Judging by its enormous success at the box office this weekend, a lot of people laughed at 'The Hangover Part II.' And yet, an essay analyzing comedy trends in this weekend's New York Times Magazine argues that 'Hangover II' has at last perfected the "joke-free" comedy.
There's something to that, insofar as 'Hangover II' is all about its familiar characters being put through familiar situations in an unfamiliar setting. We're supposed to laugh not so much at classically-built gags and funny lines of dialogue, but rather at outrageous behavior.
The Times article goes on to establish a distinction between joke-driven and character-driven comedy, arguing that the former -- as practiced by such giants of yore as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, the Farrelly brothers ('There's Something About Mary') and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team that made 'Airplane!' and the 'Naked Gun' movies -- has gone by the wayside, replaced by the latter, as practiced by bromance kings Judd Apatow and 'Hangover' director Todd Phillips. But this sounds suspiciously like an argument reducible to "Comedy was better and funnier in the old days," and it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding (or willful ignorance) of how jokes are structured in newer comedies. Yes, there are jokes in the 'Hangover' movies or in influential Apatow films like 'The 40 Year Old Virgin' and 'Knocked Up.' They're just a different kind of joke, designed for a different era.
The Times misses the old-style laughs provided by reliable gag-builders like Allen and Brooks in movies like 'Bananas' or 'Blazing Saddles,' a comic style that goes back as far as vaudeville, and the magazine goes on to claim that there are no memorable or well-constructed gags in a movie like 'The 40 Year Old Virgin.' Perhaps the writer has overlooked Steve Carell's chest-waxing scene or is dismissing it because, like the "You know how I know you're gay?" conversation, it was largely improvised. That doesn't mean the scenes are forgettable or not funny or not carefully timed to build on an escalating series of laughs.
The jokes are still there, but they're not the old-fashioned setup / punch line / rimshot jokes. Rather, they're more like embarrassing-moment/cringe/awkward-silence jokes. The Times article hints at an awareness of the shift when it mentions Apatow's 1990s apprenticeship on HBO's 'The Larry Sanders Show,' which was really the launchpad for the current cringe-comedy vogue. 'Larry Sanders' is not only the template for the work of Apatow and his stable (including such comic actors as Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Carell, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Jack Black) but also for Ricky Gervais (who has acknowledged 'Larry Sanders' as an inspiration for 'The Office') and all the faux-reality, single-camera comedies that have, in turn, followed Gervais's example. As TV in the last decade has trained audiences to laugh at these awkward-silence comedies without being prompted by a laugh track, so it is that cringe comedy made a seamless transition to the movies.
The Apatow-Phillips school of comedy has taken a lot of heat for its focus on the bromance, the emphasis on friendships between two or more adult guys stuck in arrested adolescence, at the expense of well-rounded female characters or mature adult relationships. That's a fair criticism, but it doesn't address what these movies are actually about, or what their jokes are built around, which is embarrassment. Critics have contended that these movies are about the modern backlash against feminism or a puerile culture that fetishizes youth, fears aging and dreads adult responsibility. But it's much simpler than that -- they're about humiliation. They're about a mediated world, a world of surveillance, one where video cameras are everywhere and one's entire history is a click or two away on the Web. In such a world, privacy is impossible, and anyone who expects to be able to keep his personal foibles and kinks a secret is either a naif, a fool or a chump.
It's no wonder, then, that the comedy stars who prosper today are figures of pure superego (like Steve Carell in 'Virgin,' Ed Helms in the 'Hangover' movies and Ben Stiller in pretty much anything), actors who are willing to submit themselves to pretty much any kind of humiliation as they mine laughs from their failed attempts to maintain their privacy and dignity,or else figures of pure id (like Rogen, Ferrell or 'The Hangover''s Galifianakis) who have adjusted to the post-privacy world and are shameless about letting their quirks hang out for all to see.
Navigating that world of inevitable embarrassment is what the gags in the Apatow and Phillips movies are about. (That extends to female-centered bromance comedies as well, like the 'Sex and the City' movies and the new 'Bridesmaids.') You can argue, as many critics have, that 'The Hangover Part II' doesn't work because the jokes are the same ones as in the first movie and therefore lack surprise. But you can't argue that the jokes aren't there.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.