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February 05, 2004

Late to the Party, Again


Even though I’m about to start my sixth decade on the planet, I still find myself just noticing little patterns and thinking: shouldn’t I have spotted that years, or even decades ago? Let me give you one little example.

During the Super Bowl my two-year-old son got bored and wanted to watch a movie, picking out a copy of Mel Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men In Tights.” Since my days of watching football intently are about 30 years behind me, I took him to another room, fired up the backup DVD and sat with him while he took in the swordfights and archery and I took in Amy Yasbeck as Maid Marion.

Amy Yasbeck as a Yummy Maid Marian

My brother, who is much more of sports fan than I, eventually wandered in to join us. Afterwards, comparing notes with him on the movie, I remarked that I was particularly fond of the scene in which Robin Hood (played by Cary Elwes) invades a royal banquet hosted by King John (played by Richard Lewis). The dialogue goes roughly as follows:


(Noticing the beautiful Maid Marian who is busy rejecting the attentions of the Sheriff of Rottingham)
And who might you be?

(Simpers) Maid Marian.
Ah, rumors of your beauty have spread far and wide across the land. But I see that they fail to do you justice. (Takes her hand and kisses it)
(In a loud ‘undertone’) Smoo-thy! The guy’s a smoothy!
The 'Smoothy' Does His Thing

As I was repeating all this, it dawned on me that I couldn’t really explain why I found this funny, except that it was so obviously not kinglike on the part of Richard Lewis. But then, nothing is kinglike about Richard Lewis, and it’s not like everything he does in the movie is hysterical. (Granted, despite being a terrible actor, or possibly because of it, Lewis' performance works perfectly in the film.)

Chewing on this for a moment, it finally dawned on me that Lewis’ comment was the kind of thing you would ordinarily think but not say aloud while watching a movie. And here it was, inserted into the movie itself, into the mouth of a senior authority figure. It struck me that watching a Mel Brooks movie is like watching a straight version of a genre film (Western, thriller, medieval adventure, monster, etc.) with Brooks talking back to the screen. While dialogue commenting on the action (a la “smoothy”) is one form of such backtalk, he also inserts characters that violate the norms of the genre (a black sheriff in a western, a Jewish rabbi in 12th century England) and shows behavior that should be visible in such movies but oddly isn’t (with all the bean-eating around the campfire in Westerns, only “Blazing Saddles” shows the inevitable symphony of farting). The effect of these strategies, despite Brooks’ obvious fondness for genre films, is of a smart little Jewish kid critiquing the Waspy worldview presented by traditional Hollywood—getting his own back by undercutting the authority of giant projected image.

Anyway, what struck me, rather belatedly, is that there must be a similar structural and emotional logic underlying any identifiable comic style. Now I’m going to out, rent a bunch of movies and work out (in my own laborious way) what that logic is.

I figure: better late than never.



P.S. A philosophical question: is humor chiefly an exercise in ‘mental’ revenge?

posted by Friedrich at February 5, 2004


Theorizing about comedy! You're a braver man than I. But I think you may be onto something with your idea that it may have something to do with being a kid having fun with or ridiculing the great big adult carryings-on. That's certainly there in Mad, or with Mel Brooks. I'm a big fan of the early Hope/Crosby movies, and in them Hope is certainly like a big kid, pitching himself into the scene when it appeals and trying to get the hell away when it gets scary. It's fun to see such infantile oppportunism and amorality up on screen -- it's like it's a projection (maybe the wrong word) of our own amoral core, or maybe more like a sign that gives our amoral/infantile side permission to come out and play.

Hmm, would this hold for all comedy? But I recently decided that since no Art Theory can explain everything, the best way to take an art theory is whether it's useful, whether it gets you in the ballpark. So there are exception, so what? Does it bring a lot into focus, if only for a few seconds? If so, then it's a decent art theory.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 5, 2004 7:08 PM

You guys are obviously not Monty Python fans! My husband and kids can do whole scenes from "Holy Grail" "Bring out your dead" is what I yell at them to get them up in the morning.

Try "Young Frankenstein" and "Spaceballs" for his take on other genres.

We love the Hope/Crosby "Road" films at our house though I sometimes have to explain the jokes to the kids. One thing about comedy is that if you talk about it too much, it's not funny anymore.

Posted by: Deb on February 5, 2004 9:30 PM

Is humor revenge? It's aggression, certainly. But not always revenge.

Back when I taught a course on Frankenstein, I would always end with Brooks's Young Frankenstein, precisely because it answered all the questions my students would raise as they read the book and saw the 1931 film. ("Why doesn't Dr. Frankenstein be more of a father to his creature?" "Why doesn't he introduce him to society?" etc.) It's quite possibly the smartest comedy I've ever seen.

I tend to prefer Brooks's earlier spoofs because they move beyond mere genre parody and target identifiable human behavior. But that's for another time.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 5, 2004 9:57 PM

Brooks is very aware that he steps close to and over the line. I read an essay he wrote recently in which he credits some advice he got from John Calley who at the time he gave the advice was a senior production exec for Warners.

Brooks commented:

"The year was 1973 and I was on the set of my third film, 'Blazing Saddles'. As anyone who has seen the movie can tell you, it has more than its share of outrageous moments: a man punches a horse, the campfire scene. It was a dangerous enterprise, to say the least.

And yet, here I was, about to shoot a scene that left even me a little nervous. In the screenplay, a band of bad guys rides into the peaceful little town...firing off their six-shooters, tearing down hitching posts, and wreaking havoc among the locals. Included in this chaos is a quick cut of two burly cowboys accosting a little old lady. One stands behind her pinning her arms to her sides, while the other unloads a flurry of punches to her stomach. All the while, the poor lady is letting loose a stream of "ooohs" and "ows", pausing just long enough to look straight into the camera lens and ask, 'Have you ever seen such cruelty?'"

He said he was having second thoughts. "Mind you, I had never been one to shy away from off-color humor. My first movie had been 'The Producers', in which two schemers had mounted a Broadway musical called 'Springtime for Hitler.' Nervy, right? But back then, I would sometimes consider an audience's potential objections in advance, which, in comedy, is a real mistake. Once you start second-guessing the audience, you inevitably mis-read them."

John Calley listened to Mel Brooks' concerns about the scene in "Blazing Saddles", and then said, "Hey, Mel, if you're going to step up to the bell, ring it." He said he's always used this advice whenever trying to decide whether to include something in a movie.

Posted by: annette on February 5, 2004 10:10 PM

Humor as mental revenge -- yes! In the tradition of the jester, comedy is a relatively safe vehicle for weakness to speak to power. And if the gods (or audience) listen, revenge may possibly be had.

Or, maybe revenge isn't it exactly. Maybe comedy is an exercise in The Big No, as in: You can't define reality for Me; I laugh at your attempt.

Posted by: Linda Rigel on February 6, 2004 12:28 AM

Hey, come on, you guys--nobody wants to talk about comedy theory? Mr. Hulsey, on what grounds do you claim that humor is aggression but not always revenge? I used the term 'revenge' because it seems to me that comedy is a reaction to a felt but hard to directly articulate sense of oppression by some force: social mores, authority figures, etc. Comedy is always the uprising of the downtrodden, and an appeal to one's fellow-sufferers: "I'm not the only person who finds this stuff annoying." It would seem to me that attacking someone or something without making this kind of social appeal wouldn't be funny.

Of course, I will grant you that basic physical comedy--i.e., slapstick--probably falls outside this paradigm. Finding someone getting 'humorously' knocked out by an unintentionally dropped object clearly has no element of revenge in it; rather, it seems to be related to the instinctive reaction of babies who often laugh when, after being afraid of something, realize that they are not really in danger.

Perhaps the 'revenge' paradigm is a sort of further development of this instinctive reaction to laugh at perceiving that danger is less serious than you at first thought:

(1) You start by being successfully cowed--that is, made afraid--by what appears to be some overwhelming social force

(2) You then look around and realize that enough other people are being oppressed that, if pushed, the cowed majority could overpower (in some way) the oppressing minority

(3) You start a rebellious conspiracy by pointing out aloud how obnoxious (i.e., deserving of being attacked) the oppressing minority is, and

(4) Realizing the truth of this, your fellow oppressed majority-ites laugh, as the joke has proved that the danger was not as serious as originally thought.

Hmmm, any reactions?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 6, 2004 11:16 AM

I most definitely think the ability to laugh at something makes it less scary, or more specifically, less "important" generally. If someone says or does something hurtful, and someone else "makes fun" with you of the person who inflicted the hurt, that person (the Hurter) just becomes less "big", their opinion counts less or is even actively ridiculous. It's a way of shaking off the feeling that any of this is too serious or to be taken too seriously. It reminds you to say "Or, maybe, he/she's just an asshole!" It's why people chuckle at the thought of their boss, at their most self-important moment, being hit in the face with a cream pie. The old show, Cybill, used to have that one character, Mary Ann, who devoted her life to thinking up bigger and bigger torments for her ex-husband who left her for a younger woman. As she said, "I have elevated the act of getting revenge on my ex-husband to the level of Performance Art." It made him the total buffoon in the melodrama, rather than a man who devastated her. It's why thinking of a Head of State and saying "Hey, your shoelace is untied!" is funny.

A friend of mine had a difficult conversation with a male supervisor recently, and another friend of mine said, "Gosh I just wish she'd thrown food at him!" I said, "What good would it have done. He would have just told (our friend) that she had misunderstood him (regarding a promotion)." And my other friend said, "Yeah, but it would have been funny to think about him saying it with salad dressing dripping off of him!" He does appear a little less "important" that way, doesn't he?

Posted by: annette on February 6, 2004 12:42 PM

Years ago I read a joke book that Isaac Asimov put out, and in it he theorized that comedy derives from a sudden alteration in point of view. It still seems to me to be the mopst economical definition I've heard. In Brook's case, he sets up the conventions of the genre enough so that we know what "supposed" to happen, and then whips the perspective around so that the characters are outside the action, commenting on it. (Perfect example: in "Spaceballs", when Rick Moranis approaches the camera in full Darth Vader regalia, complete with the ominous heavy breathing, then whips the helmet off and yells, "I can't breathe in this thing!" (Note that a movie that starts from the "outside" perspective, and stays there, becomes a deadly serious "art film" - its the energy that results from the switch in POV that casues comedy, not the "outside" POV itself...)

One could furthur theorize that Jews have been particularly good at this because of their "outsider/insider" historical experience in America - the Jewish experience has always been one of seeing things from multiple points of view at once, so they can move between them fast enough to get the laugh...

Posted by: jimbo on February 6, 2004 1:09 PM


I understand Asimov's point. Another way to put it might be that humor is the reaction one has to 'outside of the box' thinking, or thinking that takes a pattern found in one mental space and applies it, metaphorically, to a problem in another mental space. But I'm not sure that gets at the associated emotional issues. An example: PDQ Bach has a pretty funny monologue in which he 'announces' a Beethoven symphony as if it were a sporting event. ("Oh, the first violin has come in late again! He's not having a good day out there.") Would it be as funny if it was reversed--that is, trying to discuss a sporting event as if it were a symphony? I doubt it. Why? Because discussing the more high-faluting activity (classical music) in terms of the less high-faluting activity (sports) implies a sense of class-conscious revenge!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 6, 2004 1:38 PM

There may be another aspect to humor that is not revenge or aggression--those situations that are so sad that the only way to emotionally deal with them is to laugh. Defense, I guess. I worked with Alzheimer's patients in a nursing home and things they did that I found funny were heartbreaking to their families. But I couldnt work with heartbreak all the time, it had to be funny for me to get myself to work everyday.

I'm thinking of the movie "Life is Beautiful" --it was funny and horrifying at the same time.

Posted by: Deb on February 6, 2004 1:58 PM


I wonder if your experience doesn't also derive from the 'Oh thank goodness the situation isn't as dangerous as it looks' syndrome. I mean, empathy makes the care-givers feel oppressed, initially; but then their inmost selfish ego says, 'Wait a minute, this isn't my problem, it's theirs!' And the sensation that the danger is lessened provokes the laugh.

This, of course, is just a bunch of cold theorizing, and no smear on your motives at all, which I'm sure were quite elevated.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 6, 2004 4:48 PM

Freidrich -

Hmm, I'm not so sure. The main problem in your example is that symphonies don't do play-by-play analysis. So you can't really apply a one-for-one swap. But how about a panel discussion with some swishy arts types discussing the "transgressive" nature of a double play, or how they loved Roger Clemen's early work but that now he seems content to merely play to the crowd's middle class prejudices? Seems to me you could mine some funny out of that...

Posted by: jimbo on February 7, 2004 12:16 PM


Yes, your example would be pretty funny, but...the reason it would be funny would be the pretentiousness of the snobs, and thus it would still serve as a form of lower-class revenge.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 7, 2004 8:55 PM

Friedrich, you may be right in some respects. I certainly never felt younger than when I was working with old people all day. Since most of my family tends to keel over in their mid to late 60's no matter how healthy and heart smart they have lived, I never foreseen an Alzheimers ward as my last repose.

On the other hand, the funniest things were what most folks would think of as the, um, grossest-- I always saw it as a way of coping with what can be a disgusting situation.

Posted by: Deb on February 8, 2004 5:30 PM

Mr. Hulsey, on what grounds do you claim that humor is aggression but not always revenge?

On grounds of The Philadelphia Story, among other comedies. You could say that Philadelphia Story is a reaction to a vague sense of oppression from the upper crust, or from women, or from men. But the film is so throughly compassionate to all sides of every question (except to Bellamy's moralism, which receives an unquestionably negative verdict) that I'm hard pressed to figure out where, if anywhere, your theory of humor as revenge fantasy comes into play. That's not to say Philadelphia Story isn't aggressive -- but the agression feels like play rather than revenge.

It is possible, I think, for comedy to chuckle congenially at the foibles of human beings without feeling particularly oppressed by them. The odes of Horace are another particularly good example. Not every successful comic writer -- and by successful, I mean that s/he makes us laugh -- need be like Aristophanes or Juvenal.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 11, 2004 3:34 PM

Mr. Hulsey:

You give me more conundrums to chew on. But that actually raises another question in my mind: why is it that literary or film studies don't go into questions like, who or what exactly is the butt of the jokes here? Why do we think that's funny?

I must be getting old. Not only do I keep noticing things that astound me, and wonder why I never thought about them before, but I also keep noticing that what's more astonishing is that hardly anybody thinks about them.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 12, 2004 11:31 AM

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