Sunday, October 8, 2017

The sound of shtick: Some notes on comedy

There are sequences of great comedy in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) that I laughed at until my sides ached. They are two of the funniest American movies I’ve ever seen, a superlative I’m only too willing to concede since the conception of comedy they work on is dumb but not cheap, high-strung but not highbrow, potent but not intellectualised. And yet, the former isn’t in the top 50 of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American comedies and the latter isn’t even on that list. (Some of Woody Allen’s other works are, but they aren’t as funny.) Perhaps the Americans are as serious about their slapstick as we are unserious about our tragedies. It’s a haphazard confusion of identity, and it tells us almost everything we need to know how comedy, as a genre, has gone up and at the same time suffered.

Of these two Bogdanovich’s film is clearly the lesser work, not because it’s not funny at all but because it’s a lopsided tribute to the American screwball comedy of the twenties, thirties, and forties. It’s also not funny throughout; watching it today and identifying where it gets its timing right and where it doesn’t is a litmus test on what is, and what should not be, shtick. Shtick is dumb, clean fun. It doesn’t depend on drawn out dialogues because it tends to lose its edge, its punch, the moment you concede ground to long stretches of sound or silence.

The punch as such in comedy, and great comedy at that, comes from a sense of carefree carefulness, or mock carefulness: the sort that one notices in Chaplin’s best sequences, like the eating of the shoe-soup in The Gold Rush or the opening sequence of havoc and chaos atop a newly unveiled statue in City Lights. In The Great Dictator what is funny are the “individual acts of grace” (as Susan Sontag described them), like the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin) dancing with a globe, clearly dreaming of world domination, or the Jewish barber (also Chaplin) engaged in a haircut to the tune of Brahm’s Hungarian Dance Number Five. What is not funny, on the other hand, are the sequences of overdrawn political chicanery, like the protagonist’s love interest Hannah (Paulette Godard) being pelted with tomatoes by Storm Troopers. These are carefully planned, but rather too carefully. Consequently, they lose that punch.

It’s the same story with What’s Up, Doc? Lionel Abel, in his monumental book on what he conceived of as a new form of theatre, the meta-theatre, argued that the Western play was and is unable to thrive on characters who aren’t aware that they are characters set against a narrative. This is as true for Shakespeare as it is for Racine, Moliere, and Voltaire, and it is especially true for comedy, which flourishes because of those familiar elements of confusion, deception, impersonation, and humour. Not for one moment do the characters in a comedy think they are outside a narrative. They provide us with the laughs, cheap or potent, and they make those accessible to us. They are so aware, so self-conscious, that they don’t care. We don’t care either.

Tragedy at its worst is melodrama, and we have come across misconceived melodrama and tragedy in the cinema too (Ed Wood’s Glen and Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room) in which case they are inadvertently transformed to camp: effective but cheap humour. The theatre at its inception, then, is comedy: it is its default quality, its default tone. Drama is therefore a corollary, and once its rules are subverted, intentionally or unconsciously, it is restored to the domain of comedy. Again, one can make the case that this is true also for the movies. One comes across so many instances of directors trying to be serious, highbrow, and then failing so spectacularly that we snigger. This is valid even for the art house movie: it’s serious, frequently philosophical and profound, but when it fails to convey its meaning properly, we sometimes confuse it for unintended humour, and laugh.

The funniest movies I’ve seen from the last 50 years – including Manhattan Murder Mystery and What’s Up, Doc, as well as Freaky Friday, The Return of the Pink Panther, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Charade, Singin’ in the Rain, Sullivan’s Travels, and Bringing Up Baby – are largely American, if not continental, almost never British, and unashamedly spontaneous.

From Sri Lanka the only real comedies, that breathe like these do, were once the preserve of Joe Abeywickrama (who gave the impression of being disorderly even though he was not) and then of Vijaya Nandasiri (who gave the impression of being orderly even though he was not). The movies they were in, i.e. the best of them – Joe with Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya with the Raja Manthri series – were also spontaneous, at times scatological, and light in tone, without ever becoming condescending.

The chief function of a comedy, in the movies that is, was to secure invincibility for its protagonists. We see this in the work of the first great silent era comedians – Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton – and even in the first few talkie comedians – Laurel and Hardy, almost every character in the screwball comedies of the thirties – before the talkies substituted sophistication for wit and did away with this function. Even Chaplin’s forays into sound weren’t completely successful in this respect, which is why The Great Dictator invites both laughs and censure. (How can one turn the slaughter of the Jews into an effective comedy, anyway?) The Tom-and-Jerry routine of injuries without any harm and Rube Goldberg-like violent slapstick crept into the movies too; so when the movies rediscovered the primeval function of comedy, it rediscovered this routine and offered a hundred or so variations on it.

In What’s Up, Doc the most effective sequences are those which allude to these routines, which offer invincibility and suspend our disbelief with a casual disregard for our need to believe what we are seeing in front of us. Conversely, the least effective sequences are those which are prolonged with dialogues and monologues that do go somewhere but don’t contain that much desired sense of invincibility. Sometimes the most funny lines, and scenes, cohabit with the least funny ones, such as the following exchange, under a dinner table, between our two heroes:

Judy: So far so good huh?

Howard: Don’t you understand anything?

Judy: Like what?

Howard: Like Eunice!

Judy: Oh I don’t understand Eunice at all.

Howard: She will be here any minute!

Judy: You have got to stop repeating yourself!

Howard, played by Ryan O’Neal, is the hard-done-by clumsy and forgetful character here, yet he isn’t made to breathe properly:

Howard: I am not repeating myself... I am not repeating myself... Oh god I am repeating myself!

On the other hand Judy, played by Barbara Streisand, is more fleshed out, anarchic in the delivery of her lines; she is the only real invincible character in the plot:

Judy: Oh Steve, you don’t want to marry Eunice.

Howard: I’m not Steve, I’m Howard!

Judy: Well neither of you wants to marry Eunice!

Howard’s bumptiousness is strikingly ineffective as a whole, simply because he’s not fleshed out. He is self-referential, almost always making us aware that he is who he is. Judy on the other hand, like all the great comedic figures who come alive onscreen (one can include Raja Manthri, from here), has no back-story, no real preparation. She comes, she wrecks havoc and chaos (“But why to me? Why? Why? Why?” Howard asks in another sequence, distraught, to which she replies, “Because you look cute in your pyjamas, Steve”) The least funny scenes in What’s Up, Doc are piled up with adrenaline-induced slapstick – the car chase towards the end is so packed up that we can’t laugh, since we’re obviously overwhelmed – while the funniest scenes concentrate the energy, the vivacity, between a set number of characters, Judy and Howard’s fiancée, the hysterical and bossy Eunice (Madeleine Kahn), included.

But comedy isn’t just played out for laughs. It serves another function: restoring the absurd to the profound. Under careful supervision, all it takes to fulfil this function is one witty line, wittily scripted and wittily delivered. Some of the most facilely scientific science-fiction movies contain this quality – The Thing from Outer Space, The Blob, Forbidden Planet, but not Plan 9 from Outer Space, which was meant to be so serious with a horde of unserious actors that it became an unintended comedy – a quality which, incidentally, found its way to the science-fiction films of the sixties and seventies. Like the 1978 remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which contains one of the most hilarious deadpan exchanges in the history of the genre:

Elizabeth: I have seen these flowers all over. They’re growing like parasites on other plants, all of a sudden. Where are they coming from?

Nancy: Outer space.

Jack: They're not from outer space.

Nancy: Why not, Jack?

Jack: They're not from outer space.

Nancy: Why?

Jack: What are you talking about? A space flower?

Nancy: Well why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?

Jack: I've never expected metal ships.

Which brings me back to my earlier contention: the theatre at the outset, though it bifurcated in later years into tragedy and comedy, was comedic. Tragedy was real, alive, and even in the most allegorical and mythological narratives and plots. Comedy, on the other hand, existed outside the bounds of reality and verisimilitude. One sketchy article isn’t enough to convey my thoughts on the matter, so suffice it to say that the best movies that promise laughs and deliver on what is promised are cheerfully, confidently, invincible and dumb. That’s the main if not the only quality which divides tragedy from humour: the ability to wade through cynicism and melodrama while restoring the joyfully unserious to the facilely profound.