April Fool’s Day isn’t really “celebrated” in the strictest sense. I’ve never been invited to an April Fool’s party although maybe the perfect April 1st event would be to invite people to a party… and then not be home when they get there. Or have the party actually be a fund raiser for Herman Cain or John Edwards. While April Fool’s doesn’t make us nostalgic like Christmas or Thanksgiving, let me suggest that we might use the day of mirth to at least reflect on whether comedy itself has changed.
At the top one must acknowledge the tendency… nay, the right… of next generations to redefine what constitutes “entertainment.” I find myself defending rap and hip-hop to peers who refuse to accept that “Ah one-two, one two three four!” guitar rock is no longer the preeminent sound of pop music. Not that I don’t own and enjoy CDs of the guitar heroes of my time, but I advise friends to adjust to new sonic landscapes. If you ride in a car with a dude of my generation whose radio tuner is glued to Jack FM you can sense that, for some, time has stood still.
But at the movies, everyone’s moved on. And this is especially true of comedy films, which more often than not embrace the change from spoken-word jokes and subtler old-school situational tensions to projectile body functions and predicaments so cranked-up that they pass “ funny” and go on to mayhem that apparently registers as comic “movie” violence, not real violence. Put another way if you go to see “Hangover 3” (which is coming whether we want it or not), try counting the incidents of punches to the face or groin, teeth kicked-out, and genitalia jammed into or frozen to something. And because it’s a comedy, there will be guns.
I’m not citing specifics to build a case against these aspects but rather to illustrate that the vocabulary of contemporary film comedy now includes a physical intensity and the realistic representation of pain and suffering. That may or may not have a benign corresponding component in something retro like the Three Stooges. But compare the accumulation of injuries to the human body in a present-day film comedy to 1987’s “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” where no one gets hurt or bleeds, and all the damage is to property and personal schedules.
My observation is that elements like bruising and scars and jet-powered diarrhea are not funny in the laugh out loud sense, but in some new context of the suffering being real-looking but not “serious.” Which takes us to the question of laughing at all: If parents within reading distance of this column have observed their children enjoying a contemporary comedy, but not actually laughing that often, let me assure you that the phenomenon is not exclusive to your household.
Last week I rented a video of “alternative” comedians in concert. Because it was a filmed club performance, the video contained numerous audience reaction shots. The audience, mostly in their 20s and 30s, would hoot and applaud in reaction to ideas that were smart and acerbic. But a great deal of that material didn’t actually make the audience laugh. And I think that was correct. Because “alternative” comedy is looking for other reactions, including confirmation that a wrong thing made fun of in a ‘bit’ is still wrong… and we all know it. It’s something more akin to the snapping of fingers in a beatnik coffeehouse of the 1950’s, where that signal indicated, “Yes, I hear you. And I agree; you are right.” Enjoyed at that level, alternative stand-up is simply far more compelling and worthwhile than, say, any ventriloquist who might be popular right now.
But two hours spent watching a four-pack of TV network sitcoms will assuage any fears you might have that old-school laugh-y comedy is going away soon. And that also seems correct, in that those shows are meant as a kind of electronic salve or balm to the bruising we’re taking in real life. They are rarely trying to connect at any level other than a laugh that doesn’t cut too deep. They’re just going for standard funny-type funny, and we seem unable to let them go.
The British film comedy “In the Loop” (2009) throws sharpened darts at Anglo-American politics in the 21st century and the Invasion of Iraq, and it was nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Writing of an Adapted Screenplay. With the exception of some business about a loose tooth the comedy is entirely spoken-word, profane and brilliant. Almost too much so: I needed to watch it twice to hear everything through the accents and the speed of the dialogue. But in England at least, the written spoken-word joke is thriving.
What might be happening with contemporary American film comedy is that younger audiences have ingested so much more media than their parents did when they were their age that the representation of “comedy” can take many – even any – forms and still be “funny” because the audience has collectively moved past the traditional templates. Teenagers wouldn’t get much from something like “It’s Complicated,” which dichotomously was not complicated. It had an almost languid pace, and played a high-on-marijuana scene as though there had never been one in a movie before. I remember feeling how generational it was, almost an “AARP Presents…” production. And then, because the cast was great, I found myself laughing. It was, at times, funny. Laugh-funny. Maybe funny-funny. But as a contemporary comedy viewer might say it…” Okay, whatever.”