Film One of the questions I frequently ask myself (not that it keeps me up at night because there are plenty of other nightmares and anxieties available) is why I find some things funny and others not. What exactly is my sense of humour? What is it about FRIENDS which makes me guffaw or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or Harold Lloyd films or Fleabag or even Shakespeare when played well but turns me away from the likes of Anchorman, Mock The Week, pretty much any modern British studio based sitcom and whatever it is Ricky Gervais or Sacha Baron Cohen think they’re doing in their own projects.
I think I can see some demarcation lines. I really hate smug comedians or filmmakers, the ones who’ve had a bit of success and so assume that they’re funny, and admittedly make others laugh even if what they’re actually doing is making fun of others or presenting false deprecation. The theatre of embarrassment is hateful. I think I need to have characters with a modicum of dimensionality, who feel like they exist for a reason other than as the basis for parody or comedy. Oh and not written to be wilfully stupid for no logical reason. There has to be some kind of realistic underpinning characterwise. Matt Damon in The Informant! Is a good example.
That explains why I have such a tin ear for the likes of Anchorman or Zoolander in which I can often see what the joke is, understand what it’s trying to do but don’t laugh. For some reason I genuinely loved the interaction between Steve Carrell and Kristen Wiig in Anchorman 2, which seems like a much more affectionate piece of characterisation than elsewhere. One of the reasons Mock The Week and many of those panel shows turn me off, is the sense of one-up manship (because it’s usually men doing it), of wanting to upstage everyone else even at the expense of belittling the other comedian. It’s noticeable in Have I Got News For You how respectful Merton and Hislop are with each other and how other contributors often mess up the tone.
All of which has the counter argument that I’m over analysing and if something is funny, it’s funny, but I have met people who think that Adam Sandler is some comic genius, they see something I don’t and there is an element of frustration about missing out. Mark Kermode has a theory that people spend a lot of time going to the cinema to see films they don’t like and I am tempted to see one of the films I’d hate with an audience to experience the reaction. Perhaps the fact I watch most of this stuff alone causes them to lose some of their power. Certainly I can imagine the silent slapstick An Interesting Story (which you can watch here) going down a storm back in its day in front of the right audience. Some films don’t work as well without the collective response.
So what do I find funny? The unexpected, the proverbial banana skin in its many forms, when everything seems to be going ok but then a random element intrudes. But quite often I’ll be laughing at the reaction rather than the action itself. It doesn’t need to be someone tripping over. It could be some surrealist element which doesn’t quite fit with the general sense of the rest of it, so I’m probably laughing at the cheek or simply because I’m impressed at the cajones. I also like smart people being funny together but not to the point of purposeful cruelty. Watching people take the piss out of someone isn’t fun. Unless it’s the real world and they’re a figure of authority and they deserve it. I tend to love current affairs jokes.
Example: I recently watched part two of the Star Trek: The Next Generation story, Gambit. Data’s in command and part of the story is about him imprinting his authority especially on Worf who’s being an insubordinate arse again. There’s a moment when he gives the Klingon an order and as he stalks off the bridge, Data settles backwards in the Captain’s chair with a sense of satisfaction and Troi gives him a look which can only be described as “Ooh, get you…” I laughed, a lot. The timing of the performances is impeccable, but there’s something about the way she moves her head and eyes and the camera holds the shot for much longer than usual. Throwaway moments tend to be funnier to me than more obvious comedy.
The films of last year I laughed at most were Deadpool, Star Trek Beyond, How to be Single and Money Monster which also demonstrates that I prefer films which are of another genre which also happen to be smart rather than simple out and out comedies. The West Wing is one of the funniest series ever written but you would never consider it a sitcom. The reason When Harry Met Sally works is because there’s a ring of truth about the characters and they’re not supposed to be paragons. Much of the time, if you give me a reason to root for a character within a proper narrative, you’ll have me. The Boss would seem to run counter to my tastes but the fight scenes between the girl guides are amazingly amusing. I tittered all the way through the widely derided Vacation.
So perhaps my sense of humour isn’t that easily defined.