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Comedy Part 2: Exploration

In the inaugural article in this series, I talked about the kind of exchanges and interactions that I think are the most amusing.  I also talked about my favorite funny novel, and the fact that I don’t really know what humor really is or what makes something humorous in the first place.

Over the weekend, my fiancé and I watched a comedy film. Let’s talk about it.

When Comedies Aren’t Funny

Over the weekend, my fiancé convinced me to watch Lars and the Real Girl (MGM, 2007). I say “convinced” because I did not want to watch this film.

I had certain expectations about this comedy about Lars who, according to the box, “found the girl of his dreams in a life-sized doll named Bianca” and “finds himself in a hilariously unique love triangle.” “Love triangles” and general romantic relationships gone awry are frequent fodder for comedy that I for one find none too amusing, probably at least in part because of my own marriage fallen prey to infidelity.

However, despite my preconceived notions about the plot, I really enjoyed the film. I don’t think that I laughed during the whole runtime, but it’s a highly enjoyable feature. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. But first, my synopsis: A socially awkward Midwesterner uses a one-sided relationship to work through feelings of fear and confusion from the loss of his parents.

Knowing that I have to write more of these articles, watching the film got me thinking about my favorite comedies, and the kinds of films that I watch when I want a good laugh. This has been an enlightening phase in my little study on humor. Please do read along – and think about some of your own favorite comedies, why you like them, and what (if anything) makes them funny to you.

not funny comedies

Some of My Favorite Non-Funny Comedies

If you asked me what kind of films I like best, “comedy” would not be on the tip of my tongue. (I like period pieces and classic dramas, by the way.) But, if I had to pick my top five favorite comedies, a lot of them would be on my list of my top ten favorite films.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go over all (or even most of) either of those lists. But, looking at two examples that come immediately to mind should be interesting.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (Egoli Tossell Pictures, 2014) is the story of a psychiatrist who goes on a globe-trotting sabbatical after realizing that he can’t have meaningful impact on his patients’ lives if he doesn’t understand happiness himself.

About Time (Translux and Working Title Films, 2013) uses one family’s patrilineal ability to time travel to explore the value that we place on interactions and on one another.

So, what do these comedies have in common? They have different directors, different casts and production studios, different plots, and different scores on Rotten Tomatoes. One thing that they have in common is that they aren’t funny.

… Maybe They’re a Little Funny

That’s not fair. All of these comedies have amusing moments, but I’m more likely to cry than laugh out loud while watching any of them. Raking my mind for a film that actually got me laughing, the first thing that came to mind was Sing(Universal Pictures, 2016). (“No, that’s the bucket for the leak” – such a great bit).

While children’s films can have clever wordplay, fresh takes on familiar situations, and of course brilliant animation, I usually find “grown-up” comedies to just be awkward and vulgar. So, what does all of this say about the film industry? What does it say about comedy? What does it say about me?

self awareness

Is it a Comedy, or Something Else?

In that order, I feel like a lot of it has to do with how films are categorized. Every now and again, a recording artist washes up in a musical genre that they don’t really seem to fit because it’s unclear exactly what kind of music that performer really does. But, the “catch-all” genre changes. It used to be folk, then it was rock, now it’s pop.

To some degree, I feel like comedy is the film industry’s version of pop – it can be just something to call a film that’s really out there doing its own thing. In the anime world, there’s a whole genre called “slice of life.” It might incorporate elements of romance, drama, or comedy, but it’s really just about people going through their lives. I feel like a lot of comedies would fall into this category.

There might also be some linguistic complication. Before the film industry, in the stage world, going back all the way to ancient Greece, “comedy” meant that things didn’t go as one would expect. A Greek or Shakespearian “comedy” might today be categorized very differently because today we categorize things based on audience reaction rather than the actions of the plot – but we’ll revisit that idea later.

Of course, this doesn’t solve the whole problem. Of the films that we’ve discussed here, most still don’t fit the classical definition of “comedy.” However all of them, with the possible exception of About Time, could fit the “Slice of Life” category.

We Need a Good Story Too

I feel like these observations say something about comedy in general. In the first article, we talked about how a lot of the things that end up being funny are things that you wouldn’t expect. I also talked about how I’m often called funny even though I don’t usually get the joke myself.

Here, I’m proposing that maybe some of the best comedies aren’t about funny things because being funny for the sake of being funny is hard. All of the films looked at here have funny moments, but those moments arise through the action of a larger plot with more nuanced objectives.

There are times when all of us want to just kick back, relax, and have some laughs. But, for a lot of people, comedy in films has to play the same role that it plays in our lives: it just happens. It adds flavor or lightens the mood, but it’s seldom meant to be the whole affair.

This works on the other side too. Even films that are dedicated comedies with no goal but to make us laugh still have a narrative and that narrative includes non-comedic elements. Friends fight, or the protagonist is part of some sinister plot. While comedy may be the objective in these stories, pure comedy isn’t enough to satisfy.

In the middle, we have the films that are loved for their comedic value precisely because they aren’t supposed to be funny. Even turning this on its head, The Disaster Artist (New Line Cinema, 2017) is listed as a biography, drama, and a comedy in its telling the true story of the creation of The Room (Wiseau-Films, 2003) which is listed as a drama, but is a “black comedy” according reviews – and its own trailer.

Maybe movies like that just need Rule 62.

comedy in sobriety

Rule 62

“Rule 62” is kind of a deep track in Alcoholics Anonymous.

The story goes that early in the program’s history, a group tried to branch out and offer all kinds of different services. This is at odds with the basic tenants of the organization, so the group started writing rules to bring itself in line with the organization while allowing it to do its own thing. After writing 61 rules, the scheme fell apart and the group wrote a 62nd rule: “Don’t take yourself too damn seriously.”

According to A.A. Tradition, the morale of this story is the value of humility. The group learned humility from their endeavor but, in formally establishing Rule 62 with the organization, they practiced the humility that they learned by lifting up their mistake for others to learn from.

For me, humility is crucial for comedy for two key reasons. The first is that it keeps me from being someone else’s joke. As long as I don’t take myself too seriously, it’s harder for other people to get my goat. Second, humility allows me to see the humor in myself and my own situations. I feel like this is the backbone of my subtle brand of humor but it’s also an important life skill.

“Whistling in the dark” is an old expression about light in an uncomfortable situation. Without getting too heavy, I think it’s safe to say that, for most of us most of the time, life is an uncomfortable situation. Or, at least, it can be if we let ambition and fear get the best of us – if we take ourselves too seriously and forget to chuckle at our own whacky misadventures just like we might at someone else’s.

Humility, Humanity, and Humor

Humility can be a hard thing for many of us, but it has the same root as “humanity.” Humility is just the ability to admit that we’re people – just like everyone else. It doesn’t have to mean thinking less of yourself, it can mean thinking more of the people around you. After all, we’re all going through life together. And, life can be pretty funny.

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