Make 'Em Laugh: A Conversation About Film Comedy (Part Three)

Two decades ago, many of us were pushing for a more historically grounded account of film comedy, one which moved beyond the texts themselves to focus on the contexts of their production and consumption, one which might be grounded in notions of historical poetics. What progress has been made towards these goals in recent research on film comedy?

Rob King: I never fail to remind my students that the history of laughter is the history of the changing social patterns that produce and permit laughter. This to me is a watchword.

Still, if we are to insist on the value of historicization, we need to be aware of what that value is. Nothing is to be gained simply by insisting on history for history’s sake, nor in turning historicization into an exercise in comedic relativity (i.e., the banal lesson that what people laughed at then is different because society was different then).

To my mind the value of history is this: that it is only through a close, historical analysis of the contexts of comedy’s production, circulation, and reception that we approach a sense of comedy’s promise as a mode of social and cultural practice. That it is only through a historical reading of the whos, wheres, and whys of comedic expression that we can understand humor a mode of innovative reasoning that tends to thrive in conditions of social crisis. Comedy’s transformative promise is not often realized, true; but, without history, we can’t even begin to comprehend its conditions of possibility.

Leger Grindon: I applaud the effort to offer a more historically grounded understanding of film comedy. I have tried to contribute to such an understanding in chapter 2 of Hollywood Romantic Comedy, “History, Cycles and Society” pp. 25-66 in which I argue that the Hollywood romantic comedy genre can be understood as going through 9 cycles or clusters from the coming of sound until the present. These cycles and clusters are grounded in the particular historical circumstances, both in the film industry and society at large. For a further consideration of such an approach see my essay, “Cycles and Clusters: The Shape of Film Genre History” pp. 42-59 in Film Genre Reader IV (2012) edited by Barry Keith Grant.

I noticed across a number of these essays an increased emphasis on the impact of the soundtrack (both dialogue and noise) on the nature of film comedy. The term, slapstick, itself, refers to a noise-making device. So, how central is sound to film comedy?

Celestino Deleyto: Obviously very important, but I also think that we are also learning to accept the importance of dialogues in comedy. In the past, purist film critics and theorists would discard anything that was not visual as “uncinematic” and this attitude did a particular disservice to comedy. The combination of the scripted dialogue and actor performance is central to any account of comedy and it seems to me that we have moved a great deal in that general direction, a shift that can only be welcome.

Leger Grindon:Sound is very central to film comedy and has been since sound film was introduced. Obviously dialogue is central to the romantic comedy genre. Before Sunset, for example, is nearly one long conversation. Of course, noise and music are also key factors.

David R. Shumway: It is odd that the name we give to the dominant genre of silent comedy comes from a device that makes noise. Of course, sound, in the form of musical accompaniment was essential to silent comedy, but the coming of recorded sound changed film comedy radically, ushering in the dominance of romantic comedy, including its subgenres, screwball and farce. At this point, dialogue is much less often the chief source of laughs in film comedy, but sound remains indispensable, if only because the we no longer have performers who are able to carry the film by their physical performance alone the way Chaplin and Keaton could.

How do you assess the current state of screen comedy? Who do you see as important contemporary figures working in this space and why?

Rob King: I think we’re currently experiencing one of the most significant upheavals in comedy as a mode of representation in some time. The odd thing is: none of this is really originating in film, at least not in English-language film comedy.

In my opinion, all of the truly significant transformations in comedic representation seem to be generated either online or in the continuing mutations of the twenty-first-century sitcom. Take such “comedy verité” sitcoms as The Office (UK and US) or Curb Your Enthusiasm; or consider the new “auteur” sitcom, as spearheaded by Louis CK’s Louie and subsequently Lena Dunham’s Girls. These are shows that refuse the “vaudeville aesthetic” that has defined the sitcom since its earliest days in favor of a more realist mode - including some notable examples of shows that exploit the docusoap as a new comedic format, e.g., The Office and Parks and Rec.

On many fronts, there is, then, an impulse these days to relocate comedy within reality. In fact, this is true not only of the changing aesthetic of the sitcom, but also of all those shows in which the comedian stages direct interventions in reality: the interviews of an Ali G or a Borat, of a Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart; c.f., also the reenvisioning of Candid Camera in the UK’s Trigger-Happy TV or, more recently, NBC’s Off Their Rockers. Viral humor counts here, too, since virality more readily accrues to a kind of “found-footage” sensibility (e.g., “Charlie Bit My Finger,” “Double Rainbow,” etc.) than to the more formalized sketches circulated at

These, at any rate, seem to me the really interesting trends in contemporary comedy. And they’re really not happening in film.

Leger Grindon: Certainly film comedy remains one of the central contemporary genres both in terms of box office income and critical attention. Talent discussed in this book like Woody Allen, David O. Russell and Charlie Kaufman are good examples of important filmmakers working in this genre.

Claire Mortimer: In Britain Chris Morris made a searing satire of post 9/11 British culture in Four Lions - this low budget film was radical and provocative in terms of balancing empathy, horror and stupidity. It seemed an incredibly brave attempt to take on the taboo and actually engage provocatively with the issues faced by our society. This was brave and intelligent comedy, which really challenges the audience.

David R. Shumway: The current state of Hollywood comedy is very bad. While the occasional well-made comedy still appears--e.g., Friends with Benefits (2012)--most of the stuff released by major studios is designed to capture the same mentality as most other Hollywood product, that of the 14 year-old male. Even apparently intelligent filmmakers such as Judd Apatow still have to build their laughs around bathroom humor and adolescent attitudes toward sex.

Despite some work that deals with the movement of stage performers into film or more recently, the interplay between live action and animated comedy, we still have limited amount of scholarship that looks at comedy across media. What impact do you think television, recorded sound, or digital media, to cite a few examples, have had on contemporary screen comedy?

Celestino Deleyto: Apart from input from all these new media, contemporary animated comedy has not received much serious scholarly attention, in spite of its obvious cultural and industrial importance. Even though comedy theorists are well used to working with a frowned-upon genre, it seems that we ourselves still frown upon certain popular comic forms.

Leger Grindon: I would draw attention to the influence of stand-up comedy and stand-up comics on motion pictures. Certainly I’m one of many to note this influence which must go back at least to Woody Allen if not to Bob Hope and W.C. Fields. But it seems one of the most important cross media influences on contemporary film comedy.

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."