We’re all familiar with Joe Pesci’s famous line in Goodfellas; 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 “Analysing 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.
Before we go on, I would like to point out that this is a 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 komoidia – its popular meaning at the time 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 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 empathise 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 my ex’s personalities and mine. 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, relaxed and level-headed, gliding 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, twenty 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 boyfriend’s reaction so positively negative? Aside from looking at situations from a different perspective, a lot of comedy’s groundwork is based on empathy, 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.
The ex 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 the awkward idiot doing awkward things, because some of that awkwardness is transferred onto the swan. The situation was unpleasant for him so watching it on screen brings back uncomfortable, cringe-worthy memories. On the other hand, a dweeb with any self awareness, as with Allen, grows a sense of humour 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.
Balls Out Comedy
Also known as ‘gross out comedy’ and a sub genre that has become increasingly popular in recent years with films including 40 Year old virgin, The Hangover, American Pie, Borat (yes, on one level, he is an extremely exaggerated character thought up to provoke certain reactions, but on another level Borat is testing Western peoples tolerance to its limits, which prove to be condescendingly high) 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 favourite of this sub genre is the most quotable film known to man, 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 seventies, when sexual discrimination was as common as herpes in a strip club. The plot revolves around a group of four misogynist news anchors, who are all equally stupid, arrogant and full of self belief, but nevertheless pretty adept at their jobs (albeit just turning up on time if you’re Steve Carrell). Ron Burgundy, played by Will Ferrel, is the leader of the gang, like a less-rapey Gary Glitter. When a female co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone, is introduced (played by Christina Applegate), who is straight down the line, organised, determined and of course, hot, the men all want a piece. But Burgundy falls instantly in love. Anchorman then proceeds to parody how you might perceive these seventies news anchors behaving off camera, with hilarious accuracy. 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 Foot’s dick’.
This type of comedy especially relies on the actors. These truly ridiculous characters must be played with the utmost sincerity, because 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. Her percpicatious observations knock Burgundy down at every hurdle, which he’s not used to, but also set him up to say something else stupid (funny) in defense. Her observations include, while he is talking to her in the office ‘you have a massive erection’, which acts as a set up for Ferrell’s ridiculous responses like ‘it’s the pleats in my pants’. Or whilst on a date looking out over San Diego Burgundy proceeds to say “Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which in German means whale’s vagina.”
Confused and bemused, Corningstone replies, “There’s no way that’s correct”
Which sets Burgundy up again to say “I’m sorry, I was trying to impress you. I don’t know what it means. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone knows what it means anymore. Scholars maintain that the translation was lost hundreds of years ago.”
Corningstone: “Doesn’t it mean Saint Diego?”
Burgundy: “No. No.”
Corningstone: “No, that’s what it means. Really.”
Burgundy: “Agree to disagree.”
See how it works? It’s hilarious a) because he is so, unbelievably far off the mark and b) because of his utter refusal to believe someone who is quite clearly more intelligent than him, because she happens to be a woman. Having Corningstones character – let’s call her the sanity in this case – assists the audience in being in on the joke, feeling included, and we like that don’t we? We don’t need to empathise with Burgendy for the most part, because we are empathising with Corningstone, our brains unwittingly tell us what is correct and what is quite clearly, not, and with Corningstone thinking the same it allows us to actually laugh at Ferrel’s character, not with.
Another great and unintentional example of balls out comedy is Braveheart. I swear to God, I have never laughed so much at one film. If you watch that movie as if it was a piss take (which, let’s be honest, it pretty much is), with Mel Gibson and all his fox feet and ribbons tied in his hair saying every line with such sincerity, it is truly, comedy gold. It is the same as Anchorman when watched from this perspective, the most ridiculous character played with the utmost sincerity. Please trust me here and try it.
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 choose to laugh about it. 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 Tina Fey that is 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 ‘Toofer’, a Harvard educated, black writer. He is immediately offended and points out everything that is wrong with the situation. This shows the programs self-awareness, before you can point out everything that is wrong with it yourself; the show has 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. Clever huh?
Now this was a revelation. Discovering that horror can not only be scary, but funny too? Laughter and fear are two emotions that aren’t easy to combine simultaneously. It’s much harder to make someone genuinely laugh, so to do it while freaking them out is no mean feat. Comedy horror can be traced to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, not the film but the novel by Washington Irving, all the way back in 1820. Through a shaky period of miss-balanced films between the 1920s and 50s, the 60s through to the 80s is where they got this genre down to a fine art. My favorites of the comedy horror genre vary in their artistic credibility but all do the job I think.
I was first alerted to this genre at very young age (7/8) and missed the satire in Beware! The Blob, it was to me at that point, just terrifying. A few years later I remember watching it again and seeing the funny side; I got the melodramatic acting and the futility of the giant red jam ball. But when I really felt I got this genre was when I watched Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, the already great scripts are aided massively by the dead pan humour (and damn fine face) of Bruce Campbell. The Evil Deads will in turn scare you and make you laugh, and do it very well. Other wonders of comedy horror come courtesy of Peter Jackson (director of The Lord of the Rings) who in no way compromised the gore fest in Bad Taste or Brain Dead. A classic scene in Brain Dead involves someone’s zombie boil puss dripping into a bowl of custard, which is then eaten by the freaky mother character. It is also, somehow, funny.
Then came Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical. I mean, the title gives the game away. Loosely based on the adventures of Alfred Packer on his trip from Colorado to Utah, in which five of his friends were left dead and partially eaten, the story is adapted and sung by two comedy geniuses and is well worth a watch. My all time favourites of this genre are Toxic Avenger and Toxic Avenger 2. Smoke a doobie with these bad boys and you’ll laugh harder than you did at Braveheart. Need I say more?
It’s all got a bit boring now with endless zombie comedies (sorry Simon Pegg, it’s just not very good). Out of the hundreds of detritus in recent history from this genre, two comedy horrors have emerged that have done it justice. These are, in my opinion, the first Scary Movie and Zombieland, with Bill Murray’s cameo among the best I’ve ever seen.
There’s a fine line with comedy horror, as the two emotions are such juxtapositions, it’s very easy to get just a little confused. Meet The Feebles, a puppet, sex, gore fest, and the wonderful John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (in which a transvestite called Divine eats dog shit) were just over that line.
AKA – Romantic Comedy. Don’t groan. Romantic comedy is the most under-appreciated and yet, the most popular (with women) sub genre of comedy. And in my opinion, and lets face it, I’m barely a woman, the best. I’m not talking Hitch, 50 First Dates or Hi, I’m A Straight Man, Pretending to Be a Gay Man, So I Can Be Your Best Man And, Oh, P.S I’m in Love With You. I’m talking Annie Hall, Bridget Jones (shut up – watch it again, the writing is brilliant and no one can beat Firth at romantic gestures) or À bout de souffle.
Rom coms are basically the development of a relationship between people, which is what essentially makes us human. Rom coms when done well, because they are combining the two most enjoyable elements of life – love and laughter, are like a really good smorgasbord with a nice glass of red.
When Harry Met Sally is, for me, the pinnacle of rom com mountain. It makes the wise move of establishing it’s main characters and their nuances very early on, at the very beginning, you feel like you know who they are and what they’re about from the off. You have the neurotic, super-organised, happy-go-lucky girl (Sally, in case you were wondering) and the unorganised, slightly uncouth, cynical and morbid man (Harry, in case you were still confused.) She knows the exact route they’re driving and has calculated a driving schedule, he reads the last page of a book first in case he dies before he gets to the end. They play off each other wonderfully.
What is funny about this juxtaposition? Well, to start off with, they’re both smart and perceptive (see a pattern forming here?) and yet they both think they know it all. But through each other, they subsequently discover they don’t, they teach each-other, and, often instigated by Harry (the man remember) they reveal home truths about men and women. Harry believes men and woman can’t be friends because, to put it bluntly, he feels men will shag anything, even if they don’t find them attractive. Sex gets in the way (which in their case, he’s right, eventually it does.) Harry also believes no woman has faked an orgasm with him, to which Sally retorts ‘most women have at one time or another faked an orgasm, yet most men are convinced it’s never happened to them – you do the math.’ She proves her point, after a graphic orgasm over a sandwich, and is in turn, correct. When Harry Met Sally is one, seamless, fluid testament, to sexual tension, friendship, love and witty repartee. A couple of examples:
Harry: “There are two kinds of women, high maintenance and low maintenance”
Sally: “Which one am I?”
Harry: “You’re the worst, you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.”
Need I say more? It is so absolutely on point about relationships, it is so truthful but is vocalised with such lexical dexterity it could never be in reality. Bravo.
Having possibly not previously thought about comedy, about being made to laugh or making 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 made the spark. I had a bit of a fear that by admitting I knew what made what I said funny to a friend of mine (who’s a stand-up comedian) it made me manipulative, because it’s calculated. I’m quite aware of what I’m doing so the joke loses it’s innocence. Well, braking news people, it is manipulative, but in a good way. Like tricking a dog into taking a worming pill enveloped in honey. And I mean, if it’s making people laugh, who’s complaining?