Musings on the Heterogeneity of Comedy

This past week I had the opportunity to watch two movies, Death At A Funeral (2007 British version) and Hot Tub Time Machine (2010, obviously American). The stark contrast in the qualities of these two movies got me thinking about the difficulties of portraying comedy in film. On one hand, you risk alienating people if you go too highbrow. A recent example that comes to mind is Burn After Reading, which was full of whacky characters but ended rather abruptly and left viewers wondering, “What the Hell just happened?” On the other hand, if you go for crude, mindless laughs, you also alienate people who feel that their intelligence has just been insulted.

I was one of the very few males in the world who found The Hangover to be a complete bore. It was completely unchallenging as a film. Of course, not every movie has to be as complicated as say Mulholland Drive, but even a popular comedy should have some originality to it. You cannot just throw a tiger, a baby and a hooker together and expect me to laugh. Likewise, you cannot simply mix one part hot tub with three parts hackneyed ‘80s shtick. At least pretend to make an effort! Forgive me for I may have testicles, but they are attached to a brain. I wonder how many other guys pretend to enjoy these movies simply because it is the “manly” thing to do. Or are we as a gender so juvenile that we still find poop and penis jokes uproariously hilarious?

I also wonder if the rest of the world shares the same tastes as American males. Was The Hangover as popular in the UK as it was here in the States? Box Office receipts suggest that it was as it made $190 million overseas, comprising 40% of its overall intake. For a comedy that takes place wholly within the most American of cities, Las Vegas, that is an impressive chunk of change demonstrating worldwide appeal. While the rest of the world may find American comedy funny, the counter argument is not true. The large majority of Americans do not find comedy from other countries, especially the United Kingdom, funny. In fact, finding British comedy funny can get you labeled as a snob here! There are two hypotheses, which are not mutually exclusive:

  1. American pop culture is so dominant that it permeates into every other culture, such that American comedy is found to be funny worldwide.
  2. Americans are arrogant enough to believe that their brand of comedy is the only brand of comedy and are not patient enough to learn a new brand of comedy.

Comedy is far more subjective than drama and harder to analyze. Drama can be poignant or haunting, which tends to affect all people in the same way. For example, not everyone may have enjoyed The Pianist, but everybody could feel the somber heaviness of the plot. Likewise, when a dramatic actor reaches the climax of their performance (usually involving tears and screaming a la Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice), it is abundantly clear that “acting” is being witnessed on screen. On the contrary, a successful comedic performance looks effortless on the screen, so often that really good work (a la Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia) gets dismissed as a mediocre performance. Good drama is marked by outward emotion to the point of histrionics while good comedy requires restraint.

I started out aiming to write a traditional review comparing the dry wit of Death At A Funeral to the lazy laughs of Hot Tub Time Machine, but even within this one sentence I am unable to say anything about these movies without being biased by own personal tastes. Obviously, there are far too many variables in the equation to make any sort of unbiased conclusion as to what separates good and bad comedy. However, we have probably our best-controlled experiment coming up in just two weeks. Death At A Funeral has been remade for American audiences. Judging by the trailer, it appears that all of the plot elements will remain the same, but the comedic stylings are wildly different.

Questions for discussion:

–       What do you think defines “good” comedy?

–       Do you watch comedy for a mindless laugh or are you still looking to be challenged at some level?

–       Is crude comedy an American phenomenon or is it more global?

–       Can there ever be a consensus on the classical hallmarks of comedy as there is with drama?


2 thoughts on “Musings on the Heterogeneity of Comedy

  1. Well, actually your point and my point can both be true! Americans don’t get British humor and the ones that do are called snobs by the ones that don’t. Meanwhile, the Brits say that Americans don’t get their brand of humor.

    I LOVE Mean Girls. I think I have watched that movie more than any other movie. Ever. Other American comedies I did enjoy include I Love You, Man; Forgetting Sarah Marshall; and Knocked Up. There is something about Judd Apatow’s take on comedy that I really dig. He doesn’t hold back and is often times crude, but his movies are witty and have a little bit of intelligence associated with the laughs.

    Oh, and maybe some day in the future I will write about Borat v. Bruno because I thought the first one was ingenious while the latter was disgusting. I’d have to rewatch them both, though.

  2. This is an interesting post because I would argue that it is completely the opposite, as I know in the UK, it is one thing that British people take the mick out of Americans for not understanding humour.

    I must say, the only American made comedy that I found hilarious was Mean Girls and that is because Tina Fey is a beast!

    I do agree that crude comedy is an American phenomenon yes.

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