I'm not necessarily a funny person. I tried writing comedy of various types for many years, but I've found I really don't have a knack for it. On the same tack, I do enjoy a lot of comedy, but the comedy I enjoy tends to be tempered with seriousness. I find that the best comedy tends to have an element of drama to it. That drama can come about in various ways...Sometimes in scripts, sometimes in performance and sometimes in the real lives of the performers. To the best I know how, I'll be exploring all 3 in this article.
To start off with, I would like to talk about the movie "48 HRS".
This was Eddie Murphy's film debut. For many years before this, he was known for doing comedy, from doing stand-up in his teens to being one of the most memorable cast members of the Jean Doumanian/Dick Ebersol era of "Saturday Night Live". This movie, though, was more of a drama than a comedy. Trailers and commercials advertised this as a comedy, with the boogie-woogie of The Bus Boys' "The Boys Are Back In Town" playing alongside clips of Eddie engaging in jokes and tomfoolery.
If one were to see this movie, though, they would see a movie about disturbed individuals. Nick Nolte's character, Jack Cates, is a drunk and distressed cop who tends to screw up whatever case he's involved with. If a man like that is on the good side of the law, imagine what would happen if he was on the bad side? That's how frightening this character can be.
We then come to the case of Reggie Hammond, Eddie's character. He's a very cynical and greedy character, always looking out for his own best interests and damn whoever else might get involved. Of course, I would feel the same way, too, if I had been in his situation.
He's being sprung out of jail to assist Cates in the case of escaped convicts and former Hammond allies Albert Ganz (James Remar) and Billy Bear (Sonny Landham). Ganz and Bear are in pursuit of a large amount of money, and they'll use any means necessary to get it back.
It's up to Cates and Hammond to stop them, Cates because he needs to redeem himself for screwing up an attempt to stop Ganz and Bear earlier and Hammond because he wants the money.
The way that Cates and Hammond interact with each other starts off as shocking, with physical and verbal abuse abounding. What's hyped up as humor in the trailer comes across as rather hard-edge when viewed with the surrounding text in the movie itself. In the end, though, the two make peace with each other. In a way, it's a hopeful piece. If these 2 can get along with each other, even after going through all they go through, then maybe we can, too.
Sometimes, perception can distort the intentions of a movie. To me, that's the case with the first 2 "Lethal Weapon" movies.
Both of these made occasional appearances on Comedy Central back in 2006, and that was rather perplexing, mainly because of the character of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson).
I think one of the reasons why many people think these are comedies is because of Riggs. They see his wacky behavior, his smiles, his rapid fire tone of voice, and his love of "The Three Stooges", and they think "He's definitely comedy material".
My theory, though, is that he uses these forms of humor as a way to keep his demons at bay. Scarred by his time in Vietnam, he later endured the death of his wife. Those two events, along with others that I don't think could be explained in the amount of time the movie has, have left a mark on him that can never go away.
With my psychologist, I've been learning about avoidance and how it can only make your problems bigger. That's most evidenced in the first movie when we see Riggs mulling the idea of suicide. He looks down at a picture of his wife, and he plays with a gun, putting it in his mouth and to his head. Playing with the gun is his way of avoiding the feelings of his pain. I've been told that if I'm in distress, I should feel the feeling/thought briefly, and then let it go. Riggs isn't ready to do that yet, and the depression only gets to him more and more.
This movie deals with suicide, drugs and the scars of war, and shows all 3 in explicit detail. Despite this, because of Gibson's behavior and a lot of the dialogue in this movie, it gets to be considered a comedy.
Where's the humor in an exchange like this:
Murtaugh: God must hate me, that's what it is.
Riggs: Hate him back! It works for me!
That doesn't sound like a comedic line...It sounds like the cry of a man in anger.
"Lethal Weapon 2" may seem lighter-hearted, but it, too, is quite heavy. After the end of the first movie, Riggs seems to have inched closer to a sense of normalcy, this being stoked on by his love of the striking Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit).
My article "Mixing It Up" goes into more detail about her character, but she and Riggs hit it off. It seems like he might be able to move on with her, but when she's murdered by members of the South African embassy that she was eager to betray, Riggs falls back into the trap of anger and resentment. The humor disappears from him, and he says to Murtaugh, as he's off to nail the murderers, "I'm not a cop tonight". The results of this are shown in graphic detail, and it hits even closer to home when he finds out that these South Africans are key to the cause of his pain.
Riggs' opportunities are being exhausted at each turn, and the exhaustion is weighing on him as a man. It's disturbing to watch a man being pushed back to the limit that he hoped to escape from. His torment and his anger can hit a nerve with you, but the jokes and smiles are supposed to obscure that. One needs only watch these first 2 movies to understand that beneath the smile, there's a disturbance that lives in each one of us. Some people are just better at hiding it than others.
I would now like to talk about Steve Martin.
Steve Martin has always been a comedically-oriented person. From working as a magician at Disneyland in his teens to writing for the Smothers Brothers in the 60s to doing his own unique form of stand-up and frequently hosting "Saturday Night Live" in the 70s, he was always making people laugh.
His stand-up comedy was always interesting. Sometimes he would wear bunny ears, and other times he would wear an arrow through the head. He always had an interesting series of lines, tackling both sophisticated and unsophisticated matters with a mostly calm voice, but one that could shift into slack-jawed or slimy at any given moment.
This picture illustrates what he was like when doing stand-up:
After bit parts in films like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "The Muppet Movie", his first solo film success was "The Jerk".
His character, Navin R. Johnson, wasn't a jerk. He was just a simple-minded fellow who, to me, seemed a prototype of "Forrest Gump". Johnson is a man of no particular intelligence who ends up accomplishing some great things, even though his family ends up reaping the benefits more than he does. Still, he's a nice guy and he does what he can. He seems rather Gump-like to me.
Anyway, this movie had all sorts of wackiness to it. From nonsense songs to racial gags to slapstick humor, it was hilarious material.
One might've expected him to continue on in this vein, but his next movie was a shocker. It was a piece called "Pennies From Heaven".
This movie was based on a British mini-series by a writer named Dennis Potter. It concerns a sheet music salesman during the Great Depression named Arthur Parker. Martin plays Parker and does a great job in a serious role. He went from playing a dumb but good-hearted man into an intelligent but vindictive and spiteful bastard. If anybody is a jerk, Parker is. He's after only 2 things...Sex and money. He's manipulative, abusive, perverse and disturbed. This has an adverse impact on his wife Joan (Jessica Harper).
(I couldn't find a picture of Harper in the movie, so instead, I found one of her and Martin being interviewed at a screening of the movie)
Joan is distressed by living with Arthur. He always wants action of all sorts while she just wants to have a peaceful existence. He's always trying to get her to do things she doesn't want to do, and I've never been able to figure out why she doesn't want to leave him. It's been a long time since I've seen the movie, but I have the feeling that she's holding onto him despite his treatment because it's the Great Depression and one needs stability, even if one of them is unstable.
Parker is always looking for something better and he doesn't care what he has to do to get it. This is most evidenced when, on one selling excursion, he falls in love with a school teacher named Eileen (Bernadette Peters, who previously co-starred with Martin in "The Jerk").
She's a sweet individual...One who you wouldn't expect to become a deviant. She has a smile for everybody...A pleasant, wholesome demeanor that seems to attract Parker. He views her as his shot at redemption, but Parker corrupts her to the point that she becomes a hooker named Lulu under the aegis of a smooth-talking pimp named Tom (Christopher Walken).
This movie uses irony on an interesting level. In the movie, the characters lip-synch to Depression-era standards of the type that Parker sells. So many of these are often bouncy and occasionally heart-warming tracks that you would expect to hear them in a wacky 30s-oriented comedy. Instead, these songs are used to illustrate the characters' disturbing thoughts...Thoughts of murder and sexual deviancy, thoughts that we try to keep supressed.
Tom is the most obvious example of this. He uses the classic standard "Let's Misbehave" to lure Eileen into his underworld. As he lip-synchs, he struts around the place, dancing up and down and all over, stripping down to his underwear, as if he's saying "This is what you'll be all about". He's disturbing...The whole movie is disturbing, but quite rewarding. It was underestimated back in 1981, and it's still not highly thought of now, but I think it should be required viewing for any 80s movie fan.
It was something totally unexpected from Steve Martin, and the critics didn't particularly care for it. I guess that no one was ready to see him do a dramatic piece. Times have changed, though, and now comedic actors can be taken more seriously in dramatic roles, just like Jim Carrey, who, 17 years after the release of "Pennies From heaven", starred in a movie that took the frivolity of pop culture and used it as a lens into the human psyche. That movie was "The Truman Show".
Carrey is another actor whom nobody expected to do a role like this...Well, that's not necessarily true. He had done several dramatic roles, but those were for TV movies. This was one of Carrey's first serious assignments for the big screen.
In this movie, he plays a man named Truman Burbank, who is unaware that his life is a TV show. It takes him a long time to figure it out, and when he does, he looks to get out. It isn't easy, though.
Due to Carrey's previous big-screen success, many promotional materials advertised this as a comedy. It wasn't really, though. It did have comedic moments, but those moments came out of Truman's dawning awareness. I think the best moment along those lines is when Truman takes his "wife" Meryl (Laura Linney) for a ride around "town".
He's speaking in a jovial manner about traveling, while she just wants to get home. Watching him getting the clue is rather uplifting. He's finally coming into his own.
Uplifting doesn't always equal funny, though. This is a very intelligent study into what's reality and what isn't. Once again, it may seem like an obvious question, but is it? At times, I think things can be unreal.
A good example is this: A few months after my father died, I walked into the house from school one day. I looked over to the side and I could've sworn I saw my dad smiling and waving at me. It couldn't have been an illusion...I recognized him. He seemed flesh-and-blood, but there was no way I could tell. He was gone just like that. Was that reality or fantasy?
That's sort of what Truman was up against. How could anything be this perfect, normal and perfectly normal? There's something going on. Everybody thinks he's the one going crazy, but the craziness is surrounding him.
Carrey performs a serious role quite well. Up to this point, people thought of him as a loud, wacky and toilet-humor-oriented fellow, but this movie proved there was more to him that talking out of his ass. As such, nowadays he mixes up comedic and dramatic roles. He's not as big a star as he was in the 90s, but in a way, I guess that's good. It allows you to explore different avenues of cinematic culture.
Sometimes, comedies can have dramatic sub-plots. To me, that's the case with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". The dramatic sub-plot comes from the character of Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck).
Frye is an emotionally disturbed young man, and this disturbance stems from his relationship with his father. One gets the impression that Ferris (Matthew Broderick) is like the father he doesn't have.
Ferris gives advice and encouragement to Cameron. While Ferris does say the occasional hard-edged line, he says it because he cares about Cameron. He sees how Cameron is hurting on the inside and he wants to help out. When talking about this movie, several people have hypothesized that the reason why Bueller took the day off wasn't because he wanted to get out of school, but because he wanted to give Cameron some joy and relaxation.
At first, Cameron objects to Ferris taking his fathers' car for their joyride, but it eventually impacts him in a different way. While they're trying to get the mileage back down on the car, Cameron finally snaps and fucking wails on the car. His screaming "YOU DON'T LOVE ME! YOU LOVE A CAR!" is one of the most emotional moments I've seen in an 80s movie. In its' own destructive way, it's a thing of beauty. Cameron is finally taking charge, and even taking responsibility.
Many people view "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" as a wacky comedy...I view it as a humorous character study of two polar opposites. There's something in the duo's friendship that's serious...College will most likely tear their friendship apart, but they'll make the most out of the time they have together. All of us should be lucky enough to have at least one friendship like that in our lives.
To end this article, I would like to talk about Richard Jeni.
Comedy is often used as a coping mechanism for the problems of the world at large, but sometimes, even jokes can't save you from the encroaching darkness. Jeni was one of the most tragic examples of that.
He was a gifted individual both comedically and academically, but beneath all of that, there was a sick soul inside.
The IMDB says: "Following his death, his family later confirmed that Jeni committed suicide, and that Jeni had recently been diagnosed with "severe clinical depression coupled with bouts of insomnia and psychotic paranoia.".
Before all that, one could see it in his comedy routines. One of his most famous bits was a routine about music to listen to when committing suicide. He outlined methods of suicide while singing snatches of songs like "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)" by Phil Collins and "She's Out Of My Life" by Michael Jackson.
When this bit first came about many years ago, it was a sterling example of dark humor. For me, though, the humor disappeared with Jeni's death and now it's plainly dark.
It frightens me, because I can be funny, but at the same time, I have rages and thoughts you wouldn't believe. With my psychologist's assistance, I'm getting better at dealing with them, but there are still time when I think of grabbing the knife and booking a ticket out of the real world. I always come back, though, knowing that for all the problems I have, I could be much worse off. The sad thing is that some people just can't see past that. Jeni was the saddest example of that, and his work is much missed.
In the end, all comedy is based on darkness. Whether it be fear of the world or a dim outlook at other people, underneath the idea of humor, there is something frightening. It's something that can't easily be put into words, but it's something that's easy to manage for some people and hard to manage for others.
With that, the floor is open for discussions:
What do you think is the basis for humor? Do you like mixing up comedy and drama? Do you think the two should be separate? Do you use humor to cope with the world, or do you use something else? Do you have different examples of how seriousness can find its' way into comedy?