The Best Medicine

November 09, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has always fascinated me how one person's work of comic genius can be another's bat guano. What impulses are there that tell our brains something is worth laughing at, and why are there dramatic differences in what intelligent people find funny? I have always said that comedies are the most subjective of films. No matter how hilarious a movie may be (in my opinion), I can find someone who sat through it without cracking a smile. The reverse is also true. My all time worst theatrical release is the immortal Freddy Got Fingered, yet I recently read a looooong and passionate defense of it.

Borat is likely to be this year's most highly promoted comedy. Based on the evidence at hand, I'll admit it's probably 2006's funniest. To take things a step further, I'll rank it as one of the top few targets for laughter to-date during the 2000s. (The only one that tops it in my mind is The 40-Year Old Virgin, but your mileage may vary.) I have heard some hyperbolic statements to the effect that Borat is the best comedy of all time, but I dismiss those plaudits much as I dismiss assertions that The Blair Witch Project was the scariest movie of all time and Michael Moore makes documentaries. Without thinking much, I can come up with ten better comedies than Borat, and that's without doing any research.

This line of thought led me to another consideration: How well do motion picture comedies stand that test of time? Obviously, there's no definitive answer, so the best I can do is offer a few personal reflections. That's how I'll spend the rest of the column. Trying to write anything universal about comedy may be pointless. It all comes down to personal preference.

Two of the biggest comedy icons of the silent era were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Both were immensely popular in their day and their work has been passed down through the years. I have watched dozens of films from Keaton and Chaplin (shorts and features) and, while I appreciate their styles of comedy, neither reduces me to uncontrolled fits of laughter. In a statement tantamout to heresy, I would classify them as "amusing." City Lights is brilliant, but that's as much for the drama as the comedy. I can't explain why the most enthusiastic reaction Chaplin or Keaton nomally elicits from me is a chuckle and a smile, but that's the way it is. Sadly, I'm even less excited about the Marx Brothers. Their brand of comedy has always eluded me. I understand the jokes; I just don't find them funny.

Abbott and Costello, however, can still make me laugh, even when I'm watching something of theirs that I have seen several times. "Who's on First" has to be one of the funniest sketeches ever recorded. The first time I heard it on the radio, perhaps at the age of nine or ten, I had tears streaming down my face. Today, I don't laugh as hard or as often, but I smile through the whole thing. I suppose some level of baseball knowledge is needed. My wife doesn't get it, but she would rather do laundry and clean the bathroom than sit with me on the couch and watch the Phillies.

For a long time, I considered Blazing Saddles and Airplane to be among the funniest movies I had seen. I first watched Saddles on video tape in the early 1980s. I saw Airplane theatrically during its original release. Recently, I had an opportunity to re-watch both, and I sat stone-faced through them. With Blazing Saddles, the stuff my 15-year old self found hilarious no longer had an impact on my 39-year old self. Airplane is a little different case. There are two issues. In the first place, a lot of the humor is specific to the context in which the movie was made. The jokes about Sanka and the Hare Krishnas lose their punch when removed from the late 1970s or early 1980s. Secondly, the "saturation comedy" approach used by Airplane was fresh at the time. Now, it has been done to death.

When I first viewed This Is Spinal Tap on video in 1986, I was lukewarm toward it. There were some funny parts but, on the whole, it didn't work for me. Now, 20 years later, I consider it to be one of the best comedies of all time (one of the ten-or-more ahead of Borat). I can't explain why my feelings changed any more than I can explain why the laughter went away with Blazing Saddles or The Pink Panther. People change and their tastes change. My favorite TV show was once The Six Million Dollar Man. Now, it interests me for nostalgic reasons only.

When I first watched Fawlty Towers on PBS in the late 1970s, I thought it was the funniest thing I had seen on the small screen. More than a quarter-century later, my opinion has not changed. Monty Python is more hit-and-miss. When it's good, it's very funny. When it's bad, it can be painful. The two best Python movies are The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. For me, they have never lost their freshness or humor. The Meaning of Life, however, is uneven and, except in small bursts, not nearly as funny. It goes without saying that one of my great "comic heroes" is John Cleese, but I know a few people who can't stand him. They think he and all of the Pythons are fixated on weird humor that only intellectuals can appreciate. That doesn't seem accurate to me, since I know plenty of non-intellectuals who love Cleese.

Before closing, let me throw in a word about Saturday Night Live. I have watched the show on-and-off since its inception and it seems to me that, comedically speaking, it has lost its way. The old episodes (those from the Belushi-Aykroyd-Murray-Murphy eras in the late 1970s and early 1980s) remain great examples of sketch comedy, on par with the best of SCTV. Today, however, SNL is mildly amusing at best (and those episodes are few and far between) and unendurable at worst. I almost never make it through an entire episode. By the time the first musical interlude is over, I'm usually asleep.

People often complain that the Academy never gives comedies their fair due, and the gulf of subjectivity is the reason why. It's easier to arrive at a consensus of what constitutes a good drama than what comprises a good comedy. Comedies are the biggest risks for filmmakers and studios. If they come out at the right time and hit the right nerve, they can become monster hits. Most of the time, however, they deliver a few laughs and are quickly forgotten or they bomb completely. Next time you read a review of a comedy, be sure to take these things into consideration.