Fall 2008

What's So Funny?

A veteran critic considers how screen comedy has changed since the days of Preston Sturges-and not for the better.


All things considered, most directors probably wouldn't want to be Preston Sturges. For one thing, he's dead. For another, his career died before he did. After his fabled, 1939-44 burst of comedic brilliance-which was aided and abetted by an almost inexplicable studio acquiescence-Sturges segued into a series of unsuccessful projects, non-relationships with recalcitrant executives, and at least one star-crossed partnership with a seemingly solid citizen (Howard Hughes). In 1959, with the laughter just an echo, Sturges died, an event which, as a badly written news story might put it, interrupted the writing of his autobiography (tentatively titled The Events Leading Up to My Death).

The guy was funny. He might not have been happy.

Would Preston Sturges be happy now? More importantly, as a director, would he be funny now? To hit the nail in the nutshell, what is funny now?

To judge from recent films, the answers seem to be: marijuana; the word "boobies"; the male reproductive system.

Not very satisfying answers for anyone-certainly not for a critic like me, nor, I would presume to say, the director. Need a laugh? Have character drop his pants. Audiences will scream-I've seen it happen more than once. Whether this is because audiences have grown soft, or because economic/political circumstances are such that crowds have grown desperate to laugh, it doesn't seem to pose much of a challenge to the creative artist.

So the question probably should be: Why wouldn't a comedy filmmaker today yearn for the days of Sturges? If nothing else, he had a fertile landscape to plow. In the pre-Porky's era, characters had yet to commit sexual assault on a pastry. Taboos were standing around, waiting to be violated.

Take Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek: a virginal unmarried young woman gets pregnant under mysterious, unremembered circumstances and winds up in a tableau that looks suspiciously like the Nativity. In The Palm Beach Story, Mary Astor's character is a nymphomaniac. ("Nothing in this world is permanent," she says languorously, "except for Roosevelt.") The sexual chess game in The Lady Eve is scandalous-if you can follow what's going on, which is a little less tricky than following the plotline to The Big Sleep. But most people were probably like Henry Fonda's character: vaguely amused but essentially clueless.

Yes, Sturges is what we'd call edgy-but there was also an edge. On one side of it were people who understood what someone like Sturges was doing, and were laughing themselves silly. On the other, there were those for whom a piano dropped out of a window might have made an impression.

Today? It's raining pianos. For the comedy director making a funny movie has come to resemble what Robert Frost said about the writing of unrhymed verse: playing tennis without a net. The challenge seems to have gone out of the whole enterprise. So those comedies that do go the extra step have the critic on their side.

In the recent Step Brothers-which will never be cited as an heir to Sullivan's Travels, but has its moments-Dale (John C. Reilly) is giving a house tour to his new sibling, Brennan (Will Ferrell). He tells Brennan the place was "built by General Custer in 1875." I laughed out loud. I don't know why exactly. Maybe it was because (a) I knew Custer wasn't an architect, except of his own destruction; (b) that he died in 1876 and the idea that Dale would know this was completely incongruous, or (c) that it's just silly.

What I did know was that I was the only one in the theater laughing.

When I mentioned this to Hamlet 2 director Andrew Fleming he said, "That's a two-percenter," by which he meant two percent of the audience would have laughed at that joke. "That's the stuff I live for," enthused Pam Brady, Fleming's Hamlet 2 co-writer. "That would probably become my favorite movie, just because of a joke like that."

It's also stuff the critic yearns to see more of. Why? Because in its cleverness and/or absurdity, a joke like that embraces the audience's intelligence-it makes the viewers complicit in the comedy, luring them in via understatement. There's not a lot of understatement in Hamlet 2. But it is intelligently funny, beginning with the title. After all, everyone dies in Hamlet I (if this is a plot spoiler, forget we told you that the boat sinks in Titanic).

What else is funny? Other people's pain. It's like Woody Allen, the Yogi Berra of the Upper East Side, once said: "Comedy is tragedy happening to somebody else." Which Allen never said (W.C. Fields did).

But one cannot separate pain from comedy any more than one can separate love from tragedy. What comedy today is separating is comedy from intelligence, which seems both a shame and a contradiction. In addition to our innate ability to revel in the misery of others (as long as the sufferer is pompous enough to deserve what he's getting), is the satisfaction of "getting" a joke. The more obscure a joke sometimes, the funnier it seems. Like General Custer. Rather than boobies.

Filmmakers certainly don't want to make comedies that are instructive or pretentious, but I for one would appreciate a director making a comedy that was aimed a little higher than primal. One can argue quite successfully that if audiences keep coming, there will be no end of gross-out comedies, but I would guess that critics and directors are simpatico on this subject, knowing that there are audiences that don't need a piano dropped on them-or on someone else, if you want to make them laugh.

John Anderson reviews movies for Variety and was the film critic for Newsday.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

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