms were distinctive and discriminatory, for they certainly integrated aspects from all their progenitors (including, even, slapstick and pantomime).  However, one can see the parallels.

In regards to comedic theater, or farce, the progeny was called “screwball” comedy.  The most famous examples of this today are It Happened One Night from Frank Capra, and His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby from Howard Hawks.  A superb homage to the screwball comedy of the 1930s and ’40s was made in 1972 by Peter Bogdanovich called What’s Up, Doc?.

In regards to the schtick and stand-up comedy, the progeny was what I will call the “anecdotal comedy.”  This is a genre non-existent; I made it up.  But, it follows the schtick and stand-up vein perfectly, because that’s what it is: anecdotes driven from constant theme.  The Marx Brothers are fantastic examples of this anecdotal form of comedy, rooted in schtick and “dialectic” joking formulas.  Groucho’s schtick is the most famous of them all: a greased mustache, cigar and raised eyebrows, driven by banter and irreverence.  Chico is known for his fake Italian accent, Harpo for his pantomime.  We can see from Harpo how the slapstick and pantomime influences carried over into the sound era with remarkable fluidity.

Here, we start to see image as it is replaced by an overall presentation.  Where comedy was at once purely cinematographic, with the emergence of the schtick it came to incorporate other art forms, contributing to the modern conception of film as a Gesamtkunstwerk.

The Great Constant: Burlesque, or Satire

Throughout all the evolution to which film comedy has been exposed, there has remained one great constant, and it has been the constant since comedians first started picking up the pen: that constant is burlesque, or satire.  While the terms aren’t identical, they are certainly related.  As farce is to screwball comedy, so is burlesque comedy to satire as we know it today.  Burlesque is derived from the Italian burlesco, meaning ridicule.  The original burlesque features had much in common with farce in terms of their riotous nature, and was primarily related to theater.  But satire was primarily a literary term: the most famous of the satirists were Aristophanes, Miguel de Cervantes, Nikolai Gogol, Geoffrey Chaucer and Mark Twain.   As I used Gogol to illustrate auteur theory in my most recent page, I shall refer to him again here.  (The fact that I sort of specialize in Russian literature may also play a little role).

Gogol, in his supreme novel, Dead Souls, incorporated a form of satire called “negative satire,” wherein a moral principle is taught by appealing to its absence.  Some of Gogol’s last written words were related to this book, and to its moral prerogative: “Bud’tye zhivye, a ne myortvye dushi“—“Be you living, and not dead souls.”  Gogol’s goal in writing about the ancedotes, opinions and lifestyles of a community full of fallen, or dead, souls, was to get the reader to desire a living soul, one free of the concepts of poshlost (an untranslatable Russian colloquialism referring to the false pretense of pseudo-sophistication) and ready to embrace the spiritual nature of God’s special creation.  Why waste an entire novel, though, on bad examples?  Why teach a lesson by not teaching the lesson?

That is Gogol’s prescription for good satire: to present in the negative.  People are more ready to understand through an appeal to the negative (which is all around them) then to the positive (which is rarely seen, and even more rarely understood).  Potency is found in the absence of virtue.

What Gogol laid provided the groundwork for satire as it perpetuated itself throughout the film era.  The diversity that has permeated the many comedic films which have been made since the Lumière brothers first filmed L’arroseur arrosé is manifest in how that satire is presented.  The most common form of satire is a commentary on the rich or the powerful.  Satire on the upper-class and the intelligentsia has often been the most coveted and potent manifestation of the genre, but exactly how that happens is where the discrepancy lies.  Just watch Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and compare it with Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.  Then, compare it with Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (arguably his most underrated film).  These ideals (which are shared in Gogol’s Dead Souls) of posholst, pseudo-intellectualism, and the facade of sophistication are the most important themes of these films, drawing them together in an ideological pool.  Yet, they are so different from each other!

We will now examine six different directors representing three different types of satire: the non-humorous, the deep, and the burlesque (or shallow).

Scorsese and Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino explained that the gangster film is superb satire of the American Dream.  This is discussed in depth in my review of The Godfather.  What better way to teach the true nature of the American Dream by showing it in all its weakness?  We see from this explanation that it is not necessarily a criterion of good satire to be funny.  But, there is a connection between satire and laughs.  Consider the nature of Tarantino’s films.  Wit fits in naturally with his pacing and imagery.  His stylized violence lays a superb background for jokes, which act as the unexpected synthesis in the dialectic triad.

Even the word “grotesque” has its origins in art.  While we today consider it a term for something gross or evil, “grotesque comedy” is a real comic form dating back hundreds of years.  In art and literature, the term represents a presentation that, along with the expected response (in the case of comedy, the expected response is laughter), also elicits a simultaneous reaction along the lines of discomfort and even empathy.  This non-comedic satire is at once comedic.  This can be terrifying.  Remember the tongue-in-cheek approach Hitchcock took to Psycho (see the review)?  This is another example of the horror associated with good satire.

Martin Scorsese is, by this reckoning, therefore, perhaps the greatest American film satirist.  His films are so overladen with themes of seriousness and depth that the satire is difficult to see, but satire is exactly what it is.  Scorsese shows good life through negative satire, just like Gogol did.  His films, not quite as violent as Tarantino’s, are still bogged down in the grotesque, and his pacing keeps the wit to an extreme high.  Consider Goodfellas, a movie with swearing, violence, sex, crime, and drugs.  It is a heavy thing to watch at times.  Yet, the scene were Joe Pesci yells “You think I’m funny?  Like a clown, do I amuse you?” still works perfectly.

Wilder and Allen

Two of the finest satirists in film are Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, the latter being (disregarding what I said about Martin Scorsese earlier—I’m the writer, I can do that) the most significant satirist of the last forty years.  They approach their comedy with humor, but humor is only part of it.  While both have their bouts of the ludicrous (for Wilder, it was Some Like it Hot and for Allen it was his early pictures like Sleeper, Bananas, and Take the Money and Run), their comedy is often less domineering.  Well-timed one-liners and overwhelming comedic film give their film’s life-like substance.  They are jokes rooted in satire, not jokes rooted in punchlines.

The two movies from these actors that come best to mind are The Apartment and Manhattan, respectively.  These are sad movies, but they have happy endings (Greeks and Romans are appeased).  They are about the “little guy” and his attempts to reconcile with the rich and powerful (The Apartment) and the intellectual and uppity (Manhattan).  While the movies deal with heavy sexual themes, neurosis and depression, the jokes are in the details: the caricatures of the people in society, the stereotypes of the city (New York in both cases), and desperate and sometimes awkward romances.  These movies are hilarious films that feature some of the best “neurotic” actors in American history, Jack Lemmon and Woody Allen.  However, the nature and depth of their satire demonstrates that there is much more to these comedies than dumb laughs.

Brooks and Burton

The remaining two directors are Mel Brooks and Tim Burton.  The films that these men have directed often fall under the “dumb comedy” genre, particularly in regards to Mel Brooks.  However, they are not as dumb as one may think: shallow, yes; dumb, not necessarily.  What they are, desperate appeals to sex aside (which I will discuss more in depth in a later post about morality in films), are fantastic satires of people, ideas, and trends.  Consider the themes of Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and what they have to say about the issues surrounding suburban America.  By making his film absurd, Burton was able to provide shallow imagery that even the youngest of viewers can understand to at least some degree (avoiding the pretense of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet).  In the case of Brooks, he has made his fair share of great movies, particularly Blazing Saddles and The Producers, which are wonderful commentaries on race, class, academia, and genre.

But, again, these movies are crazy.  They are stupid.  They are wild.  They are simple.

But they are good.

Not to say that either of these directors could do no wrong in their respective styles.  Even Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have not been perfect.  But, they deserve more credit than they often get if only for their preeminent roles as accomplished satirists.

The Big Question: How Do You Critique?

What follows from the last 3500 words is a pertinent question: how exactly do we apply this knowledge to the criticism and appraisal of comedy films?  In other words, what does all this tell us about what makes a good comedy?

First and foremost, I want to put satire on its proper pedestal.  I will submit that there is a little satire in everything good in the realm of comedy and beyond.  With that being said, I will submit that mastery of satire is paramount in determining the quality of the film because, first off, I find it the funniest form of comedy, and secondly, satire has so much more to offer than mere laughs.

With that being said about the importance of good satire, I will now lay out the “cop out.”  Comedy is very important in what it tells us, but it is important most of all because it gives us what no other movie genre can give us: a good laugh.  If a comedy makes you laugh, it works.  That is why I love Zoolander, Animal House, and Airplane!.  Movies like This is Spinal Tap, Young Frankenstein, and Tropic Thunder are great comedies.  Why?  Because they work.

In essence, there are two real factors: your own mood—which impacts the comedic value of the film—and the quality of the satire.  Take that for what it is.

Conclusion to the Series

In the end, I hope that this “My Take On…” series is helpful.  Comedy, action, and suspense pictures are the bane of many a movie critic’s existence, but they all share one paramount, transcendent quality: they are the only movies that can survive in shallowness.  Depth is not a requirement for such films; but depth can be a superb accessory.  I was introduced to film through old action, suspense, and comedy films, and I believe that the casual movie-goer can also be introduced to this vast world of cinema from these same films.  One can find, through good cinematography, dialogue, and satire, substance and depth amid all that shallowness.  A good understanding of these genres is important to have, because of all genres, suspense, action and comedy are the most hit-and-miss.

Considering comedy is the last genre that I chose to tackle in this series, one would think that it was the most important.  I think that that is a fair assumption.  It is the most versatile, and it can be so potent.  It can also be so terrible.  In that regard, it takes a talented film-connoisseur to glean the good amid the bad.  But, like Hitchcock and Coppola films, like silent films, like action and suspense films, comedy films can act as wonderful springboards—gateways—into the unseen world of cinema.  For example, if you liked The Other Guys, check out Beverly Hills Cop.  From there, consider See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and then on to The Producers.  When there, move onto the films of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Preston Sturges.  From there, you’re set.  Soon, the comedies of Jacques Tati, Luis Buñuel, and Federico Fellini become all the more significant.

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