Comedy is subjective. What you find funny and what I find funny are likely two different things. The effectiveness of a joke depends on the synchronization of several elements all working at once. Success in comedy is so rare because of how dependent that success is on other people. Telling a funny joke is hard, performing a routine of a few dozen jokes, all of which have to be funny, is harder.
But to make a funny movie? A movie that, for its runtime of ninety minutes or longer, has to be gut-bustingly, side-splittingly hilarious, all while creating interesting characters, a compelling plot, and enough depth to resonate beyond the occasional chuckle? It’s almost impossible.
There’s a reason Kevin Hart makes three films a year, a reason Adam Sandler continues to churn out what are essentially home videos of him and his friends and pass them off as features, a reason Will Ferrell is one of the most successful comedy actors of all time: being funny isn’t easy. While the final products might not always make us laugh, the same actors are in constant demand because they have proven, at one time or another, to have exceptional grasps of timing, chemistry, etc. The much-maligned Happy Madison films aside, Adam Sandler has made funny movies. It’s for lack of trying that his recent films have sucked, not necessarily lack of talent. He was on “Saturday Night Live.” He knows exactly what he’s doing.
So consider the classic comedies: “Ghostbusters,” “Caddyshack,” “Happy Gilmore,” “Blazing Saddles,” etc. They all manage to capture some indefinable magic, a perfect amalgam of several disparate spirits which, when combined, turn out to be really, really funny. I could get into the broader, harder-to-explain reasons for why these movies succeed at making us laugh, but for the sake of being succinct: they were made by people who care. “Ghostbusters” is one of my favorite comedies ever because Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wanted to write funny lines, and Bill Murray wanted to deliver the lines in a funny way, and Ivan Reitman wanted to orchestrate all of this to maximize comedic potential. In the scene where the Ghostbusters are trying to capture Slimer, Bill Murray yanks the tablecloth out from under a perfectly set table, only to have everything fall and break, save for a flowery centerpiece. He exclaims, “The flowers are still standing.” His delivery makes it about ten times funnier than I could ever express through writing, but you get the idea. (That line was ad-libbed, by the way.)
I believe in such a thing as ‘earning a joke.’ In “Grown-ups,” there’s a scene where Adam Sandler and his friends ogle over a young woman bent over a car, attempting to fix it. They decide to work in “shifts,” with two people looking away, the other two staring at her. Then, they switch. It’s a visual gag, and therefore hard to accurately explain, but when you watch it, it’s just not funny. Now compare it to a scene in “Ghostbusters,” when Bill Murray visits Sigourney Weaver’s apartment in a ruse to have sex with her. A similar set-up: a guy wants a girl. But the difference is all in execution. Bill Murray tries to use a tool he has no understanding of, and plays a tune on the piano, which, as he explains to Weaver, the ghosts cannot stand. Adam Sandler sits in a chair and watches a girl’s ass. When Bill Murray eventually makes advances on Weaver, we are more comfortable with it. It’s a joke that’s been set-up; the film has, for lack of a better word, ‘earned’ the laugh. Edgar Wright’s films are other examples of comedy that, through clever set-ups, wit, and visual gags, put actual thought into the comedy. (For anyone who wishes to learn more about this, I direct you to a youtube channel called “Every Frame a Painting,” which explains in detail the genius of Wright’s films better than I possibly could.)
So I’ve written a lot about “Ghostbusters,” as it’s one of my favorite comedies of all time. But I’m more hesitant to discuss “Ghostbusters 2.” It’s bizarre that a film with the same cast, same writers, and same director could be noticeably less funny than its predecessor. Likewise, “Caddyshack 2” cannot hold a candle to “Caddyshack,” and “Airplane 2” is in a different league than “Airplane.” So what’s the reason?
I ponder this question as “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” is set to hit theaters later this week. “Hot Tub Time Machine” is not a great movie, in my opinion, but it certainly had me laughing for most of its runtime. Historically speaking, comedy sequels have not been well received critically or commercially. A recent exception to this rule is “22 Jump Street.” It’s interesting to use this as an example, as it is basically a retread of the first film, so much so that a running joke is Nick Offerman’s character commenting on how this case is the same as the case solved by Jenko and Schmidt in “21 Jump Street.” So why exactly is it still funny?
First and foremost, it’s about being funny. But comedy also has a lot to do with expectation. Few movies remain as funny during the second watch as they were during the first watch. This has to do with the set-up of a joke. Is a joke based off of shock value? If an old woman makes out with a young person, it’s supposed to be funny because we don’t expect an elderly person to have an interest in sex. But when we watch it again and we know the kiss is coming, it loses its potency. There is no surprise, nothing to garner enjoyment out of the viewer. It’s like a horror movie, actually. If the scares are based off of startling the viewer—long silence followed by a loud music cue and a monster popping up from the bottom of the scream—we know for future viewings that it’s coming, and so the tension is lost. Horror is about establishing atmosphere, about scares that are psychological more than physical, about fear getting under your skin and invading your mind in a way that makes you react without meaning to.
To apply this to comedy, consider “Grown Ups.” The wives of the main characters are lounging by a pool, seducing a hot lifeguard to come over. He does, and when he gets there he begins to speak in a high-pitched voice. This is funny because we don’t associate a certain vocal tone with a certain physical appearance. But if you watch it again, it loses its effectiveness. The comedy is the surprise and nothing else. Nothing he says is funny, nothing the characters do in reaction is funny. Why should we laugh over and over and over again when the pleasure is purely surface-level?
The best comedies have certain intelligence to the way they’re crafted. There are jokes we don’t catch until the second time we watch, or the third, or the fourth. I don’t ask this of all films. It’s ok for a movie to be purely about the laughs, and it’s ok to get away with it. But comedies of late have been appallingly stale and repetitive. Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler are funny, but if they know they don’t have to put any effort into the movies they make, why would they? Why should they? If I could make millions of dollars for putting as little thought and care into my writing as possible, of course I’d do it. And you would too.
To circle back to expectation, it comes down to what the audience thinks a movie is going to be. People going to see “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” will expect something similar to “Hot Tub Time Machine.” And that’s exactly how it should be. When I go to see a comedy, however, a prerequisite is, in most cases, humor. Without that, can you still really call the film a comedy?
Article by Lucas Dispoto