Thursday, October 04, 2012

On Comedy

Why do I like comedy?

Because it's funny.

The End.

Well that really is the number one reason I like comedy.  It makes me laugh.  It makes me feel good.  But there's also another reason why I like comedy.

I like how it handles serious moments. Often I prefer how comedy handles drama better than how drama handles drama.  I feel that there is a lighter touch to it, and the juxtaposition between what is irreverent and then suddenly serious affects me more profoundly. 

In fact I often find myself more moved by a serious moment in a comedy than I am when a show/book is being oh so serious.  When Abed revealed in a totally ridiculous movie he had cut together that his mom walked out on him and his dad and he thought it was his fault in season 1 of COMMUNITY, yup I got a little teary.  And while a drama, the most exciting and "Yes exactly that!" moments in THE WEST WING came with a punchline.  Wes Anderson many dismiss as being too absurd and silly, yet his characters break my heart these days and seem more emotionally honest more than any others.  Then there's Judd Apatow.  The creator of some pretty silly movies that, each at their core, have a bucket load of heart.  And even a lesson or two thrown in for good measure. 

Now caveat time:  I love drama.  As I've said before, I really do enjoy all genres.

But I feel a need to defend comedy today because I think it needs it.

Yes comedies are often very successful, but they still don't get no respect.  It is a rare thing indeed that a comic film gets nominated for best Oscar.  Or a funny book wins any major literary awards (trying to think of the last comic book that got nominated for the Giller . . . does anyone know?).

And why is that?

I'll tell you my theory.  And there are two reasons, both having to do with tone.

Tone Reason 1

Good comedy must seem effortless.  A joke is never so uncomfortable and bad as when the person telling it looks like they are trying too hard.  And because good comedy seems effortless it can come across like it took no effort.

Uh, yeah . . . kind of obvious there Kress.

What I mean is . . . it takes a lot of work to be funny.  It takes practice, it takes fine tuning, it takes putting yourself out there and knowing not everyone will find your particular sense of humour humorous.  It takes self editing, and a self awareness.  Joan Rivers has itemised drawers of jokes.  Sketch comedy acts go through rounds and rounds of scripts.  And books, well like all books, they are edited over and over again.

But if anyone sees this work in the finished product, it's a failure.

It's like when I was a theatre technician.  The audience only ever noticed my work when it went wrong: when say the follow spot didn't turn on at the right moment, or the mic made that horrible feedback sound.  Otherwise no one really noticed that they could see and hear the actors.  When no one noticed, I knew I'd done a good job.

One could also compare being funny to being the creator of works for children.  Again because the writing is simpler, people think it's simple to write.

So that is the first reason.  People think it's easy to write comedy.

Tone Reason 2

When the tone is comic, clearly the subject matter can't be profound.

When the tone is serious, when we know that what we are watching or reading is very serious, we as an audience know how we are supposed to respond.  We are supposed to take the art very seriously.  And often the same is true of a light comic tone.  People assume they are supposed to consider the material before them as light and comic.  Nothing more.

And I think a lot of people feel comfort in this.

But here's the thing.  Just because a work of art is considered one thing, doesn't mean it can't also consist of the other.  Dramatic films can have comic moments.  And that messes with people sometimes.  I know I've been watching a serious film in the theatre that had a joke, and I laugh, and people in the audience give me a dirty look because how dare I not take this serious film seriously.  Except. . . the writer/director wants me to laugh there, people!  It's okay that I did.

Heck, ever heard of a little movie called SCHINDLER'S LIST?  Probably the example of one of the more famous serious films out there.  And guess what, it had funny moments in it too.

It was something I, as a not as evidently angst filled teen as my peers were, pointed out during our student written/run one act play festival in high school.  All these plays were SO serious, so dire.  Not a drop of comedy to be found.  No levity.  And I'd sit there stage managing and I'd point out the SCHINDLER'S LIST thing to my fellow techies.

Well, the reverse is true of comedy.  Comedy often at its core addresses some pretty serious stuff.  And it's no coincidence that a lot of comedians have some pretty harrowing backgrounds.  The world can be an absurdly cruel place, and sometimes all you can do is laugh.

In fact you'll notice that almost whenever a comic actor crosses over to a dramatic role: ie Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, that they knock it out of the park.  It's not always the case though with a serious actor crossing over to comedy.

At any rate, that is my theory.  It all comes down to tone.  The comic tone makes the work seem lesser.  It makes it seem like the work both was easy to write, and isn't meant to be taken too seriously - doesn't address any big issues.  Now once in a blue moon a comedy does get the respect it deserves: ie ANNIE HALL.  And more often than once in a blue moon a comedy is nothing more than escapist fun, no profound message, just fart jokes.  And there ain't anything wrong with fart jokes.

But I guess I still get surprised when people can't see past the tone.  Of both comedy AND drama quite frankly.  It's something I see when it comes to children's books too (as I mentioned briefly), as well as genre ("Well it has people with weird rubber foreheads, how exactly am I supposed to take that seriously?").  And thus I felt like mentioning it.  'Cause that's what I do.

So, like usual, it's your turn:  What comic films/plays/books etc have moved you to tears (or close to it)?

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