Sometimes Twitter is a vehicle for self-awareness. My colleague Larry Hartzell tweeted a question -- what movies do you know you’ve seen at least five times? -- and supplied his answers to get the ball rolling. I responded with the first 11 I could think of:
Heathers, Star Wars, Anchorman, The Naked Gun, The Naked Gun 2½. Airplane, Airplane II, Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Muppet Movie and Blazing Saddles.
Other than Star Wars, they’re all comedies. Other than Anchorman, they all came out before I had kids. The former tells you something about my taste; the latter tells you something about my free time.
For my money, there’s still a great book waiting to be written about dark comedy. (From the list, Heathers and Brain Candy both make the cut.) It’s a tough genre to get right, but when someone nails it, it’s a thing of beauty.
For me, comedy is best when it’s either dark or purely silly. (“Hey! It’s Enrico Palazzo!”) As a student of politics and an experienced academic administrator, I get enough seriousness during the day that I don’t need more at night. If I’m going to set aside time to watch something, and it’s not news, I’d like it to be funny. The only Batman for me is Adam West.
Comedy, to quote a well-known hack, gets no respect. It should. For women actors, the focus on their looks often overshadows real comic talent. Winona Ryder’s performances in Beetlejuice and Heathers were not only the best of her career, but they were both laugh-out-loud funny. She has a gift for sardonic humor that far too few movies have used. Christina Ricci had a similar energy as Wednesday Addams. Jennifer Aniston’s comic timing in her line readings can be spot-on, but that’s not what mostly gets noticed about her. Part of the reason that I never bought into the cult of Meryl Streep is that for everything else she can do, she’s not funny. When I heard that Nicole Kidman had been cast as Lucille Ball, I was disappointed. Nicole Kidman is not funny. Debra Messing or Emma Stone would have been a much better choice.
Male actors with comic talent tend to get more leeway. Those of us of a certain age will remember that Tom Hanks got started mostly as a comic actor. Part of George Clooney’s charm is that he always seems like he’s in on the joke. Hell, Cary Grant built a career on being dashing and funny. No shame in that. The first ten minutes of His Girl Friday are some of the most entertaining I’ve ever seen, and it’s based on rapid-fire wit. It can be done.
Even deeply stupid comedies can sneak in moments of brilliance. In Dumb and Dumber -- which could have made my list, along with the first Ace Ventura -- Jeff Daniels’s character offers this explanation for why his girlfriend dumped him: “She said we weren’t communicating, or something. I don’t know, I wasn’t really listening.” That’s perfect. And Dean Wormer’s line in Animal House -- “fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son” -- set a high bar for college administrators everywhere.
Of course, comedy historically thrived on television. In the context of a series, you can spend less time on scene-setting and just get to the good stuff. The repetition of the setting from episode to episode does some of the work for you. The Office, for instance, can jump right to cringey moments, because the scene is already set. Over time, it could balance a modern comedy of manners with sweetness. And it could tell truths about office life that most of us know but that we aren’t supposed to say; comedy gave it license. (Ooh, I should have added Office Space to the movie list. To this day, I can’t see a red stapler without smiling.)
After an entire academic year devoted to a pandemic, I needed that. Thank you, Professor Hartzell.
Program note: the family and I will be on vacation next week. The blog will be back on July 6.