AH... the movies, they sure can be funny. So-bad-it’s-good funny, funny ha ha, hilarious, and side-splitting. Whether it’s absurd vignettes of vaudeville slapstick, great big giggles at gallows’ japery, or mocking smirks at one-liners drier than the Sahara, there’s really no end to the ways in which a good comedy can tickle our ribs.
It is often said of the performing arts, however, that dying is easy, but comedy is hard. This adage, attributed mostly to the British stage-actor Edmund Gwenn, is a classic performer’s credo, bandied about by bit players and luvvies everywhere, ruefully reminding headliners and ingénues that yielding an audience’s tears is far more easily achieved with mournful lamentation and ill-advised romantic suicide than belly laughs and pratfalls. But beyond the setting of live theatre, Gwenn’s comment still holds true, though this time as a warning to audiences.
Nestled in front of the silver screen, surrounded by crunching and munching and slurps of indistinguishable origin, getting scared is easy. A sudden orchestral blare, a quick edit to reveal something – monstrous or stabby – from nowhere, and a unified gasp and occasional shriek is heard from the harmoniously horrified crowd. Weepies? Easy peasier, just toss a topical illness at someone young or have some wizened old-timer kicking the bucket, and blubbering sobs and scattered sniffs are a guarantee. But getting people to chuckle, well that’s no laughing matter.
Each person’s sense of humour is so finely attuned to their own sense of individual personality that the broad strokes used by heehawing Hollywood tropes often fail to cut the muster. For every classic comedy, the ones that’ve stood the test of time and gone down in the annals of comic history, with naughty boys and blokes you shouldn’t call Shirley, there are countless duds and lead balloons, also-rans that cost full price but leave us watching the clock rather than rolling in the aisles.
Worse still are the times when you (read: I), appear to be the only one that isn’t in on the joke. You sit there, amid the cackles of laughter and stifled guffaws, waiting for the penny to drop so you too can be included in the cosy warmth of congressional merrymaking. It’s a strange sensation, being the only killjoy in a multiplex, sitting with arms crossed and a buzz on life support, willing your sense of humour to click and get it, and worrying that everyone around you will think you’re a snob or a bore.
Two recent cases immediately spring to mind, and leave me standing in a veritable no-man’s land of mirthful dearth.
A week ago I saw sporadic director Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, a critical darling starring Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody, telling the tail of a queen bee’s travails at a waspy east-coast university. The reviews, across the board, were fantastic, with critics and pundits claiming that Stillman’s film was a farcical tour de force, with whimsical gibes and droll wisecracks capturing the voice of a new generation of the cultural elite.
So there I sat in the IFI, a popular setting for the hungry spectators of the ennui of the upper middle class, and waited with diminishing hope and indifferent expression for Stillman’s schtick to work its magic on me. It didn’t. Less deadpan, more flatline.
But not for the rest of the audience. They, on the other hand, were teetering with polite and self-contained peals of southside sniggering, one man repeatedly asserting that each bon mot was more charming than the last by commenting “haha, very good” on an endless repeat of bourgeois approval. This wasn’t the first time I’d been the cinematic odd one out, nor would it be the last.
Perhaps you think my sense of humour isn’t refined enough to enjoy Stillman’s darlings and their capricious and daffy do-gooding? A man in my 20s, perhaps subtle jokes about college frat boys so boorish who don’t know the names of the colours of the rainbow is too finessed a humour, one wasted on a generation whose sense of what’s funny was formed by quipping “not” at the end of a statement, all in the name of irony.
Well rest assured; I am an equal opportunities comedy fan. On Wednesday I saw American Reunion, some thirteen years after my 12 year-old self thought that a man’s shortcomings with shortcrust was the height of hilarity. And again, I sat in relative silence while the packed audience brayed with uncontrollable laughter.
What was it this time? Why wasn’t I grinning at the gross out humour of C-list has-beens, the stoned flirting of Jim’s Dad and Stifler’s Mom, the drunken flashes of naked flesh, both male and female? The man behind me was laughing so loud and heartily, I am surprised he didn’t get a hernia.
Not me. Instead I bided my time and slipped out unseen after the boner bonhomie had brought tears of joy to the assembled masses.
Comedy is indeed subjective, and worse, I seem hard to please. Perhaps I’ll stick with the weepies.