Make 'Em Laugh

Commentary by James Berardinelli
July 31, 1996

Did you find Kingpin funny? When I say "funny", I mean, laugh-aloud, sideplittingly hilarious. If your answer is "yes", you're not alone. Several hundred thousand people agree with you, including respected critics like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. If your answer is "no", several hundred thousand people also agree with you, including me. So why is it that one person watching this film comes close to dying of laughter, while another comes close to dying of boredom?

I don't pretend to have a definitive answer, but I have some thoughts. Innumerable studies have been done about why different people find humor in certain situations. The conclusions are mixed, but some can be applied to studying how movie audiences react to a variety of so-called comedies. Note that I'm not going to talk about people's taste in comedy (whether they like flatulence humor or not). Type of humor is largely irrelevant to the points I'm going to make.

During their Siskel and Ebert segment discussing Kingpin, Gene and Roger admitted that the audience at their screening was laughing nonstop through the movie. According to them, roughly the first twenty-five jokes provoked an enthusiastic reaction. I'm assuming this was a critics' screening (which sort of dispels one popular image about those of us who review movies being stuffy and stodgy), but it doesn't really matter. It's easy to envision a packed-to-the-walls theater with people practically rolling on the floor.

Things couldn't have been more different at the showing I attended. It wasn't an advance screening, so I was probably the only reviewer in attendance (at least I was the only one taking notes). The 300-seat auditorium was about 2/3 full, with teenage males (Kingpin's likely target audience) predominating. It took roughly twenty minutes before someone let loose with a hearty guffaw. After that, laughter was spotty, and rarely enthusiastic. It's safe to say that no one was close to rolling on the floor. I admit to chuckling four or five times. The person I was with didn't so much as smile more than once or twice.

Is it any wonder that Roger and Gene loved the movie, and I hated it? Laughter is contagious. If a few people at my screening had cracked up early, perhaps the entire theater would have been rocking. I don't know that any degree of audience enthusiasm would have provoked me to give the film a "thumbs up", but it's possible that the ultimate rating could have slid up the scale a little from its ultimate 3.0. And what if Roger and Gene had seen Kingpin at my screening? Only they can answer that question, but I'd be willing to guess that their enthusiasm might have been tempered somewhat.

To emphasize the point, I'd like to look at a couple of other films. I'll leave Roger and Gene out of this, and confine my comments to my own observations.

Back in 1992, when I was a neophyte reviewer, I saw a film called Noises Off. It's a movie that I probably would never have gone to had I not been writing reviews. (For those who are wondering where the review is, I don't consider it substantial enough to be worth archiving -- it's only two paragraphs long.) I recall very clearly the circumstances under which I saw the movie. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in March and the theater was packed. People, including me, started laughing almost from the beginning. The comic mood built quickly, and, by the end of the second act, I thought I was going to collapse. My sides hurt. There were tears running down my cheeks. No one in that theater could hear what anyone on screen was saying -- we were all laughing too hard. In my review, I praised Noises Off as "easily among the most hilarious motion pictures I've ever seen." Seven months later, I re-watched the film on video, alone and in my living room. I laughed a few times. Parts were amusing, perhaps even funny. But hilarious? Side-splitting? I just didn't see it anymore. Something got lost in the film-to-video transition. Possibly the audience.

Then there's Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, which I adored -- not just because of the drama, the setting, the acting, and the romance, but because I thought the comedy was excellent. I loved Branagh's interpretation of certain scenes. The ones with Beatrice and Benedick spying on each other had me, and everyone else in the theater, in stitches. When I re-watched the film on video, I still liked it a lot, but not necessarily for all the same reasons. The scenes that once had me doubled over with laughter now provoked just a smile and a chuckle. Perhaps it was because I had already seen the movie, but good comedy should be able to make you laugh more than once. (I continue to appreciate old episodes of John Cleese's Fawlty Towers even though I've seen each of them many times.) I still agree with my original assessment of Much Ado, but some of the reasons for the 9+ have changed.

Obviously, an audience isn't everything. I didn't like Dumb and Dumber, but the crowd around me was very enthusiastic. Ditto for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. And I had some positive things to say about the comic aspects of Another Stakeout, even though no one else in the theater thought it was very funny.

Another thing that inevitably affects anyone's reaction to comedy is overexposure. Seeing a movie "fresh", without any advance warning of what's coming, can often be a much more gratifying experience than watching it after seeing clips and previews. With Kingpin, I had seen the preview six or seven times before I went to the movie, and, as everyone knows, most of the funniest scenes are contained in the trailer (such as the rubber hand and bowling ball heading for the pins). I don't recall whether I laughed when I first saw the preview for Kingpin (probably not), but, by the time I saw the movie, several of the "big" jokes were stale as far as I was concerned. I wonder if Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel saw a preview of this movie at any time before their screening?

A couple of years ago, I saw a movie called The Hudsucker Proxy at a very early, advance screening. This was long before any previews were available, so I went in "cold", knowing only that it was the latest from the Coen brothers. I loved the film, and nearly died laughing during one particular scene (the bit where one of the board members tries to follow the lead of the late, lamented CEO). Weeks later, I saw a trailer, and was horrified to see that this scene, out of context, was included. The result wasn't particularly funny in the preview, and invariably ruined the scene for those who subsequently saw the movie.

Unfortunately, this isn't a unique situation. Trailers are capable of limiting the effectiveness of many movies, and not just comedies. I'm not saying that they ruined Kingpin -- I don't believe they did -- but I wonder whether I might have appreciated the movie a little more without them. I enjoy trailers (in fact, I feel cheated when a movie is shown without them), but it's impossible to deny that they can create distorted or misleading impressions of the motion pictures they advertise, sometimes to the detriment of those films.

So what's the point? Am I saying that if I had seen Kingpin in a theater full of responsive, exuberant patrons without ever having had seen a trailer, I might have given it "thumbs up"? No. All things considered, I still think it's a bad movie, and there's not much camouflage for that. Nothing can turn a 3.0 into a 6.0 or 7.0. But a 4.0 or 5.0 might have been within reach.

The point is that no one -- not even the most assiduous movie critic -- is immune to outside factors, especially where a comedy is concerned. That's why reviewing is an art, not a science. And, as I say to just about everyone who sends me hate mail, when all is said and done, it's just one person's opinion -- no more, no less.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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