In the Gut of the Beholder

December 17, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Whoever came up with the cliche "comedy is subjective" knew what he/she was talking about. Few things are more individual than humor. One person's Monty Python is another person's Freddy Got Fingered. This makes reviewing comedies especially hard. If you have read enough of my reviews and know where I'm coming from, you can assess how closely my feeling about a comedy is going to match yours. But for those not as familiar with my work, it's a crapshoot. I try to include explanations about the nature of the humor but, when it comes to comedies, I have to admit that word-of-mouth may be more reliable.

This may seem like a change-of-subject, but bear with me.

A few days ago, I defended myself against charges made in a nasty "review" of my second book (it was actually more of a personal attack). To show that I'm not thin-skinned, let me post the entirety of another one-star review. (I'm re-printing it here rather than linking to it in case it gets pulled, like the other one did.) It's by M. Richardson "Film Genius" (reminds me of Wiley Coyote "Super Genius"). "This is probably the worst book i have ever read. I have read such classics as the Hatchet, A Lesson Before Dying, Final Fantasy fan fiction, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. That being said, i think i have the right literary degree to say that this book is AWFUL. Mr. Berdiarninelli cannot right for his life. His film reviews are laughable (2.5 stars for Matrix Revolutions, anyone in there write mind would give it 4) and he can't right why he liks or dislikes a film. I suggest you peopl dont buy this awful book, i douwt berardinelli even has an education. He gave BASEketball 2 stars, wtf? any critic =who knows good film would give this film at least a 3. DOWN IWTH BERDADININELLI! He's a racist and a terible critic."

Now this is funny stuff. If you're going to write a negative review with no substance, this is the way to do it. Mr. Film Genius gets high marks for the worst mangling of my name ever. (He spells it three ways, one of which is actually correct.) I love that ReelViews 2 is being compared to Chicken Soup for the Soul, and find it interesting that the "racist" card is casually thrown in (not sure where that came from). Mr. Film Genius obviously hasn't read the book, since he refers exclusively to reviews that aren't in it. My first impulse is to guess that Mr. Film Genius is a 10-year old kid but, upon further reflection, I think he's a lot older and knows exactly how funny this thing is. Maybe he didn't think I'd get the joke, but I do.

Three of the funniest films I have seen are Monty Python's The Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and A Fish Called Wanda. My favorite sit-com is Fawlty Towers. The common thread is obvious, but there are those who don't find John Cleese or his ex-Python friends funny. They look at these things and shake their heads, not getting it. Then they die laughing during Meet the Fockers which, to me, was humor-deprived. Some will argue that my preference is for "intellectual" humor over "stupid" humor. To counter that argument, I would point out that a lot of what John Cleese does in Fawlty Towers is not in any way intellectual. It's manic and slapstick-y, and extremely low-brow. (Although a step up from Benny Hill.)

This brings me to the main reason I'm writing this column: The Producers (the 1968 version, not the 2005 one). In his review of the new musical, Roger Ebert writes: "I know the 1968 movie The Producers virtually by heart, and it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen." Okay. I don't know it by heart. I have seen it twice (once a number of years ago and once a couple of weeks ago in preparation for viewing the musical) and I find it to be one of the unfunniest and most obvioius movies I have ever seen. Without exaggeration, I can state that I sat through the movie and didn't laugh once. Not only that, but I didn't crack a smile. I understood where each joke was supposed to be, but nothing in this film struck me as funny. The premise is clever, but "clever" is often not humorous. Joe Morgenstern, in The Wall Street Journal called The Producers "a clumsy... movie with an inflated reputation." I am in agreement.

Why such polar reactions? I don't know. I have friends who feel the same way Roger does, and friends who agree with me. It's a source of fascination to me that two individuals can watch the same movie and come away with such different reactions. Roger thinks The Producers is a comic masterpiece. I think it's a misfire, deserving placement aside Brooks' universally decried failures like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. To be fair, I'm not anti-Brooks. I think Young Frankenstein is a great film, and I admire both High Anxiety and Silent Movie. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed Blazing Saddles and The History of the World Part I, but my appreciation of those films has decreased with age.

Over the years, I have realized that I laugh less than some people, and occasionally at different things. I can appreciate low-brow humor, but I like it to have an edge. Laughing at comedies isn't always about "getting it." More often, it's about whether the joke hits the funny bone before being dismissed by the mind. I can't explain why I find some things funny and why others fall flat, nor can I classify my "comedy landscape." So next time you disagree with a review of a comedy (written by me or someone else), consider that, in essence, you and the reviewer may have experienced very different movies.