Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Pure Comedy"

Disclaimer: Jokes I find funny may not be funny to you. That’s just the way it is.

This idea for this post came to mind when I was writing about the only joke on The Office that ever made me laugh out loud. Michael Scott, relying on a GPS for directions, drives his car directly into a lake.

That’s pure comedy.

Constructed less to reveal character or advance the storyline than to simply elicit laughter, pure comedy bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the place that made cavemen snort whatever they drank back then out their prehistoric noses.

Pure comedy does not need to be outrageously broad, though a skillfully-choreographed pie fight would definitely qualify. Pure comedy can also be sublimely subtle. The most proficient practitioner in this regard is a French comedian who made movies in the fifties, named Jacques Tati, his finest effort, for me, being Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is filled with dozens of deliciously unobtrusive comedic observations. Huge laughs are elicited from our simply listening a screen door in great need of oiling creakily opening and closing, again and again.

One of my favorite moments takes place at Hulot’s vacation spot’s Dining/slash/ Recreation Room, where the hotel guests have come together for an evening of card playing. The room includes a dozen or so tables, with the guests crowding around each of them, all engaged in some unspecified card game, say, gin rummy, or bridge.

Hulot is sitting at a table. At one point, he drops one of his cards. He bends over to retrieve it, and when he sits back up, because his chair has somehow swiveled, he suddenly finds himself playing in a card game at an adjacent table.

The situation is the same; they’re still playing cards. But everything else is different. It’s as if Hulot had wandered into a parallel universe, in which the people are also play cards, but it’s different people, and a different game.

Our laughter derives from Hulot’s understandable confusion. And it’s pure comedy, because the vignette has been designed exclusively to elicit that laughter.

Pure comedy is not accidental. To succeed, it must be meticulously constructed and perfectly executed. It must also have at least a minimal connection to reality. Otherwise, the audience will go,

“I don’t know what they’re doing.”

And when they do that, they don’t laugh.

The Carol Burnett Show was the last really good variety show. Being a variety show gave the Burnett show the license to go broader than, say, sitcoms, which needed to hew closer to everyday life, to retain their credibility. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Richards couldn’t suddenly start speaking with a Swedish accent, pop ping-pong balls out of her mouth, or burst into song, because the audience would go,

”I don’t know what she’s doing.”

And when they do that, they don’t laugh.

On variety shows, you can do virtually anything, as long as it’s remotely credible. This free-ranging opportunity opens the door for pure comedy.

A classic example: The Gone With The Wind parody. Specifically, the part of the story where Scarlett O’Hara has become so seriously impoverished she is relegated to transforming the fabric from her living room drapes into clothing.

Scarlett comes downstairs in her newly tailored outfit, a dark green velvet floor-length dress. You become quickly aware, however, that the dress had previously been drapes, because the outfit’s design includes…

a still-attached, heavy, brass curtain rod which spans the breadth of Scarlett’s shoulders, and considerably further.

In this case, the funny part, beyond the insane look of the outfit itself, is Carol Burnett’s casual demeanor, behaving as if she has successfully reconfigured the drapes into a dress, when it is hilariously clear that she has pretty much just taken down the curtains, and dropped them over her head. Burnett behaves as if nothing, in any way, is wrong.

Burnett’s entrance in the “dress” received one of the loudest, most prolonged laughs from the studio audience I have ever witnessed. And I was cracking up at home as well.

Today’s final example of pure comedy comes from a show that was rightfully praised for not being outrageous or broad, but was, instead, one of the finest examples of character comedy of all time. I am referring to the TV sitcom, Taxi.

Maybe what made this moment of pure comedy even more effective was that it was embedded in a show that was, traditionally, more naturally grounded. The moment in question involved Taxi’s Reverend Jim character’s taking his driver’s test.

The moment gained its credibility from the fact that the Reverend Jim character was a sixties burnout. As the result, the parameters of what passed for reality in his case were proportionally expanded. Also, actor Christopher Lloyd’s, hilarious, but more importantly sympathetic, portrayal contributed greatly to selling an otherwise credibility-testing situation.

This time, rather than describing it, I think I’ll just show it to you. If I can.

Wish me luck. I’m venturing into Technoland.



Gary said...

Great stuff, pure fun(ny)! If you wrote it, take a bow. Always enjoyed Taxi & especially Jim. YouTube also has a clip of his time at Harvard, w/Tom Hanks as his roomie.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely my favorite scene from a comedy ever! I still laugh even at the mention of it and tears roll down my face if I watch it. This isn't just pure comedy, it's pure genius! If this is your work, I am eternally grateful.

sean said...

"Constructed less to reveal character or advance the storyline than to simply elicit laughter, pure comedy bypasses the intellect..."

I would argue that this scene exists precisely due to Jim's character.