Monday, June 2, 2008

Everything Old is New Again...

Last summer I wrote a column for The Ellenville (NY) Journal on the sad state of the American comedy, enlisting the help of two comedy pros--my younger brother, Dave; and Megan Ganz, now associate editor at The Onion.

With You Don't Mess with the Zohan coming out this week and The Love Guru scheduled to annoy millions on June 20, this column (as well as Dave and Megan's astute observations) is still relevant. Enjoy.

There are times when I watch comedies when I say to myself, “Am I the only who’s not laughing?” So, why do so many American comedies stink? I put my journalism degree—or more accurately my e-mail address book—to good use and consulted two experts: my brother Dave, associate editor at Mad, and Megan Ganz, a staff writer at The Onion.

Here’s what they had to say.

Dave: The biggest problem is that comedies, for the most part, are lazy. My favorite comedies all have strong plots and characters - and the jokes come from that. MASH, Groundhog's Day—even American Pie. The plot is the Christmas tree, and the jokes are the ornaments you hang on it.

With so many comedies, though, it's all ornaments, no tree. A movie like Old School - funny as it is - has the flimsiest of plots, just enough to get them from crazy scenario to crazy scenario.

Likewise, characters are developed just enough to give the smallest amount of context to their slogan-ready one-liner. And even then, most of those lines could be spoken by multiple characters.

The end result is a movie you may have laughed a lot at, but doesn't stay with you at all. It's a girl that wants to [have sex with] you and doesn't care if you know her name. And it doesn't have to be this way. The more you know the characters and the situations they're in, the more you can identify with them and find new ways to laugh. The plot and characters bring out the comedy of the jokes. Just because it's a comedy movie, that doesn't mean it shouldn't still be a movie.

Megan: Comedies in the past 10 years have not only gotten lamer—read: completely inspired and directed entirely toward the fart-joke and “Dude, those two guys are acting gay but they’re straight!” crowd—but they’ve actually gotten repetitive. We’re basically seeing the same five tropes trotted out again and again because the studios have correctly assumed that the American people will see them anyway. For every $50 million that’s being thrown at I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry 2, there is a Paramount intern passing on the next Annie Hall. And, unfortunately, it makes sense. If a tenth Scary Movie is going to draw people into the theaters, why risk money on a box office flop like Wet Hot American Summer so that a few kids in New York can quote it endlessly?

Dave: The worst offenders are those with "Movie" in the title: Date, Scary, Epic, etc. In these cases, there's no attempt to even construct a plot. No context is given, just familiar pop-culture scenes and catch phrases regurgitated in near-random order. And the "gotta spoof it this minute" mentality makes the movie so instantly dated and forgettable, it's hard not to think of them as disposable.

Megan: The problem isn’t the short attention span on our end—it’s the short attention span up top. Nothing is given a chance unless it’s a sure thing, because people don’t have time to wait for the word-of-mouth cult following that generally makes any great comedy. Even Judd Apatow had to make Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up before people finally started flocking to his movies. No one is willing to spend that kind of time when they could throw Dane Cook and a chimp butler together and end up with “this summer’s breakout smash!”

There is good stuff out there. Aside from Apatow and his protégé Seth Rogen, they both love directors Wes Anderson (Rushmore) and the talent that came out of Comedy Central’s cult classic Stella and MTV’s The State, notably director David Wain.

Dave also hopes Pixar makes more animated features with an adult bent and hopes that imports Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen continue to make an impact in the states. Talent only goes so far, Dave believes. “It’s an acquired taste,” he said. “The more comedy you watch, the more you look for something different and look for different ways to laugh.”

“For some reason, we’ve gotten it into our national consciousness that comedies are for wacky, meaningless fun and dramas are serious, adult business, which I think is a large part of why comedies are permitted to be so vapid,” Megan said. “But the greats (Apatow, Anderson, hell—Woody Allen’s still kicking) have all made their success on bringing the real truth about our absurd little lives to the big screen in a way that is both funny and tragic, which—when you think about it—probably more accurately describes life than any Million Dollar Baby melodramatic tear-jerker.”

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