Anthony Stokes on the death of American comedy and a new medium for laughs…
It’s extremely hard to be funny. Comedians work for years just to get enough solid material for a 5 minute set. Comedy is hard, and it’s a gift some people are born with and some people aren’t. A simple pause can turn something from painful to hysterical. But there’s been a slump in comedy in recent years in my opinion. I could count on one hand the movies that genuinely made me laugh hard over the last year. But there is a new challenger in the realm of comedy and also a wild card that may be doing more harm then good.
For let’s discuss what kind of comedy works. Now of course comedy is suggestive, but I’m mainly talking about American sensibilities. British humor is slightly drier and wittier with a lot more naturalistic vibes and awkward humor. But what about American comedy? In the words of a co-host from Spill.com: “No comedy should be over an hour and a half”. While there are exceptions to every rule, I agree 100 percent. It’s all about diminishing returns. You want your audience begging for more instead of checking their watch. A true comedy should have laughs from start to finish, with occasional breaks for story, character development, and well worked in drama. Comedy writers should have something amusing happening every minute of a movie, be it a background gag, an anecdote, or a line of dialogue. The jokes should also catch you off guard and be swiftly delivered. Taking a joke in a different direction and playing with audiences expectations is always welcome, and Shane Black is easily the master of keeping the audience guessing.
More importantly, and this is more for the directors and editors, if something is funny but it doesn’t fit – be it out of character, tonally incompatible, non-essential, or breaks the suspension of disbelief – then save it for the DVD. 21 Jump Street works because it moves at a swift pace, there are jokes every minute, and everything fits inside of the movie. You can look at the extended and deleted scenes on the DVD and see what they cut out. Some of the stuff was funny and some of it wasn’t, but regardless the movie was better for having left it out.
So who is responsible for killing comedy? Judd Apatow along with his collaborators Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler – all because of improvisation. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about say Curb Your Enthusiasm where the show is supposed to feel natural – I’m talking about filming a movie with little more than an outline and the cast babbling on until these guys find something THEY think is funny. The problem is that you end up with scenes which are hit or miss, scenes that seem poorly edited due to having to cut around the improv, and a higher chance of running a joke into the ground. Comedy is all about timing so having somebody ramble can mess up the pacing of a scene and make a movie feel a longer than it is. One of my favorite shows Eastbound & Down is mostly improv, but they have a script, film it like it is, and then once they get the take they ad-lib. This works because they have a good script to fall back on in case what they say on the day just isn’t funny, and the improv feels like it layers the joke. But nowadays it feels like improv is just a way to cover up bad writing. Good written dialogue is often the most surefire way to get a laugh. You can’t have rapid fire back and forth through improv – it takes somebody to sit down and painstakingly obsess in order to get top notch dialogue, and it’s an added bonus if an actor can slam dunk it with an add-on line. For me, This Is the End is the best movie from the Apatow crew in years because they had a good script to work with. All these guys are talented and funny as hell, but it’s time to stop leaning on “we’ll think of something” and bring the writing back to comedy.
And can you guess what my new favorite source of comedy is based upon what I described earlier? It’s these things called Vines. They’re a guilty pleasure of mine and I know I should stay away but I can’t. The reason I love them so much is because the user only has 6 seconds to tell a joke. That means they have to be incredibly creative and deliver a set-up and punch line in the time it takes to tie my shoes. If it doesn’t work, worst case scenario is I’ve only wasted 6 seconds of my life and can click on a new video that I will without fail end up watching over and over again. It’s hard enough to make somebody laugh, let alone in such a short amount of time. Comedians I haven’t found funny before are suddenly hilarious because of the newly placed restrictions. And it’s pretty sad when Comedic Titans aren’t as funny as someone with an iPhone and lots of free time.
There is still good comedy out there – maybe certain comedians need to take inspiration from this magical app and try to tell their jokes in a more efficient and focused manner.
Anthony Stokes is a blogger and independent filmmaker.