Why Does Hollywood Prefer Its Comedies Not That Funny?


On the face of it US comedies are enjoying a golden era at the moment with film such as Juno, The Kids Are All Right and Up In The Air gathering critical acclaim, box office success and plenty of award nominations. However after watching an admittedly great film, The Kids Are All Right, I found myself wondering exactly how it became classified as a comedy in the first place.
If you define film genres as the general intent of the film, i.e. to make you laugh, cry, scream, sing, masturbate etc, then when you buy a ticket for a comedy film, you’d be justified in expecting to be roused into laughter. Obviously the degree of ensuing hilarity varies according to taste, but even allowing for this, The Kids Are All Right (admittedly a great film) just isn’t really funny enough to be classed as a comedy.
There were some moments of wit and sarcasm, but no more than is usual in life and the film contained far more moments of tension and conflict, which would usually have defined it as a straight drama.
Comedy films do have something of a bad reputation in Hollywood. ‘Going for the laughs’ has always seen to be to the detriment of the overall worth of a film and the number of occasions the makers have opted for funny over other considerations- like plot, narrative, character etc- will nearly always affect the quality of the film. There are few films which manage to go all out for the comedy yet remain classic movies. Some Mel Brookes films, a few of Charlie Chaplain’s and most Monty Pythons for example. There are a few more which succeed in a compromise between comedy and drama without sacrificing the impact of either, (Woody Allen is probably the master of this art, with the Coen brothers following close behind) and it is this golden combination which Hollywood appears to be attempting to emulate in its current zeitgeist for funny/think films.
However some of the recent crop appear to have forgotten the comedy part of their mandate and are really just straight movies. There’s plenty of wit and light-heartedness certainly, but does this make a comedy, or is it diluting the genre too much?
For some time the Australian film industry has been producing comedy dramas which are simultaneously moving and genuinely funny. Muriel’s Wedding, The Castle, Strictly Ballroom, The Dish, to name a few, have achieved a kind of global success which is are for comedy films and if Hollywood wants to emulate this success then they need to be braver and trust the audience more. The Aussie movies rely on bold characters and understated dialogue to provide the humour in the film. US filmmakers however, fear making characters into caricature, possibly undermining the drama and they seem incapable of avoiding a sobbing shout-fest at some point in the duration of a movie.
My issue isn’t with the films themselves; they are often wonderful movies which are greatly improved by including the everyday wit and whimsy of real life to enhance the story. I take issue with them claiming to be comedy without obeying that basic principle of principally being funny.
If a comedy makes you think, moves you, makes you cry, that’s great, but the overall impression should be funny, the most memorable moments should be the funny ones, and wherever possible (although this is being picky) last lines should be punch-lines. If this isn’t the case, then the movie probably shouldn’t be called a comedy, or else it will always disappoint no matter how great its other virtues.


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