No Laughing Matter

Maybe it's Hollywood's addiction to weak-ass formula. Maybe it's a culture-wide malaise. Maybe it's a Satanic plot. Whatever the reason, movies aren't funny any more.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 8, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

the problem with comedy today is that it just isn't funny. Specifically, comic movies aren't funny. Somewhere along the way, the big screen and humor came to a parting of the ways, a Martin and Lewis-like schism. Movies purporting to be of a jocular nature still abound, but face it, they're comedies the way Elizabeth Berkley is an actress.
It's not that yuks have completely vanished from the cultural scene. Television still has "The Simpsons," "Seinfeld," "Dr. Katz," "Beavis and Butt-head" and "Roseanne." Literature has David Lodge, Martin Amis and Alison Baker, to name just a few. Slick magazines have Mark Leyner and Christopher Buckley.

And the movies have Pauly Shore.

Why did this happen? It may be the industry's fault: With out-of-control star salaries and obscene budgets, the studios aren't willing to take risks, so we're glutted with formula-driven moneymakers that appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Or maybe the problem lies with us. The lameness of comedy could be a symptom of a cultural malaise, a weariness that accepts gags that wouldn't have made the cut on "Gilligan's Island" the same way it accepts soap opera Olympics, recreated-for-TV political conventions and the assorted other McRealities currently piling up on the streets.

The simplest explanation, however, is Satanic: It's all a plot by demonic forces to ruin our souls with anti-comedies, a kind of psychic Ebola cooked up in big pots on some back lot at Universal.

I knew for certain the comedy apocalypse was at hand the night I saw two trailers in a row for Tom Arnold vehicles, one portentously titled "The Stupids." As I felt the last vestige of my belief in a benevolent God slipping away, I suspected that the movies had sunk as low as they could go. Then the lights dimmed completely, "Kingpin" began and I knew for certain. If I'd had a cellular phone, I'd have been speed-dialing Dr. Kevorkian from my seat.

"Kingpin" is the kind of movie that gets released about 30 times a year -- the boy-oriented gagfest. The plot of the gagfest changes little from film to film. Unsophisticated yet oddly gifted and blessedly lucky naif ventures out into the world, and somehow triumphs over alla them big smarties around him. Some performers have based an entire career on this slender concept. Take Adam Sandler, Chris Farley or Jim Carrey. Please.
Carrey, of course, is the champ, possessing the kind of stardom that buffoons everywhere aspire to. In film after film, funny hairstyle after funny hairstyle, Carrey mugs, he whoops, he stumbles, he lisps, he shrieks, all to the consternation and one-upmanship of those who dare think themselves his betters.

His most recent, "The Cable Guy", actually had some promise as a dark and brooding commentary on the evils of the idiot box. But in Carrey's hands and hairstyle and lisp, the cable guy is a walking shtick. He's too broad, too absurd to be a menace -- he's simply a loose clowny cannon, hamming it up to old Jefferson Airplane.

With "Kingpin," there's not even a pretense of social satire. I suspected early on I was in for trouble -- the trailer was the first Coming Attraction I ever felt the urge to walk out on. As a general rule, I try to avoid films that contain more than one blow-to-the-family-jewels joke per preview, and the cojones were wobbling pretty much nonstop throughout this one. Randy Quaid is an Amish bowler, Woody Harrelson is a down-on-his-luck ex-champ who lost his hand in an unfortunate run-in with the ball chute. The two of them team up for a big championship match in Reno, and unamusing misadventures ensue. Though there are a few snicker-inducing moments (Quaid's naive awe at the greasy-haired, beer-bellied "great athletes" at the bowling tournament is priceless) the gags mostly harken back to that time in our lives when the mere mention of the word "booger" was enough to dissolve us into helpless guffaws.

For most of the film, I sat frozen and aghast in my seat like an audience member at "Springtime for Hitler" -- partly because of the sheer dopiness of the action, and partly in shock that this was the film Siskel and Ebert had fallen all over themselves praising a few weeks back. Roger and Gene may not be Pauline Kaels, but they usually have a pretty trustworthy crapmeter. Apparently it's time for an upgrade.

In fact, it's astonishing how eager, how nearly desperate, critics and audiences alike seem to be to exalt any bit of whimsy that doesn't have a current SNL cast member in it as a work of genius. Independent movies like "The Brothers McMullen" and "Clerks" become sleeper hits, their directors snagging lucrative big-studio deals. A Woody Allen offering wins Academy Awards on the strength of the director's middlebrow cachet and a squeaky-voiced leading lady. Objectively, these pictures are amusing little bon-bons, better than your average Jim Varney project for sure, but when all the gags are laid out on the table, do they really take us high into the yee-haw zone? I think not.

"Mighty Aphrodite," for example, looks good enough against "Happy Gilmore," but compare it to the Woody Allen movies of the past. "Annie Hall" had complex riffs invoking Freud and Marshall McLuhan: In "Aphrodite," what passes for humor is a hooker chirping, "I'll bet you're hung like a horse!" Oh, how the Mighty has fallen.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a comedy snob. I'd rather watch a Zucker brothers production than a Chaplin one any day of the week. One of my favorite films of last year was "Clueless," a fable that brought Jane Austen to Beverly Hills and handed her a gold card. I said back in April that "Mystery Science Theater" 3000 was the funniest movie of the year, and so far, it's still my undisputed champ. Comedy doesn't have to be sophisticated, it just has to make me laugh -- and laughter, like a sneeze or an orgasm, is a reflexive action. While we may be able to nod appreciatively at a droll remark and stifle a giggle at a fart joke, we can't intellectualize a belly laugh. If "Kingpin" or "The Nutty Professor" had cracked me up, I would have cheerfully embraced them with a gusto I reserve for the likes of Shakes the Clown.

"The Nutty Professor" was lauded as Eddie Murphy's big comeback, a warm, spirited performance in a slyly self-parodying film. Yet my companion and I watched in stunned horror as the cast engaged in more blatant mugging than you'd find in a month of "Three's Company" reruns. If I had a dollar for every time the words "double take" must have appeared in the script, I'd be chortling all the way to the bank. Murphy is -- the movie's made $110 million so far.

It's all extremely depressing, but it's not like the decline of cinematic drollery is a recent thing. Though the '80s were bookended by the smart and sharp high school comedies "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Heathers," the decade is perhaps best exemplified by the oeuvre of brat pack wrangler John Hughes.

Frankly, I blame it all on "Porky's." "Porky's" was a tasteless little "Animal House" knockoff built around cheap jokes and girls in underwear. It raked in zillions of dollars. Hollywood hasn't stopped coming up with new versions of the "Porky's" story ever since, and we keep paying to see them.

The only explanation I can come up with for the dreadful state of current movie comedy is that the genre is so popular that filmmakers don't even care if they actually deliver good jokes. Our need for anything that leads us to even crack a smile is so intense we'll sit through 90 minutes of overacting, testicle bashing and gags as old as Bob Dole just for a moment of sweet release. It's like putting up with a really boring date just to get laid.

The industry, knowing this, treats its audience with a love-it-or-shove-it attitude worthy of the postal service. Studio films are mere product, with none of the idiosyncratic rhythms of comic minds let loose, just turds-in-the-coffee jokes inserted at appropriate intervals with a calculated detachment. There's none of the exuberant rebelliousness of a Marx Brothers caper, or even a "Spinal Tap." Instead, comedies are polarized by marketing departments' idea of what the sexes in the right demos crave -- grossout lowbrow visual humor for young boys, and for the womenfolk out on dates, wistfully unhilarious adventures in singlehood.

The romance in romantic comedy is now deadly serious, putting a bit of a cramp in the comedy side of things. Where once spirited combatants in the battle of the sexes matched verbal barbs and sexual sparks, romantic comedies of late have become grueling portraits of longing. Sandra Bullock in "While You Were Sleeping" and Janeane Garofalo in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" are appealingly winsome, but they're not exactly laff riots. Padding around their empty apartments with only their cats for company, they look like Hollywood versions of the single woman's worst nightmare. The current comedic heroine is no feisty broad with her pick of suitors, she's the dateless wonder. Too bad angst ain't funny.

It's no consolation that the men don't fare any better. Steve Martin,
who was a brilliant jerk and a believably desperate lonely guy, is now relegated to exasperated dad roles, a Robert Young for the '90s. Billy Crystal and Tom Hanks also have entered middle age not with dapper Cary Grant or Melvyn Douglas finesse, but with a shlubbiness that stops just short of a combover. And Robin Williams, one of the few comic veterans who still has any energy, does the same bit, different costume routine again and again in cloyingly feral caricatures. He plays a boy trapped in a man's body (Jack), Peter Pan trapped in a man's body (Hook), a man trapped in a woman's body (Mrs. Doubtfire), a manchild trapped in a game (Jumanji), and a genie trapped in a bottle (Aladdin), all with the same hyperactive love-me vibe of a silk terrier. What he seems incapable of doing, however, is playing a man in a man's role. He's become a canvas for gimmicks and special effects, a Jack of all trades, master of none. And if there's nothing for actors in the realm between mid-life ennui and a stunted adolescence, what hope is there for audiences?

The pickings for adults who want neither grossouts nor tediously heartwarming family stories are slim. When, several months ago, I went to see "Flirting with Disaster," I was amazed at how grown-up the audience looked. It was as if somebody had given an over-30 crowd the all-clear signal -- it's okay! no blows-to-the-nuts jokes! The story isn't all that original -- Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder in their day probably picked more interesting things out of their teeth -- but for sophisticated cinematic farce last spring, "Flirting" had as much competition as Gilbert Gottfried at a squinting contest.

There's still plenty of original wit out there, but much of it's been siphoned in new, less exclusively comic directions lately. We giggle to alleviate tension, to express shock -- most of all, to show our winking appreciation of the unintentional and the ironic.

Take the collective reaction to "Fargo." With its nervous energy and copious bloodshed, it could hardly be accused of being a comedy, but the audience I saw it with chuckled louder and longer than the crowd at "Nutty Professor." Or "Pulp Fiction": for months after they saw it, friends were making jokes about the gimp and quoting the wisdom of Samuel Jackson with glee. Even the action movies of John Woo and Jackie Chan represent a new kind of thriller, one in which the physical derring-do is tempered by an ironic appreciation of its absurdity. We seek humor in mockery, in the high camp of a "Showgirls" or a tawdry revival like "Who Killed Teddy Bear?"

All this hipness has its price, however, and the price is a cheapening of the generosity of the comic impulse at its best. Whether we're watching a broad Three Stooges successor by the Farley brothers or a hip little Miramax splatterfest, the effect is the same -- one of shooting bullets into the air, into nothingness. There's no satire, no thumbing the nose at the status quo, no wry commentary on politics, the media, academia, whatever. Laughing at monosyllabic dumbos in lowbrow comedies or at campy tales by Tarantino and Eszterhas, we're indulging in the quick nasty hit of cynicism rather than the more open sensibility that attends genuine satire. We don't enjoy in a giddy, surrendering, yeah-you-got-me way, but in a smugly superior, I-got-the-joke-and-you-didn't one. We aren't warmed or dazzled by the characters in a "Fargo" or a "Reservoir Dogs": They inhabit worlds of banter and bloodshed, and all we're required to do is laugh at their quirks and ineptitude. Are we as an audience so frustrated and impotent in our daily lives that comic satisfaction now comes largely from enjoying the stupidity of others?

During the Depression, screwballs reflected the economic turmoil of the era by poking fun at the rich and powerful. Postwar comedies like "The Seven Year Itch" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" questioned the Madison Avenue version of the American dream. And the sexual revolution of the late '60s and early '70s turned romantic comedy on its head with unorthodox lovers like "Harold and Maude" and "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice." If cultural upheaval makes for good comedy, our current becalmed state is producing a giant yawn.

If there are no sacred cows or societal conventions left to flout, there's also nothing to love, no one to embrace. Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli may have been a knucklehead, but he was a goodhearted kid, too -- a hero, in his own bogus way. Jim Carrey's characters succeed merely in being knuckleheads. While we might pity Meg Ryan's character in "Sleepless in Seattle," who'd you rather hang out with -- her or Nora Charles?

It's enough to make me want to hole up for a "Simpsons" marathon with a crate of microwave popcorn. Movies -- feh. Who needs them? If they're so great, why are so many of them based on old sitcoms? That harbinger of Judgment Day himself, Tom Arnold, is even starring in a new version of "McHale's Navy."
And yet, with a Pee Wee Herman-like optimism, I continue to search for flicks that can simply deliver a few laughs. In spite of the cheapness of the gags and the blandness of the romances, I keep going back, throwing down the banana peel gauntlet and defying Hollywood to find my ticklish parts. I can't help it -- the remembered high from truly funny cinematic experiences is too intense. So I keep searching the theaters, like Robert Downey, Jr. looking for his front door. I hear "Emma" has charm, the buzz on "Tin Cup" is encouraging. I'm out there -- you can hear me breathing.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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