Or am I totally off-base? This question came to mind when I saw a few trailers the other week. Two were visually impressive, while the third wasn’t. The third film happened to be the new Vince Vaughn-Ben Stiller comedy. I’m sure I could thing of comedies with really interesting visuals—Michel Gondry’s films or Jacque Tati, for example. Perhaps, I’m mainly thinking of Hollywood comedies. Or is there some truth to what I’m saying?
I’d also be interested in hearing/seeing some examples of the interesting formal aspects of comedies—where the filmmaking really supports the comedy.
If 2 out of 3 looked good, wouldn’t that mean that they usually look good? ;)
Anyways. I think that most often humor is seen to come from dialogue and acting/reacting. And this could be considered to be true, but things such as lighting/sets/camerawork/costumes/etc. help to establish characters, and set the tone of the film. So if nothing else, the visual aspects of a film can be seen to be part of the “set-up” of a joke, while the punchline often comes from the dialogue or acting/reacting. But I often find a director’s visual style as inherently funny, especially one I am already familar with. For example, Wes Anderson has a very humorous style. Plus sometimes there are films that while not “beautiful”, are still reliant on visual cues for humor, such as the Farrelly Bros.
So there are a lot of perfectly fine comedies that don’t have the visual stimulation of a Malick film (In The Loop for example), but I also think that there a lot of comedies that are visually adventurous. I am assuming that you are mainly talking about more recent (or at least color) films, so some examples include Wes Anderson, Coen Bros, Kubrick (even though I would only consider Strangelove a comedy, he has other films that are frequently very funny), TIm Burton, Monty Python, Young Frankenstein, Remains of the Day, Withnail and I, Dazed and Confused, and Adventureland. Plus, as you mentioned, Tati and Gondry could fit this bill. And there are a ton of films that wouldn’t necessarily be considered a comedy, but are very funny at times as well as visually pleasing. My favorite example of this is actually a TV show, Mad Men. Nobody would ever consider that a comedy, but I often find it just as hilarious as anything designated a “comedy”, plus visually it is beautiful.
Jazz, looking through your favorite films, I don’t see any comedies (with the possible exception of It Happened One Night, and that’s an old one). Are you just not overly fond of comedies in general?
This kind of relates to the adage: “The jokes don’t get funnier in HD”
In Hollywood comedies the emphasis I’d say is on the punch lines and dialogue. We’re painting with broad strokes however and only characterizing commercial comedies. Perhaps the reasoning is in favor of keeping the budget low because producers realize that if it’s funny people will come to see it either way.
Many commercially successful comedies show us otherwise. Woody Allen films are often visually striking and appealing, not to mention the comic works of Terry Gilliam or the Coen Brothers, etc. These guys incorporate visuals just as significantly as the dialogue in their comedies.
Perhaps you’re referring to, for example, the Apatow school of comedies, in which case I’d hasten to agree. The films of this ilk that actually manage to be funny still invariably suffer from flat visuals and monotonous framing and editing (talking heads with intermittent wides for the always punctual sight gag).
I’m also compelled to bring up David Gordon Green’s new direction (pun not intended, but welcomed with open arms).
Coen, Woody… and that’s all, comedy is a severely underrated genre for most of the big directors/studios/producers.
@Alex: I’d venture and argue to include even more though: Bruce Robinson, Charles Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Sam Raimi… the list goes on. There ARE indeed visually significant comedies out there and Jazz concedes this himself in reference to Tati and Gondry.
It’s still sorely limited compared to the weekly churn out of Hollywood though, I suppose.
We’re not talking about sight gags here, right? In that case, I think visual aspects of comedies (such as choice of shots or editing) don’t really matter because we come for the laughs and not some groundbreaking editing or something of the sort (though for me, I can appreciate some character development). Sure, in comparison to how, say, Malick or Altman, do their thing, the visual aspects of comedies may look ordinary, but to even compare the two would be a bit unfair.
@jazz: I’m gonna use 21 Jump Street for that example you’re looking for. At the hands of, say, someone like Todd Phillips, the movie would’ve been poorly paced and the comedy would’ve felt bland. But with Lord and Miller, their fast and breezy direction creates this really unique relationship between direction and comedy that makes the movie work really well (and it was kind of expected, considering that they had animation experience).
Interesting topic; i would say, yes, especially after watching Chaplin’s “The great dictator” where the visuals, set designs, etc., all look quite cheap and poorly made, besides i thought it was a terrible film, not funny at all. But i did enjoy “Life is beautiful”, although i thought the same as i said before: the production values were poor, though it is well photographed by the great Tonino delli Colli, if i remember well.
You are totally off base. A genre has nothing to do with a film’s visual appeal or lack thereof. Hell, half the Coen brothers’ films are comedies and they are as tightly framed and carefully composed as their more celebrated stuff.
If your argument were that Hollywood films as a whole tend to have bland and uninteresting visuals I would agree with you. Having the best CGI money can buy does not automatically mean someone knows where to place a camera and for how long. A Shaun Levy or Todd Fields “comedy” is no more or less visually interesting to me than a Ron Howard or Paul Haggis film.
Then again, if you were refering exclusively to special effects you would have a point. Most of the time comedy does not mix well with large, overblown special effects for many reasons.
I think it depends on what definition of “comedy” we’re gonna use… especially whether or not we’re gonna allow movies that happen to be funny, but are primarily of a different genre, which I think most of the movies listed so far are.
My top 10 comedies:
1) Dr. Strangelove
2) A Hard Day’s Night
3) Young Frankenstein
4) Blazing Saddles
5) This is Spinal Tap
6) National Lampoon’s Animal House
7) Annie Hall
8) The Producers
9) A Fish Called Wanda
10) City Lights
I would say four of my top ten (Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night, Young Frankenstein and City Lights) have a strong visial signature. Interesting that those are the four in black and white. If the success of a comedy lies in it’s quality of laughs, which I believe it does, visuals are usually a secondary consideration. A bland looking funny comedy is still a great comedy. A great looking one with no laughs fails.
Spielberg’s 1941 is a good example of a comedy that failed because it was more concerned with its elaborate set design than being funny. Horse Feathers is on the other extreme, not a well made film, but great because the Marx Brothers are allowed to run wild in it.
@jupiter41 i agree, but i thought Jazz was meaning more a contemporary style, let’s say, the last 30/40 years or so.
If the success of a comedy lies in it’s quality of laughs, which I believe it does, visuals are usually a secondary consideration.
Visuals are of secondary consideration in most films that are made regardless of genre. Most directors either don’t know or don’t care where the camera goes; they either point-and-shoot or fall back on the “classic Hollywood style”. Comedies are no exception but they are no less visually appealing than any other genre. The Coens have made plenty of great looking comedies, so have Scorsese, Gilliam, Kubrick, Anderson, etc. because they are directors who feel (correctly) that a film’s visuals are no less important than its screenplay. A great director should have a reason for every shot that is in a film as well as what it does and does not show. It doesn’t matter if the film is a chamber drama or a megabudget actioner. There are subtleties you can at least attempt to draw out from even the most sophmoric screenplay if you know what to do with the camera at key moments, punchlines that can be enhanced if they have been previously set up visually as well as through dialogue. A point-and-shoot comedy can still be extremely funny but in the hands of a great director it could be even more.
A bland looking funny comedy is still a great comedy. A great looking one with no laughs fails.
This speaks to lowered expectations more than it does to the nature of the genre itself. While it’s true that a comedy that isn’t funny is a failure I’d argue that a funny comedy with bland direction is a missed opportunity.
While there is nothing inherent in the genre that would make it less visually appealing, comedies have typically been seen by Hollywood as low-risk high-reward products. If you hire Adam Sandler you are guaranteed to make X ammount of money in the box office. If you minimize what you spend on the rest of the film (a mediocre technical crew, cheap supporting actors, a director who will point-and-shoot for 20 days instead of one who will carefully set up every shot for 40) you ultimately maximize your profits when the returns come in. This might explain what you’re getting at.
“A bland looking funny comedy is still a great comedy. A great looking one with no laughs fails.”
Woody Allen has said this exact same thing.
If 2 out of 3 looked good, wouldn’t that mean that they usually look good? ;)
I forgot to mention that the first two films weren’t comedies…well, it was Tarantino’s new film, which might partially be a comedy (which goes against my theory) and the new Stone film.
Are you just not overly fond of comedies in general?
I love a good comedy, but I guess I don’t think there are very many of them. :(
I think it’s more that the currently popular style of comedy is extremely visually bland.
But, Edgar Wright is a comedy director who is not visually bland (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim). Charlie Chaplin was a visual feast by himself.
There is a current kind of conservatively liberal style of conversational coming of age humor that Hollywood comedies right now seem to base themselves around. It’s counter-taboo but also insists on cultural norms for sexual roles by presenting all attempts at deviation as a naive youthful phase.
This style of comedy which sort of came out of NBC TV comedy and culls a majority of its cast from NBC TV shows attempts to be counter-fantasy, and thus decides intentionally to look visually bland, mistaking that for drab realism.
In Hollywood comedies the emphasis I’d say is on the punch lines and dialogue.
Good points. Does this mean that good visuals enhance action films, horror, romance, drama, etc. but NOT comedies (generally speaking)? If that’s true, why is that?
Perhaps you’re referring to, for example, the Apatow school of comedies, in which case I’d hasten to agree.
… I think visual aspects of comedies (such as choice of shots or editing) don’t really matter because we come for the laughs and not some groundbreaking editing or something of the sort (though for me, I can appreciate some character development).
Sure people come for laughs, but are you saying editing, mise-en-scene, etc. don’t or can’t enhance or hurt comedy?
I’m wondering if the neglect of good filmmaking in comedies stems from the fact that filmmakers don’t take comedies seriously. This reminds me of Frank Zappa’s attempts to incorporate comedy in serious music. He felt that serious musicians felt like humor was beneath them, and was inappropriate for serious music. Could something similar be happening in cinema?
I’m gonna use 21 Jump Street for that example you’re looking for
Was it a hybrid action film?
As I see two of the most rigorous and visually expansive filmmakers currently working, Hong Sangsoo and Tsai Ming-liang, are both masters of comedy.
An older example…
Ozu started in comedy. His visuals stem from learning how to shoot an effective joke in a silent film. He’s known as possibly the most rigorous constructor of images in the history of the medium.
If we’re talking about commercial films… aren’t the majority of commercial Hollywood films visually bland? Is McG really known for strong visuals?
Go take another look at both of Bogdanovich’s 70s comedies – What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon. While totally different films (and approaches to the comedy), I think you’ll find some amazing visuals as accompaniment.
“Perhaps the reasoning is in favor of keeping the budget low because producers realize that if it’s funny people will come to see it either way.”
To be clear, yes. A generic hollywood comedy can be perfectly funny, successful, and effective without well done visuals.
I remember thinking Paper Moon looked good, but was it comedy? What’s Up Doc? is clearly a comedy. Unfortunately, it never worked for me, and I can’t remember any visual details about the film. (I liked what Bogdanovich was going for, but it just didn’t work—and I think Ryan O’Neal was a big reason for this.)
Whereas an action film, horror or suspense needs to look good to attract viewers? I guess that makes some sense, if we included stunts and effects. But what about dramas? If the story and characters are good, won’t people go to see dramas, even if it doesn’t look terrific. Besides, does the average viewer really appreciate high quality filmmaking? When I was in my teens and twenties, I don’t think I fully appreciated this (and I’m still learning). I have to wonder if dramas look better because people take them more seriously.
“A great looking one with no laughs fails”
It looks fantastic, but it’s about as a funny as a swift kick to the balls. YOUR BALLS.
plus most of the counter examples here tend to be older films. Maybe the problem is the shift from visual to verbal? or rather, the preference for verbal humour over visual?
Tati and Bunuel made great looking comedies that were chock full of awesome visuals. but a lot of the gags were visually orchestrated too, so………
Are you saying editing, mise-en-scene, etc. don’t or can’t enhance or hurt comedy?
No. In fact it’s fine if there are visual craft in comedies, but looking for some can be a bit distracting to the other craft on display (i.e. acting, characterization).
21 Jump Street wasn’t a hybrid action movie. However, it had some elements.
“It looks fantastic, but it’s about as a funny as a swift kick to the balls. YOUR BALLS.”
The guys in Jackass always seemed to laugh when somebody kicked them in the balls.
I saw Our Hospitality today. That opening looked astounding. Keaton probably could’ve done drama as well as comedy, but Thank God Almighty he was a comedian.
I don’t know if the Coen Brothers would admit to an influence from Jerry Lewis’s films but they have a similar “rubbery” screen when it comes to reaction shots. What I mean is that the camera is part of the outrageous gag.
I think Lubitsch’s comedies created a visual world that matched the elegant content. Sturges was more unkempt but that was part of his chaotic style. That, plus the fact that words were more important and self- conscious visuals would only distract.
Even though I am not a huge fan of his work, I think the Edgar Wright team ( he and his collaborators like Joe Cornish) do a great job of incorporating the visual elements into their storytelling.
From the past, Jaques Tati and Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein) come to mind as examples of people who didn’t shortchange the visual element. You could also make a case that Preston Sturges was in this class too.
Physical comedy used to be very visually inventive. Since a lot of Hollywood comedy these days tends to be more sit com, I think that general one pays more attention to things like dialogue and facial expressions.
Frank Tashlin is another director of comedy who used to be very visually inventive.