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The Unified Theory of Comedy

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In this classic CC2K compendium, Lance Carmichael finally offers the GUT for the world of comedy.

After reading Rob van Winkle’s provocative essay about Superbad and what he sees as the current era of diminished expectations for comedy, something didn’t sit right. It’s not that I disagree that we have low expectations for comedies these days…so low that anybody who makes something that’s not offensively bad gets heralded as the Second Coming of Woody Allen . We do. It’s just that I respectfully disagree with his thesis that we have diminished expectations for comedies. I think they’ve always been low. The comedy landscape hasn’t changed: the vast majority of comedies released by Hollywood are shit.

To bolster my point, I came up with a System.  It’s Scientific. I call it the “Unified Theory of Comedy.” Let’s see what you all think.

In our modern media culture, there is room for three types of comedy filmmakers:

#1 The Poet Laureate

At any one time, one guy (or set of brothers) is allowed to make comedies that are given serious consideration for the Canon of Great Films. In my lifetime, they have been:

Image Woody Allen (1977-1991)
Image The Coen Bros. (1984-1998)
Image Wes Anderson (1996-present)

Obviously, there’s a bit of an overlap of these filmmakers’ primes (and hopefully both Allen and the Coen’s have some gems left in them), but the general trend is Woody Allen was the Poet Laureate in the 80s, the Coens were in the 90s, and Wes Anderson is of the aughts.

#2 The Mainstream Kings We Try and Invest with Pretensions

At any one time, there’s a filmmaker or set of filmmaker brothers who exist on a level culturally below the reigning Poet Laureate but above the hackery below. These are the filmmakers who make one or two films that are a giant commercial hit and actually doesn’t totally suck, so the critical community bends over backwards to try and elevate them as high up culturally as they can get them. These filmmakers aren’t really aiming for immortality the way the Poet Laureates are–they’re basically middlebrow filmmakers who seem content being such–but critics, starved for something decent to write about in while stuck covering the corporate publicity cycle, try and puff these guys up as high as possible. Critics keep expecting the filmmakers to make a huge breakthrough, drop all the fart jokes and lowbrow shenanigans, and join Woody Allen and co. in Poet Laureate heaven…but they inevitably disappoint. The run of good movies ends much earlier than people can account for, and gradually the culture tries to forget about them. The culprits.

Image John Hughes (1983-1990)
Image The Farrelly Bros. (1994-1998)
Image Judd Apatow (2005-present)

Now it might look like I’m slagging these guys off. But I’m not. John Hughes wrote and directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Trains, Planes and Automobiles, and The Breakfast Club. Judd Apatow made 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The Farrelly Bros. gave us There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and Kingpin. These are all really enjoyable movies, no doubt about it.

But are they great? Really?  When you’re watching these, you know you’re in the hands of a great entertainer, but you’re not in the hands of an artist. Obviously this could open up a debate that would take far too much time to address here (although the forums are always available), but let’s just suffice it to say that when I call these guys entertainers rather than artists, I mean that their prime, motivating factor is to entertain as broad an audience as they possibly can. There’s a level of pandering, a desperation-to-please, that is present with these guys and just does not exist with our Poet Laureates. The Poet Laureates almost define themselves against the mainstream…they make movies the embattled minorities of culture lovers can embrace to mark their distinction from the masses. On the naked face of it, this is an elitist and kind of sad impulse, but I would argue the good far outweights the bad: without it, those guys at the top of the article wouldn’t exist. Would you really want to live in a world where watching Ben Stiller getting his testicles stuck in his zipper is the pinnacle of artistic expression?

#3 Star-Driven Comedies

The vast majority of comedies that Hollywood delivers are made for the sole purpose of finding a starring vehicle for a “hot” comedian. The overriding concern for studios putting these comedies together is to come up with a premise that can be explained in one sentence. Hence, it’s no surprise that they usually suck–unless you’re part of the 90% of the population who loves these movies and fills up the multiplexes when they come out. Then you’ll love them. But chances are that if you’re one of these people, you’re not reading this article. Because it would presuppose you would have to own a computer, and that you’d have to know how to use it for anything beyond downloading porn.

Also, it would pre-suppose you know how to read.

There’s usually about 5 or 6 male comedians around who can “open” movies, but there’s always one undisputed champ beloved by both the low- and middle-brows (but never the high-brows).

Image Eddie Murphy (1982-1988)
Image Jim Carrey (1994-1998)
Image Will Ferrell (2003-present)

(You could make an argument for Bill Murray over Eddie Murphy in the 80s, and it would probably be an interesting one. However, although his IMDB page doesn’t clearly show it, Murray kind of walked away from being the World’s Biggest Star after Ghostbusters in 1984 and worked sporadically throughout the 80s, coming back for one last hurrah with Groundhog’s Day in 1993 and then going on to his celebrated Second Act of doing interesting character work instead of Leading Man bullshit)

(Also, you could make an argument for Adam Sandler over Jim Carrey, but why bother?)

Of course, all these actors made a lot of movies AFTER their primes…some of them hits. But the soulcrushing roll they were on, when every movie is bigger than the last and it looked like there was no stopping them, has to stop sometime (thank god), and room has to be made for the Next Big Thing. The point where the World’s Biggest Star gives up the throne is usually (weirdly) voluntary. It happens because the World’s Biggest Star (WBS) starts to think that not only are they popular, they’re also great, and starts getting Serious Pretensions. They’ll either start directing movies (Harlem Nights), trying desperately to win an Oscar*  (Man on the Moon), or they’ll do whatever retarded shit Will Ferrell will no doubt pull in a year or two.

So there you have it: an obviously incomplete, very debatable taxonomy of the upper crust of the film comedy world since basically I was born. This article, of course, ignores all the little guys. On the filmmakers’ side, there’s the underground cult directors (Mike Judge, Jim Jarmusch) and the underground sketch comedy guys making great, underseen and underappreciated films (The Kids in the Hall, the guys from The State). From the actors’, there’s the Saturday Night Live actors who go on to a run in movies (Dan Akyroyd, Chris Farley), and there’s the stand-ups-turned-movie-stars (Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams). But fuck them—they don’t fit my thesis. We’ll save them for another time.

*The true benchmark of middlebrow, mainstream success.

Author: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

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