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In Good Humour: The Calamatous Case of the Comedy Classics…

The wonderful lads over at Anomalous Materials are running a tournament over the summer to find the best comedy of all time. Think of it as a world cup, for film nerds. However, the competition – like our quad-annual footie fest – has had its share of upsets. Most notable in an early round where Galaxy Quest triumphed over Some Like it Hot or the trumping of Arsenic and Old Lace by A Fish Called Wanda another day (the same day The General went home empty handed, losing to Mrs. Doubtfire) or Bringing Up Baby getting trounced by Little Miss Sunshine. There are more borderline cases, with The Apartment beating The Circus or The Great Dictator losing to The Graduate. However, the only victory for a “classic” classic film I could find was that of City Lights over A Christmas Story. This sparked a bit of discussion between those taking part (which is, in fairness, the rather wonderful thing about events like this), but it got us wondering: Is comedy a fickle mistress? Has what the audience expected from a comedy changed dramatically with the times? Are what many consider to be “classics” of the genre subject to this winds of change and popular taste?

Modern Times are tough for Charlie...

In many ways, I think the divide is a generational one. In the same way that it’s more difficult now than ever to appreciate what Hitchcock did for the art of direction, I think a major problem is that a lot of these classics has been absorbed into our cultural memory. We’re familiar with the jokes before we see them, in the same way that we are well aware of Hitchcock’s use of skewed camera angles and mechanisms of ratcheting up the tension before we even watch one of his films. They’ve all been copied so many times by so many artists that they’re practically old hat. We don’t even notice most of them, so many times have seen them.

Perhaps it’s better to look at a slightly more modern example, in comedy. Seinfeld is a classic television show. It singlehandedly redefined the sitcom in a way which made the glut of nineties situation comedies possible (many of them, it should be noted, very much inferior). However, show a teenager today Seinfeld, and they’ll shrug dismissively. Maybe you’ll get a slight smile. My brother just doesn’t find it funny, because it’s all been done before. Except, it hasn’t. Through years of exposure to pop culture which has taken everything original in Seinfeld and repeated and regurgitated it ad nausium, he has come to that conclusion. There’s some joy to be had in seeing the material done in a skilled fashion, but the sparkle and luster of the original material is gone.

I can’t help feeling that a bit of this is the reason why comedies like Modern Times or Some Like it Hot tend to be taken for granted. Another is lack of exposure. Comedies of the past few decades – There’s Something About Mary, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters – all seem to on constant rotation on weekend or late-night television – there’ll even be a prime time movie once in a while. At least over here in Ireland, you’ll have a hard time convincing any network to give you prime time airtime to a black-and-white film, let alone a silent one. In fact, there seems to be a general popular bias against black-and-white. I’m not at all defending it – and I think that the film nerd community is very tolerant – but there seems to a general consensus that black-and-white is inherently inferior to colour, rather than a valid artistic choice (perhaps for the same reason 3D has become so popular).

This affects us film nerds because, no matter how aggressively we seek out these movies as our tastes develop and our enthusiasm grows, the odds of our exposure to these films at a young age decreases. And, as much as we may pretend that there’s an objective science to film, and that we are entirely rational in our choices and considerations, our formative years still have a huge impact on our attitudes towards film. We grow up with certain things and we become comfortable with them. The slapstick of the Chaplin/Keaton films has so thoroughly informed everything that followed that we already know it intimately, even if we’ve never watched a silent film. In fact, when many of us watch the film, it can seem strangely anticlimactic. Especially since it has likely been built up so much that we actively had to seek it out… and then it’s something we’ve already seen, so many times before?

What's the secret of classic comedy?

I feel a pang of guilt in confessing that this is a little how I felt on watching The Third Man for the first time as a young impudent teenager. All the story beats were familiar. All the shots were ones I had seen elsewhere. In hindsight, I’ll concede I was likely wrong – but the film still has a hard time working its way into my heart. After all this time, I certainly don’t consider it a “favourite”, even though I acknowledge its importance as a piece of cinematic history.

Perhaps comedies are particularly subject to this. A thriller is always a thriller, which it’s A Touch of Evil or The Bourne Ultimatum, but comedy shifts over time, like the sands. Popular tastes change, as do the social values that comedies must mock. The most obvious example is how rapidly our comedies have embraces bad taste and disgust in the past two decades – There’s Something About Mary went from being a breath of fresh air to the standard model for humour in the twenty-first century. Foul language for the sake of foul language became hilarious, and bodily functions and bad taste became the order of the day – South Park is the best example. This is not to dismiss any of these properties (Team: America, for example, is all these and more, but is still ingenious), but simply to observe that times and tastes change.

It’s more than likely that comedies change, anchored as they are in the social factors of the time. One of the key criticism leveled against Sex and the City II was that its hedonism (previously the selling point of the franchise) was out of touch in this global recession. Will Team: America still be hilarious in a few decades when America’s foreign policy has drifted away from the Middle East? When we’ve all forgotten about the tough times that materialism led us to, will we still laugh at The Joneses? Although it remains a classic, is it possible to argue that Dr. Strangelove has lost even a little bit of its edge now that we live without the real possibility of (or at least a significantly reduced probability of) nuclear holocaust over our heads? These are obvious examples of comedies speaking to a particular social time, and it seems a bit cheap use them, but I’d argue that other comedies are anchored in the zeitgeist to one extent or another.

Humour is – like horror – a much more liquid concept than action or even drama. Every generation has their jokes, just as every generation has their boogeymen. There are some universal jokes (just as there are some universal horrors), but most are tied to a particular moment – even unconsciously. And, as discussed above, any universal aspects have probably been hijacked and repeated so often that you’ve already seen them a few dozen times before you even watch the film.

I think this logic explains a bit of what we’ve seen happen with the comedy voting over on Anomalous Materials – a reason why the younger films have the advantage. Is it unfair to the comedies which pioneered the genre? Yes, but there’s nothing much which can really be done about it. I’d argue that there’s a greater need to discuss these classic films within society as a whole – hell, I’d advocate film studies in secondary school or incorporating cinema as part of the English curriculum – but that’s probably an aspect best left to another post and another rant.

Being old is hard. Being old and a comedy is apparently even harder.

And while I’m here, the guys over at Anomalous Materials deserve a big round of applause for putting this together. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a fun and exciting jumping off point for discussion, like their Hollywood Stock Exchange. Well done guys. Keep it up.

12 Responses

  1. Nobody is laughing at The Joneses.

    The thing is, even as social values change, people might not find Team America funny, precisely because it’s so topical and real. Meanwhile, we can loosen up to Dr. Strangelove because it is gloriously distant from modern times, all you need is a workable knowledge of Cold War-era to find it funny.

    Or something.

    • Ouch. I liked the Joneses.

      I think you’re right, but maybe Strangelove, while still technically brilliant, might have lost its edge a bit.

  2. Nice article, man. I would agree that older movies have been duplicated too many times that when somebody finally watches it, it doesn’t seem as entertaining.

    I would compare it to Bonnie and Clyde. When that came out, it changed cinema big time. No movie had ever been that violent, but yet if you sit down someone my age or younger and have them watch it (myself included), you don’t really see what all the fuss was about.

    • I think you’re right. It’s the same with the Exorcist. It was banned here for decades and when it finally comes out… it was just a tad undramatic. Because, as you said, it changed cinema big time.

  3. Films are a product of their times and Chaplin’s films, while classics, are lost in translation for todays audience.

    • Yep, I’m afraid I think you’re right. But I do think our own modern comedies will be forgotten quicker, though.

  4. Or maybe classics just don’t have it easy as modern films. For every person that thinks Gone with the Wind is brilliant you;ll find five saying it’s overlong and tedious.

    The Bringing Up Baby loss saddened me, and then The Philadelphia Story didn’t make it to the first round. But then, maybe they weren’t that funny.

    • I think you’re right. They garner a lot more attention and, logically, more criticism. It’s easy to say Superbad doesn’t fall apart, because – well – nobody really looks at it that hard.

  5. Great article. I agree that shifting social norms and cultural infusion are key reasons for the lack of appreciation for older comedies (and older films in general). Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s comedy routines have been integrated into popular culture to such a degree that they know seem cliche. Same for Hitchcock films, he pioneered so many of the techniques that have become so ingrained in filmmaking that nobody blinks an eye when they see them anymore. It’s not the fault of the filmmakers or the films, in fact, it’s a testament to their success that their revolutionary visions have become commonplace. But, all comedies will be afflicted by this, I doubt that modern comedy classics like Knocked Up will still be riotous more than 20 years from now. The cycle will come back to affect them.

    • Thanks! Yep, I think you’re right. And, as i said above, I don’t think too many modern comedies will even merit the same sort of discussion that these classic films get, even if their role in popular culture has declined.

  6. So much comedy today is topical. It works well for a year or two (it’s easily marketed, makes huge numbers at the box office and home video) then it appears dated. Classic humour is more timless I think – Some Like It Hot is a fine example. I didn’t see the film until I was in my twenties – some 50 or so years after it was made – but I found the film infinitely funny.

    • I guess your mileage may vary. I found it amusing, but not as hilarious as it probably would have been if I didn’t know it backwards without ever having seen it.

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