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April 03, 2007
Comedy Part 1: Comedy Conventions
Initially comedy seems to be a very easy genre to deal with, most people like ‘amusing’ films, however, one person’s sense of humour is another person’s misery. From the perspective of genre the ability to appeal to a wide range of people to gain financial success means that it is a very difficult genre to do well, either as a genre in itself or as an aspect of a multi-generic or hybrid generic film. What constitutes comedy and the comic is complex. Film comedy is frequently a genre hybrid. Comedy can be made as; ‘black comedy’ with a bleak sense of humour; it can be reliant upon slapstick, gags or sharp-edged satire; it may be parodic of other cinematic conventions.
Comedies frequently rely far less than most other genres upon standardised narrative devices. A study of how the comedy genre operates throws the issue of narrative into sharp relief. The diversity of these comic forms is covered in part one of this three part section on comedy.
Part two examines narrative and its functioning within comedy. Part three looks at how comedy can act as a release of social tensions through well-managed social transgression, and also considers how comedy can function as a critique of social reality in a way which other genres can find difficult to do.
The diversity of comic forms means that a single definition of comedy is insufficient. The criterion of laughter isn’t enough to define a film as a comedy. This is because comedy is widely used in other genres for momentary effects. Think of the rather deadpan comic aspects of the Terminator films for example. These effects are a feature of the films rather than the central purpose. The Terminator films can’t be defined as SF-comedy. The term ‘comic’ means the ability to cause laughter. Even a real event can be comic. ‘Comedy’ is an aesthetic term with two distinct meanings:
The Oxford Concise Dictionary definition is : ‘Comedy, n. Stage-play of light, amusing and often satirical character, chiefly representing everyday life, & with happy ending (cf. TRAGEDY);’ The key meanings here are: ‘Amusing’ and ‘A happy ending’.
Notably the word laughter isn’t mentioned in this definition although the expression ‘amusing’ can be seen as a partial synonym for laughter but it expresses far more than this.
Social Class , Comedy and Comic Conventions
Historically both the content and the structure of comedy have tended to have a class bias. As far as content is concerned, where the upper classes are represented it is in their more private or trivial aspects of life. The enormous political power of these elites allied to the control of land, industry and the effects of this power on most people’s lives is ignored. Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002) can be considered as comic from this point of view.
In comedy note the importance of creating a happy ending and also the representation of everyday life which was normally concerned with the middle and lower orders of society.
A happy ending is a convention usually coexistent with other conventions, such as the constant generation of laughter through funny lines and situations. Where films have only brief funny moments but with a happy end both the film’s concerns and the structure can be close to the genre ‘we tend to think of as melodrama’ (Neale & Krutnik,199: 13). Under this criterion we can consider Thelma and Louise and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) as melodrama crossing -over with screwball comedies which are comedies about the 'battle of the sexes'.
The majority of comedy films can be seen as being genre hybrids. About a Boy ( 2002 ), The Full Monty, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting, Shallow Grave (1995) range through a number of genre hybrid combinations from romantic comedies, to ‘black’ comedies. They have strong narratives as a vehicle for comic aspects. The stronger the narrative the more the film takes on either multi-generic or hybrid generic aspects.
Historical Aspects of Comedy
Originating in high bourgeois theatre from the late 18th century there has been a link between comedy and melodrama creating a tradition of ‘sentimental’ comedy. It was a hybrid genre which emerged in several European countries featuring characters of a lower rank than those suitable for tragedy. A major aim was to encourage the audiences to identify with the characters and to weep on their behalf rather than to laugh at them. In France this was called comedie larmoyante or tearful comedy. Neo-classical theory made a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ comedy thus denigrating non-narrative forms of comedy. There are two fundamental divisions in the field of comedy as a whole. These are the criterion of the happy ending and the criterion of laughter. Narrative forms of comedy must have a happy ending and can have laughter. Non-narrative forms of comedy are only comedy through the criterion of laughter. Stand-up comics such as Ali-G and Paul Merton use non-narrative techniques of comedy.
Narrative comedy has a clear beginning, middle and end revolving around a definite plot. Non-narrative types of comedy just aim to create laughter with the plot a feeble device to act as a vehicle for a continuous stream of gags and slapstick such as Borat.
Comedy was very popular in early cinema which was a media form which appealed primarily to the working class mass audience. This situation changed as film technology and film-making techniques became more sophisticated. The use of narrative as a standard vehicle for comedy developed. Frequently the less sophisticated the audience the weaker the plot, and the narrative structure. Films such as Monty Python and Blazing Saddles (1971) break down this class based comedy by operating at a range of levels from slapstick to parody which depends upon a good level of cultural knowledge so that the audiences can understand the references.
Comedy and Comic Conventions in Cinema
‘Comedy’ as an aesthetic term has two distinct kinds of meaning. It can refer to the genre as a whole. Alternatively it can refer to particular works - Some Like it Hot. (1959).
The use of the indefinite article ‘a’ tends to imply a narrative form; The TV sitcom the Royale Family is comedy rather than a comedy, because it is non-narrative being based upon a continuous invariant location - the front room in front of the TV. This is a comedic form specific to broadcast media which can concentrate on series production.
The generation of laughter can mark all forms as comedy. It can also mark all genres which leads to a considerable amount of genre hybridity. Hitchcock’s North by North West (1959) can be seen as a comedy-thriller for example.
Generic hybridization should be distinguished from parody. In contrast to generic hybrids, which combine generic conventions, parodies work by drawing upon other conventions to make us laugh.
Parody need not necessarily be comic. When it is comic and occurs within the context of a comedy, laughter is consistently produced by gags and funny lines which specifically use as their raw material the conventions of the genre involved. Blazing Saddles for example isn’t a Western with comic elements or a comedy-western but a comedy which relies upon a knowledge of the Western amongst the audience to work effectively.
Parody is a mode or way of doing comedy, not a form. Parody has its own techniques and methods but no particular form or structure. It can occur within a narrative feature film, a comedy sketch, a quasi-documentary. Parody is one of a number of modes available to comedy. Slapstick and satire are other modes.
Satire works to mock and attack. Sometimes prevailing norms are attacked in the name of other non-dominant social values. For example M*A*S*H uses democratic and humanitarian values to measure the undemocratic and inhumane practices used in the war being fought in Korea. The Korean war was long over but M*A*S*H had strong contextual relevance  as an analogy to the Vietnam war which was going on at the time. It stood against the self-professed norms of the US military and governmental establishment and also of war itself.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) attacked the inhuman values of modern industrial society ‘in the name of disappearing values it associates with pre-industrial life especially rural life.
Examples of films reliant upon satirisation are Muriel’s Wedding which can be described as a satire of small-town life and as a satire upon the social institution of marriage. One reason why parody can be confused with satire is that parody can be used for satirical purposes. The actual process of Muriel’s ‘white wedding’ can be seen as a parody of the aesthetics of a typical white wedding. The audience, Muriel along with her Bridegroom and the Groom’s coach all recognise that the arrangement is not a real wedding. It is purely a business arrangement which is convenient for different reasons for both parties. The aestheticisation of the wedding, which could have been done quickly in a registry office, is a parodic form which serves to satirise the stifling small-town ritual of white weddings prized by Muriel’s peer group.
Thelma and Louise satirises men and masculinity and the role they play in women’s lives. In analyses of audience response the film was popular amongst male viewer’s who didn’t associate themselves with the absurdity of the stereotyped male characters. Thelma’s husband is satirised as being generally incompetent using a gag comic convention of literally putting his foot in it as he steps on a pizza answering the police. The truck-driver is successfully satirised as his masculine fantasies literally go up in smoke. Both are made to look stupid. The police officer who stops Thelma and Louise for speeding is on the other hand parodic, stretching back to the policeman in dark Oakley’s striding ominously up to the victim in a long line of films from Psycho (1960) to Terminator 2. The policeman’s unceremonious bundling into the boot satirises through parody this version of institutionalised masculinity.
Slapstick is another mode of comedy that can be found in a very diverse range of forms. The origins of the term stem from a type of prop which were a pair of paddles to create a lot of noise with minimum danger. This marked violent comic action of the kind to be found in pantomime, circus and ‘low’ forms of farce. The physical plus visual qualities of slapstick were crucial in the early comedy of the silent period. Slapstick is valued for the populist foundation of its aesthetic. Slapstick is inappropriate and inadequate as a vehicle for romance or its fulfilment. It lacks a plot structure that is capable of taking romance seriously. Narrative comedy can accommodate slapstick but the reverse isn’t the case.
The term can apply to any kind of visual comic effect. They can involve a comic effect like a ‘pratfall’ where somebody falls over. In Life is Beautiful (1998), perhaps the darkest of ‘black comedies’, Guido falls off his bike into Dora for example. At the beginning of the film there are a variety of gags which lead the viewer to think that this is comedy which is pure farce as the brakes fail leading the car past a reception for royalty. Gags can be a part of the narrative or else entirely incidental to it. Thelma’s husband putting his feet in the pizza in Thelma and Louise for example.
It is important to differentiate between comic and comedy and it is also important to note the differing forms of comedy which in more sophisticated products might all be present, which lends appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is usually the case that stronger narratives are less reliant upon slapstick styles of comedy and also that these comedic forms are more likely to be marketed as a genre hybrid. In the next section there is a more detailed account of the ways in which narrative works to increase comic effects.
1 See under Genre as ‘Hybrid and Multi-generic’.
2 See under Methods and Methodologies in Film Research / contextual Criticism’.