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When Comedies Were Written

I don’t want to be the old man shaking his fist warning of end times, but it seems to me comedies are in trouble. Let me be clear though, they’re not really in trouble. We’re just stuck in a trend.

There used to be a time when comedies were written; structured even.  Now and days the script for a comedy is used largely as a springboard or outline for the actual film. The results are usually overly long meandering, joke-less, dudebro romcoms.

The hardest part of any art is the editing stage. The moment when you look at a project and try to cut out the fat. It seems nowadays people are content to leave the fat in. I’ll admit part of my exasperation with this style of comedy is how it seems to traffic explicitly in straight white male bromances. Granted you could argue that they’re subtly exploring how male friendships share traits with hetero romances as a way to deconstruct homophobia in masculine culture.

The problem is the damn thing is still over two hours long, and, the comedy bits just feel like two guys trying to outdo each other. Apatow movies consist mainly of Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and James Franco sitting around getting drunk and stoned while whining about adulthood. The story is something dealt with almost begrudgingly. Yet, when it works, it works.

Not to mention when the style is allowed to be in hands that aren’t the straight white male dudebro’s they are a breath of fresh air. Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids or The Heat are hysterical and share much of the same qualities as the aforementioned movies. Even Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick is refreshing if only because it’s not about not wanting to be an adult but about what kind of adult. Also, the mere inclusion of more than one Pakistani as well as its exploration of the expectations children of immigrants face from their families.

Yet, The Big Sick, as great as it is, is hampered by its lack of structure. More and more comedians/directors are cutting less and less. Comedies didn’t routinely use to be more than an hour and forty minutes. Now they struggle to keep it under two and a half hours. This would be fine if things were actually happening or moving towards something.

Take Adam McKay’s seminal classic Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It’s a rarity not because of the off the cuff one upmanship, but because it has a style. There’s a surrealism about it. Not to mention the plot matters, it’s more than obligatory functions, it’s a driving engine that propels the movie forward.

Even Todd Phillips The Hangover felt brisk and structured by modern day standards. The Hangover and Anchorman are the exceptions. Jokes are dead. Sight gags are going the way of matte paintings. At a time when we can do more than ever before with the camera, comedies are becoming depressingly staid visually and artistically.

Unlike Anchorman, most comedies seem trapped by the constraints of reality. Billy Wilder traveled in this mode for years. A style of comedy he learned from Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder and Lubitsch made comedies, sometimes musicals, that were grounded in day to day life, and yes even broke the two-hour mark. But they were written, tightly scripted. They may not have had jokes, but they were still funny. But what they had that most modern comedies don’t is an understanding of visual economy.

Lubstich and Wilder could solve a dramatic conflict in two shots that would take most modern film makers three or four scenes to cover. I guess what I’m getting at is a lack of basic filmmaking knowledge. There’s more than filmmaking than just pointing the camera at someone, watch them goof around, and then playing the newest Coldplay-Smashing Pumpkins-what the fuck ever you kids listen to now and days.

I’m not claiming that all improv comedies are bad. I’m arguing that NOTHING but improv comedies is bad for business. Put aside all political rhetoric right now and let’s face facts. Hollywood is a capitalist town. Money talks and art walks. One of the basic facts of capitalism is diversification. Setting aside how quite literally diversity would be an economic boon for the much-beleaguered town, it also applies to the type of product.

They’re suffocating the market. My only choice for a comedy is either an Apatow/McKay vehicle, an off brand knock off, or a Movie Movie movie. You know those movies. The one where they take the latest trend or franchise and then just make a movie referencing other movies. They’re not parodies so much as cheap, lazy film making.

But I digress. Improv comedy isn’t new. Look at Caddyshack to start, but it goes back even further. All the way back to the good old all or nothing days of silent cinema. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were framers of the improv constitution.

Film was a new medium. One that the filmmakers themselves were still toying with. Chaplin would film a scene upwards to two hundred three hundred times, changing everything from where the scene was set to whether or not the Tramp was on skates or not. Keaton was almost the opposite. He worked under the motto of if you couldn’t get in one shot, then scrap the gag.

Even more, if the gag Keaton planned didn’t pan out, but something else did he would drop the original gag in favor of the accidental one. These are both forms of improv. The difference is they were not only looking at the best gag but how to best tell the story as well.

When you watch City Lights or Sherlock Jr., there’s not a lot of wasted screen time. They did what they needed to do and moved on. Images were king and dialogue was barely allowed into the country.

With sound, that changed. Keaton’s surrealistic almost Houdini like cartoon gags fell to the wayside. With dialogue came the need for realism. He still valued imagery over dialogue, but he recognized basic sacrifices had to be made. But with sound came the blending of imagery and words.

The Marx Brothers took Keaton’s surrealism and ran to the sky with it. With Groucho’s grease paint mustache, Chico’s preposterous accent, and Harpo’s denial of the laws of physics hold over him; they danced over basic script writing conventions for decades. There was even one upmanship in their comedy as well. Groucho and Chico would spend whole swaths of the scenes just trading jokes back and forth; one or the other sometimes even turning to the audience and winking at a successful jibe.

Even there though, this supposed improv was planned. Like Keaton and Chaplin, the brothers came from vaudeville. There are significant pauses between the traded jokes of the brothers so the audience could laugh. It’s so the audience wouldn’t miss a joke. They wrote the joke and then painstakingly rehearsed it and timed it with a real audience so as to make it easier for the audience they couldn’t see to get the laugh.

The history of film is littered with great comedies all written. From Lubitsch to Blake Edwards, Preston Sturges to Wilder, or Elaine May to Mel Brooks. The point is the idea of improv has changed.

The modern improv movie has a duo of actors or a group of them, stand on screen and riff. Cut. The next scene is a perfunctory necessity that no one cares about in order to move the plot forward. Rinse and then repeat.

I’m not saying actors and actress don’t work hard on these movies. They do. Comedy is painfully difficult. I’m arguing that as an audience I’m getting sick and tired of it being the only type of comedy I see.  I shouldn’t have to escape to the arthouse to see a well structured, tightly scripted, comedy. I miss jokes, I miss structure. And I miss watching a comedy and feeling sure that the director knows what the hell he’s doing.

All of this could itself be situational. Who’s to say that if the market were flooded with scripted, gag a minute comedies, I wouldn’t be pining for the elongated laid back “Hey how’s it going?” brand of comedy. Then again that’s entirely my point. I don’t want it to go away. I don’t know why I have to be satisfied with just one type of comedy.


Image courtesy of United Artists

Author

  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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