Where’s the charm?

26 July, 2008

I saw Step Brothers last night with a friend of mine. Upon leaving the cinema, I thought I enjoyed it more than I really did. Suddenly, when I got home, it hit me that the film mostly just pissed me off. Not because of the excessive scatological humor, not because of the complete lack of a story, not because the people behind the film are more talented and clever than they let on, not because of the army of retards we saw the picture with, but because of a combination of all those elements.

I didn’t post anything after George Carlin bowed out of this world but his death is worth thinking about in the context of comedy. Carlin, like Lenny Bruce, has gone down in history as a comedian who saw a wall of taboos right in front of him and had the guts to tear it down brick by brick. Make no mistake: Comedy IS better as a result. But there is a major side effect to what Carlin, Bruce and several other comedians have done. Audiences have foolishly mistaken being crude for being edgy and today’s comedians have willingly played to that misconception.

I’m not the kind of person who looks down on lowbrow humor. There’s nothing highbrow about The Marx Brothers and yet I adore all their movies. Likewise Mel Brooks. But today’s so-called “Frat Pack” — Judd Apatow and co. — are lacking in something that The Marx Brothers had in spades: Charm. Their films seem like contests as to who can make the most vulgar movie possible while still raking in millions of dollars. You get the occasional Superbad, which really worked thanks to the well-developed characters and the superbly-crafted plot, but for the most part it’s all forgettable within 10 minutes of leaving the theatre.

Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan recently caused a bit of a stir when he criticized contemporary British comedy for the same reasons I’m bringing up now. The controversy came from the way the article was framed — see it for yourself here — and a full interview is allegedly coming soon which I will definitely link you to. But the substance of his points cannot be ignored whether discussing British comedy or American comedy. Especially this line:

“There is a way to talk about taboo subjects and adult subjects without making people feel like they need a bath. Seinfeld does it, The Simpsons does it – always in such a clever way. And that is what you should be aiming for.”

If you’re going to go into the area of scatological jokes, like anything else, there should be a reason for it. It should stem from the characters you have, not from the need to throw in a fart joke. One reason why In Bruges worked so well is because of the dynamic between an adult who acts his age (Brendan Gleeson) and an adult who acts like a 10-year-old (Colin Farrell). So when the latter says something vulgar or obscene or offensive, the comedy comes out of the fact that he’s obviously behaving badly. It’s the use of irony that makes it so funny. The Frat Pack seems to think that embracing the same kind of behavior is where the comedy lies. They’re wrong.

You’ve all heard the famous last words by Ed Wynn: “Dying is hard but it’s not as hard as comedy.” We need more comedians who hold that up as their mantra and don’t make movies based on the first draft.

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