I am a sucker for romantic comedies. I am not alone. Americans have loved romantic film comedies for just short of 100 years now with an unparalleled degree of passion and even zealotry. I am a zealot. What else could explain my love of The Wedding Singer? OK, that’s a cheap shot at the film just for a rhetorical joke. I regret it already, so I will confess a simple fact: I love The Wedding Singer and without hesitation will defend it as Adam Sandler’s best comic performance. OK, even as I type this I realize that such an assertion could be taken ironically or as a shot at Sandler. Once such jokes start, they are hard to stop. The truth is simple, though: I will watch The Wedding Singer and enjoy it any chance I get. The Steve Buscemi cameo alone makes it time well spent. Take a moment with it: Steve Buscemi in The Wedding Singer
Back to the popularity of romantic comedy. Go ahead and do a Google search for “popularity of romantic comedies”: 7,280,000 hits. That is a scientifically irrefutable testament to their cultural centrality. Just to seal the point with a point of comparison, a control group of sort for popularity: type in “popularity of Taylor Swift” and you will get 592,000 hits. That’s a large response but paltry compared to the rom-com, even though Swift’s music is in its own way a celebrant of romantic comedy. One more, in case you are not convinced: type in “popularity of Kanye West”: 545,000 (and trending downward), another win for Taylor Swift! But we are way off the point that I want to make here, which is this: romantic film comedies are crucial to the survival of the United States.
And they are in trouble.
The popularity, though many academics pretend not to understand it, is quite simple. The formula affirms basic human desires for–get this–happiness. Imagine that. This desire is especially central American culture since we inculcate the core aspiration (expectation) of happiness in our founding political and social ideology: the pursuit of happiness as an essential right. The romantic comedy simply affirms that happiness can be attained via love balanced with good-hearted laughter. The combination is perfect and whereas it leads to repetition and convention, so does life itself. Have you noticed?
We remain keenly interested in artistic expressions that celebrate love and laughter. The wonderful minds at Cracked have given us a fine discussion on the romantic comedy as form and cultural statement. The formula is indeed vulnerable to parody and mockery. Here is one of the most astute skewering of romantic comedy formula that also, in its own way, affirms the human desire it offers audiences: from Cracked, After Hours, on rom-com formula
The romantic comedy as an art form is yet again under attack. Plenty of people dismiss the predictable formula and the sheer repetitiveness, and, supposed schmaltz of romantic comedy films. That has always been the case, even as multitudes of moviegoers have supported that formula generation after generations.
No other form of popular artistic expression comes close to capturing the absurd vagaries of life on this planet while also maintaining a desire among its audience to continue living and laughing. Cynical ironists, however remarkably clever, always ignore the second but crucial component of the preceding point: humans generally want to be happy on some level. A human willingness to observe the “absurd vagaries of life,” as I put it, rarely comes with any desire to stop believing in the potential to be happy. Thus a paradox, of sorts. On the one hand, there is the human recognition of the Void (the stuff of nihilism, postmodernism, and The Family Guy); on the other hand, there is the human belief in two related expressions that reject the implications of that recognition: love and laughter. Romantic comedies, as the name impliles, bring those two wonderful human aspirations together. In the United States, that combination resonates like no other, and we cannot lose that advantage.
Only one definitive component of American cultural identity really matters: the push to pursue happiness. All else comes from that cultural imperative, all of our comedy and all of our romantic dreams. It is farce and inspiration all wrapped together. And the energy built from that vortex of tension makes for a vibrant comedic landscape. But American humor must always depend on the expectation of romantic celebration that we will live happily ever after. If that bothers you, go look in a mirror and say, “I am a tedious bore,” and leave romantic comedies alone.
The Interview will not be playing at your local Cineplex. It will not be available on DVD, or on your favorite streaming service. It may not even be available for viewing at any future party at James Franco’s house. The Interview has been canceled. Have you heard?
Poor Sony Corporation; it has been embarrassed and cowered by North Korean hackers. Who knew North Korea had the wherewithal to function at such a high level of cyber crime? Certainly not Sony or Seth Rogan. The leadership of North Korea has been fodder for much amusement in American humor over the years. It seems a fair target, if rather low-hanging fruit.
This is a big story. It brings up questions tied to global political pressures, corporate power and autonomy, censorship, cyber security, governmental and corporate secrets, Hollywood power structures, and so on. For a smattering of immediate reactions to the issues surrounding the now-failed film release, see the following:
Brett Lang in Variety: Sony Cancels Release — Variety
FoxNews online: Sony Cancels Release — FoxNews
Kyle Smith in the New York Post: Sony Cowardice — New York Post
Of course, my interest in this forum is American Humor. How should lovers of American humor respond to the shut-down/take down of a film featuring Seth Rogan, one of the most successful comedic minds of the last ten years?
So, this is a big story for American film comedy. What are the limitations of good taste or common sense or business sense when it comes to spending 44 million dollars on a film built around the premise of having shallow, dim-witted television personalities work for the CIA to assassinate Kim Jung-Un, the leader of North Korea? Does anyone say “no” to the Seth Rogan syndicate? What are the implications for the limits of comedy? Here is a link the most controversial–I would say ridiculous–part of the film, the death scene of the character Kim Jung-Un, as provided on YouTube via the New York Post:
It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?
Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.
I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.
For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.
Here are the first seven:
From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.
From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter, would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.
From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.
From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.
From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.
From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.
From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.
Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.
It was a golden idea. Take as many major stars as a film budget would allow and set them on a madcap search of buried treasure. It was a perfect American comic premise built around two essential tropes: the American open road as symbol for the pursuit of happiness and the unassailable and American belief that we are all destined to strike it rich. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (196), directed by Stanley Kramer and starring every single major star of film and television in the 1950s–everyone of them–is an American classic and an essential film for anyone interested in saying such things.
The title uses “mad” four times, for those who are uncertain just how mad the film is. Kramer, it seems, had wanted to use it five times but was convinced to hold the number to four because five would be redundant. To clarify: five is redundant; four is OK. There are lots of people in Hollywood who are paid to make such decisions, so we should trust them. Kramer later regretted giving in to the pressure to choose four. This fact may help explain why an early draft of his later film starring Spencer Tracy and Sydney Poitier had the title, “Guess Which Five People Are Coming to Dinner.” But I am getting off topic. I am happy with four, so let’s just leave it at that.
The film was an immediate hit and earned critical accolades as well, a difficult task for film comedies historically. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1963. It was nominated for Golden Globe awards for best musical/comedy film and for Jonathan Winters for best actor in a musical/comedy. It won an academy award for sound editing. AFI lists it at #40 for its list of the best American film comedies.
The film’s strength is its combination of our cultural confidence in the road as symbol for self-development and discovery and the contradictory mainstream belief that we are, in the end, a community of freedom loving individuals on a shared pursuit of happiness. We are a democracy. In this context, the film takes on a more satirical potential with the simple plot structure that takes this open-road ideal from its most romantic notion and reduce it to its most cut-throat race to find buried treasure; Americans of the mainstream as crazed road-pirates. Lennie Pike, the common-man character played brilliantly by Jonathan Winters, provides the best piece of dialogue revealing this core satirical voice within the film: “Then they all decide that I’m supposed to get a smaller share! That I’m somebody extra special stupid, or something! That they don’t even care if it’s a democracy! And in a democracy, it don’t matter how stupid you are, you still get an equal share!”
Sounds like class warfare to Bill O’Reilly. Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad.
The Criterion Collection released the film on 21 January 2014, and, as with all Criterion productions, the breadth and depth of material provided in support of the film may encourage further analysis of the film and renewed interest. That is a good thing. The Criterion It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World offers the complete film as Kramer had hoped to release before accepting cuts required by United Artists. This director’s cut runs 197 minutes (the theatrical version was cut to a more modest, though still long, 154 minutes). That seems worthy of a fifth “mad” in the title.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World was released in November 7, 1963, a few weeks before the mainstream ethos of the 1950s would end abruptly with the assassination of President Kennedy. The jarring slingshot of the national sensibility into the impending trauma of the 1960s has stifled the film for subsequent generations, despite its initial success in the box office and the high quality of the comedic performances. Its silliness and playfulness, for many viewers, has trapped it in the amber of the mainstream open-road ideal of normalcy. The characters, in the end, seem simply perverse caricatures of middle America. The defining sensibility is then simply silliness. The road as mainstream outlet for affirming adventures of the post-war dream withstood subversion of Kerouac and the Merry Pranksters but could not survive in tact the murder of the President of the United States as he traveled the open road in Dallas, in an open car. Madcap road adventures had come face-to-face with sheer madness.
But it is time to take another look at Kramer’s Mad-x4 World. It has a place in American humor classrooms and overall American film comedy canon beyond its whimsy, though its playfulness is enough for my tastes to keep in in moderate rotation. It is a zany road-trip adventure filled with slapstick humor and broad physical comedy and playful dialogue. It is also, with its long list of comedic performers in main roles and in cameos, a survey of American film comedy. As such, it can be viewed as a primer on mainstream American comedy of the first half of the twentieth century. It is a madcap film (fourth use of “madcap”), but it may also have more in common with other subversive satires of the 1960s than has been readily assumed. Perhaps the Criterion edition will encourage a more comprehensive look at a masterwork of American humor. Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad. Five.