I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that most people like to laugh; you feel happier, you’re having fun, and if I really have to explain the concept of laughter to you, then you may want to do something different than read this article. When you talk about film, and television to a lesser extent, and you talk about laughing at films, the genre synonymous with this is comedy.
Comedies are often judged on their ability to make people laugh: surely if a comedy fails to make someone laugh, it’s a total failure? Making someone laugh, for some reason, is sometimes seen as something cheap, or easy, which is why comedies don’t tend to do well at the Academy Awards, and only the slightly off-brand equivalent, the Golden Globe awards, have a specific category for comedies.
Recently I was listening to a podcast called Cinema Swirl; the podcast is hosted by two friends, Sam & Kefin. One is a proper film buff, and the other ‘just hasn’t seen any of them films, mate’. Each episode they watch a film that you’d assume everyone has seen, but somehow Sam has gone twenty-odd years without catching them. Films they’ve reviewed include Star Wars, The Big Lebowski, Back to the Future, the Passion of the Christ and, most recently, The Blues Brothers. Most of the time, shock, Sam enjoys the film classics Kefin has put on for him, but from time to time the old standards just don’t hold up.
The reason I randomly bring up this podcast (which I heartily recommend, by the way) is because of their latest episode. Blues Brothers is one of my favourite films, partly because of the fantastic writing, but also because I’m a massive fan of blues music, and any film with a John Lee Hooker cameo is alright with me. Sam did not like the Blues Brothers as much as I did, and a constant thread through their discussion was the amount of laughs. Listening to this, I found myself in a similar position to Kefin, questioning my love of this cinema classic. So I went home, dug out my dvd and watched it.
And I loved it as much as I ever had. Maybe it’s because I get more out of the cameos and minor characters of rhythm & blues legends, but I don’t think that’s what it is. I had never been mindful before of how much I laughed during The Blues Brothers, but this time it was definitely in the back of my mind. I laughed three times. Three… but it didn’t bother me. The writing was the same, the acting was the same, and I enjoyed myself. Despite the lack of laughter, it was a great film – a great comedy film.
This is why it’s dangerous to write comedy films off as something that’s just there to make you laugh. Some of the worst comedy films out there are films that try too hard to make you laugh, hell, a lot of them succeed in jostling your jollies but they’re still terrible films. If comedy is the opposite of drama, and drama is the serious artistic genre, then comedy could be defined as lighthearted. Comedies can be very very dark, but they typically ultimately turn out positively for the protagonists (or at least the viewer). Another example of a relatively laughter-free comedy is The Big Lebowski. While there are some laugh-out-loud moments in ‘Lebowski’, it’s really its clever and acerbic writing that shines through, and the same can be said for the Blues Brothers.
Generally, we don’t hold rom-coms to the same standard as we do outright comedies. For the most part we actually expect them to be bad. If a romantic comedy is good enough it can be granted drama status, and be accepted weirdly as a higher artform. It’s not something we do knowingly, for the most part, it’s inherent, subconscious, and it’s a little off point, but it goes to proving how weird & vague the comedy label is.
The lesson to be learned here, if there’s a lesson at all, is to not pay too much attention to what genre a film is when watching it; good films are good, bad films are bad, funny films are funny.