Film School Confidential: On Comedy

This summer, I am taking a number of non-film classes at NYU to enrich my learning palette and to fulfill certain general education requirements that I need in order to get my degree. One of these classes is a particularly fascinating, performance-based improvisational comedy class in which my classmates and I have been exploring what makes things funny, an academic, historical overview of the history of comedy, intellectual analysis of the components of comedy, as well as performing improvisational scenes, skits and games in order to truly embody and experience the different forms of comedy acting. It is a very enlightening class that has really shed new light for me on the concept of comedy. And since I am not one to discriminate different forms of dramatic expression in filmmaking, knowing what makes comedy work is vital for future creative work.

At its core, a good comedy consists of the same elements that form a good drama. These are the dramatic narrative elements I have mentioned many times before in prior screenwriting-themed articles: a clear dramatic structure and character arc consisting of a character, that character’s desire, the obstacles in the way and the character’s overcoming of said obstacles. However, comedy has an added element on top of this structure: the element of humor. This is why, despite what it may intuitively seem, comedy is actually much more difficult to execute – at least to execute well – than is drama. However, the added difficulty also means that the result, when done well, can often times be even more satisfying, especially to the audience, than a simple drama. This is why many times, it is good, critically-acclaimed comedy films that show long-term success at the box office, making a lot of money over an extended period of time (“showing legs”, as it is called). Recent examples of comedies that have shown box office legs and gone on to be very financially successful include Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and most recently and notably perhaps, Bridesmaids.

The reason I single out Bridesmaids is because it is one of the main reasons I decided to write this column on the nature of comedy. The film – which I enjoyed a lot – is an absolutely hilarious romp that audiences are clearly responding very well to: After an opening weekend gross that exceeded expectations, Bridesmaids has continued to enjoy very long legs and very small week-to-week drops in box office income. It was an especially fresh surprise considering the recent dry spell in decent comedies – outside of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Easy A, I didn’t find any of the other comedic offerings of last year (2010) to be particularly worthy of note in any way. Where did Bridesmaids succeed comedically where all those other films failed? The answer lies in one very specific element: character.

One of the most interesting comedic elements we discussed in class – and implemented in various improv games – is the concept of “status”. This is the idea that much comedy derives from status interactions, and specifically, from characters who act like they have different status than they actually do. In his 1911 essay “Laughter”, Henri Bergson calls this “mechanical rigidity”: The refusal of a character to adapt to changes in situation or status. This harkens all the way back to classic comedic works, such as Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The comedy in that classic play is entirely based on status: specifically, the refusal of the characters to acknowledge and realize just how ridiculous they are all behaving, and their insistence that they are far more composed, pleasant, and higher status than they actually are. Also consider the comedic greats like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, who based their entire careers on playing rigid characters. Their comedy derived entirely from their signature characters’ refusal to accept that they actually have lower status in the world than they think they do. Much of the humor in Bridesmaids derives from Annie’s interactions with Helen. Helen clearly commands high status, while Annie is clearly very downtrodden, down on her luck, and generally just in the pits. However, there is comedy gold in their interactions, specifically because Annie refuses to show Helen just how low status she is, while Helen refuses to give up her high status, all in relation to their mutual best friend Lillian, who is getting married.

Not Funny! / Funny!

Comedy often derives from the unexpected. This is why sight gags and verbal jokes work – because they defy the audience’s expectations. Jokes are funny because the punchline is always something the audience did not expect to hear. And the moment the audience member can predict the punchline – the joke ceases to be funny: the unexpectedness is key. Sight gags work in much the same way – much comedy can be derived from things being out of place, or not as they are expected to be. However, these two elements are not enough to make a comedic work of narrative fiction good. Because like any narrative fiction, comedy hinges around a character facing obstacles and overcoming them to achieve his or her goal. The difference between drama and comedy is that the ways the character overcomes the obstacles are humorous and unexpected. A film like Bridesmaids is so successful – and funny – because it sets up clear-cut, unique characters with clearly defined goals; the comedy derives entirely from these characters facing certain obstacles and seeing how the characters react in these situations.

Not-so-great comedies like Talladega Nights or Due Date fail because almost all of their humor derive from sight gags and verbal jokes rather than true character work. In Talladega Nights, we rarely if ever laugh at Ricky Bobby’s idiot savant character finding himself in sticky situations/facing obstacles and trying to get out of them. Rather, almost all of the humor in the film relies on the outlandish, random drivel he says. Or let’s compare Due Date to its very similar and far funnier and more successful predecessor: Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Both films derive comedy from status interactions – a rigid, serious, uppity high-class individual is forced to adapt to new situations and change his rigidity in order to accommodate a simpler, less intelligent, less fortunate individual he is forced to travel with. However, the difference between these two films is that all of the comedy in Planes, Trains derives from character, whereas Due Date seemed to be mostly interested in effective but meaningless sight gags such as masturbating dogs or a drug trip scene. When Steve Martin goes into his F-bomb-laden tirade at the airport in the iconic scene from Planes, Trains, the comedy isn’t in the cursing itself but rather in the fact that it is Steve Martin’s character – who had been established as a very straight-laced, serious, rigid man – has lost control like that.

But eventually, one has no choice but to concede that, at the end of the day, comedy is subjective. There are many things that certain people will find hilarious and others will find unbelievably droll, and vice versa. Talladega Nights and Due Date‘s respective box office success – as well as the recent success of The Hangover: Part II – indicate that many audience members find these movies absolutely hilarious. I, personally, did not enjoy either of them very much. But that’s the key word – personally. Comedy is certainly hard to do well, as I have discussed earlier. But it’s hard to do in general, specifically because everyone’s comedic experience is subjective. It is damn near impossible to find something that absolutely everybody finds funny in equal measures. But that certainly won’t deter me to at least try and make funny movies.