Sunday, August 30, 2009

Stabbing at jokes, at some current comedy.

by Ryland Walker Knight

sell it

[My friend Miriam Bale asked me to write something about comedy for her Comedy Versus Criticism week a while ago. I just gabbed up some notes about some things not quite near and dear to me, but intriguing nonetheless. This is more like a long jotting, a prompt almost, perhaps a prelude to more like everything on this blog. Maybe you can holler at me in the comments, tell me I'm wrong or tell me I'm right or tell me something new I've forgotten. I should also say that I don't simply dislike Apatow, but I'm kind of puzzled by him. In any case, thanks for reading, and sharing any thoughts. Maybe some jokes? Yes, please! Also, I'll probably go back and add in some links as the week goes on. Just wanted to get the text out there tonight.]

vom it

Writing about comedy is tough. Though some, like Phelps, can theorize and sound really smart and convincing (helps to be super smart), more often it's tough to make an argument about jokes while making jokes and still come off sounding intelligent, not flip. That play between serious and nonserious is a real see-saw. That's why somebody like Nietzsche is so important (to me, for sure): he's got that incisive wit that doesn't pitch low, but isn't so pretentious that it deflates itself. Another part of the problem is how varied our senses of humor can be, and how comedy, maybe more than drama, requires a really peculiar navigation of one's taste. You have to argue from your taste always, but the arrogance of that seems so much more on display when saying, say, that Funny People isn't funny enough, or serious enough, to really work.

Funny People is a weird movie: despite a lot of "plot" and a lot of "jokes" not much happens and not many of the one-liners linger. A bigger problem for me, though, is that it's not all that cinematic. Yes, there's a self-referentiality, a nod to the indexical—and no stronger than in this new one (it's all about its makers)—but everything in an Apatow picture lives to serve the punchline: he covers every scene endlessly, he saps up scenes with music, and hardly anything feels crucial. The camera rarely does anything besides observe, but this isn't some Hou Hsiao-hsien patience; it's television's pragmatism. The picture's got the same body as Sandler, pushing out and sloppy, satisfied. And I couldn't shake this since I wasn't laughing much. Now, some of this may be where I'm at and how I saw the movie (alone, mostly), but, even with a crowd of friendlies I'm doubting how much I would dig the self-congratulatory pats on the back and casual antagonism. However, the funniest bits to me were the ones with Jonah Hill taking up the asshole role and plain running with it—saying "fuck you" to everything—but, even with all the dark jokes about nearing death that Sandler's George Simmons cracks during his faux "farewell tour," Apatow can't commit to the vulgar. This definitely helped develop sympathy for The 40 Year Old Virgin, but here it gets treacly. Nobody's especially "good" here, and if that's part of the point, then, well, I'm way off base and the idea that we don't grow but just amass problems is downright tragic. Yet it's literally a sunny movie! The revelation of Simmons' remission is filmed with all kinds of lens flare emanating from behind (and around) that arbitrarily German doctor's head. It's a fantasy first and foremost but without any modesty.

More vulgar and more chaste at the same time, and maybe less overtly funny, and maybe not even all that funny except in a chuckling way, is I Love You, Man. Talk about a modest movie. The romance is set—sure there's a hiccup, but there's a point made about its triviality—and the real conflict is whether a friendship can survive, let alone blossom. It's easier than Funny People, no doubt. As Danny Kasman mused to me, it's more akin to something out of the studio heyday when you'd see a set of actors appear in about four films a year and every once in a while the film would congeal into something lovely. It may not be quite lovely, but it's easily endearing, and more than competently put together. Mostly, I dig the spirit, say the moral center, of I Love You, Man. Again, this may be due to my current needs and desires from art, but, at bottom, it's a tighter picture with more honest goals than Funny People—and it meets those goals. Also, way fewer montages. Though, of course, there is a bonding montage. Again, it's mostly a pragmatic visual style in service of capturing jokes with everything lit for clarity's sake, but it gets the rhythms of talk thanks to its casual geniality. If anything, it is brisk. But its true cinematic worth is measured in performance, in revealing a person to himself. Paul Rudd has never been more charming—more cute, really—and despite his lumpy wannabe tough act, Jason Segal is largely winning. Segal may instigate some self-awareness, but it's a classic new dawn kind of picture where Rudd's man finds layers within, about how to don the mask that smiles. After all, it's a film about honesty.

Which isn't to say Funny People is dishonest, or only portrays dishonesty—though it's kind of half-assed about its "argument" (is there one?) for living with the web of responsibilities that life presents us with—but its best jokes come from that crass cut-throat dynamic between the roommate-rivals played by Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. As evidenced by the opening credits, Apatow knows all about living with comedians (he and Sandler were roommates) and, as any aspiring young dude does, he knows that close quarters bring out boys' competitive nature all the worse. There's a great movie in there somewhere, a really dark one about these idiots back stabbing one another to get a leg up in the rat-fame racket. That is, if Apatow made the anti-I Love You, Man. (Except, that's already been done, for the most part, with Peep Show, a BBC sitcom for the ages about two "best friends" who constantly undercut one another but can't quit the friendship out of a shared misanthropic combination of fear and apathy. It's really great stuff, full of terrible choices and worse behavior. One dude does crack, just a bit of crack, because he can; his name is Super Hans.) What makes the Rudd-Segal dynamic so ingratiating is the pure generosity of their budding friendship: they really want to see each other happy, and they like to jam. It's rare. It's also rare that this works. It's tough to talk about without sounding a sap. (It also flies in the face of loving something like Peep Show.) As with Role Models, it's not good cinema, but it's got good values. There's something about Paul Rudd, something in that self-deprication that carries over. He's no Cary Grant (I know, duh), but he's still a comedic force that stamps every picture he's in and that's got to count for something. Comedy, or this kind of comedy we're experiencing now, is so much about payoffs (as opposed to something like hysteria and absurdity) that all kinds of things set up jokes, including personae. This is, in essence, the premise for Funny People: we can't shuck ourselves.

who'd you eat?


hey now, hey now

The best movie of all these recent comedy hits, for my money, is Superbad. It straddles that line between dick jokes and sensitivity really well—and it looks good, too. Framing makes jokes, and spacing makes sense. Greg Mottola followed that up this year with a pet project, of sorts: his everybody's-got-one bildungsroman, Adventureland. It's not as outright funny as Superbad, and it's kind of a same-old-same-old young love story, but, again, it's got some cinematic gusto to go along with its poignancy and its ball-punching. For instance, Mottola punctuates a number of scenes with black outs, effectively working like chapter breaks, and he'll hold on a scene/shot for longer than expected to allow his actors extra beats of performance. He's got a rhythm that Apatow can't match. Further, he's a better storyteller: these two films are so tight they get myopic. They're as miniature as a short story, built on bits of nuance. Adventureland, more than Superbad, relies on its leads signifying with subtlety—the play of postures.

As befits adolescence, the soundtrack (often doubled on t-shirts) matters. The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" plays twice in Adventureland, in different contexts, and it reminds you of just how great a great pop song is—how it can apply to so many emotions, and how we often access many at once. (It helps that the song is about that, too.) Every detail in these Mottola movies adds to the feeling of the endeavor and remind us, focused as these two films are, that we hinge so many hopes on details in our youth. The focused energy only helps this kind of comedy. If Funny People had the balls to really meander into absurdity, its formless route back to the start—things don't quite progress so much as accumulate—might yield better jokes.

The closest to that in this modern pack of comedians comes from those Will Farrell movies, specifically Anchorman, which is just one gag after another, a supreme product of whimsy on set and in the editing. There's really no rules in that movie. It's tiring, but often hilarious; the irreverent won't (can't!) quit. That's the brilliance of Tex Avery: the pile-on. That's the brilliance of Tim and Eric, too: the absurd amplifying absurdity to an absurd pitch of cacophony, or the stymied inadequacy of a blank idiot stare and gaping mouth. Basically, though, all these forms point to a punchline of disbelief. Or exasperation. You have to laugh to keep going. That's probably my baseline taste, too: something that forces me to release because it's so much. It's just that I Love You, Man flips that disbelief on the project of honesty, taking up that stand-up "it's so true" impetus that kills a lot of the Funny People comedy for me, where I'm laughing at a mirror, a parody of my desires. The laughs I liked best in Funny People are parodies of my fears, I suppose. And it seems that this revelation of the hidden is exactly what film offers comedy. The inappropriate is given a voice, and a face. Too bad giving that voice a new voice in criticism is such a self-defeating project; classification is hardly hilarious. Dewey Decimal just sounds funny.

not ready
—For Your Health!


  1. I think you're spot on about the importance of Mottola's direction, its smart framing and its rhythmic sensitivity that sets SUPERBAD apart from the other Apatow projects. Where would PINEAPPLE EXPRESS fit in or stack up in your account?

    Rhythm is especially significant here, I think, because one thing that spans the Farrell and Apatow comedies is a stress on characters in the split-second throes of coming up with something to say, the slight stammering this entails (like in cutdown fights in elementary school). I'm not talking so much about improvisation, though that's a part of it, sure. I'm talking about how the characters don't deliver lapidary zingers as written by the Coens or Preston Sturges. Rather, the scene pauses for a few milliseconds and suspense is generated as they try to stammer out something funny, with varying degrees of off-the-cuffness. This ranges from the apparent freestylings of Farrell and Reilly to Franco saying things in PINEAPPLE like, "Tell them you got it from ... Santiago and .. Dunbar." The comic effect owes as much to the the brief lag as to the punchline.

    Mottola has such a keen sense of rhythm in this respect, and it really shines through in his handling of Michael Cera's lines, their perfect clumsiness and gently lisped articulations.

  2. I love James Franco in _Pineapple Express_ but I didn't think it was all that funny otherwise, and thus its idea of the pile-on didn't quite work for me. However, that final scene in the coffee shop is priceless. And DGG, of course, knows a few things about mise-en-scene, even tho he's fudging a lot of it on purpose. That movie, tho, starts and stops all too often, and not in a _Bringing Up Baby_ way, you know? As with the Farrell movies, there's probably a little too much improv and a little too scant planning. This throws the rhythm off. (Also, once again, I don't smoke weed (any more) and that avenue holds no interest to me.) Are you a big fan of _Pineapple_?

    Rhythm is maybe the most crucial element to film comedy, I think. Not jokes. I think plain laughs are more important, and shouldn't necessarily come from punchlines. Tati isn't about zing-bang'ing you into laugh riots, despite his violence; he just dominoes gags. And framing, yes, matters a whole helluva lot.

  3. No, I'm not a big fan of PINEAPPLE. I was just curious to hear your thoughts since it's one of the most critically respected of the Apatow films. I felt its prologue was painfully unfunny, and the fudging of things by DGG got a little tiresome for me. Franco is indeed brilliant, though, and I find Danny McBride's appearance and some of his lines funny, like when he opens the door of his house, bounces an exercise ball, and says, I believe, "I'm up in here trying to get a motherfuckin' scholarship."

    I agree its best scene is its last one, the recap at Denny's. There we really get a sense of what I think makes some of these recent comedies pretty interesting, namely a sense of desperation not only for intimate male friendship but for its value to be explicitly and mutually acknowledged and celebrated by those involved. And this kind of friendship is repeatedly marked as a rarity -- hence the recurring significance of "corporate douchebag" characters in these films, guys so hopelessly immersed in a bland pop culture of SUVs and bad television that they're rendered insensitive to sincere bonds.

    I think this friendship aspect is far more compelling than when Apatow "deals with relationships," couples, marriage etc. The serious talks in KNOCKED UP leave me bored and unmoved. I don't like how in FUNNY PEOPLE we're supposed to judge Sandler's character harshly just because he isn't enthralled by Leslie Mann's daughter singing a song from Cats in a home movie. Who isn't tired of seeing or hearing about how cute those girls are?

    Yes, Tati is possibly THE model for rhythm and framing combined with physical humor (instead of zingers). Blink your eyes watching PLAYTIME and you're likely to miss a few of those dominoes, which tend to happen in the background and near the edges of the frame -- decentered and downplayed by the standards of American slapstick.