Make ‘Em Laugh: A Conversation about Film Comedy (Part Two)

Historically, the study of American film comedy has been organized around the comparison and contrast between comedian/slapstick comedy and romantic comedy. Both subgenres are well represented in this book. But, are they adequate for explaining the full range of comic texts? After several decades of genre-mixing, have new configurations of comedy emerged?

Andrew Horton: I still prefer to think of the difference between “anarchistic comedy” and “romantic comedy” as being helpful in that anarchistic comedies such as the Marx Brothers and Monty Python and, yes, Aristophanes, make no compromises and fulfill every wish of their overall fantasy in ways we know are impossible in the real world. Romantic comedies on the other hand are still despite modern complexities, about two differing humans (or animals in animation with human emotions!) who finally find a way to be together. Thus a celebration of “coming together”, compromise and sharing. That the two genres can mix elements these days as in THAT IS 40 or MOONRISE KINGDOM says a lot about how today’s comedies take on a lot more diversity!

Leger Grindon: I think there is a considerable intersection of the social function of jokes and laughter in everyday life and in screen comedy. This point of intersection allows audience members to respond with great sensitivity to humor on screen. Of course, the construction and conventions of art works also make humor different as it is observed at a safe distance by the film viewer rather than having him or her become a participant in the humorous exchange.

David R Shumway: Already with screwball comedy, Hollywood mixed slapstick and romantic. But in screwball, the romantic dominates. More recently the most popular comedies, like The Hangover or Bridesmaids, have reversed the hierarchy. And at least some film comedies, such The Great Dictator, Duck Soup, or The Great McGinty are best understood as satire, potentially a third major category. Comedies like Being John Malkovich, which rely for many of their laughs on post-modernist self-reflexivity, might be regarded as fourth major genre.

Celestino Deleyto: I think the classification of U.S. film comedy in comedian/slapstick and romantic comedy has served us well and helped a great deal to organize our thinking about the genre. My own view has always been that, while both are strong tendencies within the history of the genre, they have been less separate that the traditional paradigm has made them out to be. I have been most interested in combinations of the two types of comedy and, more specifically, in the importance of jokes and gags within the structure and ideology of romantic comedy.

I do think, on the other hand, that taking into account other national comic traditions will somehow change our classification. To mention an obvious example, social comedy, and even political comedy, should come to the forefront when considering many of the European comic traditions. This would also help us reassess certain key American comedies that did not fit easily within the comedian/romantic comedy paradigm. In general terms, satirical comedy is not well served by this dichotomy.

Rob King: I think the germane distinction isn’t so much between slapstick and romantic comedy; rather, it’s between slapstick and situation comedy, of which romantic comedy is a kind of derivative. As many have discussed, the concept of situation comedy developed in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries to designate a form of “refined,” narrative-based comedy, typically with middle-class domestic settings, as distinct from the more plebeian, sensational style of slapstick.

Once the distinction is parsed out that way, however, it becomes clear that the division of slapstick and situation effectively corresponds to social hierarchies of taste that emerged out of the class divisions of the late nineteenth century. Put simply: the distinction is historically specific and corresponds to a specific class formation. I’m not sure I’d see it as tremendously functional in discussing contemporary comedy – any more than our contemporary social structure can usefully be described through a nineteenth-century language of class.

Leger Grindon: Sure, there are other approaches. Just to mention the obvious examples consider satire and parody or the trend William Paul has described as “animal comedy”, that is the rise of vulgar comic forms since approximately 1980. And some new configurations have emerged, such as the mix of “animal comedy” and romantic comedy in films like There’s Something About Mary or Knocked Up.

Romantic comedy has been read symptomatically as expressing shifts in gender and sexual relations. What do we learn by looking at 21st century examples of this sub-genre?

Andrew Horton: Take just a few titles of so-called “romantic comedies” of the past few years—JUNO, CRAZY-STUPID-LOVE, NO STRINGS ATTACHED, FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, an 500 DAYS OF SUMMER and you see that the “fun” of contemporary comedies is “pushing the so called envelope” of what is a romantic comedy as we’ve known them in the past.

Leger Grindon: I agree that shifts in gender and sexual relations are apparent in romantic comedy. In my book, Hollywood Romantic Comedy (2011) pp. 61-66 I characterize a current trend as “The Grotesque and Ambivalent Cycle” of romantic comedy apparent from 1997 into the present. Important films initiating this trend are My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) as an example of the ambivalent and There’s Something About Mary ((1998) as an example of the grotesque. What gender trends are apparent, among others? Women’s ambivalence about marriage particularly as it conflicts with career ambition and male anxiety about sexuality in the grotesque. I think David Denby concept of the “slacker-striver” opposition in contemporary RC is also a useful insight.

Celestino Deleyto: Mostly that those meanings are in a process of constant change and that the genre is much more flexible ideologically that it has often been allowed to be by film theorists.

Comedian comedy has been read more formally with ongoing debates about the relations of narratives, performances, and gags. Are these still the best ways of making sense of this sub-genre?

Andrew Horton: No easy “overall observations” about strong comedians and film comedy for again, the diversity is so great. Clearly the tradition continues that many comedians cover both a life of “stand-up” comedy and role-playing in more traditional comedies, so whether you are Tina Fey, Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin or Eddie Murphy, audiences enjoy them in either capacity. Then there are those such as Sacha Baron Cohen in BORAT and beyond who push the envelope to bring on topics traditional comedy has never seen, yes, including Kazakhstan!

Celestino Deleyto: Probably this book will help us to incorporate matters of cultural specificity within discussions of comedian comedy.

Leger Grindon: I think the relationship between narrative, performance and gags remains an outstanding way of making sense of these films. That is not to exclude the value of other approaches, but these are still central issues and important ones to address.

We’ve had a dramatic increase in our access to older comic texts thanks to the release of so many comedies within DVD boxed sets. How did this new availability impact your scholarship? What new films have been discovered, entered the canon as a result of this new access? And how do these films change our undelrstanding of the historical evolution of film comedy?

Andrew Horton: A joyful answer to this important question could easily be several books long, but I’m jumping to one example. Long live the world of “DVD Extras” that can open every viewer’s mind and heart to whatever genre we are discussing. This new world of “DVD extras” has made it possible for everyone to go beyond just watching a movie and “get” what older comedies have influenced contemporary comedies and in what ways! My example is the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?

Yes, the film was simply popular all over the world when it came out, but those who enjoy doing their DVD extras work can further appreciate not only that the Coens got the Oscar for Best Adapted Script since they “loosely” based the film on Homer’s ODYSSEY, but they will learn that the Coens are winking in numerous ways to Preston Sturges’ glorious comedy, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) about a successful Hollywood director of comedies who wants to make a “serious” film about all the suffering in America called, yes, O Brother Where Art Thou?!!!

Leger Grindon: DVD extras have allowed access to filmmaker interviews and other resources that expand our viewing experience. However, I can’t think of a new film that has entered “the canon” as a result. But I would be eager to hear of such a case.

Andrew Horton is the Jeanne H. Smith Professor of Film and Media Stuies at the University of Oklahoma, an award-winning screenwriter, and the author of 24 books on film, screenwriting, and cultural studies, including A Companion to Film Comedy, which he co-edited with Joanna E. Rapf.

Celestino Deleyto is Professor of Film and English Literature at the Universidad de Zaragoza (Spain). He is the author of The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy (2009). His essay in Companion is “Humor and Erotic Utopia: The Intimate Scenarios of Romantic Comedy.”

Leger Grindon is Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. He is the author of Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversy (2011). He wrote “Taking Romantic Comedy Seriously in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Before Sunset (2004).”

Rob King is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute and Department of History, where he is currently working on a study of early sound slapstick and Depression-era mass culture. With Tom Paulus, he wrote Slapstick Comedy (2011). He contributed “‘Sound Came Along and Out Went the Pies’: The American Slapstick Short and the Coming of Sound.”

Claire Mortimer teaches film and media studies at Colchester Sixth Form College and his written Romantic Comedy (2010). Her essay is “Alexander Mackendrick: Dreams, Nightmares, and Myths in Ealing Comedy.”

David R. Shumway is Professor of English and Literary and Cultural Studies and Director of the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is John Sayles (2012). He contributed “Woody Allen: Charlie Chaplin of New Hollywood.”