The common goal of all comedies is to make the audience laugh. However, it’s hard to define why people laugh at one motif and not another. Because humor is ultimately also always dependent on cultural backgrounds or different age groups.
Comedy expresses a wide variety of human needs, ranging from relief from oppressive situations, which are humorously resolved and defused in comedy, to simple schadenfreude.
It is considered an important function of comedy that it questions social realities – as in the slapstick comedies of Charles Chaplin or the Marx Brothers, for example, which primarily ridicule authority. In Chaplin, for example, when incompetent policemen are shown in car chases, or in the Marx Brothers, when Groucho Marx uses absurd dialogues and puns to baffle politicians, scientists or other representatives of the serious world, thus exposing their limitations.
Comedy also allows taboo subjects to be expressed under the guise of comedy. The degree can range from laughter at bodily fluids – as is often the case in contemporary comedy – to black humor, through which themes such as illness and death are stripped of their horror. So also here acts a release from social pressure.
Table of Contents
The comic effect is not so much a question of the object, but rather of the way in which this object is presented and viewed. Tendency is that everything can be funny, it depends only on the presentation.
Some areas, such as religion, illness, or death, are taboo, but many comedies work on these very taboos – for example, the British comedy troupe Monty Python with The Life of Brian (1979), a satire on religious rapture.
Comedy often arises from the contrast between the familiar "normal" and the "normal" world and an element that in some way does not fit into it. A central motif that can be found again and again in a wide variety of comedies is therefore the collision of two worlds. The clash of different or even incompatible cultures creates comic situations, as in Crocodile Dundee (1986), where an Australian outdoorsman gets lost in New York.
Exemplary are also the numerous body-swapping comedies like Big (1988) or A Very Crazy Friday (1976), in which children or teenagers swap bodies with adults and thus stir up the adult world. Generally, comedies of confusion are popular, especially in the play of men in women’s clothes, as in Some Like It Hot (1959) or Tootsie (1982). The humor here arises from the viewer’s knowledge advantage over the characters, for example when a man unsuspectingly proposes to a guy dressed as a woman.
The so-called comedians’ comedies, which occur mainly in the early period of the history of comedy, do not live from a story, but from the performance of a single star comedian.
These comedians each developed their own distinctive style, which is already evident in their outward appearance. Max Linder, the first star comedian in film history, always appeared in a tuxedo and top hat. Charles Chaplin created the distinctive figure of the Tramp, with his bow-legged gait, thin walking stick, too-large shoes and pants, and small beard. Groucho Marx only painted on his mustache and eyebrows.
Conspicuously often in the history of the comic film duos appear: from Dick and Doof (Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy), to Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, to Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. One part of the duo always represents the unconventional, comic character, while the other part embodies the part of the serious, sensible person, who symbolically represents society. This constellation is an ancient comedic principle, which also appears in the circus in the double play of Dummer August and the white clown.
In some films, no single character takes the serious part, but the whole environment – as in "The Party Scare" (1968), in which a chaotic Indian completely tears apart a superficial party society. Thus, the comedy of the person is shown only in the contrast of an oblique character with a serious person.
In the American comic tradition, there is also the so-called "duo" Deadpan– Principle. The comedian shows no emotion, no matter what absurd situations he gets into. Here the comedian himself takes on the serious part, reflecting the grotesque environment. The master of the Deadpan is without a doubt Buster Keaton. He is followed by Bill Murray, among others, but the most famous film character is probably Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) from The Naked Gun (1988).
Romantic comedy can be seen as the counterpart to melodrama. In both forms, it is often about an unhappy love affair that is hindered by adverse circumstances. While in melodrama love fails against the odds, in romantic comedy it triumphs. A good example is Pretty Woman (1990): a simple prostitute with a heart and a rich businessman become a couple despite all social inequality. The comedy, which is indispensable for a romantic comedy, arises from the confrontation of the different layers, but in the end the opposites are cancelled out by love.
Romantic comedies mostly show the development of a man-woman relationship. Typically, it runs according to the following scheme: "Man gets woman – man loses woman – man gets woman back". Of course, there are countless variations on this basic pattern – such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) or Harry and Sally (1989), which humorously shows a couple’s journey from dislike to friendship to love affair.
Parody, as a literary genre, takes well-known material and makes fun of its typical characteristics by imitating them in an exaggerated or distorted way. It lives on the fact that the original is known.
For this reason, well-known works such as Star Wars are especially targeted by parodists (Space Balls (1987). But there can also be parodies that don’t make fun of a single work, but of the rules of an entire genre – like The Knights of the Coconut (1975) in reference to the chivalric film.
Some parodic works turn elementary aspects of the originals upside down – such as Dance of the Vampires (1967), in which at the end the vampire is not defeated by the heroes, as is obligatory in vampire films, but the heroes themselves become vampires.
The first master of film parody was the American director Mel Brooks, who also appears as an actor in his own films. He devoted himself parodistically among other things Frankenstein (Frankenstein Junior (1974)), the historical film (Mel Brooks’ crazy history of the world (1981)) and just Star Wars (Space Balls (1987)). Brook’s films thrive on multi-layered allusions and an affectionate set that reveals admiration for the originals.
Less respectful than Brooks at the same time is the British comedy troupe Monty Python’s treatment of classic films. The Knights of the Coconut (1975) is a grotesque parody of chivalric films that radically dispels the myths of the genre. The filmmakers later applied the same recipe to the Bible movie with The Life of Brian (1979).
In the 80s, the tradition of film parody is continued by the trio ZAZ, consisting of directors and writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. Their films are characterized by an extremely high density of film quotations and slapstick gags. Their breakthrough came in 1980 with The Incredible Journey in a Crazy Airplane, a parody of disaster movies. This was followed by the success of the film The Naked Gun (1988), which spoofs police films. Jim Abrahams turned the pattern around in the ’90s with Hot Shots! – The mother of all movies! (1990) on the war film.
Like no other genre, comedy can be combined with other genres, since any subject or material can be treated humorously. Thus, quite a few humorous hybrids have been created in film history, which are more than mere genre parodies:
– Comedies with fantastic elements: z.B. Und taglich greubt das Murmeltier (1993), whose title has already become proverbial for constant repetition.
– Action comedies: Popular series such as Lethal Weapon (1987-1998), Beverly Hills Cop (1984-1994), or Rush Hour (1998-2007) draw their comedy primarily from the contrast of the serious, brutal rules of the action genre with comic characters. They also work as so-called "buddy movies", that is, comedies that generate comedy through opposing types who have to scramble together for a dangerous assignment.
– A special case of the mixed forms is the Tragicomedy dar: Like tragedy, it dealt with serious subjects, but with a humorous attitude. The plot leads one to expect a tragic ending, but in fact there is a happy ending, as is usual in comedies. Examples are The Apartment (1960) by Billy Wilder or Forrest Gump (1994).
The very first film ever shown, in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers, relied on comic subjects: The short film about a gardener who is splashed wet by a rascal with a garden hose is legendary.
Early comic film has its roots in European vaudeville and its American counterpart, vaudeville. The first stars of silent comedy came from the cabaret stage to the movies. As in vaudeville, the emphasis in early film comedy is not on a narrative plot, but on physical expression itself. The early comedians were not concerned with creating an illusion of reality to help the audience empathize with the characters. On the contrary, they emphasized the artificiality of the scenery, their characters are types to be recognized in any context, like Chaplin’s famous tramp.
In silent film, the tendency of vaudeville theater to physicality is further reinforced by the absence of the possibility of speech. That’s why the films – especially Chaplin’s – rely mainly on funny action scenes. Because of this harmless "depiction of violence the early comedies are also called slapstick, after the platform with which the jester in the theater hits his fellow actors without really hurting them. The proximity of the early comedies to the stage can also be seen in the name.
The first star of slapstick was the Frenchman Max Linder, who made a series of comic shorts for the famous Pathe film company starting in 1905. Lindner strongly influenced the great slapstick comedians who followed him: Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Charles Chaplin developed the distinctive figure of the Tramp, a tramp who trickily fights his way through adverse everyday life. Chaplin’s films, which he also directed himself, were always more than pure slapstick: Gold Rush (1925) deals with poverty, Modern Times (1936) criticizes the alienation of man in industrial capitalism, and in The Great Dictator (1940) Chaplin finally attacks Hitler.
Next to the British-born Chaplin, the biggest star of slapstick was the American Buster Keaton. His trademark was the always serious facial expression, which gave him the name "The great Stoneface" brought in. Like Chaplin, Keaton directed himself, his feature-length films such as The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) were known for their daring stunts, which Keaton also performed himself.
With the development of the sound film, comedy had a new opportunity to create comedy through language as well. Not all comedians made use of it: Charles Chaplin, for example, refused to work with sound for a long time. In The Great Dictator (1940) alone, he uses the voice as a stylistic device, but only to create grotesque effects when he has his Hitler parody Adenoid Hynkel roar around in a monstrous fantasy language.
Despite the invention of the talkies, visual gags continue to predominate in the early comedies. The duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, known in Germany as Dick and Doof, was particularly influential in the transition from silent to sound comedy. In their late films, there is some talking, but destruction orgies in the best slapstick manner predominate.
The first comedic group to consciously use language was the Marx Brothers. The troupe consisted of the brothers Groucho, Chico and Harpo as well as Zeppo, who, however, dropped out early on. Chico talks non-stop with Italian accent and especially Groucho uses the language excessively for absurd dialogues. Only Harpo is a mute slapstick character who communicates only through a horn. The typical scenario of the Marx Brothers films is that the brothers "break into" some closed system. The (German) title usually indicates this place: Marx Brothers – At War (1933) or Marx Brothers – At the Opera (1935). In these places, the Marx Brothers upset all the rules with their anarchistic goings-on – Groucho with his confusing linguistic wit, Harpo with his childish destructiveness.
An alternative to the anarchistic comedians of the time were the so-called "Sophisticated Comedies", coined by director Ernst Lubitsch, who emigrated from Germany to Hollywood. The Paramount studio advertised its films with the slogan "Goodbye Slapstick – Hello Nonchalance!", thus distanced itself from the old harebrained comedy and focused on sophisticated, intelligent humor. For the director’s films, such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) or Ninotchka (1939), the term "Lubitsch touch" has become synonymous became proverbial. This touch consists mainly in the subtle erotic allusions and double entendres that Lubitsch smuggled into his films.
The so-called screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, which were based on the tradition of Broadway comedies, relied entirely on the comedic potential of spoken language. The word "screwy" means in English roughly what you would say in German "eine Schraube locker haben" (have a screw loose) and "screwball" comedies accordingly, an eccentric, loopy person, as it populates the eponymous comedies.
In contrast to the early slapstick films, which predominantly revolved around the personality of a single comic character, the screwball comedies tend to focus on the plot, which is then also designed to be relatively complex – with a large number of characters and many twists and turns. The films work with biting dialogues that fly back and forth between the quirky characters like ping-pong balls at breakneck speed. As in the films of Ernst Lubitsch, screwball writers outdo each other in creating witty sexual innuendos.
The preferred theme of screwball comedies is the war between the sexes. Here the conventional social role pattern is reversed: the man is usually an insecure, unworldly eccentric, while the woman is quirky, but also self-confident and prudent. In the prototype of screwballs, It Happened One Night (1934) by Frank Capra, gender relations are still traditional: a poor but hard-boiled journalist shows a worldly-minded millionaire’s daughter real life. In most of the other classics, however, it’s the other way around: the fun-loving woman pulls a man far from life out of his daily routine – like in Leopards Don’t Kiss (1938). A confident woman is also at the center of other important works such as Philadelphia Story – The Night Before the Wedding (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949).
From the 1950s onward, comedy shifted to the increasingly widespread television, to the so-called sitcoms. In the 50s and early 60s, the cinema was dominated by harmless family comedies with the duo Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
Fresh impulses for the genre were given by Woody Allen in the 1970s with his intelligent and melancholic comedies from the New York intellectual circles, as well as by the British TV comedy troupe Monty Python with their feature films The Knights of the Coconut (1975) and The Life of Brian (1979).
In the 1980s and 1990s, romantic comedies predominated, especially in Germany there was a veritable boom in relationship comedies (for example, Der bewegte Mann (1994)).
In the last fifteen years, the makers of comic films have consistently relied on tasteless humor. A first milestone in this sector was Crazy for Mary from 1998. Since then, filmmakers have been trying to outdo each other in terms of fecal humor and cross all disgust boundaries and social taboos – even at the expense of minorities. Relevant to this is the American Pie (1999-2003) series. Like later Superbad (2007), American Pie takes aim at the embarrassments that arise in the desperate efforts of American teenagers to lose their virginity.