I feel like an old fogey when I say it, and I don’t know; maybe I am an old fogey. But I just don’t find comedies funny much anymore. This isn’t a new phenomenon; I haven’t gone out of my way to see a comedy in the theatre in years, probably since before I graduated from college. The last time may be the summer after I broke up with my ex-before-last, when his mom and I went to the movies just about every week. (I miss his mom.) To give you an idea, one of the movies we saw together was Wild Wild West.
Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that I’m the wrong audience. I suspect we’ll get around to Ghostbusters at some point, though given our current babysitting issues, it’s almost certainly going to be when it’s on DVD or streaming. But mostly, the fact that I’m a woman brushing the ages of Middle Aged means that the comedies being made aren’t being made for me. They’re being made for boys in my own daughter’s age demographic. (She’s eighteen.) And that tends to mean that they aren’t exactly filled with what I find funny.
Oh, the Coens, and I’m still upset that Redbox didn’t have Hail, Caesar! when I had a free code and that I hadn’t been able to find a babysitter in the first place. (Maybe I should’ve seen it instead of The Revenant, which I didn’t even like anyway.) But really, that’s about the only example that’s coming to mind of a comedy that’s come out in about the last five years that I genuinely seriously wanted to see enough to attempt to make arrangement to see it in the theatre.
The thing is, one of the reasons I like the Coens and don’t like what I’ve seen of most recent comedies is that the main things that sell me on a comedy are wordplay and characterization. I do not find wacky situations and body humour to be a replacement. I’m sure I’m making a horrible generalization, and I’m willing to take recommendations, but there we are. I actually consider Nebraska to be a comedy and was pleasantly surprised by it, because I was delighted to discover that it remembered that comedies need more than just one-liners.
For one thing, I have long held that the most important quality of a character inside a comedy is that they must not know that they are. You can have one person, maybe two; the One Sane Man who is aware that everyone around him is, well, not. But if everyone in the movie knows they’re ridiculous and supposed to be funny, it’s less funny. There is a seriousness that I believe is at the root of all comedy.
Yes, even my beloved screwball. Remember Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby just wants to get the money to build a dinosaur skeleton, and everything going on around him is just what happens to him in pursuit of that goal. It’s completely ridiculous and unbelievable, but not to Katharine Hepburn. Or in any Marx Brothers movie, what you’re basically dealing with is a group of people all moving normally through the normal world and the brothers themselves, who are ridiculous but believe themselves to be equally normal, even when they’re perplexed by one another.
You don’t need to be in on the joke for the joke to be funny to other people. The actions of your body are ridiculous in their own way, but that doesn’t necessarily make them funny. Cruelty can be funny, but only if your target deserves it. Trying to live a normal life when you want to have fun doesn’t make someone a deserving target of cruelty. And so, yes, I’ll stick to movies starring people who died before I was born and genuinely lament that they don’t make movies like that anymore. And react with joy when they do. Old fogey? Probably. Snob? Maybe. But I’ve made my peace with it.