Compared to other film genres, comedy is absolutely the most subjective. There are so many different types of comedy films and they all appeal to different audiences. Someone who loves mid-1950s slapstick comedy might not enjoy more modern-day self-deprecating comedy.
Plus, it can be so difficult to name a favorite comedy film because what classifies as a comedy also differs! Take a look at the hotly contested 2018 Golden Globe nominees for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy: Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017), Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017), I, Tonya (dir. Craig Gillespie, 2017), The Greatest Showman (dir. Michael Gracey, 2017), and The Disaster Artist (dir. James Franco, 2017). These films, though cherished by their industry peers, aren’t even in the same breath as the all-time classics according to Rotten Tomatoes and RD.
So what does qualify as a comedy film?
Is there any sort of universal identifier that makes everyone laugh?
To try to answer those questions, I want to look at one of my personal favorite comedy films – What We Do in the Shadows (dir. Taika Waititi, 2014). What about the film makes me laugh? How is it considered a comedy?
The film is what is known as a “mockumentary,” a fictionalized series of events filmed as a documentary that primarily uses comedy and satire. Though the fictionalized documentary has been around since the early 1900s, the “mockumentary as comedy” idea became popular in the 1980s with This is Spinal Tap (dir. Rob Reiner, 1984) and resurged in the 2000s with films like Borat (dir. Larry Charles, 2006) and I’m Still Here (dir. Casey Affleck, 2010), as well as TV shows like The Office (2005). The comedic “mockumentary” is still fairly popular today with recent classics such as Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dir. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, 2016). Most of the time, the actors are encouraged to improvise their lines, aiding in a more natural delivery that adds to a documentary feel, as well as a shakier camera shot. In terms of box office success, the genre has been hit or miss, with many failing or barely earning enough to cover the cost of the film. The films generally receive critical praise and somewhat of a cult following in the years after its release.
In terms of What We Do in the Shadows, which did earn a profit, the film satirizes the sheer amount of vampire films that had come out in the 2010s by posing as a documentary. The film even opens with the logo from the New Zealand Documentary Board! The film also begins with title cards giving the context behind the “documentary,” noting that the film crew was following this group of vampire roommates leading up to a special event (the Unholy Masquerade) and that the crew wore crucifixes and were granted protection from the vampires. The audience knows that vampires are not real, they know these events are fake, yet by framing the film as real, the audience sees that this film as something that could become sensationally funny. They poke fun at various vampire stereotypes, such as burning when they touch silver, feeding on virgins, or that they can’t be seen in mirrors. They even poke fun at the Twilight franchise in a passing conversation. A memorable comedic moment is when the film goes into more detail about how the vampires feed and the camera zooms into Viago’s (Taika Waititi) panicked face as he hears more about his potential victim’s future plans, showing a different view of what we assume about vampire characters. The film leans into even more of this sort of spectacle by elevating simple domestic arguments with over-the-top reactions, such as when the roommates are arguing about their chore cycles and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Viago end up becoming so passionate about the cycle that they start hissing and levitating.
The funniest aspect of the film, in my opinion, is simply the dynamic amongst the characters. Viago, Petyr (Ben Frasham), Vlad (Jemaine Clement), and Deacon are roommates – a dynamic trope that lends itself to comedy well. The characters have little domestic arguments, like who needs to do the dishes or who needs to vacuum the house, just like us, adding to the relatability of the characters. As with most films, characters are a way in which we can see ourselves and how we could react to situations. The roommates in What We Do in the Shadows might be vampires but they feel like people that we know, especially as we see them trying to fit into modern-day society. They adapt the vampire stereotypes that the audience thinks that we know and uses them to fit into modern society, failing to get into nightclubs without being invited in and talking to younger looking teens because they believe that they are the same age. They have to learn more about cell phones, cameras, computers, the internet, and other modern technologies which they fail at. It is comedic to the audience because something that seems so simple and easy to understand for us is made so complicated for others and they have, once again, more over-the-top reactions than we expect combined with their stares into the camera.
The film also uses the style of “mockumentary” that The Office became famous for: the breaking of the fourth wall. In visual media, there is what is known as the “fourth wall” to separate the viewers from the film in order to create a sense of escapism for the viewer to immerse themselves into the film. When films and TV shows break the fourth wall, it breaks that sense of escapism and forces the viewer back to reality; it shows the viewers that the characters know that they have an audience. In the film, the characters break the fourth wall and stare directly into the camera after something ridiculous happens or one of the other characters says something ridiculous, such as when Viago attempts to wake up Petyr, Petyr reacts in an over-the-top way, and Viago sheepishly looks at the camera, as if to apologize or to acknowledge that he knows that it is just as ridiculous as we, the audience, thinks it is. The breaking of the fourth wall is also an aspect of this dry, deadpan, dark humor that has become more prevalent in recent years. Taika Waititi notes that it is the “comedy of the mundane” in a 2019 interview with Deadline. The characters are all so simple, but in the ways that they interact with each other and the ways that they interact with the camera are done so in a way that viewers can’t help but laugh. The addition of their solo camera interviews add context to the break of the fourth wall and the over-explanation of the obvious makes me laugh.
So, as a takeaway from the film, what about it makes me laugh? It is a combination of all of these topics. The characters’ use of the fourth wall, their over-the-top arguments, the gentle satirical take on the familiar vampire films. When a “mockumentary,” or even just comedy films in general, take something familiar and just enhance or amplify the ridiculousness of the situation just a bit, it becomes funny. That is what makes people laugh. That is what makes a comedy, what makes people laugh – the elevation and transformation of the familiar.