The Evolution of Comedy

Friday afternoon comedy discussion: Fish and I were having this one offline and I decided to bring it to the masses for their thoughts.

Obviously comedy has changed a lot over the years, particularly in film. Mel Brooks, Peter Sellers and the boys from Monty Python all introduced new ways of delivering comedy that have become the standards for the generations that followed. And of course there are always new genres popping up. “Animal House”, for instance, ushered in the “college hijinks” genre from which we can run a straight line right on to “American Pie” and onwards into the new millennium. But in my lifetime (or at least the years I’ve been aware of comedy and how it works) I think I can point to six films which for me, added a whole new style to the mix which had at best been only hinted at before. They are:

Airplane (1979) – The first comedy that basically said, “it’s impossible to have to ‘too many’ jokes”. They crammed more gags-per-second into that film that any that came before it. They also created the “one joke in the foreground and one in the background at the same time” style. While the parody film as a genre may have existed prior to this, the machine gun style was brand new.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) – The “mockumentary” is both a genre and a style, and few have attempted it outside of Christopher Guest and his band of misfits. But it opened up a whole new door of possibilities which indirectly lead to things like “The Office”. Without this film Sascha Baron Cohen probably doesn’t have a career, although to his credit he tweaked the format by making the “mockumentary where most of the people don’t KNOW it’s a mockumentary” style a possibility.

Clerks (1994) – Kevin Smith inspired an entire generation of young filmmakers by introducing what can best be described as the Comedy Of The Verbose. Suddenly there was humor to be found in conversations of the mundane and it was acceptable to reference the pop culture that came before it. “Clerks” didn’t exist in a fictional vacuum. It not only played off of but relied upon the collective knowledge of the TV generation. And it did so by delivering a movie where nothing much really happened, but people (in the film) had plenty to say anyway. In essence, it was lots of words (and jokes) without a plot.

Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery (1997) – The Myers Rule as I like to think of it is that if you drag a joke out far enough, there comes a point where it stops being funny. But if you KEEP dragging it out, at some point it becomes funny again. The extended pee, Dr. Evil’s diminishing laugh, and the Mustafa (Will Farrell) death scene are three great examples from this film. Suddenly old jokes became new again and comedy was somewhat reborn for the new millennium.

There’s Something About Mary (1998) – Whereas they hinted at it a bit with their first couple of films, The Farrelly Brothers broke through the glass ceiling of taste with “Mary”. It was now possible to be as crude as you can imagine (the now legendary “cum in the hair” and “extreme close-up of a guy’s nutsack”) and STILL deliver an actual story with a dash of heart thrown in. Judd Apatow owes his career to the Farrelly’s making this palatable to a mainstream, middle-American crowd without having to resort to “cult status”. At the same time Adam Sandler was delivering a similar crude product, but he did it without any real style. He was getting laughs by being obnoxious, while the Farrelly’s were slipping it into movies that could stand on their own without it.

Anchorman (2004) – Director Adam McKay and his brood, led by Will Farrell, reintroduced improvisation to filmed comedy, but that legacy can be traced back to the aforementioned Christopher Guest and Spinal Tap. What “Anchorman” brought to the table was the idea that you could go completely over the top with characters and occasionally have them become self-aware of it, without ruining the thread of the film. The anchor brawl is the prime example here. The scene gets ridiculously out of hand, leaving realism completely destroyed in its wake. The next thing we see is Farrell delivering the now famous “That got out of hand quickly” line, which suddenly made the previous scene that much funnier. Now it seems no matter how far off the rails comedy goes, you can always pull it back on track with a well-timed acknowledgement of the derailment.

Curious to see what people think. Are there any stylistic shifts from the last 30 years or so that you think I’ve missed?

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