I was thinking about what makes us laugh and why. I'm not qualified to discuss all of the psychological reasons why humans laugh but when we watch a movie that's funny we know it. My column asks who's funny in the movies.
I don't need glasses
Man's foibles, mistakes and weaknesses have been written about since writing began. All of the world's literature is filled with everything we do that's funny and sad. Movies have explored the human condition from their inception.
I mentioned a few of cinema's pioneers in my last column. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were masters of visual art and, in my opinion, comic geniuses. Their inventiveness, boundless creativity and willingness to risk life and limb made their audiences laugh because these men could mimic how and why people act the way they do. I want to add several names to this list to honor and recognize their contributions to silent cinema comedy:
Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Larry Semon and the man who created The Keystone Cops, Max Sennett.
Another fine mess you've gotten me into, Stanley
These famous names come from the Silent Era when the gags and pratfalls were exaggerated. But I maintain they were funny because of the lack of dialogue. Even as movies began to speak many films remained silent to enhance the actors' abilities to create visual humor. Yes, there was slapstick, people falling down, or fighting, or getting a pie in the face, or running into walls, or falling off buildings.
The fun is watching it happen and how often. Like cartoons, no one is seriously hurt. Watch Buster Keaton in The General. His nuanced actions and stone-faced reactions are incredible.
Once sound takes over we have a whole new category of comic actors and films: The Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy (who transition easily from
silents to talkies), W.C. Fields, Mae West, and the ever-versatile Cary Grant. We can hear as well as see the madness in their movies, filled with the usual slapstick, pratfalls and classic comedy routines. Anyone out there not familiar with "Who's On First" or "I shot an elephant in my pajamas last night"? The so-called "screwball" comedies of the 1930's and early '40's launched several famous careers: Kathryn Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Carole Lombard, and Danny Kaye. In the 1950's we have Martin & Lewis and a whole era of British comedies with stars like Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. Woody Allen, Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau carried on the comedic traditions in the 1960's and '70's.
I can kill you, like that
Comedy films are still here today. Can they be compared with the classic era movies I highlighted? What makes us laugh today isn't what made us laugh 60, 70 or 80 years ago. Movies help
us forget our troubles for a little while. True, there'll always be straight-forward physical gags that we can see coming a mile away. For me people in pain, however, isn't funny. America's Funniest Home Videos aren't terribly funny – just painful.
To the dismay of some readers I don't believe we have movie comics today as in the past. Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Martin Lawrence do not compare to the classic funnymen. I'm looking for more subtle forms of humor. Even as recently as the '80's and '90's we had some great performances from Bill Murray, Robin Williams and the Monty Python troupe.
No matter who the star or the plot we all need to laugh: that hasn't changed over the years. The movies, like a good friend, have been there when we needed to relax, or find a way to cope with the daily round of bad news and stress. I guess if someone can make you laugh that's a friend to keep.
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May 20, 2010 12:09 AM
|You're right, Jon. If it weren't for flatulence and feces, most comic actors today would not have a job. It seems the funniest actors out there are our action stars.|
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My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).|
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