For Gorilla Film Magazine
We’re all familiar with Joe Pesces lines in Goodfellas after he tells a story “You saying I’m funny? Funny how?” He wasn’t just ‘unstable’, he had a fair point, what made what he said funny?
What makes things funny?
There is a famous quote by E.B White that says “Analyzing a joke is like dissecting a frog, no one’s really interested and it kills the frog.”
Well, that’s what I’m doing here, so get interested, in return I promise to try my hardest not to kill it.
I would like to point out before writing this, that this is personal perception of what makes things and situations funny, so, though I feel a lot of comedy is calculated, none of this has been statistically proven by people with glasses.
Before I dive in to personal perception, let’s have a little history behind the subject. Comedy is originally from the Greek kōmōidía – it’s popular meaning at the time is “is any humorous intercourse generally intended to amuse.” Both the Greeks and the Romans typified a comedy as having a happy ending and lighter tones. Aristotle defined comedy as a ‘mimesis’ or imitation of life. Comedy is the third form of this literature and the furthest from ‘true mimesis’ which is tragedy. This may have something to do with the why comedy is not taken seriously, comedy doesn’t take itself seriously so why should anyone else?
I’ll tell you why … people seem to think that if something is hard to watch or makes you cry, it’s automatically good. People are stupid. It’s easy to make someone cry – watch the ‘Notebook’ for a step by step guide in how to do this. There is this assumption that being funny is a natural thing and it’s not a real process. This is a false assumption – in comedy, if you’re intending it to be funny, which essentially by definition, you should be, everything is calculated. Timing is not something that just happens, timing is calculated. Whether it be the intonation on a certain word, a pause, irony, the tone, the volume or self deprecation – it is intended. And it’s smart.
As comedy is a diverse beast and this is not a novel, I can’t go in to all of it, but to bring some structure, I have broken comedy down in to nice bite-sized pieces, like shreddies, but better for your gut ….
In this fair land Woody Allen reigns King – it’s not up for debate. This kind of comedy, you either empathize with, see yourself and like it, or you don’t. You see that dweeb you met who made you feel nervous, and it makes you feel awkward and irritated.
A perfect example – one balmy summer night I coaxed my then boyfriend to watch Annie Hall, at this juncture I must distinguish mine and my exes personalities. I am awkward, I say awkward things, I’m paranoid, I’m a hypochondriac, I’m opinionated and I’m clumsy (pretty sexy huh?) My ex was, and I assume, still is, smooth, cool and glides through all social situations with the ease of a swan floating down a cool river, nudged by a summer breeze.
Within two minutes of watching Allen say and do awkward things, I could see my boyfriend looked nervous, ten minutes in he started to fidget, 20 minutes in came the groaning and “Oh God no!” Forty-five minutes later, after my insistence that he persevere, my boyfriend had locked himself in the toilet and refused to come out until it was over.
So, why did I have a positive reaction towards it and why was my boyfriends so positively negative?
Aside from looking at situations from a different perspective, a lot of comedy’s groundwork is based on empathis, the ability to relate to the situation or character. Which is especially true of this comedy sub-genre. We, us neurotic people, find it funny because we are in the know.
He didn’t find it funny because he has no capacity to relate to that, he’s not in on the joke. As a social swan, there is nothing worse than watching that awkward idiot you met, on your screen, because they made him feel awkward. That situation was unpleasant for him so it brings back uncomfortable memories. Whereas a dweeb with any self awareness, as with Allen, grows a sense of humor about ones self (usually through an enormous amount of introspection.)
These situations are never exactly pleasant, but to a certain extent I (the dweeb) was the one controlling it, so from a comedy perspective, I was the one that made the joke.
Other recent neurotic comedies include ‘Superbad’, ‘Office Space’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’.
Balls Out Comedy
This sub genre has become increasingly popular in recent years with films including The Hangover, American Pie and earlier, Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Stripes and Porkys.
Balls out comedy is unashamed, brash, quotable and when done well, hilarious.
A personal favorite is ‘Anchorman’. Anchorman is just funny, I’d say it needs no explanation but that would render me, like Windows 3.1, obsolete.
Anchorman is set in the ‘70s when sexual discrimination was as common as herpes is in strip clubs. The plot revolves around a group of four misogynist news anchors, who are all equally stupid, full of self belief, but pretty adept at their job; and an organized, smart, determined co-anchor Veronica Cornigstone. The group of men are absolutely ridiculous examples of man kind, from thinking diversity “was a ship” to donning a stinking musk called “Sex Panther” that consequently proves “to smell like Big Foots dick”.
This type of comedy really relies on the actors. These truly ridiculous characters must be played with the utmost sincerity. It is the characters absolute lack of self awareness – the antithesis of Allen – that is what makes it so amusing. As funny as the group of men are, what Corningstone adds to the mix is a touch of reality. Not only does this help the audience feel included and free to laugh at Burgundy not with by validating what’s correct, her percpicatious observations set Burgundy up to say something else stupid (funny) in defense.
Nope, not Richard Prior.
The taboo kind – see why I said that now? Aha. Ha.
Dealing with sensitive matters such as death, racism, sexism, war, politics – the good ones.
This type of comedy goes in line with the belief that people who are funny, are not necessarily happy. Just because they’re making you laugh, does not necessarily equal internal buoyancy and solace. In black comedies they have observed these terrible things that happen in life, have, as with any human being found them upsetting but it is how they outwardly react to the situation that is important. They laugh about these awful things because it is, quite simply, funnier that way.
Black comedies include ‘Magnolia’, ‘Being John Malkovich’, and to a mild extent, ‘Withnail and I.’
Although not a film, there is an episode of ‘30 Rock,’ written by awesome legendTina Fey that is such a perfect example of black, taboo, comedy. It is an episode that revolves around the debate ‘is it harder to be a white woman or a black man in modern America?’
This argument is played out by Jenna Moroney – a stupid, white actress and Tracey Jordan – a stupid, black actor. The stupid in this situation is of equal importance as their race or gender.
Jenna and Tracey proceed to have an argument about racism and gender, reaching no conclusion verbally they decide to conduct an experiment. They will swap for a day.
Tracy, previously a black man, has whited up, is wearing ‘Tootsie’ style makeup, a blonde wig and a monsters claw “because they ran out of white.”
Jenna, previously a blonde, white woman, turns up strutting and jiving, blacked up and wearing an afro. They walk up to each other and fight. It is visually hilarious. Only because there are certain perimeters that Fey has built around it, making it acceptable to laugh. These perimeters are firstly; she has used the two most stupid characters in the show to act out the argument. It is their ignorance to their offensiveness that allows them to get away with the situation. Fey also, within thirty seconds of this occurring introduces another of the shows black characters ‘Twofor’ a Harvard educated, black writer. He is immediately offended and points out everything that is wrong with the situation. This shows the shows self-awareness, before you can point out everything that is wrong with it, it’s done it for you.
Cunningly this episode doesn’t give a conclusion to this argument, as it is a risky one to have a finite opinion on, so the arguments on both sides are unresolved, but balanced enough for you to make up your own mind – and keep it in there.
If previously you have not thought about comedy as anything else than just innately funny, if you haven’t thought about what makes you laugh or why you can make other people laugh to this extent, fear not, it doesn’t kill it. You get the joke twice over. It’s like building your own circuit board, you understand what causes the spark.
Also, if you start to worry that because comedy is calculated it is to a certain extent manipulative. Don’t worry, it is. But in a good way.
I mean, if it’s making people laugh, who’s complaining?
If you want to read this diatribe in full, including ‘Horror Comedy’ and ‘Love Laughs’ check out our website on April 14th …..