An Analysis – The Chief Offenses Against Good Comedy
Year in and year out, whenever I am revising my worst-of list, I usually notice that the majority of the filth is made up of someone’s poor definition of comedy. Though I certainly have a standard for what I consider to be a good movie, I am open to watching a good-bad-movie every now and then. Cheesy science fiction and horror will always have a place for well-intentioned irony, as proven by years of the successful heckling of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But for me, a bad comedy is unbearable and unwatchable under any circumstance. What makes it worse is that a lot of the time these movies are not only tolerated, but genuinely enjoyed by less-than-discerning general audiences. Films like last year’s Jack and Jill or The Hangover 2 were box office successes and further proof of the end of civilization.
With this growing trend, I have wonder why this is happening. What makes people convinced that they like bad movies? Why do these terrible movies make money? And most of all, what are these movies doing wrong? What separates a bad comedy from a good one? With these questions in mind, I have put together a modest list of capital offenses that seem make for bad comedies.
First, let us define what a comedy is. You might think that a comedy is a movie that is supposed to make us laugh. Well sure, but that might be too reductive of a definition for a much broader genre. Triggering laughter is subjective, and what makes one person laugh is not same thing that will make someone else laugh. But humor, whether laugh-inducing or not, is not as subjective. Someone can appreciate satire, sarcasm, wit, and a good lampoon without shooting a beverage out of their nostrils. A comedy should be a movie that simply observes the humor within the context of its plot. Some of my favorite comedies get funnier as I watch them more and more. It can start with a tepid chuckle the first time I watch it and then eventually turn into guttural laughter years later upon its subsequent viewings. This isn’t to say that all comedies must be this subtle, but it sure wouldn’t hurt for more of them to give it a shot.
The First Offense: comedies should be films, not stand-up routines or sketches.
It seems to me that one of the biggest problems in modern comedy screenplays is the “wouldn’t it be funny if” scenario being precedent before plot, characters, or a clear arc. Too many comedies these days are hodge-podged by scenes of funny ideas where the characters are forced to jump from scenario to scenario, leaving a breadcrumb trail back to whatever structure there was. This is just as offensive to me as a Michael Bay film that strings together a storyline through a series of meaningless action scenes. Films like Little Fockers (2010) and most anything starring Adam Sandler seem to live and die by this method. They get a table of writers and comedians together and come up with ridiculous sight gags and comedy set pieces and then they try to justify the scenes within the context of a contrived plot. This lazy and undisciplined style creates for flat or cartoonish characters and clunky, unsatisfying storytelling. Just because these comedies are trying to make you laugh does not mean they get a free pass from the basic rules of narrative. We can’t just settle for unjustified funny scenes or a series of jokes. We should demand a good story as well. Now, obviously there are some notable exceptions to this rule, like Airplane! (1980) or Wet Hot American Summer (2001), both of which are unabashedly episodic, but I only aim to list issues that can easily lead to bad filmmaking if not carefully handled. In short, if you don’t have a good story to tell, don’t bother coming up with jokes until you do.
The Second Offense: energy and mayhem do not equal comedy.
How many times have we seen a comedy run out steam by the third act and the stakes are raised to the point of asinine car chases, relentless screaming, pointless shoot-outs and explosions? This seems to happen when a comedy doesn’t have enough material in its characters and situations to fill the whole 90 minutes. All of the sudden they throw in some complicated set pieces and crank everything up to eleven in order to replace the humorless dead gaps with high energy. People will ignore the fact that the movie they paid to see is changing into a different creature before their very eyes, because even if they aren’t laughing, they’re not bored. Unfortunately for most bad filmmakers and most gullible filmgoers, this can be enough to keep them satisfied. Unless genres are being blended for a purpose, as was the case for Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), then these kinds of time-wasting action scenes are akin to comedy tofu. Immediately I think of Paul (2011) and Pineapple Express (2008), two Seth Rogen comedies where I loved the first half—when it was based in character and dialogue—but became increasingly bored and annoyed as the movies devolved into campy action self-parody.
The Third Offense: simply making reference to something is not the same thing as a joke.
Now, this category can really be split into two camps. Camp one is occupied by the awful spoof movies by the likes of Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer, the Wayans brothers and others of their ilk. These hacks have been spewing forth their so-called “humor” for years and somehow always make money, despite the fact that their movies have no stars, no production value, and are devoid of anything approximating a real joke, as observed in such dreck as the Scary Movie franchise, Disaster Movie (2008) and Vampires Suck (2010). They feel that showing us something we recognize from another movie and then making said reference fart or get a piano dropped on it is a guaranteed chuckle-fest. Leslie Nielsen and Mel Brooks were the parents of this style, but what they understood intuitively is that this kind of parody is cheap and disposable. They always made it abundantly clear that if you are not also making fun of your own movie—somehow showing within the film that the writers are smarter than the material—then you will end up with something that is both unfunny and painfully self-aware.
The second camp within this third category belongs to the pop culture reference and its current overuse. This is a tricky one. Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, as well as many of their gen-X contemporaries, invented this style of humor as a way of informing their characters and relating to their audience, and back then there was something kind of fresh about it. But as time has passed, it seems like less tasteful writers have mimicked this technique without its intended sarcasm. We should never be too aware of the writer, or his or her personal interests. When I am watching a movie and I feel like the writer/director wants me to think he is cool because he reads the same comic books, watches the same foreign films, or listens to the same indie rock bands, my eyes become strained from rolling. Not because my obscure interests are becoming more mainstream, but because it takes me out of the story when I feel like the writer’s geeky obsessions are being shoved down my throat for hipster appeal. I don’t appreciate being marketed to in a film. Sometimes this might be foolishly done with the best intentions, but oftentimes it’s done in a ham-fisted way, not unlike the worst of obvious product placement. Some people, like your Wes Andersons or Noah Baumbachs, are good enough writers that they can make this work. The others write for Gilmore Girls or the Shrek movies.
I hope that this list has been able to provide a reasonable cause for why a lot of the comedies of recent years have been less than memorable. However, I do want to reiterate that all of these rules can be and have been broken with successful results. These suggestions are certainly not a cure-all, and this list is only the tip of the iceberg. But I think if these simple things were avoided or at least more carefully observed when used, then we might have less cringe-inducing turkeys every year. Obviously I could have made a bigger list mentioning all kinds of other glaring offenses. I could have mentioned things such as don’t be sexist/racist/homophobic, don’t rely on body functions for laughs, or don’t cast Rob Schneider, but some comedies are without assistance and I wouldn’t want to risk futility.