I just finished watching this horrendous, bottom-feeder of a movie called The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It. The obvious title indicates that it's a Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer-type spoof of Judd Apatow movies, plus "knocks" at several other popular movies. I suppose it goes without saying that spoofing a bunch of comedies is a troublesome idea, unless you really have something to say about them, rather than simply offering pale copies of their most famous scenes. But this movie goes below that; it's aggressively bad, stupid and vile and insulting and inept all at once. It might be the worst movie I've ever seen, except that it reminded me of two movies I saw just last year, Miss March and Transylmania, which were just as bad.
Anyway, this got me thinking about comedies. What makes a great one and what makes a bad one, and -- perhaps more interestingly -- what makes it stand the test of time? A movie like The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who... (ah, forget it) is going to age badly and quickly, but what makes a comedy age well? I also recently viewed Blu-rays of three Mel Brooks movies (High Anxiety, History of the World Part I and Robin Hood: Men in Tights), all of which had aged badly, but I also watched Caddyshack on Blu-ray, and found that it had aged well.
This could be a generational thing. I think there's a window between the time that we first begin to comprehend movies on a mature level and the time that we reach jaded adulthood, during which every comedy you see is hilariously brilliant. For me, this included movies like Police Academy and Bachelor Party. I know now and probably knew at the time that they were stupid movies, but I loved them and laughed my hindquarters off. I also saw things like Airplane!, This Is Spinal Tap, and Ghostbusters, which were genuinely funny, and they sent me into hysterics; I was obsessed with learning all the lines. I won't even mention the time I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail on video in a roomful of kids the same age; I could not stop laughing long enough to breathe. I genuinely thought the end was near.
That's one theory, but it doesn't hold up when you consider that many modern comedies have also struck a chord with me. In the best of them, there's a special kind of writing and line delivery that cracks me up. I would say that I love films like Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Adventureland, Zombieland, Burn After Reading, and Hot Fuzz just as much as any other comedies. I can see myself watching and enjoying those titles again many years from now.
Then there's the question of what makes a comedy funny through the ages. I have seen many, many comedies made well before my time that have tickled me, including many silent comedies, Trouble in Paradise (1932), Duck Soup (1933), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Bank Dick (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Sullivan's Travels (1941), Some Like It Hot (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and many others. But for every one of those classics, there are hundreds of other comedies that elicit not a peep, including those highly polished, full-color, widescreen comedies of the 1950s and the tie-dye hippie comedies of the 1960s.
To suggest one answer, I'd like to go back to Caddyshack for a second. Caddyshack is a big, broad comedy with lots of destruction, vomit jokes and poo jokes, but it has something special going for it. Yes, it has a great cast and a timeless misfits-versus-authority theme, but what it does correctly is that it gives the audience credit for the ability to laugh. The film's attitude is that, "we think this is funny... come join us if you feel like it." To that end, director Harold Ramis times many scenes so that they end just a beat too early, leaving us to laugh all on our own, if we choose to. The film does not tell you to laugh.
Most comedies today, including The 41-Year-Old-Virgin Who..., are desperate and pathetic, and, frankly, terrified. They are petrified that we won't laugh. So they hammer at the jokes, setting them up and winking, making us aware of the setup, so that we know it's coming. We're given the exact cue to laugh. This is the difference between actually laughing, or sitting in the audience and saying aloud, "that's funny."
A case in point is the evolution of Airplane! That movie was totally deadpan. No one ever once winked or paused to wonder if anyone got the joke. If you didn't get the joke, there was another one just 30 seconds away. Deal with it. It did not pander in the slightest, and it made something of a comedy star out of Leslie Nielsen, who was the most deadpan of them all ("Don't call me Shirley"). Fast-forward to years later, and in movies like Mr. Magoo, Scary Movie 3-4, and Superhero Movie, Nielsen has forgotten those deadpan origins. Now he mugs and does pratfalls and waits around for audiences to laugh. He's like the class clown who suddenly relished the attention and kept repeating the joke, louder and more often.
Mel Brooks succumbed to this over the course of his career, as have several other comics. I'd hate to think this has been the fate of comedy in general, but evidence shows that comedy is still very much alive. The key to it is to let the audience get the joke all by itself. If you can do that, you'll make 'em laugh every time.
What do you think, dear readers? How do your favorite comedies work? Are they subtle, or bombastic?