Honoring Comedy I & II
Copyright © 2005, 2011, Dorian Scott Cole
Ladies and Gentlemen, I come not to praise Chevy Chase, but to find him. (In case you missed it, that scrap of text is faux Julius Caesar Salad.) In my original tribute to comedy, below, I left out one of my favorite comic actors, Chevy Chase. Why? I don't know why. If Oprah can misplace a sister for 50 years, I can misplace a comedian for a few years.
My wife says it's because my head is always in a dark place. I don't see it, I'm a happy person! But she seems to know where it is because she is always telling me to pull it out of there. Women know these things - they are mysterious creatures. My wife says, "Men think they are mysterious and deep, but they're not. They just have their head in this special place where they can't see anything." That's why they have such problems with Flatus. Uh, that's Latin. Digestive problems, you know, flatulance. I'm trying to be delicate here. OK, they fart all the time - now do you get the picture?
Sometimes we all just do stupid things, and then we have to do something even worse to get out of it, like reveal where our head is. Chevy Chase is great at doing just that... in his characters.
Chevy Chase is "every person." How can you be funny just being a person? It's called dead pan. It's us laughing at the stupid situations life gets us in, or we get ourselves into, just by being human. On Chevy Chase's face you can see all of the foibles, torments, temptations, smashed hopes and dreams, aspirations, flatulence, mistakes, contradictions, surprises, anger, and just plain humanness of the human condition. We can see ourselves reflected in Chevy Chase and laugh at ourselves. He is unique among comedians. When Robin Williams made RV, it wasn't nearly as funny as what Chevy Chase did in the National Lampoon's Vacation series of movies. William's comedic genius was not as well suited to what Chevy Chase does so well.
Chase's comedic style, I think, is the highest art, whether drama or comedy. It's us getting into the ridiculous situations that life puts us in, and it's either cry or laugh. Chase makes us laugh. It's true situation comedy. Not because we're stupid. Not because we can make one-liner cracks. But because we're just plain human. Not that Chase can't do the other stuff - he's as great at slap stick as Dick Van Dyke and Danny Kaye (comparable comedians), and incorporates this into his situations.
For our family, National Lampoon's Vacation (directed by Ramis and written by John Hughes), and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, written by John Hughes) are as much an annual classic watch as It's a Wonderful Life, and Scrooged.
Unfortunately I don't get to watch Chevy Chase much in NBC's Community TV sitcom, where I think he is actually under-utilized. But I couldn't live with myself without recognizing his true comedic genius, which will live on for us in movies like Fletch, the National Lampoon Vacation series, and íThree Amigos!. I would love to see Chase return in a National Lampoon Vacation as an older and wiser man who passes on his hard-earned wisdom, which gets bashed by today's reality and smashed under the heels of the new younger generation.
Honoring Comedy I
"Comedy," I say repeatedly, "is the highest art." This may sound strange to "serious" actors, who spend years refining their approaches to drama, but there is good reason for my statement. Comedy communicates effectively.
Doesn't all art communicate effectively? No. If art is controversial, objectionable, or confrontational, it probably is divisive.
When people see and hear information, they tend to react in one of two ways. If they agree with the information, the communication becomes reinforcement that strengthens their opinion. If they disagree with the information, their opposing reaction strengthens their contrary opinion. Only some people are open to differences of opinion and willing to hear the other side with an open mind.
Drama can communicate well about the human condition. Drama's tool is emotion - it touches us, giving it an "in." It is difficult to not identify with the plight of a character that you like, even though you may have entered the drama in disagreement.
Drama has its limitations. Well-written drama may illustrate the angst, the conflict, the differences... it may try very hard to help people see and understand, try to get us to identify, and yet run smack into defenses. Drama is a high art.
Comedy is able to slide by these defenses and make differences palatable. Comedy touches us in more than one way. Comedy makes us laugh at what is unexpected and different, disarming us, makes us identify with "different" characters, and lets us see their plight without raising defenses. We laugh, we identify, we understand.
Part of why comedy is so effective in getting us to identify, I think, is for two reasons. One, it doesn't take a topic seriously (at least, not on the surface). Two, the people are typically self-deprecating. They don't hold themselves up as a standard or to create confrontation. They simply say, "Here I am in my raw, unrefined, human state - not so different from anyone else." We enter the fictional story.
The characters and their situations are there to be laughed "at." But sooner or later, we are laughing "with" them at the situation.
Every comedy actor (comedian, comedienne), seems like he wants to be "taken seriously," as if comedy was only a distant cousin to the high art of drama. Yet, they have already reached the top if they are successful at comedy. Comedy is not only high art, it is difficult to perform well.
There are many really good comedians, but I want to single out a few who have created some excellent examples of comedy that communicates effectively. Several of these have been very prolific at the pinnacle of their success, and are worth using as examples. Past actors who have made us laugh and warmed our hearts include Charlie Chaplin, Danny Kaye, Walter Matthau, Carol Burnette, and Tim Conway. Their work is still around, still relevant, but I want to focus on current actors. Johnny Depp showed tremendous comic talent in Benny and Joon, often mimicking Charlie Chaplin to great effect, but he went on to more "serious" roles (and has been endlessly entertaining in the Pirates series of movies, and Alice In Wonderland). George Clooney sparkled with comic genius in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? He outperformed his action roles.... but... Both Sally Field and Meg Ryan, aka America's Sweethearts, often play in a special kind of comedy: romantic comedy, such as Sleepless in Seattle. There are many actors with high talent for comedy, but they choose to focus on other things.
The actors whose work that I want to focus on are Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Bill Murray (and added Cevy Chase above).
What is it about comedy that allows actors to excel? To answer that, it helps to understand what comedy is. The classical definitions (defined by the Ancient Greeks) are still useful today: drama, farce, comedy. Comedy is a serious topic treated in a humorous way. Much of what is considered comedy today is not comedy, but strictly farce. Farce is meaningless, composed of slap stick, one-liners, and stupidity. (I don't mean this in a demeaning way.) An example is the movie Dumb and Dumber.
Farce is not what I consider "high art." Yet thankfully, many of the techniques used in farce make their way into comedy, and have since the beginning of comedy with the Ancient Greeks. Something has to make comedy light, humorous, and "funny," whether its fertility rites, buffoonery, uncomfortable situations, or lampooning the socially absurd.
The actors' works that I am focusing on speak volumes about the choices of stories that these actors make, as well as the writers and directors who worked on the production. Many of these stories, I feel, will be classics and will be viewed by generation after generation, timeless, always relevant, always entertaining. Their work communicates an enduring message.
These comedians are masters of many types of comedy. More importantly, these people take big risks, without reserve, and channel feelings directly into action. The characters and situations they portray draw out their unique personality traits and unique reactions. Their actions are so unique that very possibly only they would carry the role and make the enactment fascinating. For a related example, Jimmy Stewart so far has been the only person to make the Christmas story, It's A Wonderful Life, so popular, despite an excellent attempt by Marlo Thomas.
What worked well in the work of these artists?
Bill Murray entertained us with Groundhog Day, What About Bob, and Scrooged. Two of these will probably be classics.
In Groundhog Day, (written by Danny Rubin, and directed by Harold Ramis), Murray's character is brought face to face, time after time, with people that he can't stand. Through these repeated confrontations, he learns to appreciate the people thrown at him. And then he learns to help them, and to even like them. By the end, his personality is transformed. We laugh our heads off at Murray's reactions, but perhaps we all learn to be a little more tolerant of, and helpful to, those who seem so different and... irritating. We also get an inkling that life may rub our nose in the things we despise until we change our attitudes.
In What About Bob, (from very talented and prolific writer, director, producers: written by Alvin Sargent and Laura Ziskin, directed by Frank Oz) Murray's character intrudes on the personal life of his psychiatrist. By the end, Murray's character endears himself into the hearts of the psychiatrist's family, but the psychiatrist has no room for him in his life. The psychiatrist seems to lack humanity, and he goes nuts. Perhaps, while we laugh at Murray's antics and the twist that brings the psychiatrist to criminal hilarity, we see a little of ourselves in the psychiatrist who remains aloof from those around him.
Scrooged is a modernized version of the classic Scrooge. I watch them both every Christmas. Most classics refuse to be modernized, but this one works exceptionally well. (It was written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue, and directed by the very prolific and rarely unsuccessful Richard Donner.) Murray's character is a TV exec. who has sold his soul to the network.
Through repeated exposure to those people in his life who really count, he is brought face to face with his own humanity - or lack of it. By the end, he sees himself as he really is, and has refreshed his perspective on what is important. If you can't laugh at Scrooged, then... you just can't laugh. If your own perspective on what is important isn't refreshed by Scrooged, then...
Robin Williams. You wonder if Robin Williams can stop being funny. He can. He made such movies as the very poignant What Dreams May Come. Thankfully his choices include Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Bird Cage and Patch Adams.
Good Morning Vietnam was set in Vietnam during the armed "conflict" in which thousands of North and South Vietnamese and Americans died in battle - part of the ongoing war between Democracy and Communism. Several movies had previously been made that included the graphic nature of the conflict and the idealism, even misplaced idealism. The US was still reeling from the loss of the war and the meaning of it all. (It was written by Mitch Markowitz, and directed by prolific Barry Levinson, and probably will be a classic.)
William's character was a radio announcer who brought laughter and good music to the troops fighting the war - both of which they sorely missed. He also tried to bring truth to the arena. Truth was censored from those going to battle. They could feel the pain every day, but they could not know the truth. Who knew the truth, anyway? William's character learns that not even his friends can be trusted. The audience was able to laugh, finally, at some aspect of the conflict, and begin to question what was hidden from them by those who conducted the war.
Patch Adams poses the question, "Can laughter make you well?" It is the true story of a doctor, Patch Adams, who found that the medical community can be cold and caustic, but trying to inject humor in it can even make it hostile. Laughter may or may not accelerate healing, but it makes the medical treatment more fun for the patient. Laughs aside, the good doctor also dedicated himself to bringing medical care to those who could not get it, through his "Gesundheit Clinic." This movie contrasts the delivery of medical services with cold professionalism versus delivering them with warmth and humor. (It was written by Patch Adams and Maureen Mylander, and directed by Tom Shadyac.)
Jim Carrey is a brilliant character actor who performs such roles as the Grinch in the Dr. Zeus classic, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. He brought us three comedy movies that I think will be classics: The Mask, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty.
In The Mask, Carrey's character gains magical abilities when he puts an ancient mask on his face. It is the work of mischief and chance behind the mask, but in the end he discovers that he has the power within himself to be and do what he wants. (From a very experienced group: written by Michael Fallon, Mark Verheiden, and Mike Werb; and directed by Chuck Russell.) Carrey's character is every person. Through his comic antics, we identify with his plight and for a moment realize that we all can be that other person if we can find it within ourselves.
Liar Liar is the story of a man, Carrey's character, who uses lies to cover up his failure to live up to his priorities - his family. He is a lawyer who one day is unable... gulp... to lie. His court appearances are hilarious as he is unable to hide the unvarnished truth.
By the end, he is unable to lie to his family, so what they see is an honestly caring person who now realizes he hasn't tried hard enough to be with them. Perhaps climbing the ladder is not nearly as important as being with family.
Bruce Almighty allows a small peek at what it means to have the power of God. What if you were the maniac in control? Carrey's character lets you see that, and the result is hilarious. Would selfish, petty acts be the norm? In this movie, people laugh themselves to a wider perspective. We get a sense that there is a reason why we can't instantly get everything we want.
Comedy of any type lightens our mood and refreshes us, which is a valuable goal in itself. But comedy can have enduring value. You can define and classify comedy, but it probably doesn't accomplish much. If you have to explain a joke, it is no longer funny. But I think there are some characteristics of "classic comedy" - the highest art - that is, comedy that will become one of the classics. Classic comedy portrays the human condition in a way that is heart-warming and amusing.
Life is funny - laugh at it. We need more comedy writers.