Oscar’s Laughter Problem: Some Notes on Comedy
A couple of years ago, I came across a great article in Prospect Magazine (U.K.) by the short-story writer Julian Gough. Why, he wondered, has western culture since the middle ages “overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic”? Gough’s piece focused on modern literature, but his argument bears just as much weight in the context of cinema. “Brilliant comedies,” he noted, “never win the best film Oscar.” True. And he might have added that they rarely even qualify for that prestigious honor.
Take a look at this year’s nominees. The films up for Best Picture and Best Directing laurels were The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, Frost/Nixon, and Slumdog Millionaire, heady dramas of one kind or another (Nazi flick, biopic, political reimagining, romantic fantasy), most of which also nabbed shout-outs in the categories for technical achievement, music score, costume design, and acting. The lone exception was Robert Downey Jr., who earned a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his outrageous turn as an Aussie Method actor who dons surgically-enhanced blackface in Ben Stiller’s Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder. No other comedies or comedic actors, American or foreign, made the list. Since 1927, the Academy has embraced musicals, war films, melodramas, social-issue flicks, epic adventures, sappy love stories, and of course, gravely serious dramas. Only a handful of comedies—Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977)—have claimed the top prize. This, in a word, is tragic.
Think of the funniest films you’ve ever seen (Dr. Strangelove, Young Frankenstein, and This Is Spinal Tap all come to my mind), and you are likely to draw up a list of movies that have been a lot more influential than, say, The Lost Weekend or Terms of Endearment, both Best Picture winners in their time. Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin, and Robert Altman were all sophisticated filmmakers who combined sly verbal or visual wit with an astute social conscience. Some of the greatest American filmmakers—Howard Hawks, for instance—worked in both registers. Nowadays, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne, and Spike Jonze are purveyors of arch indie comedies, while a bevy of jesters, jackasses, and fraternal merrymakers—the Farrellys, the Coens, the Duplasses—serve up silliness as a way of life, often with an audacious touch and impressive stylistic adventurousness. Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson may not be your cup of tea (I’m not sure they’re mine), but their cultural influence on a younger generation of viewers is indisputable. Given that comedic film has so many expressions (slapstick, screwball, political farce, black comedy, spoof, bromance, stoner flick, etc.), it’s time the mandarins of Tinseltown started taking humor as seriously as their beloved Big Dramas.
Even on a smaller scale, the yucksters never really get their due. No one wants to live in a world where Neo-Neorealism, however artistically accomplished and heart-breakingly true to life it may be, is the reigning cinematic paradigm. And who wants to suffer another soul-demolishing wave of banal, bleakly earnest dramas on the order of Crash, Babel, or Lukas Moodysson’s upcoming Mammoth, which exhort us to identify with far-flung Third Worlders whose anguished circumstances we will never be able to comprehend, at least not via this kind of falsely urgent, audience-baiting dreck? Perhaps the only precinct of screen culture where we can still encounter something giddily insightful—where we can hear what we think and would never say, and see how we really behave when no one’s watching—is in comedy, a form that allows for the release of anarchic energies and repressed desires, the last vestige of the carnivalesque. Poised against order, authority, and the principles of logic that ground science, our humorless 21st-century god’s-eye view of the world, comedies are (at their best) essentially transgressive vehicles of self-revelation. Rabelais spoke truth to power with vulgar, uproarious flair and was carted off to prison. Ditto for Voltaire. Today, Danish cartoonists and award-winning novelists are targeted for murder by fundamentalists who can’t stomach their godless satire. As for the movies, the Hollywood establishment has a ruthless tactic for dealing with bothersome eruptions of silly, depraved, chaotically irreverent non-sense, too, at least when it comes to its annual orgy of self-congratulation, watched by millions all over the world: It ignores them.
What we need, quite simply, is an Oscar for Best Comedy. Maybe first the studios need to make better comedies. Maybe Step Brothers, Hamlet 2, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno weren’t deserving of accolades. But Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, a bona fide masterpiece, certainly was. To its credit, the Academy did bestow a little bauble on Leigh, genuflecting to his artistry with a Best Original Screenplay nod, which the film shared with another farcical British film, In Bruges. (Milk won.) Yet how many people will go see it? Let me make an obvious point: Leigh’s film is funnier than any of this year’s Best Picture nominees. It also has a lot more to say about the irrepressible joy of life and the bitter pain of emotional deprivation, I would argue, than the overpraised Slumdog Millionaire. Imagine if the film had gone against Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, the Coens’ Burn After Reading, and the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man, in its own comedic category. That, my friends, would have been fair. And we’d finally have occasion to acknowledge, officially, that film comedy is a great art in its own right, equal in stature and seriousness to the weepie, the epic, the fantasy, the biographical and historic recreation, and the perennially solemn dramatic feature.
Comedy, the ancient Greeks believed, was superior to tragedy. One was the gods’ view, the other merely human. I’m not saying I’d want to elevate Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell to the status of a deity. But I think we need to stop thinking of our latter-day pranksters and wit-crackers as mere clowns. As Shakespeare knew, the Fool speaks freely, and he speaks the truth. And besides, Oscar, you don’t mess with the Zohan.