Make 'Em Laugh: A Round Table About Film Comedy (Part One)

Film comedy was one of my first loves. My passion for the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Eddie Cantor, among other great comic performers, got me through graduate school. My dissertation became What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, and coming out of that book, Kristine Karnack, a graduate school classmate of mine, and I edited Classical Hollywood Comedy as part of the American Film Institute Readers series. Since then, I have dabbled in writing about the genre, but mostly as the result of the persistence of Andrew Horton, who has invited me several times to contribute to anthologies he has developed around this topic. Horton, in collaboration with Joanna E. Rapf, recently released the comedy studies anthology to end all comedy anthologies -- A Companion to Film Comedy. The book is 571 pages long, includes 24 essays, touches on comedy in many different historical periods and from around the world. It expands the scope of previous work on film comedy and explodes or at least challenges much of what previous generations of writers have had to say about the genre/mode. This is essential reading -- not the least because it brings together the best thinkers on comedy from the past several generations of film scholars, and it pushes them to revisit and reconsider some key assumptions underlying their work. I was honored to be able to contribute an essay on Mel Brooks, which I probably owed to my high school self, and which allowed me to bring my comparative media studies perspective to bear on comedy.

When the book was released, I thought it would be fun to see if I could run a collective interview with some of the contributors to this collection, one which might tease out some of the core contemporary debates about film comedy and its various traditions, and one which might give readers a taste of the ways that A Companion to Film Comedy will expand their consciousness -- well, actually, it might make their consciousness swell up like a balloon, rise to the ceiling, then start to sputter out gas, until it swoops around the room again, and collapses on the floor in a wad of dead elastic. How's that for pushing a comic metaphor to the breaking point.

Pulling this interview together was more fun than a barrel of monkeys -- well, at least, film scholars don't fling poop at each other. OK, enough. I need to run off and watch another film comedy.

The book’s introduction states, “it has been argued that all genres can be conceived in terms of a dialectic between cultural and counter-culture drives where, in the end, the cultural drives must triumph.” Would you agree? If so, can you tell us more about how this dialectic applies to the works you are discussing in the book?

Andrew Horton: As we go on to say in the introduction, by bringing in such a diversity of comedies not only from the United States, but from around the world, we really do explore how film comedy works “its complex and often subversive purpose, commenting on the preoccupations, prejudices and dreams of societies that produce it.” Thus we are challenging the often repeated comment that cultural rather than counter-cultural drives must succeed in the end. After all, so many Chaplin films end with him walking alone down the highway. Is he part of the culture he wanders through, yes, but is he thus an example of cultural success in that American culture he wanders through? No! So is he making a “counter-cultural” statement? Well, yes and no for he doesn’t burn down the Mayor’s home or shoot capitalists, but he is making it clear he is an outsider to mainstream culture!

Celestino Deleyto: It depends what we mean by “in the end”. One of my main points in my chapter is that in comedy films the ending is not always what most counts. Gags, jokes, comic scenes and funny situations are just as important narratively and ideologically. If we take into account the importance of “the middle” of a comic narrative then those counter-cultural drives may hold the upper hand. My contention is that the ideological impact of a comic narrative doesn’t depend only on the ending.

Rob King: There’s no question that comedy can be approached in this way. The real issue is whether it’s useful to do so. The problem with framing anything in terms of a “dialectic between cultural and counter-culture drives” is that it leads inevitably to one of the familiar aporias of cultural studies - the undecidable choice between critical pessimism vs. critical utopianism. Is comedy to be dismissed as a conservative genre in which cultural drives always triumph, or is it in fact a progressive - even subversive - form that permits the staging of counter-cultural behaviors? The issue, it seems to me, is simply unresolvable; the most that can be said in the abstract is that comedy may be either or none. If there is a politics of comedy, then we need to locate that politics through material historical analyses of the contexts of production and (above all) reception. And this, of course, is where a historical poetics of comedy proves invaluable.

Leger Grindon: I would disagree. I don’t think the cultural drive “must triumph” over counter-cultural tendencies. Rather I believe that comedy and other genres have the opportunity to support or criticize orthodox values, if that is what is meant by “cultural.” In this regard I side with scholars such as Gerald Mast, Kathleen Rowe and Celestino Deleyto. For a more detailed discussion of “the politics of romantic comedy” please look at pp. 77-83 in my book, Hollywood Romantic Comedy (2011). In regards to my discussion of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Before Sunset I think both films in general embrace what I would describe as “marginal” rather than “mainstream” traits in romantic comedy, or counter-cultural rather than cultural, if you will. One modest example is that both films present unresolved endings versus the more mainstream ending of presenting the couple as united and happy. Of course, there are many other traits in the film. Readers can look at my essay for further details.

Claire Mortimer: Comedy offers the generic space - and tradition - for the counter-culture to have its say, even to be triumphant - although only for a time, as in the tradition of the carnival according to Bakhtin, the precedent of all comedy. Comedy is a time for the people to play, and for the marginalised to take centre stage, although it is licensed freedom, which knows its space and its limits within the bounds of what is allowed by the status quo. Comedy is about energy, an energy which is often implicit in the mobilisation of subversive forces within the narrative, which may resonate beyond the diegesis.The Maggie and Whisky Galore are both about the resistance of folk culture to the innovations wrought by the modern world of business and bureaucracy, the representatives of the modern world been humiliated and repudiated by an indigenous culture which has become the counter-culture as dominant forces seek to homogenise.

David R. Shumway: I understand that this claim is rooted in the traditional conception of comedy, perhaps most familiarly articulated by Northrop Frye, who holds that theme of comedy is the integration of the social. The wedding that typically concludes a comedy represents not mainly individual happiness, but social renewal. Frye, however, is not talking about all genres we would call comedic, but specially Greek New Comedy and its successor, the romantic comedy from Shakespeare on. Frye would distinguish satire from comedy, a distinction most members of contemporary audiences would not normally make. Doubtless many comedies do affirm the status quo, but not all of those discussed in this volume do so. Woody Allen's films, for example, while hardly revolutionary, often end precisely with the opposite of social integration, the failure of the hero to find love or simply find a place.

While this collection clearly does not try to “cover everything”, there is a noteworthy move to incorporate a more global selection of film comedy rather than the more typical framing focusing on the American film comedy tradition. What changes about our understanding of the genre when we deal with greater cultural diversity in our corpus?

Andrew Horton: I truly feel that every culture has its own sense of humor and comedy and to better understand any culture more completely, we need to see those films that make them laugh. The Balkan countries, for instance, have a darker humor given their hundreds of years of conflict with Turkey than many other countries have had. Thus the humor in NO MAN’S LAND, the Oscar-winning Bosnian film about the Balkan War says a lot about their culture and seeing Taika Waititi’s BOY -- the Maori comedy that was the number one box office film in New Zealand when it came out in 2010 -- informs us a lot about New Zealand’s multi-racial culture.

Celestino Deleyto: A great deal. While there is no denying the historical importance of Hollywood comedy in film history, and its impact on other cinematic traditions, comedy is particularly receptive to cultural specificities and, further, it provides a privileged access path to other cultures. More specifically, since my work has focused mostly on romantic comedy, a more global approach to the genre helps us understand the variety of intimate protocols that we are dealing with and question the ideological inevitability and conservativeness that most accounts of the genre are based on.

Leger Grindon: First, I would consider comedy as a mode rather than a genre on the order of melodrama or nonfiction. No doubt expanding our view of comedy on an international basis is healthy trend, but I couldn’t comment in detail on how it has changed my understanding of comedy as a mode or a genre.

Claire Mortimer: In terms of writing about British film comedy of the mid-twentieth century it is clear how the Ealing comedies owed much to a heritage of British cultural forms, such as music hall and variety hall, some of which shared common ground with Hollywood, some of which are notably local, rather than transnational. Nevertheless British film comedy owes much to a silent film heritage which was truely transnational, particularly in the first decade of film as film makers quickly copied successful films in a fast moving industry which was not constrained by industrialization on a significant scale.

Post war British comedy was defined by its recognition that it could not compete with Hollywood as its own turf, being defined by NOT being Hollywood, and able to offer the local and recognisable dealing with themes, characters and issues which have a national resonance first and foremost.

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."