And so the clock has run out on 2011. It hasn’t exactly been the best of years or the worst of years for popular entertainment. As far as feature films go, kids won out and grown-ups got the shaft. Why, you might ask? Because on average, most of the children’s movies were more cleverly written than so-called adult comedies by a long measure. We had some major hilarity misfires on the big screen, and relied on television a lot more than usual for laughs. What’s going on here?
Two of the most widely acclaimed comedies of 2011 were Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris and Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids. The former, while delightful, and showing a freshness of wit that Allen’s fans continually fear he has lost, riffed safely on the familiar notes of his life’s work to date. Meanwhile, Bridesmaids overcame our prejudicial expectations of The Hangover for girls and delivered a substantial, if uneven, comedy celebrating friendship and love. The third most popular comedy of the year was probably Harold And Kumar 3D, which rallied its built-in fan base much more effectively than, say, The Hangover, Part 2.
As a rule, the rest of this year’s comedy films fell into two rather narrow categories. The first crop were immediately reviled as worst-of-year candidates, such as Something Borrowed, Just Go With It, Hall Pass, The Change-Up, Take Me Home Tonight, New Year’s Eve, and What’s Your Number? I would also add David Gordon Green’s Your Highness to that list, but opinion is curiously divided on that point.
Then there were the Comedies Of Undelivered Potential. There seems to be a revival of interest in dark comedy, and I am all for it. However, it’s an all-or-nothing game. As in all art, timidity breeds mediocrity, and the people writing these films are going to have to toughen up or quit. Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses are two noteworthy examples from last summer. In the first case, a depressed school teacher (Cameron Diaz) quests ruthlessly to make herself the perfect trophy wife, and ends up doing the right thing by her students almost completely by mistake. Sure, she drinks, smokes weed, and acts like a jerk in front of kids, but how bad is she, really? Not nearly as fundamentally degenerate as Bad Santa, which is far more crass but also a keener comedy. Horrible Bosses, meanwhile, follows three nervous men on a quest to assassinate their respective “horrible” bosses. Though perfectly set up for macabre mayhem, it commits neither to consequences nor to the faintest suggestion that committing murder may require “horrible” behavior of its heroes. These are both perfectly serviceable comedies, but far too airy and upbeat for their respective premises. Jason Segel can pretty much write all the feel-good comedy we need right now, having now proven his ability in both raunchy and family-safe arenas. It is time for someone with a more twisted imagination to get involved. After all, Ethan Coen isn’t going to live forever.
A few films slipped through the cracks, and hopefully word of mouth will vindicate their limited success so far. This goes particularly for Tucker And Dale Versus Evil, a wonderfully clever spoof on the tired slasher film, in which the supposedly “evil” hillbillies are merely victims of bad luck and the prejudices of nubile teenagers. Our Idiot Brother was another sleeper that critics seemed to enjoy, but also didn’t change anyone’s life. Roman Polanski came late to the table with Carnage, which by all accounts will make a lot of people sorry they boycott his films (I’m not one of these; I just haven’t gotten to see it yet). There’s a man who likes his comedy dark.
A lot of people liked Crazy, Stupid, Love, and then again almost as many did not. No Strings Attached didn’t get people very excited. Young Adult seems to have polarized audiences pretty well. Perhaps we’re all just cranky about the slow holiday season. But all in all, comedy feature films in 2011 have leveled out at a shockingly mediocre average.
Apparently, most of the really good comedy writers are in television nowadays. Fox, home to several aging juggernaut sitcoms that have long since lost their true magic, has nonetheless carried its weight. Newer shows like Raising Hope and Bob’s Burgers may not have run away with everyone’s hearts, but they deliver on their promises of simple, goofy, substantial comedy. New Girl, featuring perennial cutie Zooey Deschanel, has been the network’s most prominent debut of the year. Deschanel stars as Jess, a kind-hearted but socially stunted young woman getting her life on track after a bad breakup. She is clumsy, oblivious to subtlety, and constantly make up songs to describe the events of her day. Her new roommates are three dudes who aspire, often unsuccessfully, to coolness. The kind of guys who keep a “douchebag jar” around in lieu of a “swear jar,” for when one of them starts acting… you know… that way. Nonetheless they decide to teach Jess how to be cool, too, though none of them really know how. It’s fluffy, it’s silly, but all it absolutely has to be is funny. And it is. Like those two other series, it may run its course and burn out quickly, but for now it keeps people smiling.
On ABC, Modern Family is still charming… well, just about everybody. It’s still in the newish arc of the first three seaons, it’s winning all the sitcom awards, and damn it, it’s still really funny! Christopher Lloyd and his team of creators have achieved the blue-moon feat of putting together an ensemble of characters without a weak link. Everyone is comfortable in their respective places, from grouchy patriarch Ed O’Neill on down to the kids. It’s a real blessing for a network whose original programming is notoriously lame so much of the time.
NBC did not break a lot of new ground this year with shows like Up All Night, but happily unlike Fox they have some stalwart properties to lean upon (To be fair, Parks And Recreation did pretty well). Community seems to be something that people can’t get enough of, and though the novelty has begun wearing off, 30 Rock still boasts one of the finest comedy ensembles in the biz. Pity we didn’t know that until they had all left Saturday Night Live.
There’s more. Oh, there’s more. What of HBO? What of FX? I hand over to my partner in crime, Mr. Brett Harrison Davinger…
Despite the resurgence of R-rated comedies, few seem to rise to the level of comedy classic- the type of movie you’ll be quoting and referencing years down the line. One major reason is that most of these films seem to rely all too heavily on a repetitive and obvious template, they just happen to contain more cursing. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with movies, even comedies, following a formula. Curb Your Enthusiasm has used the same plot for an entire decade, yet this latest season was arguably the best it ever had. But the problem with most “character-driven” comedies is that they fail to take that extra step to turn conventions on their ear or provide unique and rare insights into a topic, as Larry David does. Humor is based in surprise and the unexpected, and good comedies can force you to view the world and its many elements in a different way. Unlike dramas, which can follow a plot point-by-point and still produce a decent, if uninspired, movie, comedies require that extra bit of unpredictability to succeed. They need to take chances to make a memorable film. Jokes might bomb, but this is also the only way to attempt to get them to hit. A willingness to enter bizarre territory is what sets the best comedies apart from others of its ilk. After reviewing the comedy scene of the past several years, it becomes clear that television seems far more comfortable in taking these chances. For example, the shows on FX seem to be given a great deal of latitude, and its line-up is possibly the strongest on all of television.
One recurring thread throughout the network’s shows, and another reason why these programs succeed where movies fail, is that they put the scumbaggery in the hands of its main characters. While Horrible Bosses, 30 Minutes or Less, and The Hangover Part II feature its protagonists doing bad things, you get the sense that this abandonment of morals is out of their control. They are responding to external pressures, and the filmmakers are unwilling or unable to let them actually be pricks. Although the FX heroes might run afoul of equally bad, if not worse, people, this does not make them any less despicable, which, in turn, makes for funnier and more interesting characters, episodes, and series. These programs enjoy taking the audience to uncomfortable places that mainstream comedy films generally refuse to go to, and humor is all the richer for it.
Having recently completed its seventh season, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia continues to present a cynical world featuring some of its most horrible specimens. Its core group of five remained proactively antisocial and self-centered, willing to destroy the lives of others out of apathy, anger, and amusement. The program’s lasting popularity comes from allowing us to side with the “villains,” which it could not accomplish unless it was willing to go “off book.” Again, while the risk might not always pay off, when it does, it leads to greater rewards. Without a drive to experiment, we would not have gotten a subplot involving a ham baked in rum, Dr. Mantis Toboggan, the two-parter at the high school reunion, and a main character who may be a rapist (it’s because of the implication…). Show creator Rob McElhenney, who plays Mac, gained 50 pounds for the season because he knew it would be funny; you’re not going to see The Hangover Part III with a 300 pound Bradley Cooper.
Similarly, although The League’s characters are not as reprehensible as the gang from Paddy’s Pub, none of them are particularly ethical either. There’s not a good “one” to balance out the other four, there are just people not as malevolent as Ruxin.
Entering its third season this January, Archer is television’s second best animated series. (I still hold supreme fondness for South Park, especially after its season finale The Poor Kid. That show is the master at taking unexpected turns.) It too features a loathsome lead- the I.S.I.S. spy Sterling Mallory Archer, a borderline alcoholic who abuses his coworkers and manservant and gleefully kills his enemies. He lies, cheats, and steals, and we like him for it. When he declares, “I’m going to be a pirate king!” we look forward to the destruction the sadistic bastard will reap. The show also benefits from an excellent grasp on continuity despite a wonderfully odd timeline that possibly puts Archer in his early-70s. I.S.I.S. itself has become one of modern television’s funniest workplaces with an array of damaged side characters, including a sex addict, a scientist who is engaged to his holographic computer program, and a secretary who refers to death by strangulation as causing her the “world’s gushiest orgasm.” The odd relationship between Archer and his mother Mallory further adds to the ambiance of a show that relishes in its weirdness.
Based on an Australian series, Wilfred took me by surprise when it premiered earlier this year. Starring Elijah Wood as depressed ex-attorney Ryan and Jason Gann as the dog Wilfred, the show, takes on the existential crisis in a way few comedy films even attempt to. Although the concept of the show (everyone else sees Wilfred as a dog, while Ryan sees him as an advice-giving human in a dog costume) might seem like a gimmick that couldn’t last more than an episode, the series itself executes the idea brilliantly by making it about the characters rather than the man-in-costume joke. The relationship between Ryan and Wilfred is strong and multifaceted, and the guidance proffered by Wilfred does not boil down to “believe in yourself.” The dog takes his human to deep, dark places and often seems just to want to screw with him in fun and creative ways. It’s pointless to guess Wilfred’s motives, but that’s what makes the character and the series so fascinating. Also, Wilfred abandoning his role as a puppet master to act as a dog successfully provides a type of broad humor not regularly on the silver screen.
Finally, there is Louie, a show that has changed the way one views the sitcom. More than comedy, Louie delves into actual issues regarding aging, fatherhood, relationships, heart break, and life itself in segments that can properly be described as supremely well-crafted short films. Simultaneously surreal and the most honest show on television, Louie presents a complicated world without easy answers and seems to advocate quiet, dark humor as the only response to life’s many disasters. You never know what to expect with the show. One episode could involve star/writer/director/editor Louis C.K. pondering abstinence after a televised debate with an evangelical Christian, while another could have him embarrassing his daughters in the car by rocking out to The Who in a purposely cringey scene, but it presents a unique voice unlike anything else on television or in the movies. Moreover, the episode Eddie, featuring Doug Stanhope as a stand-up comedian who started the same time as Louis but spent his career as a road hack might be the best half hour of television this entire year. It serves as an amazing example of how challenging (in a good way) TV, in particular this show, can, and is allowed to, be.
What made you laugh this year? What’s got you excited about the future? Discuss, refute, wax opinionated. Happy New Year to all!