Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Comedy Don't Get No Respect

Woody Allen, on why he wishes he "had been a tragic poet instead of a minter of one-liners":
"Emotionally, comedy will never have the same impact," former stand-up comic Allen told Reuters.

"You can take the greatest comedies, and it's never the same as the impact when a curtain comes down on 'A Streetcar Named Desire' or 'Death of a Salesman.' You're pulverized by what you've seen. Comedy is just fun and entertaining."

I see his point, but I disagree. There are great comedies that are just as emotionally pulverizing, it's just that comedy generally involves different emotions.

For example, something like "Death of a Salesman", or Kurosawa's Ran, is so "pulverizing" because it hits you with deep sadness, even existential despair. Fair enough. Sometimes you're in the mood for some existential despair.

But personally, I was just as pulverized when the curtain came down on South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. As we exited the theater, one of the other patrons in the audience said to us, "I had no idea a movie could be so funny." That is just as valid an emotional response as existential despair.

Furthermore, comedy is just as capable of inducing deep sadness and existential despair as tragedy, it just does it in different ways. Examples off the top of my head would be Dr. Strangelove and Brazil, two more comedies that left me at least equally pulverized as "Death of a Salesman".

I could probably sit here all day and list off comedies that have just as much emotional impact as any tragedy: Happiness, City Lights, The Graduate, The Hudsucker Proxy, or, to use an example closer to Woody's heart, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Outside of films, my own favorite Shakespeare play, "The Tempest", is a comedy. Terry Pratchett's books, once he evolved from purely parodying fantasy literature to more social satire, are full of poignant, emotional moments, such as Gaspode confronting Death in Moving Pictures, or the last eight words written by Dorfl in Feet of Clay. Ain't nothin' wrong with comedy.


Chameleon said...

Completely agree on Brazil. Comedy can be as effective a medium in which to comment profoundly on the human condition.

Joseph said...

Your examples tread into the murky realm of "dark comedy", the recipe for which mixes sarcasm, satire, poignancy, and other Swiftian elements. A film like Confessions of A Dangerous Mind(and anything else penned by the great Charlie Kaufman) is the kind of dark comedy that makes you "laugh uncomfortably". Allen has never quite mastered this . . . Crimes and Misdemeanors is terrific but it is still two separate storylines (one comic, one tragic) that happen to collide at the end. Mixing comedy and tragedy is perhaps more difficult than either on its own.

Salvius said...

Well, that's because I was trying to give some examples of comedies that invoke the same emotions as tragedies, so naturally they're going to have to be dark ones. Dr. Strangelove, particularly, could be called a comedy with a tragic ending. In classical Greek terminology, that would technically make it a tragedy, although I don't think that's what Allen had in mind.