I haven’t seen a comedy in the movie theatre since 2017 and even then, I had to be forced to go. I don’t particularly seek out major studio “comedy” movies unless it has made its way onto Netflix or I have nothing better to do. A large reason for my disdain of studio comedies stems from the fact they rely on the “too much” crutch. If they want to be a more physical comedy? Ok, let’s show people beating each other up for 90 minutes straight. If they want to be raunchy? Alright, let me make every woman in the audience cringe in their seats with blatant sexualization of the female body.
Perhaps I don’t enjoy the over-the-top, shoved-in-your-face types of humor. I think it’s better to be pleasantly surprised with humor than beaten over the head with popularized jokes. However, clearly people enjoy these types of comedies. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so widely accessible. The question is – what makes a great comedy that is universally funny? People are different and therefore find different things funny, but there are certain things that can make us all laugh. What can make or break a comedy is balance – balance of humor and a balance of writing and performance.
To start, there are two types of humor – “low” humor and “high” humor. High humor tends to be verbal while low humor is focused on physicality. High humor is not as easily accessible due to it requiring a higher level of intelligence and wit. For example the television show, Gilmore Girls, was heavily reliant on high humor as the show is filled with obscure pop-culture references. If you didn’t get the reference, the joke often slipped past you. Additionally, while most television scripts tend to be 40-50 pages long, Gilmore Girls’ scripts were notorious for being up to 80 pages. This was due to the rapid dialogue pace, forcing the viewer to pay close attention in order to follow along. Alternatively, low humor is considered more “primitive”, often relying on slapstick comedy and cause-and-effect type of jokes. This is the type of humor seen consistently throughout comedies, even to this day, because anyone can understand it. Slapstick was very common in the Silent Film Era due to the focus on visual humor. Specifically, Charlie Chaplin was known to utilize this in his films. This consisted of the infamous “pie in the face” or gag and chase. Think of a clown throwing a pie in someone’s face, that person gets mad, and then chase ensues.
Today, I’ve often noticed that low humor is used heavily in children’s comedies. Minions is significantly dependent on physical gags. The minion creatures aren’t even able to verbally communicate, they just speak a language of random syllables and sounds. But kids crack up watching them violently hit each other over the heads with various objects and fall off high surfaces. Yet, what makes this funny is that they aren’t actually hurt – they bounce back quickly. If they were actually injured it wouldn’t be a comedy, it’d be a horror movie.
Nevertheless, too much of one thing can be damaging to a comedy film. If a film consistently uses the same type of humor, the “shock factor” begins to wear off and the joke can become quite boring. I find this highly relevant with mindless violence in comedy films. For example, the 2015 film Tag is based on a group of friends who maintain a competitive game of tag throughout the decades. Critics claimed the entire premise became “repetitive overkill” and there was “virtually no plot”. The entire gag of the movie was the slapstick type of violence that accompanies their game and the filmmakers failed to differentiate each scene from the next.
Some of my favorite comedies have been an equal balance of verbal and physical humor. One comedy I was really surprised by was Game Night. It had an interesting premise, that spun itself into a very clever thriller that kept the audience on their toes. It had that wittiness required to be considered a high comedy while also sprinkling in moments of crude physical humor associated with low comedy. Like in one scene, Jason Bateman’s character was suffering from a gunshot wound and his adorably awkward wife, played by Rachel McAdams, had to perform an amateur surgery to get the bullet out of his arm. The filmmakers deflected from the gore by having McAdams hilariously pour a bottle of white wine on Bateman’s arm as an antiseptic while he bit down on a squeaky dog toy. Later in the film, during a crucial scene where Bateman’s attempts to steal information from his neighbor’s computer, his wound reopens and profusely bleeds all over his neighbor’s pristine white carpet and shrine to his ex-wife. While that sounds fairly horrifying to those who may have not seen it, with the context of the strong comedic characters (with Bateman and his eccentric police officer neighbor who really wants to be included on game night) and with the sense of impending doom from getting caught in the act – it’s hilarious.
As important as it is to balance humor, it’s just as important to pay attention to the foundation of a comedy – the writing. Many times I’ve noticed filmmakers overlook the process of scriptwriting when it is probably the hardest and most crucial part of the pre-production process. A solid script is the key to a great comedy. Like any film, if the characters are two dimensional, the dialogue is clunky and unbelievable, and the plot is in shambles – most likely I’m not going to like it. I watched The Spy Who Dumped Me with high hopes; however, I ended up being very disappointed with the writing. It was oddly paced with unnecessary flashbacks and dull characters, riddled with monotonous spy nuances, and attempted to add “sentimental” notes about friendships that fell flat.
The only thing I ended up liking about the film was Kate McKinnon’s performance. She consistently adds a signature quirkiness and chaotic energy to all of her characters. Critic Alistair Ryder puts it perfectly, “Kate McKinnon gives it her all – but I couldn’t help but wish that the formulaic film around her was as wild and unpredictable as she was”. This brings up the important idea that an actor’s performance ability can seriously enhance a film – but there’s only so much you can do with a bad script.
On the other hand, even if you do have a decent script, an actor’s performance can seriously impair a well-written comedy. Mila Kunis is a prime example of this. I think she’s a great actress, however, many of her comedic performances end up being very bland. You can tell she’s trying her best, but she just doesn’t have that ability to become as hilariously unrestrained as someone like Kate McKinnon. When her characters do happen to have these feral moments of sheer comedic catharsis, it feels significantly forced. For example, one scene in Bad Moms shows a wasted Mila Kunis and her drunken outcast friends wreak havoc in a supermarket. Throughout the scene (and the film), I found myself being more entertained by Kathryn Hann and Kristen Bell’s characters. I felt this sense of disconnect from Kunis and her co-star’s just seemed to take on their outrageous characters more effortlessly. Some of the funniest characters transpire when the actor fully commits to their performance, but Kunis always seems to hold back. From my perspective, her best comedic performance was Jackie Burkhart in That 70s Show. Perhaps it’s due to Jackie being more of a prim and uptight character and that is easier for Kunis to manifest, but these “unhinged” characters she keeps getting cast in never seem to fit her acting styles.
There’s no humor style that’s significantly better than another. Even if someone is the smartest, most intelligent person in the world – it’s still funny watching someone fall down. Similarly with high humor, as filmmakers sometimes we just have to trust our audience’s intelligence and ability to “get the joke”. Having a mix of low and high humor can ensure that a comedy is reaching a multitude of different audiences and meeting those universal themes of comedy. In addition, it’s necessary to have an equal balance of writing and performance. It’s extremely important to have a solid foundation in which actors can build off their characters and take them to the next level. It’s also important to confirm that an actor’s comedic abilities fit the character they are playing. There are a multitude of different factors that can affect a comedy’s success but with that balance of humor, writing, and performance a film can significantly improve its chances.