Make 'Em Laugh

June 20, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

This weekend's group of box office newcomers is dominated by the comedy: Steve Carell's remake of Get Smart and Mike Myers' satire of Eastern self-help philosophies, The Love Guru. Myers, who has often been a critical darling, is getting slammed for The Love Guru (which currently has a "Tomatometer" rating of 14% at Rotten Tomatoes). The big-screen Get Smart is garnering wildly mixed reviews, with its "Tomatometer" number standing at 54%.

The thing about comedies is that you can't trust anyone's recommendations unless you have a thorough understanding of how their sense of humor is constructed. Everyone laughs at different things. Of all movie types, comedies are the most subjective. The equation is simple: Unless the movie offers something else (like the love story of a romantic comedy), those who laugh during a movie will like it and those who don't laugh will think it's a dud. The term "unfunny" means little if taken out of context. Accusing a critic of not having a sense of humor is unfair. All such an accusation really means is that (s)he doesn't have your sense of humor. (S)he might as easily say that you have a bad sense of humor or that you'll laugh at anything. That would be equally unfair.

Even the "best" comedies (This Is Spinal Tap, the Monty Python movies) have their detractors and the "worst" (Freddy Got Fingered, The Hottie and the Nottie) have their supporters, indicating that humor truly comes in all flavors. But why do we laugh? What is it that causes some people to call a film "a laugh-riot" while others label the same movie as being "devoid of anything remotely funny"? There are many mitigating factors, but let me mention three.

The biggest contributor is probably our own internal disposition for laughter. Everyone has a different threshold. There are those who will laugh at almost anything if there's a hint of humor to be found. Then there are those who rarely crack a smile, much less fall down in a fit of guffaws. Comedians and movie-makers have to work a lot harder to milk laughs from the latter group than from the former. (Critics, it should be noted - myself included - tend to fall in the category of those who don't laugh as easily. There are exceptions, of course.)

Mood is another factor. People laugh and smile more readily when they're in a good mood than in a bad one. Many critics will deny that mood impacts their reviewing of a movie, but I find such a statement to be more wishful thinking than reality. I have taken down reviews I have written in less-than-ideal circumstances. Comedies are probably the most susceptible to such "mood perturbations." A movie can look much different if viewed in the wake of a celebration or a funeral. It's a rare movie that will generate the same enthusiastic level of laughter from a mourner as from a celebrant. There's an old saying that goes something like this: If you're happy, see a Bob Hope film; if you're sad, go for Ingmar Bergman. Misery may love company, but so does laughter.

Finally, there's the realization that laughter is, to one degree or another, contagious. You almost certainly will enjoy a comedy more if you're in a full theater where almost everyone laughs at every joke. That same movie, seen in an empty auditorium, will be a different experience. TV networks know this - that's why sit-coms have laugh tracks. Communal laughter does two things: it provides "permission" to laugh and allows the viewer to participate in a joint experience. Studios understand this as fully as their TV programming friends. Most comedies do not receive private press-only screenings (unlike dramas, thrillers, and action movies). Instead, members of the press are sprinkled throughout auditoriums filled with people given free advance passes. The critic may not laugh, but (s)he will be aware of laughter all around. (This can backfire, though. If a comedy is universally seen as unfunny and no one laughs, the result is devastating.)

My sense is that Get Smart, despite the split critical perspective, will be warmly received by opening weekend movie-goers. The road will be more difficult for The Love Guru. There's a lot of lowbrow humor in that film but those jokes are the kind that often find more favor with "regular" movie-goers than critics. The ultimate problem faced by The Love Guru isn't all the penis gags and bathroom humor but that the subject matter isn't the kind of thing to excite the average person who wanders into a multiplex on a Friday night or Saturday. As a result, Get Smart, the more accessible and enjoyable of the two, will likely top this weekend's box office competition. Would you believe it?