27 May 2021

The Unfunny Business of Describing Funny Movies, Plus the Difficulty of Creating Great Comedies, Plus Ten Greats From Ten Different Decades

Andy left Jorma right with Jimmy Fallon doing the Donkey Roll

"We'd like to get to the point where Connor is everywhere, like oxygen or gravity or clinical depression." -- From Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping

Yesterday I watched Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) Taccone/Schaffer for the third time and immediately wanted to write about it. But then the conundrum: How the hell do you write about comedy? It is — pun intended — seriously difficult. 

For the sake of argument let’s say you consider Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) to be absolutely hilarious. What do you say? 

"I laughed a lot."

"It was really funny."

"I laughed so hard I cried."

"There were endless sight gags, screamingly funny prat falls, jokes aplenty, unparalleled satire."


It equates to a "you had to be there" situation.

(By the way, Cries and Whispers, a film I revere, is certainly the least funny movie ever made.)

To convey how funny a movie is, you have to give examples. But there are many problems associated with this approach. First of all, how do you describe slapstick so that the humor comes across? You sound like a ten-year old. “There was this really funny part where they threw pies at each other.” 

You can repeat some of the one-liners but can you deliver them like Groucho Marx? Because if you can't (and you can’t, trust me) then they lose some of their zing — I mean, most of their zing. How do you describe the antics of Chaplin’s Little Tramp? For example the boxing scene in City Lights (1931) Chaplin. You can’t do it justice. Also a lot of humor is surprise. It’s funny because you weren’t expecting it. Which leads to another issue, if you discuss the funny bits in a movie you’re giving away a lot of humor that people should discover for themselves. To really describe a comedy you have to give a lot away. Nobody wants that.

Describing what makes you laugh is like describing an orgasm. Try that. Here, I’ll give it a go:

“Upon ejaculation I felt really good.” 

Doesn't capture the moment, does it?

How about “it was ecstasy.” 

Yeah, it probably was, but what’s that like? 

From Pop Star
You might as well try to explain to someone who has never had a strawberry what strawberries taste like. “They’re fruity!” Or: “they’re kind of like raspberries but different.” Do tell.

How do you describe the manner in which  Gold Rush, makes you laugh? “There’s a scene where Chaplin makes potatoes dance.” Yeah? And? 

See what I'm saying?

Again this was inspired by my third viewing of Pop Star. I laughed more than the previous two times I saw it, the mark of a great comedy. (I now feel obligated to tell you that the three stars and writers of the film, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaeffer, were all students of mine when I taught middle school. See this post from last Summer about hanging with Jorma in a park.) Great comedies aren't just funny the first time, they stay funny and can even get funnier. Not sure how that works -- but it does.

When I set out to write about Pop Star I was struck by how clever it is. It’s a brilliant satire on…well, a lot of things. The modern music industry, celebrity culture, consumerism and friendship. It is also at times very silly. Silly, when done right, can be hilarious. Silly, when not done right, can be an absolute bore.

You've got to be smart to get silly just right. Indeed if you pay attention you'll notice that virtually all great comedians and comedy writers are intelligent people. 

Something just occurred to me that I’m going to insert here. Humor is subjective. I suppose there are some people who don’t find Groucho Marx funny (I hope never to meet such an individual). I may shock some of you by stating that I’ve never found Laurel and Hardy particularly funny and to me W.C Fields is tedious. Most comedy films made in the last forty years leave me cold. (Does Adam Sandler appeal to anyone over fourteen?) So you can recommend a comedy film to someone and they may not dig it at all. Different strokes. Comedy that appeals to a broad audience is rare. That's what made Chaplin a genius.

(Here I diverge to the topic of how difficult comedy is to do, never mind write about.)

Comedy is hard to do in films. In a sit com you’re trying fill about twenty-two minutes with laughs, in a movie you’re looking for ninety minutes worth of chuckles. Plus with a sitcom you’ve already established characters, setting and common scenarios. Making a succession of comedy films that are all funny is nigh on impossible. Look at some of the masters. Chaplin did it for a long time with one and two reelers that lasted from a quarter to a half an hour. When he did features he was taking several years to make them. He had a nearly perfect record but wasn't cranking out one a year. The Marx Brothers made six great comedies right out of the gate but after that the laughs were fewer and farther between. Woody Allen has probably made as many or more great comedies as anyone over fifty years but he’s mixed in some serious films as well. 

Chaplin and potatoes in Gold Rush
The Monty Python troupe had an impressive run on their television series and with a few movies, but they burned out. Comedy is hard work. When writing humor pieces I usually find that the first few funny bits pop right out, then I have to give the next few a good think. Later it's like pulling teeth. I've scrapped a lot because it wasn't worth the investment of time. (It's not like anyone is paying me.)

Comedies rely almost totally on good writing. A bad script for any film is impossible to overcome. In comedy especially. Of course you’ve got to have a good director. It doesn’t even need to be a director whose done a lot of comedy. Alfred Hitchcock directed one screwball comedy and it was one of the best of all time, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). 

Howard Hawks directed some of our greatest comedies (His Girl Friday (1940), Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938)) but also directed westerns, gangster films, war pictures and anything else you can name. 

Billy Wilder directed a passel of good comedies but he was working with scripts that he co-wrote. 

Many directors exclusively do comedies and only a few of them are really good at it. Mel Brooks comes to mind. Sam Wood was pretty consistent as was Leo McCarey. Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis had a lot of success too. But many of the worst comedies are cranked out by hacks who can’t seem to get it right. Many of these make money but they don’t add to the culture as they're rife with predicable bits, toilet humor and the over done man-getting-hit-in-the-groin. They're quickly forgotten.

Mike Mysers produced what I consider a masterpiece of comedy with the first Austin Powers film. His second Powers movie was not quite as good and the third was a dog. That's a reflection on how difficult it is.

Preston Sturges wrote and directed seven of our great comedies (highlighted by The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels both in 1941) in a five-year span from 1940-1944 and that, folks, was that. Nothing after.

Comedies also rely on the right actors and they don’t have to be people who deal exclusively or mostly in comedy. "Serious actors" have appeared in very funny films and been part of what made them good. Jack Lemmon, Robert DeNiro, Henry Fonda, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn all graced hilarious films. If you can act, you can act funny.

Of course there are actors who have regularly graced comedies. Cary Grant, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gene Wilder, John Belushi, Seth Rogen, Bill Murray and Catherine O’Hara, to name but a few.

Catherine O'Hara reminds me of the Christopher Guest troupe which had a great run of comedies such as Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003). But there's been nothing new for years.

Groucho Marx in Duck Soup
(It appears that in some respects I’ve disproven my point. I’ve been able to write about funny films. Of course this hasn’t been terribly funny and I’ve mentioned films, directors and actors without giving any examples of how they tickle the ribs.)

Comedy is hit or miss for everyone involved. The writer, director and certainly the audience. There's little worse than watching a movie for laughs and getting nary a chuckle out of it. It takes a brave person to even try it.  Thankfully there are  talented souls who love getting a laugh and are willing to work at it. When it works they've made us laugh and laughter is one of the greatest gifts you can provide. The next most difficult thing to making a good comedy is writing about it. But I tried.

My Ten Favorite Comedies From Each of the Ten Preceding Decades

Twenties: The Gold Rush (1925) Chaplin

Thirties: Duck Soup (1933) McCarey

Forties: His Girl Friday (1940) Hawks

Fifties: Some Like it Hot (1959) Wilder

Sixties: The Producers (1967) Brooks

Seventies: Manhattan (1979) Allen

Eighties: Arthur (1981) Gordon

Nineties: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) Roach

Oughts: Mean Girls (2004) Waters

Tens: Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) Taccone/Schaffer

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