April 15, 2010

Is there such a thing as "dumb" comedy?

Some people, when watching comedies, will admit during or after that what they're watching is very dumb - even if they find it funny. They'll use justifications like "oh man, I know it's so stupid, but it made me laugh." I recently realized that this never happens to me. It might happen with drama, especially TV - "Oh, I know it's so poorly written, but I just get sucked in!" but never comedy. Even in viewing films that were widely enjoyed while still being called dumb, such as Dumb and Dumber and The Hangover, I did not feel that I was witnessing stupid, mindless entertainment. I propose that there is no such thing as smart and dumb comedy, and that instead we should use the classifications of effective and non-effective comedy. Some people think that jokes about lowbrow subjects automatically lessen the humor or that the funny quotient is raised by more intellectual gags, but I don't think that's being fair at all.

Consider, for example, The Hangover vs. Epic Movie. To be fair, I haven't seen the latter - but I saw the trailer, and it's pretty clear that their idea of comedy is just dressing people up like characters from famous movies. This, to me, is what's truly dumb. It is not effective at soliciting laughter. The Hangover, conversely, utilizes lowbrow subject matter, but has rewarding joke/gag constructions. They work. We laugh. I believe there can be "smart" comedy about bodily functions, and "dumb" comedy about nuclear physics. If it does the job of making the audience laugh, you can't really criticize the means it took to get there. You could argue that farting isn't supposed to be funny, but Nazis aren't supposed to be funny either, and that doesn't make The Great Dictator or To Be or Not To Be any less hilarious or acclaimed. Or to put it another way: think of stand-up comedy, where the playing field seems a lot more level. I have seen both "dumb" and "smart" stand-up about everything from relationships to smoking pot, often coming from the same person. Chris Rock can make effective jokes about race; Carlos Mencia cannot. It's all in the delivery.

Obviously there are shades of gray - you can probably ca
ll the humor of Annie Hall smarter than that of Animal House - but you can't really criticize either if you find them funny. So next time you feel guilty for laughing at poop jokes, just reassure yourself that the subject matter is irrelevant and that you're just appreciating well-constructed comedy. Or do you disagree, and think that lowbrow subjects automatically demean the humor and make it "dumb"?


Unknown said...

I get what you're saying, but I guess I'd draw the line in a different place. If, like you say, there is some kind of construction where a + b = z and is therefore surprising and funny, that's "smarter" than, say, a character in Epic Movie who recites a line from a film in an impeded voice and then falls on their face.

The best comedians tend to be intelligent, and it's their use of words that you don't expect (even if you anticipated the punch line, they say it in an unusual way or using atypical word choices), or they use incongruence to great effect (eg Chaplin and Keaton, who were tiny guys with massive feet and were kind-of dumb/silly but often unintentionally outsmarted their foes).

I think the distinction isn't high or low brow, but how much creativity and originality goes into making the joke work. Sometimes something dumb will take you by surprise and make you laugh regardless.

majid said...

i love ( some like it hot ) and i like ( stan helsing ) .... just want to say .. i dont care ... for cinematic rules !! in some movies ... i'm sure i just want live in the moment .. even with some shity movie
i'm in iran ... and must say you'r blog is fantastic

(( sorry for grammar ... my english is not super ))

DGB said...

Great post. I've been saying for years that Dumb & Dumber is one of the smartest stupid movies out there. I totally agree that it's not the subject of a movie that makes it dumb, it's how it's presented.

I will disagree with you on one thing...Epic Movie is not a comedy. In order to be a comedy, a movie must tell jokes. I've looked and looked and I can't find a single joke anywhere in Epic Movie.