what i watched last week
weeds (spoilers)

the life of brian

I keep saying I'm going to do this sometime, and now is a perfect time, but once again, I'm too lazy. The question at hand is comedy, and why I don't get it. But that is not the real question ... the real question is, why is it that some things make me laugh, but other things, on the surface equally funny, do not. I laugh at Buster Keaton's silent movies ... I laugh at certain TV shows, like 30 Rock ... perhaps most importantly, I laugh at the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker stuff (the first Airplane!, the Police Squad/Naked Gun series, and most of all, Top Secret). I single those out because, if I wasn't lazy, I might find it useful to analyze the humor of those movies in comparison to more classic comedies that leave me bored.

My general complaint is this. Most comedies, or rather, the comedies that don't work for me, share a couple of attributes. They look good on paper, and they include scenes that work well in conversation when telling friends how funny the movie was. Perhaps a corollary to the latter is that comedies often make for great previews, because you can take the biggest laughs, squeeze them into a three-minute preview, and make a 90-minute movie seem like a laff riot, even if the only funny parts are in the preview. Similarly, if you see a comedy, and you tell your friends about the funny parts, your enthusiasm will be contagious, and the five minutes you spend talking about the three funny minutes will make the movie as a whole sound good. Finally, if you like comedies, and you go to a comedy, and you only laugh at three minutes, but afterwards you recall those three minutes and how hard you laughed, you will remember having a good time.

But I'm an old sourpuss, and if I have to sit through 87 laughless minutes just so I can tell my friends about the three minutes that were funny, I'll think of that movie as weak.

As for the "good on paper" theory, some of the best comedies have excellent setups. Monty Python's Life of Brian is a fine example, a movie about someone who lived at the same time as Jesus, that works in biting satire on religion, mob behavior, and revolutionary movements, while tossing in a cameo by a Beatle, a clever nod to Spartacus, and an ironic song about happiness that, ironically, is often treated unironically in real life. This sounds like a movie I would like.

And I did laugh a few times. But for the most part, I was just staring at the screen.

I wish I knew why, because, in the case of Life of Brian, I am definitely in the minority. This is a movie that has been called the greatest comedy in British film history, and I'm complaining.

One problem, for me, is that jokes go on too long. Perhaps this is why I like the ZAZ movies ... they barely leave time for you to laugh at something before they pile on another joke, and if they repeat jokes (and they do), they spread them out, so instead of a Pythonesque "that parrot is dead" which goes on for several minutes, they tell a parrot joke, and then 20 minutes later they repeat the parrot joke, and 15 minutes later they surely repeat it again (and don't call me Shirley). They don't leave me time to get bored. But almost every time I laughed at Life of Brian, the thing that made me laugh was beaten into the ground long past when my laughter had died out. Yet, if I tell somebody about one of those scenes (oh man, it's so funny, Pilate has a speech impediment!) it will sound hilarious, because it will only take me a few seconds to describe it, but it takes forever to watch it.

Life of Brian gets points for directing its satire towards useful targets, and I might like it more if it wasn't a comedy. But the first thing I want from a comedy is that it make me laugh. If it fails in that regard, I end up admiring the intentions but disliking the movie.

Still, the appreciation of comedy seems even more subjective than most things, and I always feel like it's my fault rather than the work in question's, when I don't laugh. I don't mind, either ... knowing how many people love Life of Brian is good enough for me. It's not like I object to it on principle, the way I might with, say, Mississippi Burning, to cite one I watched recently. But I need someone to explain to me why Ricky Gervais makes me laugh, but Monty Python doesn't, why I love Top Secret but don't love Big Momma's House. Why do I think the video below is hilarious, when it isn't qualitatively different from any six scenes from Life of Brian? (I should add that Robin thinks I laugh at representations of people who are ridiculed for being socially inappropriate, which may be the first and last word, to be honest.)

Comments

scott

I wonder if maybe your issue isn't with comedy per se but rather with the built-in demand to laugh at them? Not being facetious. I've loved lots of comedies over the years, but rare is the comedy that makes me laugh out loud (or at least laugh out loud fairly frequently). I've sat with people (ex-girlfriends, usually) who slightly berated me for not laughing appropriately during certain movies or tv shows. It wasn't necessarily that I didn't find them amazingly funny (sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't), just that I respond to them less gushingly than some people. More often, I catch myself giggling about certain movie scenes in private after the fact.

Another short point I'd make is that movies with a lot of humour (Mean Streets, say) are in general funnier to me than quote-unquote comedies. But that's a different can of worms.

Steven

You said several mouthfuls there! I actually do laugh at stuff I find funny, but you're right, there's something about expecting myself to laugh that brings me down if I don't (laugh, that is). And the point about serious movies with funny parts is also right in line with how I am. Other people quote from Life of Brian, but me, I quote from Mean Streets (what's a mook?).

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