What Makes a Great Comedy

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I love comedy, even though I end up hating most comedy films I see. In the last week I saw three in the theater. One I thought was okay. One I intensely disliked. And one was pretty damned good. In order, they were Leatherheads, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Meet Bill.

What makes a movie funny? You can have a million answers to that one. I can wax philosophical and make claims about character and dialogue and emotional impact. Sure I can, but sometimes a story simply wins you over. I've often compared humor to sexual attraction. What is pleasing to some is repulsive to another. And I find most recent comedies to be repulsive.

I want to talk about a favorite comedy of mine and I want to go into exactly why it worked for me. It's one that most of you have seen, I'm sure. If you haven't seen it, I'll try not to disclose too many spoilers, but I can't help but include some. So if you haven't seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles, be forewarned. Also, if you haven't seen it, I urge you to do so.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles has the ingredients to a movie that I would probably hate. Two talented stars are in it. Talented guys that tend to make terrible movies. The trailers showed a lot of obvious sight humor and over-the-top situations. But this was written and directed by a guy that I think is really talented, John Hughes, so I saw it in the theater.

It's the night before Thanksgiving and Steve Martin only wishes to fly home from his business appointments to spend the holiday with his loved ones. It starts off badly, as his cab is hijacked by some fat guy. He later meets the man again, who of course is played by John Candy. Their fates are entwined for the next couple of days and every possible thing goes wrong in their attempts to reach their destinations.

Normally this is something that I'd dislike. The humor is broad, to say the least, and the two characters are pretty unlikable. Candy's character is completely annoying. He's bumbling, overbearing, loud and more than a bit clingy. Martin's character is pompous, smug, superior and contemptuous of most of the people he comes in contact with.

As the movie goes on, we learn more about these men. Their humanity overcomes their stereotypical exteriors. Most comedies attempt this sort of progression, but few are successful. One of the things that made Planes, Trains and Automobiles work is that I began to see myself in both of them. The awkward, clumsy pushy type that craves acceptance. And the impatient, sneering, cynical snob. I think most of us have that sort of duality in our personalities.

Another thing that makes this movie work is that a lot (not all) of the comedy is genuinely funny. And of course that is up to each individual's perceptions.

Toward the end of the picture, the two men discover that they really aren't all that different and that maybe both of them had been behaving in less than ideal ways. Through their trials and misfortunes, they come to enjoy each other's company. Again, this is the typical formula for this kind of comedy, but what sets this and other Hughes films apart is good writing.

Finally the two reach Steve Martin's home airport and make their farewells. At which point Candy's character reveals something about himself, a denouement if you will. It didn't take an astute viewer to have a good idea of what it was, but it still hits us in the gut. It's devastating and though Martin's tough veneer had mostly been broken down, he is checkmated by the truth about John Candy character's life. The last of the barriers he had built up for himself have broken. And we now know exactly why the Candy character was so desperate for friendship and acceptance. It's a powerful lesson about judging others and just plain good storytelling.

This to me is a great comedy. It's very funny, yet deeply emotional. Not unlike the odyssey the two characters go through in the film, the viewers have made a journey and we came through the other end of it slightly different. Maybe even a little wiser than we were before watching it.


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