The views expressed herein do not reflect the opinions of Joe’s Writers Club and its members. They are the views of the writer, but I’m sure that JWC would agree with me. Wink, wink.
“Comedy. It’s A Difficult Concept” – Lt. Saavik, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
What makes you laugh? Whether it’s the verbal genius of Groucho Marx, Bill Cosby or, to a far lesser degree, the work of Adam Sandler or Bill Hicks, comedy based upon words needs little else but the comedian to work. On the flip side, just one look at Buster Keaton, the master of physical comedy, will have you chuckling until your sides hurt. You could also do pretty well with Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.
|Laurel and Hardy|
Comedy comes in two forms. Each can be distinct and separate, or they can mesh together and a myriad of ways that suits any taste. I’ll not go into every permutation of comedy here. There’s an entire library of books written about this fine art. I’ll touch on a few of the more important ones. It’s not exhaustive by any means.
Time for Definitions!
Screwball Comedy. Take a straight-laced ordinary Man. (It’s always a Man, otherwise the Comedy won’t work.) give him an unremarkable, uneventful, unexciting life. Throw in a wacky dame. (It’s always a dame. A lady would never act like this.) Throw both of them into an insane cascade of calamitous situations. (Never, ever dull situations.) Shake well. Now you have the basic recipe for a Screwball Comedy.
Take it further. The man has two distinct choices. He can run away from the dame, and perhaps have some return to normalcy. Or he can surrender and accept the wild ride that will destroy his life. Believe me, he never runs away. Or rather, he never gets far enough away. Something always comes along and pulls him back into the whirlwind, almost always it’s the woman.
The 1930s was the heyday for the Screwball Comedy, although they are still made on rare occasions, such as Game Night from 2018. Some of the Classics of the genre are: Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, What’s Up Doc? and the I Love Lucy show. More recently, there is Rat Race, Weekend At Bernie’s, and The In-Laws.
Let’s look at Bringing Up Baby from RKO in 1938. Cary Grant plays David, a paleontologist on the eve of his wedding. He has just received the last bone to complete his Brontosaurus skeleton. While playing golf with would-be million-dollar donor Mr. Peabody, he meets Susan. Susan falls in love with him instantly, but he thinks she’s crazy.
|Bringing Up Baby. 1938 RKO Pictures|
Of course, David misses his golf outing and then misses a dinner engagement as Susan keeps distracting him by hitting his car with hers or tearing his tuxedo jacket. Meanwhile, Susan’s brother sends her a leopard named Baby. She cons David into driving her and baby to her home in Connecticut where Baby can live safely. David brings his dinosaur bone with him for safekeeping. A nasty leopard escapes from a nearby circus and finds its way to the area where Susan lives.
Mr. Peabody is Susan’s next-door neighbor, and David tries to wake him up. Susan hits Peabody with a rock. Susan’s dog buries the dinosaur bone somewhere on the 40-acre property Susan’s aunt owns. Susan’s aunt has also pledged a million dollars to David’s museum, and David can’t tell her who he is because she thinks he’s a fool and a maniac.
All of these elements smash together in a wildly funny comedy set at a breakneck pace. Director Howard Hawks, the Master of the Screwball Comedy takes all of these insane aspects and crafts one of the funniest films ever made. The dialogue comes at you so fast that you have to really pay attention or you’ll get lost.
Black Comedy. Here we have something completely different. A Black Comedy pokes fun at something not considered to be funny, like funerals, murder, and nuclear war. Let’s look at one of the best Black Comedies ever made: Arsenic and Old Lace.
In Arsenic and Old Lace, we find Mortimer bringing his new bride Elaine home to Brooklyn on Halloween. There, he surprises his two aunts, Martha and Abby, with the news of his marriage. However, the revelry is Shattered when Mortimer discovers that his aunts have murdered a dozen lonely old men and buried them in the basement. Mortimer’s brother Teddy does the actual burying, believing that each body is actually a Yellow Fever victim from his digging the Panama Canal. Teddy believes he is Theodore Roosevelt.
|Arsenic And Old Lace. 1944 Warner Bros.|
While Mortimer is panicking over the dozen dead men, he has to keep Elaine from finding out anything. Just then, Mortimer’s other brother Johnathan arrives, with his plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein in tow. They have brought Mr. Spinalzo with them. Spinalzo is dead, the 12thperson that Johnathan has murdered. Johnathan needs a place for Spinalzo’s body, and decides to bury him in his aunt’s basement.
When Johnathan discovers the other bodies in the basement, he is very confused. He can’t believe that his two innocent aunts could ever do such a thing. Mortimer, on the other hand, is shocked to discover Mr. Spinalzo in the window box. He accuses his aunts of killing another person, but Martha says he’s a Stranger to her. Johnathan tells Mortimer that the body is his, and that he’s going to bury him in the basement. The aunts flip out and insist that Spinalzo is not allowed in the graveyard.
From this point on, the film becomes a swirling mass of craziness. Johnathan wants to kill Mortimer Mortimer just wants Johnathan, Einstein and Spinalzo to leave. Elaine becomes curious about Johnathan and the basement. A policeman keeps stopping by on his rounds, oblivious to the house filled with bodies and murderers. Throw in a visit from the head of an insane asylum, checking to see who’s really crazy in the house, and you have a comedy of the highest order.
There are times when Black Comedy nudges up against Screwball Comedy. Often it turns into parody. A good example is Airplane!, but that’s not important right now. What is important is the idea that comedy comes in many different forms. Among the most challenging is Verbal Comedy. When sound erupted into films in 1927, comedy found a home.
Perhaps the finest of the Verbal Comedies belong to the Marx Brothers. Their antics are the only form of Marxism I could ever follow.
As I write this, I’m wearing my Marx Brothers tie. Their first five films have no equal in film history as far as comedy is concerned. You can start with Duck Soup, perhaps the finest political parody ever made.
As writers, it is advisable to read as many humorous authors that you can find. The more absurd the better. You can get your fill with Tim Dorsey, Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry. Not by coincidence, they all live in Florida. Florida has a special maniacal wackiness that makes it a unique place. These guys, and about a dozen other Floridians, make humor seem effortless. Maybe it’s just what Florida does to people. Whatever the reason, writing Humor can be a true challenge to one’s skills as a writer.
I’ll leave you with the last words of comic actor Cecil Kellaway. “Dying is Easy. Comedy is Hard.”