Musings on comedy

(Preston Sturges = Front Page – promoted by buhdydharma )

Comedy and humor are the hardest things to write.  Sure, Hamlet gets all the praise, because it is oh-so-serious.  Preston Sturges makes this point in Sullivan’s Travels, his film about a Depression-era Hollywood writer of screwball comedies who wants to do something serious.  The movie is a dramedy, in fact, but this scene shows Sullivan’s epiphany


as he realizes the curative power of laughter: the way it frees people, if only for a time, from their troubles.

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Sullivan’s Travels was released in 1941, near the end of the golden age of screwball comedy.  And if you haven’t seen the old movies, there are some real gems.  In 1938, Cary Grant may have made the first cinematic reference using gay as code for homosexual in this clip from Bringing Up Baby:

His Girl Friday (1940) has one of the best examples of tripartite dialogue (triple wordplay? three people talking at once and it all makes sense somehow?) Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, it was a remake of The Front Page, which began its life as a play.

In fact, many of the best screwball comedies were plays before they were movies.  The Philadelphia Story comes to mind as a good translation into film; but Frank Capra totally botched You Can’t Take It With You (1938), the Kaufman/Hart play about an eccentric family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1930s.  (Internal references [to Grandpa Vanderhof liking to attend Columbia graduation ceremonies] seem to imply that his house isn’t too far from campus, but I’ve never been sure where exactly.)

Kaufman and Hart’s writing was so tight, so well-crafted, that they won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936.  And that’s why Capra’s Hollywoodization is so jarring:  His writers weren’t that good.  His writers were wordy and saccharine compared to the rapid-fire dialogue of the original, and he certainly didn’t have the timing of Howard Hawks.  This classic scene is (IIRC) word for word out of the play

but even here the viewer can see a certain hesitation, when other directors might plunge right in.  I mean, when I compare this scene to the one from Bringing Up Baby, there is no  question which director is a genius and which produces schmaltz.

And by that I mean, it seems that the best comedy is brutal: it is honest, it is unsparing, and it gives its truths with a 😉 and a 😀  …which is much more difficult to pull off than most people think.

“Tragedy’s easy; comedy’s hard”

What makes for a brilliant comedic performance?  I think: it can’t be played for laughs.  That is to say, the actor must make the audience believe that the character believes that this is all deadly serious.  Ham it up (or, perhaps, ham it up in the wrong way) and you’re dead. Here’s one from I Love Lucy: notice that she is playing it as if learning proper English were the most important thing in the world.  (Desi’s struggles with the various pronunciations of -ough are priceless, BTW.)

Anybody can be serious.  Life is serious.  And so dramas get all the credit for revealing truths about the human psyche/experience.

Whereas comedy–the best comedy–makes us laugh at ourselves.  It punctures our pretensions and shows us as we are, not as how we want the world to see us.  And that can be an uncomfortable position for those who aren’t used to it.

But maybe I’m focusing too much on verbal comedy.  So very much can be done without words:

Good night, and good laughs.


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  1. Goodnight, Gracie.

    Wow, that was really funny.  What great clips.  Thanks!!

  2. one of favorites!!! and that scene is a classic… but then chasing George over the property was hysterical…

    great stuff.

    • pico on January 8, 2008 at 06:00

    although I’m more of a Marxist than a screwball-lover (although they’re closely related).  

    Groucho: I live alone.  I’m practically a hermit!

    Policeman: A hermit, eh?  You’re table’s set for four!

    Groucho: That’s nothing: my alarm clock is set for six.

    And honestly, has there ever been a better physical comedy setpiece than the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera? (first third of the clip)

    As for your observation that comedy should be played straight, I only partially agree.  If we had a biology of genres, comedy’s a genus in which there are many different species.  Groucho always winks at the camera: he knows he’s funny.  And I couldn’t imagine a vintage John Waters film played straight!  The actors mug so hard they practically break through the screen, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  3. Thank you ever so much 😉

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