Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Column #8: Finding good comedy is no laughing matter

At age 40, Ricky Gervais came out of nowhere to revolutionize both television and comedy with his BBC series The Office. He has proved time and again, on chat shows and award shows, podcasts and in other people's movies, to be one of the funniest humans around. Both of his TV series were funny and rewarding. So how did he end up writing, directing and starring in The Invention of Lying, just another predictable, clich├ęd, unfunny dog of a movie?

The essential ingredient to making good comedy is time. As a character in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors notes, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." It's part of human nature to deal with a tragedy, like an exploding space shuttle, with humor; it's essential to our survival. But it's a different kind of time that is necessary for most comedy. Most comedies fail because not enough time is put into writing the script.

Jane Krakowski can be funny on 30 Rock because she has good material. Moviemaking requires months of 18-hour days, yet most comedies seem to have been written in a week. Though it seems foolish now, I cannot deny that I have seen both Extract and The Invention of Lying. Both movies were fairly well-reviewed, and both were written by one of my favorite comedy makers. So why, oh why, were both about as funny as Precious?

Mike Judge is the visionary behind Beavis & Butt-Head, King of the Hill and Office Space. Find me a writer with a better ability to turn relatable, banal real life into comedy gold and I'll be there to cheer 'em on. So why is his most recent work, Extract, an implausible, dull, misogynistic loser that looks like it was filmed in 1971?

Movies can seduce you with a witty trailer and an appealing poster, only to turn out to be a hot mess, like an eHarmony personal ad that leads to an awkward date at T.G.I. Friday's. But other movies, like the Coen brothers' masterful A Serious Man, can be exciting and thought-provoking long after the credits roll.

It's my fault, I know. I've been fooled many times, sitting through painfully stupid movies starring Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell or Bill Murray. I love comedy so much that I've wasted probably 200 hours of my life hating bad comedies. Some wake up every day and have a cigarette; I wake up every day glad that I haven't seen Mike Myers in The Love Guru. (And I proudly own a DVD copy of the Don Knotts movie The Love God).

Every week, I record Saturday Night Live, praying for at least two minutes of genuine mirth and rarely getting more. I don't understand why they can't write fewer fart sketches and book more comedians who have time-tested material ready and waiting for a national audience. In the past, they have helped expose comics like Andy Kaufman and Steven Wright, and the republic didn't fall.

If Woody Allen has made a dozen horrible movies, he has also made a dozen of my very favorites as well. The Coens hit a homer this time, but only after failing three of their last four outings. A glance at movie comedies that work shows that creativity and risk-taking really do pay off. Whether it's The Hangover or Caddyshack, Airplane! or Some Like It Hot, those willing to risk offending a few to make the rest of us laugh have certainly done well.

Sometimes I think that comedy is mad at us. Really, though, a bunch of lazy people are just exploiting their good name and our need to have a good laugh to make more money for themselves. In 2010, I resolve to avoid any Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams or Adam Sandler movie that won't be funny for as long as it takes me to eat my popcorn.

C. 2009 Velocity Weekly

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