A Fool’s Game – The Ever Changing Face of Comedic Films

Our traditional April Fool’s Day usually has us working towards making a fool out of someone else, whether it be through a cleverly worded joke or through an elaborate prank.  Regardless of the outcome, most of the fun comes from the realization that something genuinely hilarious has happened, and one hopes that the humor in each situation is shared by all.  Sometimes a joke will go too far, and then other times, a joke will not have gone far enough, and the end result of no one finding it funny may be the worst result of all.  What proves to be the best scenario for April Fool’s shenanigans is if both the fooler and the fooled both have a healthy sense of humor.  And in our culture, we have the movies to thank for giving us foundations on which to base our senses of humor.  Everyone may not be able to pinpoint what their favorite comedy might be, but they can usually draw upon their favorite moments or funny phrase as a demonstration of their comedic tastes.  How many of us out there have bopped their head to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” ever since first seeing Wayne’s World (1992)?  How many of us have used Bill Murray’s “Final Hole at Augusta” monologue from Caddyshack (1980) when playing a game of golf?  How many of us have at one time uttered the word “Ni” just to annoy our friends, or welcome them to join in?  Comedy has, more than probably any other genre, soaked itself into the cultural zeitgeist, to the point where we think about a funny moment from a movie sometimes without knowing where it originated.  But, comedy in movies is also a constantly changing thing that sometimes remains strong for years or can sometimes fade into obscurity.  For a comedic movie to have staying power, it first of all must stand out in the field, have character to it, must have something to say, and most importantly not just be comical for comedy’s sake.

Despite being ingrained in the culture, comedy also runs the disadvantage of falling victim to shifting, and often unpredictable attitudes.  What was considered funny yesterday might not be considered funny today.  Sometimes the changing responses to comedy are necessary, as different values become more important all the time, and it becomes understandable when one joke has lost it’s impact as a result of the change.  But, to disparage a comedy because of it’s outdated content isn’t a healthy attitude either.  Comedy over history is defined by how it has evolved with the times, and while some jokes of the past may seem quaint or even offensive to those of us watching today, understanding their context allows us to see how it has shaped the sense of humor of our culture as a whole.  Comedy has been around since really the very beginning of cinema.  You can see it all the way back to the short vignettes of the very first film images created by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, who often called upon vaudeville acts to perform in front of the camera.  Since sound film had yet to be invented, you can understand that the dominant form of comedy in these days was physical in nature.  This was the era when slapstick and visual gags ruled.  In this era, you saw the emergence of the first true comedic movie stars, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  Silent comedy had it’s limitations, but remarkably it has proved to be one of the most resilient and influential forms of comedy in all of cinema.  You can see the influence of all these pioneers in slapstick comedy today.  Some of the performers most outrageous stunts even hold up as remarkable feats so many years later, like Harold Lloyd’s harrowing dangle from a clock face in Safety Last (1923), or Buster Keaton’s stunts on a real moving train in The General (1926).  Talkies of course would take the comedy genre in a different direction, but there would always be a place for physical comedy in the years ahead thanks to these pioneers.

With the use of sound, comedy became more reliant on tools such as wit, innuendo, and word play to generate laughs out of their audiences.  But, there was still a place in Hollywood for both the physical and the verbal to coexist in comedy.  The 30’s saw the rise of the screwball comedy, with comedians performing on screen who both excelled at physical humor and joke telling.  In this era, you would see the emergence of Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and most successfully the Marx Brothers, who managed to get away with more in their comedies than most others could.  Screwball comedies were so popular at the time that they even managed to attract performers not normally known for their comedic chops, like Cary Grant and Kathrine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941).  As films became more sophisticated over time, so did comedy.  Preston Sturges not only created comedies that were humorous, but were also socially relevant, like with Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  Comedy evolved even further in the 50’s and 60’s, with shifting social attitudes making an impact.  You had more comedies that addressed topics like sex (1967’s The Graduate), war (1964’s Dr. Strangelove), and even fascism (1967’s The Producers).  The 70’s in particular was a era when comedy was all about pushing boundaries, with filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and the Monty Python comedy team consistently testing the limits of broadness and taste in their films.  The 80’s began the era of satire, where self reflexive comedies like Airplane (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988) emerged.  By this time, television has left a strong influence on cinematic comedy, with a lot of crossover stars coming from shows like Saturday Night Live.  And all through these different eras, you can see a strong through-line of different generations inspiring what would come after.  All comedy in one way or another has shaped what we now find funny today.  And through the best of them, we can see what has worked over time, and what does not.

What is apparent from all the greatest comedies from film history is how well they stand apart from the rest of the field.  Despite the influence that comedies have on the culture and the business of film-making, it should also be understood that there are ten times more failures in the genre than there are successes.  Comedy has the disadvantage of being a heavily derivative genre, with so many copycats emerging in the wake of a success in the field.  The key to comedy is the element of subverting your audiences expectations and making them react to an unexpected and hilarious result.  The best comedies are all defined by how well they make their punchlines land.  Unfortunately, when another movie tries to copy that same formula, it doesn’t have that same impact, because the audience will already be aware of what it’s leading to.  Other times, some comedies just don’t even try to do anything special, and just coast along on the premise alone.  It’s the reason why you see something like a 21 Jump Street (2012) succeed and a CHiPS (2017) fail.  Even people who have succeeded with a comedy before end up failing when they don’t adapt their style.  You could see this with the comedic team-up of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who landed a huge hit with Wedding Crashers in 2005, but failed to see the same repeat when they re-teamed for The Internship (2013).  We even see this in drawn out, tired franchises like The Hangover series.  Extra effort is what makes great comedies great, and the ability to share gags and jokes that no one has heard or seen before.  But, doing so comes with a lot of risk and Hollywood tends to not put their money behind unproven potential.  So, for any new progress to be made to change the face of comedy, it has to be something that stands out and hits hard with every punchline, and that’s why only the best comedies last throughout the years.

Another thing that helps comedies along on their road to greatness is in how well they are defined by their character.  Comedy falls into several subcategories, all of which have their own best and worst examples.  You’ve got the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy, the satirical comedy, the gross-out comedy, and even the dark comedy.  This all helps to make each type distinguishable from the others, so that there doesn’t have to be a set standard for all comedy.  But, even in the sub-classes, comedies still need to define what they are in order to stand out.  So, it helps for them to play around with genre tropes in order to either subvert them or conform them to a new direction.  You can see that in characteristically unique comedies like the original Ghostbusters (1984).  In that film, you had a mix of comedy and terror, mixed together in a surprisingly effective way.  The scary moments are genuinely scary, but they are punctuated by the witty sarcasm of Bill Murray or the goofy nerdiness of Dan Aykroyd.  Through that mixture, you get a comedy that by it’s very unique character is able to stand out.  Utilizing the comedic style of it’s creator, a comedy can also stand out.  You can see how the movies of Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks stand out from the crowd, because they are so tied to the comedy that those men are known for.  You can also see this in the work of directors who are comedians themselves, but are so comfortable working in the genre, like Judd Apatow and Edgar Wright.  Edgar Wright in particular has that special talent to make very similar movies, but they all feel fresh and hilarious, because he only ties them together by style and not by the routines; although a few running gags permeate his entire filmography.  Relying on your performers is also essential to finding the character of your comedy, especially if they are a scene-stealer like John Belushi in Animal House (1978).  You can see where a lack of character can sink a comedy, which can happen from miscasting a performer to just not finding an interesting angle to hang your jokes and gags on.  Comedy needs identity and the more broad it is, the better it will be able to make us laugh.

Having a statement in your comedy is also a helpful tool.  Movies have always been a powerful tool for changing people’s minds and affecting cultural attitudes, but no other genre manages to make a bigger impact in that regards than comedy.  This is especially true in the way that comedies often use their medium to attack authority figures through the power of mockery.  Oftentimes, the targets of comedy have been especially deserving of ridicule.  Charlie Chaplin famously attacked the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany with his film The Great Dictator (1940), which chronicled a buffoonish despotic dictator not unlike the Furher himself.  Chaplin’s response to Hitler was especially savage after the liberal-minded filmmaker learned that the notorious ruler had shaped his own mustache after Chaplin’s.  Stanley Kubrick addressed the absurdity of Cold War politics in the only way he knew how, with a screwball comedy where a cowboy hat wearing soldier rides a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco as it’s dropped from the sky.  Mel Brooks tackled racial tensions from the 1970’s in a western spoof called Blazing Saddles (1974), where every racial and ethnic stereotype is lampooned relentlessly in often hilarious ways, all with the purpose of showing how ridiculous racial bigotry is.  Does every great comedy need to have a profound statement behind it?  Not necessarily, but it can help it stand out as a strong statement of it’s time.  That’s not to say that every comedy that tries to give themselves a political or socially relevant message works either.  I don’t know what the point behind George Clooney’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) was, but I know for sure it didn’t make me laugh.  Still, for a comedy to be remembered for more than just it’s jokes, it must also have something interesting to say, or push forward an unconventional idea that can have a profound influence.  Whether that ends up lasting long after remains to be seen, but a comedy will be notable nonetheless for doing it.

Also, it may be redundant to say this, but a comedy must try it’s best to be funny.  You would be surprised how few films actually accomplish this.  True, comedy is a subjective medium, and what’s funny to one person, might not be funny to another.  But, there are several so-called “comedies” out there that don’t even try to attempt to reach all audiences with their style of humor.  Oftentimes, there will be several comedies that are so insistent on throwing anything at the wall to see if it will stick.  You see this a lot in the spoof movies that have followed in the wake of Scary Movie (2000), all of which have the mistaken belief that movie and pop culture references equals comedy gold.  Probably the worst offender of the “kitchen sink” approach to comedy however is Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production comedy.  Sandler seems to believe that rehashing the same tired comedy routines through consistently dumb premises is enough to leave your mark on comedy.  Well, it does, but probably not in the good way that Sandler believes is owed to him.  There was a time when Sandler’s comedic style was funny, but that was the late 90’s, and it’s now been 20 years since Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) managed to make us laugh.  What these movies demonstrate is that a comedy can’t just work on routine alone.  It has got to earn our laughter.  When you have Sandler movies that just poke fun at a character’s ugly appearance, or has animals defecating on another character, or throws in outdated and offensive tropes like gay panic or ethnic stereotypes, then you’re doing nothing to broaden your appeal as a comedic talent.  It’s cheap and lazy comedy, and audiences are too discerning today to fall for tricks like that anymore.  Just because these comedic bits have worked before doesn’t mean they’ll work for you again, and it’s a bad sign when 20 plus years in the business only leads you to do the same bits over and over again.

We all know which comedies we like and which ones we don’t like.  The only thing that remains to be seen is what we may find funny years from now, because comedy is a constantly movie goal line.  Our attitudes as a culture evolves and puts new values on things, so punchlines that made us laugh when we were young might not make us laugh when we are old.  It’s especially more difficult when we try to provide our own input into comedy as well, because not all of us find the same things funny.  And yet, some comedy does stand the test of time despite all the change.  Chaplin an Keaton still are praised as comedic geniuses, and it remains a marvel to watch modern audiences still laugh out loud watching comedies made nearly a century ago.  Some of this comedy does benefit from nostalgic value, but there are others like Blazing Saddles and Dr. Strangelove that still carry a punch to this day.  The biggest mistake that a movie can make is to chase after a punchline that no one will like.  And in a world that’s grown increasingly absurd, and where more and more people take a punchline way too seriously and miss the point entirely, finding comedy that results in a positive change is becoming harder to come by.  In the end, we need the positive influence of substantive comedy that’s not afraid to step on a few toes and mock those deserving of ridicule.  In troubled times, comedy is the best weapon that a culture can have.  And yes, there is even value in tough times to seeing absurd things like Bill Murray hunting down a puppeteer-ed gopher in Caddyshack (1980), or Adam Sandler fighting Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, or Steve Carrell getting his chest waxed in The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005).  There is no better feeling at the end of the day than to have a good, full unencumbered laugh, especially when it is shared with someone else.  The only fools left out there are the ones who find nothing funny in the end.