Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Riddikulus Redux

Let us consider two great American film comedies--I admit, by the way, that my first impulse was to compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but, well, that'd be too late-teens, never-been-laid, acne-pocked D&D fanatic, don't you think?--Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Both funny. Really funny. Really, truly, funny. But they are not--I'm choosing my words carefully here--both seriously funny.

No, only Blazing Saddles is seriously funny. "Seriously" because, unlike Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles is about something. Something serious. And it doesn't take Pauline Kael to recognize what that serious something is: Racism. Blazing Saddles is about racism. About the stupidity and ignorance and self-abusive nature of racism. Consider the most shocking moment in the film--Sherriff Bart (played by the late, great Cleavon Little, who simply didn't have the career he should have) steps out into the sunshine of his first day on the job. He approaches a tiny, sweet-looking old lady, and says, as cheerfully polite as can be: "Mornin', ma'am--and ain't it a lovely mornin'?" And without missing a beat, the old lady looks up at him and, with off-handed loathing says, "Up yours, nigger." It's hilarious--and it's also deeply disturbing--and it's hilarious in part because it's deeply disturbing--because sweet-looking old ladies aren't supposed to say something so vile. (And, as a side note, it's a scene that film-makers today would never have the balls to include.) If he'd walked up to a Klansman (which he later does, playing into their bigotry by asking "Where all the white women at?") and been met with such hatred, it wouldn't be funny, or even disturbing. But because it comes from someone whom, at first glance, we'd expect better from, there's a discomfort along with the surprise of humor. Because the scene--indeed, the film as a whole--makes a discomforting point: racism ain't just for guys in bed-sheets--it's in the hearts and minds of the apparently 'normal' members of white society, too. It's in us. It's a moment, and an argument, that nothing in Young Frankenstein (that's "Frahnk-en-steen") comes close to.

Why? Because Y.F. isn't a serious comedy. It's a silly comedy. Its humor comes from spoofing a well-known but harmless movie genre and from the general wackiness of the goings-on: "Frau Blucher! (Horses neigh off-camera.)" We aren't confronted with anything disturbing in the film--except for the fact, now, that Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn are both dead, which just sucks to no end. And yet, the film is, in its own way, every bit as funny as Blazing Saddles--I mean, there is nothing funnier than Gene Hackman as the Blind Hermit lighting poor Peter Boyle's thumb ablaze, or Gene Wilder quickly changing his mind about being locked in with the Monster: "Lemme out. Lemme out or I'll kick your goddamn heads in. MOMMY!!!" Young Frankenstein is simply a comedy that tries--and brilliantly succeeds--to be funny; Blazing Saddles (thanks, one suspects, to the influence of co-screenwriter Richard Pryor) wants to be funny AND to make a point--and makes it by showing first the racism of the town of Red Rock, and then their shamefaced gratitude for this heroic black man--smarter than all of them put together--who saves their collective bacon (aided by the only other non-racist in the film, Gene Wilder's Waco Kid.)

Two kinds of comedy. And (OK, here's where it gets dry and tedious--feel free to skip the following)--that we have to go back to the beginning of comedy for the answer as to this split. In The Beginning, there was Athens and Athenian Drama--and along with Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripedes (after them, actually), there was Aristophanes. Now, Aristophanes was the master of the Serious Comedy. His works had a Point--Lysistrata--probably his most reproduced work--has the women of Athens staging a sex-strike until their idiotic husbands give up the idiotic war they've been engaged in forever. War is Bad--Men are Not Necessarily Driven by Their Brains in International Affairs--Women have Brains--these were not obvious, given points back then, and you came away from the play thinking. And laughing--it's also funny--when the title character proposes her plan to the women of Athens they react with such horror that you'd think she was asking them to hack off a limb. Comedy in Athens was mostly about Satirical Commentary on Current Events. (Which can make reading Aristophanes a chore to read--who/what the hell is he making fun of?!) But the key here is that Comedy was Serious--even the Satyr Plays (incredibly bawdy plays they'd perform after Tragedies)--were counter-arguments to the point of Tragedy (see "Riddikulus!" for details on this counter-arg.)

It wasn't really until the Romans came along (Plautus and Terence) that Comedies became Just Funny. Oh, there was still the underlying--and always important argument--that some experiences in life aren't always totally devastating--that the possibility of reconciliation with the world and forgiveness of our fellow man exists--but mostly there was a lot of door-slamming, bed-hopping, identity-mistaking funnery. Not a bad thing--in many ways, more enjoyable than the (at times) genuinely mean-spirited nature of Aristophanes--but not a lot of Point. Nothing Serious. And so, the split was made.

The question is, which one is "real" Comedy? Is Serious Comedy better because it makes a point, or is Fun/Silly Comedy purer to the emotional function of Comedy: laughter? Which half of Don Quixote is better--the first, silly half where Cervantes is mocking the chivalric adventures of Cretien De Troyes and his Spanish counterparts, or the second half, where Don Quixote's foolish but noble idealism is gradually revealed to be something finer than the sardonic pragmatism of those who laugh at him? Tough call, yes--is Adam's Rib better than A Night at the Opera? Is Animal House better than Tootsie?

Ultimately, I think I have to come down on the side of Serious Comedy--so long as it's funny. Shaw's early plays, where he was still mixing message with laughs successfully, are just infinitely better than his later, bleaker, most un-funny stretches of theatrical didacticism. (On the other hand, Woody Allen's early stuff is just way more re-watchable than his later--I mean, which would you rather sit through, Bananas or Crimes and Misdemeanors--a great film, but there's nothing in it as brilliant as Allen ordering thousands of sandwiches from the local deli to feed the rebel army.) Or perhaps--to massage my view a bit--they may be of equal value, but we're missing that Serious Element these days. There's a potency to Serious Comedy that's simply not a factor in today's comedy. I laughed at Anchorman the way I laugh at The Three Stooges--disposably. Think about it--what was the last great comedy with a point--the last great Serious comedy? I'm hard put to think of one. It seems that in a Hollywood driven by "high concept"--"What if we gave Jim Carrey multiple personalities? the inability to lie? the powers of God?"--that Serious Comedy can't survive the gimmick. (And don't tell me that "Liar Liar" and "Bruce Almighty" had points--"Not lying is good" and "Being God is hard" are not arguments--they're trite, mindless truisms that cost no one a single brain cell to spout.) Thanks to Adam Sandler and (God help us) Rob Schneider and Martin Lawrence and--oh Jesus, do I have to continue? Smart comedy seems to be dead--or in hiding. And we need it. The closest we're coming these days is Michael Moore's satirical documentaries (well, film-length commentaries backed up by facts--which I don't mean as a slur at all)--but that's not good enough--we need the creative genius of the young Mel Brooks (the one behind The Producers, NOT the one responsible for the atrocities of Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.) We need Aristophanes back. We need the young Shaw. We need Serious Comedy.

P.S. Anyone who can think of a recent, decent Serious Comedy that I've forgotten--Swiss Cheese, my brain--please post your nomination to this page.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, great "serious" comedies of the past ten years. . .

1) Fargo - dead serious, but a great comedy.

2) A Beautiful Life - as a relatively new father, the premise brings tears to my eyes.

3) Toy Story 2 - At it's core is a pseudo-serious feeling of abandonment to which most can relate. So far, the only Pixar film to make adults cry.

That was easier than naming great silly comedies of the past ten years. For that, Pixar and Shrek 1&2 would dominate.

Bring it on Swiss Cheese for Brains!!

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, SCfB, I forgot to mention that I really enjoyed reading Riddikulus-Redux.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

Fargo--Perhaps. But we'd need to have a serious discussion as to what it's 'about.' I'd almost be inclined to call it a tragedy told in comic tones--William Macy's character is destroyed by a pathetic, petit-b. version of hubris--the assumption that he can control the situation--that his actions will have no consequences. I agree that it's largely funny, but I don't know that it's a comedy. Comedy is ultimately about people being improved/corrected, rather than devastated. Must ponder. Put it in the 'maybe' column. (The Coens ARE responsible for two great non-serious comedies, RAISING ARIZONA and THE BIG LEBOWSKI.)

I assume by 'A Beautiful Life' you mean "La Vita E Bella" or "Life Is Beautiful." Again, perhaps--I like, but don't love the film, but there's no denying that it certainly fits all the criteria I laid out. My only qualm is that it's Italian--nothing wrong with that, but my jeremiad about the loss of Serious Comedy was focused more on its need and its lack in America. But yes, I don't see why the film can't qualify in the category. I just wish we could do more of that HERE, dammit.

Toy Story 2. Points for an unusual and insightful choice. MORE points for choosing one of the few sequels that actually surpassed its original. (We've just had another one with "Spider Man 2"--"X Men 2" also gets on the list, I'd say, with "Godfather II," "Aliens," and "T2" all falling into the "As Good As But In A Very Different Way" category. And yes, the movie is about abandonment at its core--and, even more darkly, about the inevitability of abandonment. Woody and Buzz et al. will, in fact, be tossed aside at some point (if they're very lucky, they'll be passed on to the kid's children, maybe--but that's a long shot)--and all they can do is make the most of the time they have. That's a pretty profound statement for a kid's film--it's essentially a meditation on dealing with one's own mortality, and the mortality of those one loves. (Does this mean that the Prospector's fate is the Toy Story version of Hell? Just wondering.) There's also the fascinating, almost Philip K. Dick-esque sequence where Buzz confronts the many versions of himself, unenlightened as he was as to their artificial nature. Not too far from "Blade Runner" there. Plus, those little 3-eyed aliens are just cute as the dickens. So, yes, hats off to the faithful poster for this nomination. An astute and cheering thought--good thing Pixar exists, no? (I mean, "Bug's Life" preps kids for watching "Seven Samurai," "Finding Nemo" teaches them just how much their parents love them even when it doesn't seem that they do--I think that Pixar films, as a whole, make the kids who see them better than they were before. Not so much with the Disney films, frankly...)

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, this serious/non-serious comedy deal strikes me as a tad schematic. I agree with your take on Fargo so far as it goes, the points about Jerry Lundegaard's weird relationship to the world and so on, but in some very weird way it IS comic in the strictest sense. That would of course be the redemptive frame. Maybe it's an odd kind of tragicomedy really. The movie moves relatively frenetically at times, Buscemi driving around screaming about being shot in the fucking face, Jery's scheming etc. But then there's Marge time. Marge time is comic time. Marge time is episodic "the prowler won't start but we'll get there somehow" time. And Marge's perspective grinds gently away at the abrupt surfaces of the film's various tragedies. We view the film's tragedy with a rather cruel comic eye, laughing helplessly as, say, Jerry's wife runs around trapped in a goddamn shower curtain, but Marge, in a sort of Columbo-ish manner, gives the film a forgiving justicer, one who judges but whose reaction to Peter Stormare at the end is to say something about how it's a beautiful day and he had to go put Buscemi in a wood-chipper. I say it's a sort of tragicomedy that applies a sort of semi-adequate balm to its own contused surfaces.
I think when you say serious comedy, as in Blazing Saddles and Aristophanes, that what you really mean is critical comedy. Serious comedy has to be more inclusive. Witness the Big Lebowski, which is absolutely serious. It's hysterically funny, yes, but it's also about justice, and truth, and nationalism, and war, and film itself, and, and, and...uhhh... bowling. You'll doubtless be unable to guess who wrote this... Cheers, Anonymous

2:10 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

Well, one could make the argument--and I think I DID--that even UnSerious Comedy makes an important--and thus Serious Argument. UnSerious Comedy needn't be Trivial--and, as you point out, LEBOWSKI is just so jam-packed with such a dazzling (and deliberately confusing) array of subjects and ideas, that only an unreflecting idiot (like, oh, say, a reviewer at the time of its release) would mistake for a Trivial work. And, indeed, one could make an argument--and probably a good one--that "The Dude Abides" is a Serious response to the events of the film, as much as Marge's completely genuine, innocent "Don't you know there's more to life than a little bit of money? Don't you KNOW that?" is to those of FARGO. (Though the events of FARGO are much more cruel/gruesome than those of LEBOWSKI--of course, Donnie dies in LEBOWSKI, which nixes it as a pure comedy on purely schematic grounds.) 'Tragicomedy' might be a better term for FARGO--it really is a split-plot, with Marge's investigation really operating on a parallel, rather a reactive or subsequent line of progress (sounds awfully mathematical, no? I AM a schematic at heart, it's true.) Seems to me it comes down to whether or not Jerry L. is the lead--I think he is--and that, IF that's the case, Marge almost functions as more of chorus--a wiser, more objective voice of reaction/opinion--than a full-fledged participant. The universe of FARGO is cruelly comic--but then, there's something cruelly comic about Oedipus's vow to find out what evil bastard is behind the plague. (Alan Alda's character has a speech on the subject of Oedipus-As-Comedy in CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS that's supposed to show the shallow crassness of his character, but upon reflection, I kind of agree with him.) Irony--whether in a tragedy or otherwise--is usually funny in some sense, and so I'm not sure that FARGO's funniness is an un-tragic quality. But the film definitely supports the dual-plot, tragicomic reading (and I'll add, I love the fact that you, anonymous poster, make your case in TEMPORAL terms--"Marge time" indeed--it's true, though, that time functions VERY differently in Marge's world than it does in Jerry's.) Tragedy-hound that I am, I'll still stick to my reading, but that's what great about great films--There Are No Right Answers. (Except for someone who said something like, "LEBOWSKI isn't a comedy because it isn't funny." That WOULD be wrong. Very, very wrong indeed.)

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1 here.
What the heck!! I forgot to mention Chicken Run as almost as great a pseudo-serious comedy as Toy Story 2. To me, TS2 is about as good a movie as can be made. Chicken Run is incredibly entertaining, but doesn't quite strike the same greatness chord with me.

Is the Holocaust-type backdrop too gimicky or is it genius? Chickens going to the oven to clear out the "ghetto". You decide.

11:41 PM  

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