All Hail The Jokeless Comedy

Adam Sternbergh has a piece in the Times on the Hangover II and the trend in film comedies over the last five or six years toward what could be called jokeless comedies, which is to say funny movies that are devoid of actual jokes.

This is not to say that nothing happens or that the movie isn’t funny. But in the vacated space where, say, jokes might usually go — you know, those familiar contraptions of setups and punchlines; the misunderstandings, mistaken identities, spoofed conventions or parodied clichés — “The Hangover Part II” offers instead shrieking, squirming, beatings, panic, a severed finger and a facial tattoo. It’s like a “Saw”-style torture-porn movie with a laugh track, into which the shaved-headed (and autonomously funny) Zach Galifianakis has wandered, lost and bewildered and looking for the exit sign.

O.K., but is the movie entertaining? Well, that’s for you to decide. It’s certainly possible that you might watch it and convulsively emit human laughter. (Please blurb that line.) More to the point: Is “The Hangover Part II” a comedy? Yes, definitely, but only of a recent strain: the now-dominant form of cinematic humor we’ll call the jokeless comedy.

This mutant subgenre is the offspring of two genetically compatible fathers: Todd Phillips, director of both “Hangover” films, as well as “Old School”; and Judd Apatow, director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” and the producer/midwife to a litter of similar-looking movies with mix’n’match titles. (“Forgetting the Greek”? “Get Him to Sarah Marshall”? “Drillbit Taylor Express”?) Together, like Lenin and Trotsky, Phillips and Apatow have engineered a comedic-cinematic putsch. “Old School,” in 2003, was the April Theses for this uprising, and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” in 2005, was its October Revolution.

In this piece and in a followup blog post, Sternbergh attempts the thankless task of delineating the various strains of comedy, which he broadly classifies into either character-driven and joke-driven (or gag-driven), with the dividing line being whether the movie will break reality for the sake of a joke. He points to Mike Myers as a good example of the latter, and Myers actually bears much of blame for the recent death of the gag-filled comedy, going from Austin Powers through its progressively less funny sequels to finally arrive at the terminally unfunny Love Guru.

For my part, I disagree with the notion that Apatow comedies don’t have jokes, though I’d certainly agree they are more or less devoid of gags — it’s tough to imagine Jim Carrey finding a place in an Apatow joint, though Adam Sandler, who’s done his share of gag-driven comedy, did fine in Funny People. Actually, Funny People is a good example. It’s not so much a comedy as it is a film about comedy. There are a lot of jokes in it, but mostly they involve Seth Rogan and Adam Sandler talking about the jokes rather than actually delivering them. This, I think, is why it didn’t really find an audience.

He lauds Annie Hall as being a good example of a film that straddles the two genres, and of course for Woody Allen it also represented his own shift from the early joke-driven comedies (Bananas, Sleeper) into character-driven comedy/dramas (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters).

Given the current dominance of the Apatow/Phillips model, it’s only a matter of time before someone delivers a gag-filled, absurdist romp in the Airplane style and everyone says, “Finally, a comedy that’s actually funny.”

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