The problem is that jokes deal so efficiently with ideas that there is little more to be said after the punch line has been spoken. . . .I once asked my friend Joe Heller what he was up to. He said that he had an idea for a new book. I said that one idea wasn’t nearly enough for a whole book. I said this because he is a funny writer.
If he had been a serious writer, I would have said one idea was more than enough for a trilogy. (Kurt Vonnegut)
The Judd Apatow school has become the dominant mode of film comedy in the last several years; it doesn’t diminish his achievement to call him more a promoter than a director or an auteur. His method could be called “get a strong ensemble of funny people and then just let them improvise–something good will come of it” and has its roots all the way back to one of the birthplaces of contemporary comedy, Chicago’s Second City theater. (Several Apatow performers are Second City veterans.) It’s produced a lot of funny stuff, no doubt (Superbad would be my pick for the best) but it’s also produced a lot of dross–and Apatow and his colleagues don’t always know when to leave out the latter. Sometimes, as in Wake Up Ron Burgundy, they make another film from the outtakes of the first, because whaddaya gonna do, not release that material? There’s another kind of comedy that’s the near opposite of this, though, the kind of well-constructed moment that requires everything to work right. When it does, sometimes you get something merely perfect. Sometimes you get something more, what I call comic sublime.
This kind of comedy, like poetry, works by compression. Vonnegut understood that jokes are economical, because they reduce things to a kind of essence. The sublimity comes from there too. Comic sublime gives the feeling that its moment cannot be made any better. There’s almost a mathematical thrill to the best of it, and that’s what makes it sublime, the sense that the moment isn’t just better or funnier than others, but that it proves itself to be the best. You don’t have to compare it to anything else to know that, any more than you have to rank your favorite Grand Canyons. I’ll discuss some of my best comic sublime moments here; feel free to contribute yours in the comments.
These moments hit because they’re so unexpected; the etymology of “sublime” as “sub-limit” makes sense here, because at these moments the work does touch another realm. Showing up at a comedy, one expects to laugh; certainly by the 90-minute mark of Tropic Thunder I’d been laughing and enjoying Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman. None of that anticipates the moment when he starts dancing, though, and his eyes go blank and he moves in a way that’s dorky and stupid and somehow goddamn graceful all at once–and that’s the sublime. The reaction isn’t laughter, it’s the openmouthed “what in the fuck am I seeing here?” Call it the shock of unrecognition.
The unrealism of comedy allows it to achieve this perfection. Drama, in the classical definition, can be this perfect too; a classical drama has something mechanical about it, a device constructed to bring its characters into an elemental conflict with themselves. So many modern dramas do not follow the classical definition, though. They are messy literary works–and they have their own value–but they don’t follow the rigorous construction of classical drama. Great comedy, though, can have a built-in sense of unreality; we can accept crazier behavior in it, and that allows for sublime perfection. (That may be what prevents the Apatovian school from achieving the sublime. It’s not creating something genuinely different, it’s pursuing the feel of everyday interaction among friends and family, but funnier.)
That kind of perfection could happen by accident but it’s not likely. Like great poetry or music, sublime comedy uses the resources of the medium to its fullest, but not more. (Old saying for violin players: just because you paid for the whole bow, that doesn’t mean you have to use it.) “Who’s on First?” works as a great radio piece because it’s all about the language, the way that words flip meaning between or even within sentences. (Shane Black is our finest and most wonderfully shameless inheritor of this tradition, creating what could be called screwball action movies.) In Tropic Thunder, Cruise gets a mighty assist from Bill Hader and Matthew McConaughey reacting, and that’s really all the scene needs. Big-budget sublime comedy would be a contradiction in terms; the sublime often happens with the simplest resources and presentation. In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, having Nathan Fillion’s Capt. Hammer explain “the hammer. . .is my penis” is funny, but what makes it sublime is that staging: he leaves the frame and strands Neil Patrick Harris on the right, then comes back and delivers the line. What makes it so perfect is that moment of anticipation, when the Captain thinks “wait, does he get it? Maybe he doesn’t understand. I better go back and explain” and we imagine it–and that’s funnier than seeing it. (Our own Anthony Pizzo noted that this is comic-strip staging: “Set up, blank panel to establish a beat, punchline in that last panel.”) Having two pros like Fillion and Harris play the scene doesn’t hurt either.
No contemporary work did better at comic sublime than NewsRadio, a glorious farewell to the three-camera sitcom. NewsRadio ended in 1999, and Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night started in 1998. Both were half-hour workplace comedies set in the media industry, but Sports Night kicked off the 2000s wave of single-camera sitcoms, with much greater flexibility in staging, action, and writing. NewsRadio was old-school: setups, punchlines, laugh tracks, A-, B-, and C-stories, characters of a general, nonthreatening wackiness. What made it work, and what made it a candidate for the greatest sitcom ever made, was how it not only didn’t avoid these tropes, but used them with pride and polished them until they were comic diamonds. It went past any kind of ironic self-awareness (“I just don’t think this is the time for cunning plans or crazy capers.” “Dave, you never want to do any cunning plans or crazy capers!”) and into a celebration of the medium of the three-camera sitcom itself.
Through five seasons, there are too many examples to count, so I’ll just pick my personal favorite, the cold open to the third-season premiere, “President.” It involves Andy Dick with a mustache (in Dave Foley’s words, “I can’t pretend that’s not there”) moves through a series of reactions from different characters, and then finishes with Joe Rogan positioning Maura Tierney, Vicki Lewis, and Khandi Alexander behind him. As Dick turns, each of them delivers a classic sitcom reaction: Tierney spit-takes, Lewis screams, and Alexander slaps him so hard he spins another 180 degrees. The three reactions hit in an exact cadence, with the cut to the title landing on the fourth beat. It’s the comedy equivalent of the kind of endings Bach did, where everything comes together in a way that feels like nothing else could have happened. (For those who want to learn more about this, watch the damn series with Donna Bowman’s reviews as your guide. They are the finest writing to ever appear on the AV Club, and that is saying something.)
Among filmmakers, the most frequent creators of comic sublime are, unsurprisingly, the Coens. They are some of the most classical filmmakers around, creating works that are almost always thoroughly constructed and thought-out mechanisms. It’s no surprise that they can make comedy work in that way too. Even a lesser work like Intolerable Cruelty will have a moment of sublime: a waiter shoves a menu into frame right, George Clooney orders in what sounds like half a breath–”I’ll have the tournedos of beef the lady will have the same thank you,” and zip! the menu jumps out of frame. (Screwball comedy creates so many opportunities for at least perfection and occasionally sublime.) Depending on who you ask, Burn After Reading ranges all over the quality spectrum, but its structure is elegant and merciless, a clockwork of interacting stupidities where the worst happens to everyone and almost all of them deserve it. Nothing could be more precise, more pitiless, or more to the point than the cut from Richard Jenkins–the closest thing to a good person in the whole film–getting his skull split by John Malkovich to J. K. Simmons in his office going all “wait, wait a minute.” Even before we find out he’s dead and that Malkovich is in a coma (“they don’t think he’s gonna make it, they, they, don’t they don’t think, they’re pretty sure he has no uh, he has no brain function” sez David Rasche, in one of the best-written and -delivered lines of the Coens’ career), the cut tells us that Jenkins has been killed and no one cares. It’s far crueller and funnier than seeing him die on-screen would be.
Burn After Reading works as a Mirrored Movie to their previous film, No Country for Old Men; Keith Phipps described the theme common to both films as “the impossibility of control.” The Coens’ mastery isn’t just their ability to construct sublime moments, although that would be masterful enough; it’s to have them become part of a larger whole. The casualness with which Burn dispenses Jenkins goes through the whole film; Brad Pitt gets “scrubbed of ID” and no one will ever know what happened to him. No Country has its share of dark humor, and a lot of it comes direct from Cormac McCarthy. The Coens only slightly altered a scene from the novel to create its highest comic sublime, Moss’ return to the clothing store. Clerk Thomas Kopache sees him in a hospital gown and greets him with “How those Larrys holding up?” He’s not thrown at all, and neither is Josh Brolin as Moss–”good, good. I need everything else.” A beat later, he asks, only a little sheepishly, “you have lot of people come in here without any clothes on?” and the Coens give us a shot of Kopache looking almost directly at us as he sez “No sir. It’s unusual.” In another comic-strip moment, they hold the shot, which makes it funnier but also lets the truth hit us, a truth of McCarthy’s world. Kopache finds it unusual, but he isn’t surprised; what he gets and what Moss doesn’t is that the world has no obligation to make any sense to you: “things are not some other way. They are this way.” It’s a comic sublime version of the fundamental truth Barry Corbin tells Tommy Lee Jones two scenes from the end: “that’s vanity.” Like all great comic artists, the Coens know how to tell us the truth, and they know to stop immediately after.