Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 15, May 2004

 

 

Lisa Trahair

 

Comedy and Beyond:

Geoff King's _Film Comedy_

 

 

Geoff King

_Film Comedy_

London: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1-903364-35-3

230 pp.

 

Geoff King's recent monograph, _Film Comedy_, true to its word, undertakes an historical overview of film comedy: its modalities, genres, and cycles; the consequences of its industrial mode of production; and the debates in film studies it has generated. It is not the first book to undertake these tasks, but it is the most recent and, by virtue of this fact alone, is able to address significant recent developments in cinematic comedy and summarise the current state of play of its theorisation. [1] _Film Comedy_ does both of these things very successfully. Three of the five chapters, 'Transgressions and Regressions', 'Comedy and Representation' and 'Comedy Beyond Comedy', respectively identify such recent trends or areas of interest in cinematic comedy as gross-out comedy, the comic exploration of the performativity of identity, and the reconfiguration of comic affect in contemporary independent cinema. The first chapter 'Comedy and Narrative' covers a range of debates in the theorisation of film comedy, while the chapter 'Satire and Parody' considers the participation of comedy in two distinct aesthetic forms. In addition to an Introduction, and the five chapters mentioned above, the filmography boasts in excess of 400 titles, the films of which are referred to extensively.

 

Extending Umberto Eco's sentiment that from 'antiquity to Freud or Bergson', the term comic 'gathers together a disturbing ensemble of diverse and not completely homogeneous phenomena, such as humor, comedy, grotesque, parody, satire, wit, and so on', [2] King, at the very outset of the book, states that there is 'no single adequate theory of comedy, despite various efforts to produce an all-embracing account' (5). Because of this, King's self-avowed approach to the philosophy of comedy is an eclectic one. He utilises a range of theoretical approaches, 'but only as they appear useful in the understanding of particular issues' (4). To be sure, King draws from time to time on such prominent thinkers from the field of comic theory as Mikhail Bakhtin, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Elder Olson, Umberto Eco, and Northrop Frye. But it is also the case that the *incongruity theory of humour* dominates his analysis and discussion of the comic more than any other theory. Incongruity is defined by King very simply as that which departs from 'the normal routines of life or the social group in question', such as when there is 'a sense of things being out of place, mixed up or not quite right, in various ways' or 'temporal, geographical or other forms of displacement' (5). The work he refers to here is M. S. Davis's, _What's So Funny? The Comic Conception of Culture and Society_, and in an end note he elaborates every so slightly that the 'roots of incongruity approaches to comedy are usually traced back to a brief definition given by Immanuel Kant in his _Critique of Judgement_ and later elaborations by commentators including Herbert Spencer, Arthur Schopenhauer and William Hazlitt' (203).

 

In defining the parameters of this field of analysis, King considers whether cinematic comedy is best understood in its adjectival or nominal form, as a mode (adjective) or genre (noun). Like Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik before him, and David Bordwell before them, [3] he notes that, to the extent to which the 'law of genre' of cinematic comedy is the criterion of a happy ending, the generic approach is too restrictive at the same time that it indicates nothing of the manner of representation. Because of this, King opts for a conception of comedy as mode rather than genre. A significant advantage of focusing on comedy as modality is that it licenses King's discussion of 'Comedy Beyond Comedy' in the final chapter -- one of the books most significant innovations -- which couldn't have been broached within generic classifications of comedy. In defining the nature of comic modality in various films, King's examines degrees of plausibility, reality, and authenticity, and degrees of implication, such as audience sympathy, empathy, identification, and distanciation. This emphasis on mode rather than genre matches up well with the emphasis on the incongruity theory of humour because defining modality entails attending to the specificity of incongruity as the blend of the plausible and the implausible, the rational and the absurd.

 

King only partially avoids the concept of genre, however, replacing the term with *format*. And in three of the five chapters, he attends to two distinct formats -- comedian comedy and romantic comedy. Each format functions in accordance with accepted definitions of genre, partaking in a set of clearly recognisable thematic, stylistic, and iconographic traits, and combining the imperatives of standardisation and innovation. At various times, King makes allusion to these two formats functioning quite differently as regards modality and implication, but is less explicit about it than he might have been had he posed the two ways of thinking about comedy (adjectival and nominal) as intersecting with each other.

 

King states in the Introduction that his study will combine three different approaches: formal, socio-historical-political, and industrial. He also qualifies the scope of the book: while it addresses a number of prominent issues relevant to cinematic comedy and considers a wide range of examples, it does not claim exhaustive coverage of the field. King brackets out televisual examples, but includes discussion of animation. And beyond Hollywood, he examines comedy across the breadth of world cinema, referring to films from Britain, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and South and Central America. Throughout the book, King combines extended analyses of individual films with short references to many more films, in most cases considering the relation of comic moments to larger narrative movements. He indicates theories relevant to the kinds of comedy he is investigating, explicating where necessary the work of other commentators.

 

Does the book advance our philosophical understanding of the image as it operates comedically? Certainly, it advances our understanding of the operation of the image as regards the formal aspects of cinematic comedy. The section in the first chapter entitled 'Framing Comedy' considers the visual dimension of cinematic comedy in terms of the debate between montage theory and Bazinian realism and demonstrates that the comedy can be generated from editing techniques as well as from the dimension of 'performance within the frame provided by the longer take' (46).

 

There is also the more difficult question of the extent to which this theorisation of cinematic comedy extends our understanding of the philosophy of comedy. The book's success is this regard is mixed. I'm not a big fan of the incongruity theory of humour -- especially as it is utilised in this instance. King undoubtedly needs a very general conception of the comic in order to be able to undertake the breadth of analysis that the book aspires to, but the risk here is that the concept of incongruity is itself too broad to be of much use. Furthermore, the concept generates a binary approach to the comedy examined, which is invariably understood as a transgression of the normative. This limits the analysis of the comic to the issue of the relation between the norm and its transgression instead of providing for a closer analysis of what the comic itself, in any of its particular manifestations, involves (which is not, however, to say that King's readings of films do not, at times, go further than this). There is something disingenuous about King's tendency to repeatedly advocate the particularity of the significance of comedy in the various films by measuring them against universals. He questions, for example, whether comedy subverts narrative, diminishes the impact of horror, deactivates the political, and so forth, when he makes it very clear at the outset that he doesn't think it is possible to account for comedy in terms of universals.

 

In terms of its identification of the range and types of cinematic comedy currently and historically on offer, and of its articulation of contemporary debates, the book is very well thought-out. It also makes an important contribution to our understanding of comedian comedy and to the on-going debate about the relationship between comedy and narrative.

 

The first chapter investigates the intersection between the modalities of comedy and narrative throughout the history of film comedy. In the first section of the chapter, 'Gags vs Narrative in Early Cinematic Comedy', King provides a succinct overview of the main strands of the debate concerning the relation between comedy and narrative and his take on it. As King represents it: 'The kind of comedy that disrupts, or has little investment in, narrative coherence has been both celebrated and criticised; seen as either a wonderfully free-form and potentially anarchic force or as inadequately developed or 'immature' comedy' (22). Certainly, there was an argument between Tom Gunning and Donald Crafton about the prominence of one form over the other in early cinematic comedy, [4] but the views represented in the above quotation express the opinion of theorists writing in different periods: Patricia Mellencamp and Henry Jenkins and their celebration of early Marx Brothers films on one side, and Gerald Mast and Walter Kerr as detractors from Sennett-style comedy on the other. [5] King is right to argue that Mast's and Kerr's negative assessments of Sennett's broad slapstick are essentially teleologically formed on the basis of subsequent developments in the format, particularly a greater emphasis upon narrative and characterisation in the refined slapstick of the 20s. But it is worth noting that those who celebrated 'anarchistic comedy' did so on the basis of much broader debates in the wider field of film studies concerning the ideological function of classical Hollywood narrative. It is also worth remembering that it was the identification of this dimension of cinematic comedy that brought the genre to the attention of 1970s Screen theorists.

 

Also of interest in this chapter is King's utilisation and refinement of Steve Seidman's work on comedian comedy. [6] Seidman coined the term 'comedian comedy', identified it as a *sub-genre* of comedy, and delineated its major conventions. He noted, for example, the dominance of a central comic figure, the utilisation of a vaudevillian or performance-based aesthetic, the peculiarity of the genre's mode of enunciation and, related to this, the central performer's license to break the rules that governed conventional narratives and diegetic continuums.

 

In his discussion of the subordination of comedy to narrative, King, without being explicit about it, takes issue with one of Seidman's central tenets. The view articulated by Seidman, and subsequently taken up by Peter Kramer, [7] is that in the genre of comedian comedy the transgressive behaviour of the central protagonist (behaviour from which much of the comedy is derived) presents the problem/obstacle that the narrative must work to resolve/eliminate. In this view, the question of which mode dominates, comedy or narrative, is interpreted in favour of the latter. The incorporation of the central performer into the social/symbolic order from which he had previously been excluded, happens on the basis of his relinquishment of his transgressive, comic behaviour and thus signals a subordination of the comic to narrative and hence a neutralisation of transgression. The narrative, Seidman argues, works to ensure the triumph of normative society over acts of transgression. King disagrees with this view. He acknowledges that the narratives of such films set the central comic performer 'against formal institutions', but he maintains that comedian comedy (like comedy in general) is concerned with the on-going transgression of establishment of norms. They are committed to asserting 'the value of creative individuality in the face of dehumanising abstraction' (40). To illustrate this point, King considers how the theme of creative individuality works in the cycle of comedian comedies with a military subtext, finally concluding, against Seidman, that: 'In ideological terms, comedian comedy can be read as a celebration of the individual in opposition to restrictive social or collective institutions' (42). King suggests that the question of the dominance of one mode over the other is in fact badly formulated because both modes -- narrative and comedy -- offer modes of pleasure upon which the market seeks to capitalise.

 

In this chapter, King also undertakes a brief history of film comedy, introducing the reader to the formats of comedian comedy and romantic comedy and accounting for some of the formal and narrative conventions that dominate each format. It becomes apparent here that modality operates quite differently in the two formats. In comedian comedy, slapstick gags have the capacity to disrupt the narrative or pursue ends that are counter-productive to the economic function of narrative, whereas in romantic comedy narrative plays a much more primary role. While King devotes a separate section to the formal aspects of comedian comedy, thereby suggesting that the comedy of comedian comedy can have a distinctive cinematic form, there is no such equivalent for romantic comedy, which might deploy slapstick but otherwise emerges from the narrative. Indeed, King's discussion of romantic comedy, not uninteresting in itself, is almost entirely focused on narrative.

 

The content and argument of the chapter 'Transgressions and Regressions' is to some extent supported by King's adherence to the concept of mode rather than genre. The first half is devoted to a discussion of the operation of transgression in the contemporary phenomenon of gross-out cinema (a phenomenon which is found in both comedian comedy and romantic comedy); the second half examines the notion of pre-Oedipal regression as one of the prevailing themes of comedian comedy. Gross-out films, like the Farrelly brothers' _Something about Mary_, _Dumb and Dumber_, _Shallow Hal_, and _Me, Myself and Irene_, John Waters's _Pink Flamingos_ and Paul Weitz's _American Pie_, are films which evidence a pre-occupation with bodily fluids -- whether they be urine, semen, faeces or snot -- and a focus upon the lower body stratum. King finds historical, cultural, and theoretical references for gross-out in the American Indian trickster, the medieval carnival, and abjection. Bakhtin's work on the carnival, for example, provides an account of the content of transgression that is directly relevant to gross-out comedy: carnival is degradation; it is 'the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity' (65). [8] More vividly, carnival concerns 'the lower stratum of the body, the life of the body and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception and pregnancy and birth' (65). [9] Kristeva's work both reinforces the emphasis on the body and suggests why a preoccupation with it might be considered gross: the abject is the 'in-between, the ambiguous [that] disturbs identity, system, order' (65). [10]

 

King's discussion of gross-out comedy supplies a welcome and long overdue introduction to a particularly *in your face* cycle of film comedy. He identifies the origin of the cycle in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the period in which the baby-boomers became adolescents and thus presented a targetable audience for the film industry. The films appeal to an adolescent sense of humour which derives from the audience's indeterminate status between childhood and adulthood, and its experience of a body itself undergoing a dramatic process of transformation. Gross-out, in this sense, is comedy which responds to the troubled teenager's need to master once again the animal that lies within. But in the broader socio-historical context provided by Bakhtin and Kristeva, the basis of such comedy in animal functions constitutes a recognition of what is considered off-limits and not open to discussion in polite society. Film culture here provides an avenue for communicating concerns deemed inappropriate in other social contexts. Addressing the point of contact between individual experience and social expression, most broadly, and perhaps least complexly, these films expose the fluid underbelly of that which is subject to the processes of inhibition.

 

Bakhtin's work on Rabelais also provides an account of the origins, scope, and social function of ritualised transgression. King questions, in this regard, whether the overturning of conventional hierarchies that takes place in carnival is radically liberating, a means of reinforcing the most rigid strictures of social life, or perhaps something in between, a safety valve that enables a limited and momentary relief from social constraint (67). The question of transgression thus emerges at the point that it becomes necessary to consider whether this *exposure* involves a perverse celebration of the disgusting, a public repudiation of it, or something that can satisfy both demands at the same time. Here, as elsewhere, King's discussion of various films makes it clear that there is no single answer to this question -- the strategy and effect of gross-out comedy varies from one film to another.

 

There are also indications in King's relaying of Bakhtin's thought (which King himself doesn't pursue) that the transgressive function of the body in carnival goes further than simply constituting an abstract negation of the spiritual, ideal, etc. In carnival, King tells us, emphasis is placed on the parts of body that engage with the world and the body is conceived as inseparable from the world. The body is unfinished; it outgrows and transgresses itself at the same time (65). The body must be seen to operate, then, not simply in its capacity to disgust, but with its own specific contents, dispositions, and behaviours. The significance of the precise figurations and utilisations of the body would have been an interesting avenue to pursue with regard to the cinema of gross-out comedy. King might have considered, for example, the relation between the contemporary focus on the emissions of the body and the early emphasis on action in cinematic comedy.

 

In the second half of this chapter, King, divulging a list of contenders that spans from Harry Langdon to Peewee Herman, turns his attention to the comic protagonist's tendency to dwell in a pre-Oedipal fantasy world. King goes so far as to suggest that the format of comedian comedy can be understood as 'a dialectical exchange between something like the pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal' (78). The realm of the comedian performer would be the pre-Oedipal world of 'fluid, unstructured and unstable possibilities, before the erection of social inhibitions . . . of freedom and play, of unfixed identity and polymorphous perversity . . .' (78). Significantly, King returns to Seidman's work here, explicitly this time, in order to discuss his contention that the narrative trajectory of comedian comedy is a uni-directional movement from the pre-Oedipal to the Oedipal, from freedom/aberration to social integration. Here, too, King argues against Seidman from both an empirical and industrial perspective. An examination of the films in question, he argues, quoting Seidman, reveals that it simply isn't the case that: 'The comic figure 'must be made to conform to cultural values by divesting himself of his creativity, or else face rejection'' (87). [11] On the contrary, there is 'a significant investment in the world of comic nonconformity and play is maintained even in the midst of movements towards integration' (87). King also points out that it makes no sense from an industrial perspective to do away with the dimension of play because it is the major source of audience attraction: people go to see these films precisely because they explore and delight in the realm of the pre-Oedipal (87).

 

One of the most interesting things about this chapter is King's placement of gross-out comedy in the context of his discussion of the pre-Oedipal explorations of comedian comedy in general. King notes that the comedy of regression can include 'the immature foolery of slapstick . . . the antics of the comedian star . . . [and] the gross-out moments explained above' (77), and although he doesn't say as much, the pre-Oedipal world embraced by earlier comedians has consonances with the realm of gross-out. King might have further interrogated the basis for this relationship. How, for example, does the focus on bodily fluids in the recent cycle relate to the fluidity of form that resulted in the condensation and displacement gags that dominated the comedy of the silent era and that characterised the comic antics of the likes of Chaplin and Keaton. Is the more recent comedy a literalisation of the former, or something else altogether?

 

Chapter Two also evidences a recurrent concern about the political capacity of transgression on the one hand and the ideological ramifications of regression on the other. This concern plays an increasingly important part in the next chapter, entitled 'Satire and Parody'. The section on satire is another welcome inclusion, given satire's very limited examination by film theory. King offers what is perhaps an overly succinct definition at the outset of the chapter, and one that privileges the object of satire rather than its form: 'Satire is comedy with an edge and a target, usually social or political in some way' (93). Noting satire's prevalence in periods of 'public excess, hardship, impropriety and aberration' (94), [12] he identifies corresponding periods in the last century, and satirical films that sought to challenge them. Here he draws on examples from both capitalist and non-capitalist regimes -- the US and Britain on the one hand, the USSR, the Eastern Block, and Cuba on the other -- in order to contrast the impact of industrial imperatives upon the notion of free representation in Western liberal democracies, with the impact of state censorship on films in totalitarian regimes.

 

According to King's analysis, what distinguishes satire from other kinds of comedy is the emphasis placed on message, but what threatens the message is precisely the comic mode it utilises. Satire, however, straddles a wide span; at one end of the spectrum it is 'a deadly earnest means of voicing criticism', at the other a 'relatively light and playful' expression of derision (93). The question of the political effectiveness of comedy as an expressive mode resurfaces here, as does the theme of comedy's capacities to liberate repressed expression, act as a pressure valve to prevent melt-down, or undermine otherwise very serious issues. To explore them, King examines the discursive positions within which satire is mounted and the degree of implication in a number of different films. Satire, he argues, is better when the audience doesn't identify with the object exposed and when it is generated from the message rather than when it is used to simply make a heavy point more palatable.

 

As a means of demonstrating the political effectiveness and ineffectiveness of comedy, King contrasts the comic deployment of playful and childish innocence in _Bulworth_ and _Being There_. In the former, he claims that Warren Beatty appropriates the posture of childishness in order to attack the political system in which he is entrenched, but does so 'in a voice of rebellious individualism that fits rather more easily [than _Bob Roberts_] with prevailing and dominant ideologies' (102). The latter goes further, offering a critique of the appropriation of the trope of 'childlike innocence/insight so widely employed in Hollywood comedy' (104). King also contrasts _Broadcast News_'s deployment of innocent and incidental slapstick to _Network_'s embedding of comic moments within the film's satirical thrust. Similarly, _Catch-22_ is more effective than _M*A*S*H_ because it pushes the comic to the point of absurdity, whereas the latter presents only cases of 'individual comic rebellion against institutional absurdity' (105).

 

Parody, like satire, is also comedy with a target, but a formal or aesthetic target rather than social or political one. Parody can aim to debunk or criticise the formal, aesthetic, discursive, or representational conventions to which it draws our attention, or it can simply celebrate them. A film can be a parody of an individual film, a genre of films, the techniques or constraints of the medium, 'non-film specific items' like pop-stars, or even a number of different films, techniques, genres, and conventions at the same time, as is the case in the relatively recent scattershot mode of comedy (108). King refers to the work of D. Harries [13] in order to locate and explain the mechanism of parody, suggesting that it has three axes (semantic/lexical, syntactic, and stylistic) on which it can work and six strategies that it can combine to produce its effects: reiteration, inversion, misdirection, literalisation, extraneous inclusion, and exaggeration (115).

 

King registers the parallels between parodic intentions and a postmodern ethos and acknowledges that parody can be viewed as a manifestation of postmodernism, to the extent that postmodern culture is one which 'turns on itself, recycling and reworking the products of the past, rather than moving forward', and one in which existing forms 'are recombined and played around with, originality taking the form of new juxtapositions of old material' (120), but he calls into question any direct causal relation between postmodernism and parody. Film, he argues, is a popular form, and as such has always regenerated itself through a 'recombination of existing elements' (120). Instead, King attributes the recent upsurge in cinematic parody to a number of factors: an increase in cinematic literacy among film audiences, the development of film studies as an academic discipline, the invention and availability of domestic play-back machines, the birth of a generation of American filmmakers who grew up with these changes, and the emergence of a radical cultural climate in the 60s and 70s, willing to take the burden of exposure/defamiliarisation upon itself (120-121).

 

King foregoes altogether the opportunity to reflect here upon Frederic Jameson's claim that pastiche replaces parody or Jean Baudrillard's contention that in the post-modern epoch parody, has given ground to a stronger imperative toward simulation. [14] This is somewhat surprising, given his suggestion that reaffirmation has increasingly become the dominant tone of parody. Indeed, a significant part of the chapter is devoted to detailing the structure of reaffirmation in Hollywood's more well-known industrial successes and to remarking upon the extent to which this success emerges from an increasing inclination toward reiteration. According to King's own analysis, films like _Galaxy Quest_, _Scream_, and _Die Hard_ don't work by 'deconstructing' their originals but by self-consciously reiterating their conventions while developing their own independent and dynamic plot-lines.

 

In Chapter Four, King asks how comedy bears on the politics of representation of gender, race and ethnicity, and nationality. In the section on gender, King speculates first about the relative absence of female performers in cinematic comedian comedy, [15] and then surmises that the relative absence of female comedian comics by no means precluded the comic treatment of gender identity in comedian comedy or the centrality of 'female' performers in many films. Discussing such films as _Mrs Doubtfire_, _Big Momma's House_ and _Some Like it Hot_, he analyses the comic subversion of gender norms by male performers through cross-dressing and masquerade.

 

King also speculates that Whoopi Goldberg's success as one of the very few female comedian comics is due to her participation in a pre-established cycle of 'coon' comedy. The deployment of the 'coon' stereotype, he elaborates, is a dominating stylistic trait in the work of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, and Chris Rock. King comments, for example, on Eddie Murphy's utilisation of coon stylistics in his 'high-pitched voices, popping eyes and other excesses of diction and gesture' (147). As with gender performativity, King notes the emphasis in these comedies on the virtuosity of performance skills and suggests that such emphasis foregrounds the performative dimension of all articulations of identity. In considering the political implications of this kind of comedy, King analyses a number of films and questions the extent to which the performers really can distance themselves from the stereotypes they aim to subvert. The answer, he concludes is by no means clear-cut. The excessive deployment of a racial stereotype might be a successful attempt at transcendence for some viewers, while appealing to the inherent racism of others. This reality, King suggests, is all the more disturbing in the light of New Hollywood's attempt to cater to a diversity of audience tastes and predilections within a given cinematic text. In direct contrast to this, King acknowledges Mel Brooks's inclusion in his films of a number of Yiddish in-jokes that remain beyond the comprehension of most viewers. A similar utilisation of comedy's exclusionary and inclusionary capacities is evident in a cycle of comic films in Hong Kong cinema whose specifically Cantonese jokes made them nonsensical to outside audiences.

 

The last chapter of the book deals with one of its most interesting subjects -- the case of comedy beyond comedy -- conceived by King either as comedy that borders on another affect or unintentional comedy. The chapter sets out to examine 'the function, or effect, of the presence of comedy in contexts that are not usually considered to be primarily those of 'comedy' in its more substantial or clear-cut forms' (171). The question this chapter poses concerns the extent to which comic moments leaven, undercut, or reinforce the impact of serious messages. Throughout the chapter, King presents a subtle argument against the notion that mixing serious and horrifying subject matter with comedy detracts from the import of what is being said.

 

The first section, 'Comic Relief', considers the varying comic techniques used in non-comic films and their impact on the film's overall tone by contrasting John Ford's _The Searchers_ to a number of relatively recent films. King discusses: the use of comic quips, one-liners, and the topping device in _Con Air_, and their impact upon what would otherwise be a pretty unsavory storyline; the use of comic slapstick and comic interludes in _The Searchers_ to leaven a narrative of obsessive racism; and the comic treatment of Schindler's womanising and the inclusion of pre-holocaust ironies in _Schindler's List_ in order to respectfully lighten the impact of history's greatest atrocity. The deployment of comedy in such films is in turn contrasted with the combination of comedy and violence in films like _Reservoir Dogs_ and _Bonnie and Clyde_. Both of these, King observes, destabilise the position of the viewer by undertaking much more dramatic shifts of tone, mostly between high drama and the comic rendition of everyday banality. King cites the Production Code and the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock as key contributors to the development of this kind of aesthetic. He analyses, for example, the way humour in _Shadow of a Doubt_ initially seems to provide relief from the film's darker themes, only to end up being implicated in them. In analysing such films as _Pulp Fiction_, _Natural Born Killers_, _Happiness_, _American Psycho_, and, blackest of all, _C'est arrive de chez vous_, King notes the varying implications of the mixture of affects, from _Natural Born Killers_'s complicity with the stylised violence it takes issue with, to the complexity of emotional experience created by _C'est arrive de chez vous_.

 

At the end of the chapter, King attempts to make sense of this 'comedy beyond comedy' by referring to Freud's theorisation of gallows humour, wherein the super-ego behaves in a paternal kind of way to protect the ego by making light of the harsh realities of the world, pretty much as Roberto Benigni does with his son in _Life is Beautiful_. This is an interesting way of thinking about the operation of comedy in such films, but as King himself admits, its explanatory value is not sufficient to all instances in which a mixing of tone occurs. Quite often, the mixing of tone has the result of amplifying the violence.

 

This last chapter doesn't offer a definitive interpretation of this very contemporary utilisation of comedy in ostensibly non-comic films. Its strength is rather in its identification of new and important territory. Indeed, the book's most substantial contributions are in its inclusion of the material on gross-out comedy and comedy beyond comedy, and its attention to the work of recent performers, all of which are relatively under-represented in the available literature. It also provides a number of interesting ways to approach this material and will thus contribute to further study of the mode of cinematic comedy.

 

University of New South Wales, Australia

 

 

Notes

 

1. The book has a number of significant precursors: Raymond Durgnat's _The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image _, Gerald Mast's _The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies_, Jerry Palmer's _The Logic of the Absurd_, and Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik's _Popular Film and Television Comedy_ come to mind, in addition to two important anthologies, _Classical Hollywood Comedy_, edited by Henry Jenkins and Kristine Brunowska Karnick, and _Comedy/Cinema/Theory_, edited by Andrew Horton.

 

2. Umberto Eco, et al., _Carnival!_, ed. by Thomas A. Sebeok (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984).

 

3. Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik, _Popular Film and Television Comedy_ (London: Routledge, 1990); David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, _The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960_ (London: Routledge, 1985).

 

4. See Donald Crafton's 'Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy', and Tom Gunning's 'Crazy Machines in the Garden of the Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy' and 'Response to Pie and Chase', in Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, eds, _Classical Hollywood Comedy_ (New York: Routledge, 1995).

 

5. Patricia Mellencamp, 'Jokes and Their Relation to the Marx Brothers', in S. Heath and P. Mellencamp, eds, _Cinema and Language_ (New York: American Film Institute, 1983); Henry Jenkins _What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Gerald Mast, _The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies_ (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979); and Walter Kerr, _The Silent Clowns_ (New York: Da Capo, 1975).

 

6. Steve Seidman, _Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film_ (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979).

 

7. Peter Kramer, 'Derailing the Honeymoon Express: Comicality and Narrative Closure in Buster Keaton's _The Blacksmith_', _The Velvet Light Trap_ 23, Spring 1989, pp. 101-116.

 

8. King quoting Mikhail Bakhtin, _Rabelais and His World_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 19-20.

 

9. King quoting Mikhail Bakhtin, ibid., p. 21.

 

10. King quoting Julia Kristeva, _Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 4.

 

11. King quoting Seidman, _Comedian Comedy_, p. 141.

 

12. See M. E. Snodgrass, _Encyclopedia of Satirical Literature_ (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1996), pp. 406-407.

 

13. D. Harries, _Film Parody_ (London: British Film Institute, 2000).

 

14. Fredric Jameson, _Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism_ (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992); Jean Baudrillard, _Simulations_, trans. by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

 

15. The exceptions here are Mae West, Goldie Horn, and Whoopi Goldberg -- he misses Bette Midler -- but King also reminds us of some lesser known 'unruly women' (to use Kathleen Rowe's term), such as Gale Henry, Alice Howell, Dorothy DeVore, and Fay Tichner of the silent era (130). King contrasts the demise of the unruly woman in comedian comedy in the 30s and 40s with the 'madcap heroines' like Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck of the 1940s screwball comedy (131).

 

Bibliography

 

Bakhtin, Mikhail _Rabelais and His World_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

 

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Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Lisa Trahair, 'Comedy and Beyond: Geoff King's _Film Comedy_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 15, May 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n15trahair>.

 

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