Sunday, October 12, 2008

What's So Funny?

Several weeks ago I went to see Tropic Thunder, the big-budget action-comedy Ben Stiller vehicle that topped the box-office charts for a while this summer. I confess that I laughed fairly often throughout. (What’s not funny about black-face, retards, flatulence and Tom Cruise in a fat suit? And, honestly, Robert Downey Jr. is pretty amazing.) But I can’t say the movie exactly stayed with me. Then this past week I happened to watch (again) W.C. Fields’s 1934 masterpiece It’s a Gift. I laugh every time I watch it and what’s more I always come away with a sense of wonder and fulfillment. It just occurred to me that there is a very clear parallel between the state of film comedy today as compared to the films of earlier eras and the state of boxing now compared to the past.

Consider Stiller. Isn’t he essentially the Floyd Mayweather Jr. of comedy? Stiller grew up in the business, schooled by a family of old pros. He’s got a fine record and is producing astronomical numbers at the box office. But is he a bona fide all-time great? I’d say no. The stumpy, simian Stiller has undeniable comedic chops (think of him battling the little dog in Something About Mary, or his self-mockery in the episode he did of Extras) but there’s a hit-or-miss, nothing-subtle, bigger-and-louder-is-funnier approach to most of what he does. Put him in a bare-budget, scratchy 80-minute black-and-white film with no sadistic makeup gags or leering T&A and those gaps between laughs are going to feel much larger.

And what of Seth Rogen or Will Farrell? Admittedly, I haven’t seen most of their ouvre, but in my tortured conceit here, these two current film heavyweights strike me as Klitschko-esque: blown up to super-size by big budgets and special effects, but far less complete or resourceful than the smaller-scale champs of the old days. Take a look at this scene from It’s a Gift ( It’s modest and simple, but Fields works with such exquisite control that he invests every moment, line and gesture with great, funny shit. It’s not just about waiting for something to blow up or for the next fart and/or snarky comment, and to me it’s a wonder to behold.

Fields, of course, had spent years on the Vaudeville circuit, honing every move and expression in front of small, demanding audiences (becoming an astounding juggler in the process, by the way, something that gave his physical comedy added punch). It’s the same path that the Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton and so many other all-time greats followed in their development. A couple of seasons on SNL is hardly commensurate. The earlier perfomers simply had so many more resources to draw upon, so many more moves, so much more experience. The analogy to boxing is obvious. Nobody in the game today is fighting 100, 150, 200 bouts. What’s lost as a result is something we’ve all written about before.

So, just as the boxing message boards are full of misspelled hyperventilating assertions that Mike Tyson is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time or that Money Mayweather is the best-evah P4P, a whole generation of moviegoers likely thinks The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up is the height of cinematic comedy brilliance.

All in all a rather obvious observation, I realize. But at least it gave me something to think about while enduring a commercial recently for the DVD release of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Namely, that I’d like to see Harry Greb beat the shit out of Adam Sandler.  


At 7:31 PM, Blogger Charles Farrell said...

A large part of the deficit that exists between old-time comedians and contemporary screen funnymen is exactly as you say. The earlier guys engaged in a nightly exercise of honing their craft in front of demanding (and varied, since they often went on the road) audiences, finding what worked and what didn't, developing timing, and facing murderous competition from performers who were looking to take their spot on the bill. Additionally, they all came through the experience of being forced early-on to fail, which served as part of their educational process.

Performers like Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Keaton, Harold Lloyd were all physically gifted in addition to being genuinely funny men. I wonder if that tradition stopped with guys like Jackie Gleason or Sid Caesar. One thing all of them had in common was their tremendous versatility. Every one of them could sing or dance or juggle or play an instrument. And every one of them could improvise. I do see a parallel between what they could do and what their fistic counterparts could do compared to contemporary comics and fighters can do. And, as there can never be another Top Ten All-Time Great fighter because the conditions that must be in place for the development of one no longer exist, I think it's equally unlikely that there'll ever be another W.C. Fields or another team like Laurel and Hardy.

This isn't to suggest that there aren't funny and talented people making films, doing television, or even touring. But they're not called upon to do nearly as much. And, as you say, working a few years on Saturday Night Live, is hardly commensurate to working the RKO or Belasco circuits. And don't get me started on the T.O.B.A. circuit. That was roughly the equivalent of the Charles-Burley-Moore-Booker-Williams-Marshall group. Try to imagine, for example, Martin Lawrence or Chris Rock attempting to break into something like that.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Eddie Goldman said...

The comedians of the early part of the last century started out in vaudeville and small, local shows. When they went to radio and film, those industries were not completely corporatized as they are today. They still tolerated some independent thought and critical perspectives.

The funniest act I know of these days is Red State Update ( It has been years since I have laughed out loud as I often do when watching their videos. Yet they do not have a network gig, even with HBO (part of Time Warner) or Showtime (part of CBS). They are just too edgy – and perhaps too funny – for these networks.

With this same HBO being such a key banker for boxing, would they put on great talent if it were even available to them? They missed out on some of the best fights of the past few years, including Corrales-Castillo 1 and all three Vazquez-Marquez fights. Instead, we are getting illogical matches between guys with whom they have contracts and have to find fights – Pavlik-Hopkins, Calzaghe-Jones, and De La Hoya-Pacquiao.

Great comedy and great fights don’t come from corporate boardrooms. That is the sad, and very unfunny, reality of today.


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