Adam Sternbergh on how modern comedy films don’t have actual jokes:
What these auteurs [Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow] truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros.
Go read the whole thing because Sternbergh nailed it. Don’t believe it? “What is a joke, anyway” you ask? Well, here are two examples. First, a scene from Apatow’s much-admired The 40-Year-Old Virgin, taken right off the script:
DAVID: Andy, you are like all of these action figures you collect.
He pulls a GI Joe off of the wall. It is in its original box.
DAVID: You are all sealed up, in the original packaging. You’ve never let your true self out.
David opens up the box. Andy squeals.
ANDY: You are not supposed to open that.
DAVID: Yes you are, so you can play with it.
David pulls GI Joe’s pants down, revealing a smooth flat crotch area.
DAVID: Don’t wind up like Joe here. You stay in the box too long and your dick falls off.
ANDY: He never had a dick!
Jocular is a great description. Not all out funny, just playfully humorous. Now here’s one from Airplane!:
DR. RUMACK: You’d better tell the Captain. We’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
ELAINE: A hospital? What is it?
DR. RUMACK: It’s a big building with patients. But that’s not important right now.
Now that’s better.¹ The difference is that movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover and the recent Horrible Bosses, all of which I enjoyed a lot, depend mostly on the actors’ performances. The funny stuff isn’t on paper. The problem is such movies fail when you don’t enjoy a particular comedian, since his or her delivery makes or breaks it. By contrast, you can sit down and read the Airplane! script for an hour and just laugh your ass off.² Why? Because they didn’t do away with stuff like twists, the rule of three, punchlines.
I’m not saying Apatow-like movies are crap. Like Sternbergh, I just wish we had a few more joke-based comedies that aren’t written by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Like some people wait for the next Michael Jordan, I wait for the next Mel Brooks.
¹ How fair was this comparison? I almost had to read the entire 40-Year-Old Virgin script to find something mildly amusing. For the Airplane! example I selected a random page from the script and picked the first gag I saw.
² I just did, and now I’m late for work. Thank you very much, Zucker brothers.