To keep my spirits up during one of the most unusual and patience-testing transitional periods in my life, I’ve been checking out more comedy. Before my move, I hadn’t watched much It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or any Arrested Development or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Between those shows, and keeping up with The Daily Show, Colbert Reportm, and @midnight, I’ve been thinking about what makes good comedy, and all of its different styles. I feel that it’s a very subjective topic, as what is funny to one person is completely tasteless to another, but I think there are a few objective facts we can consider regarding various approaches to making people laugh.
I think that stand-up comedy and improv take different skill sets. Stand-ups write their material in advance, and focus on making sure their delivery is earnest and clear. Improv performers work almost entirely off the cuff, playing with one another in a very real way to make the comedy as spontaneous and energetic as possible. Some stand-ups can whip out jokes on the fly, and some improv performers do great stand-up. But in both cases, when the performers are on, the laughs flow freely.
I’ve never really liked laugh tracks. Live audiences are definitely better, especially in a show that flows organically like the above mentioned Comedy Central shows, or live shows like Saturday Night Live. Spontaneous laughter is the best. I have to wonder on some sitcoms with live audiences if there are prompts to laugh or applaud. This probably isn’t the case, but when I have trouble laughing at something like The Big Bang Theory, I find myself curious.
The thing about situation comedies is that the comedy should be in the situations. While characters certainly matter, in that their interactions and clashes either aggravate or undercut said situations, I don’t feel that the flaws or difficulties of the characters should be the crux or point of the humor. While a character with what might be called defects can put others into funny situations, said defects should not be depicted as funny in and of themselves. That method seems insensitive, and for me, it kills the humor.
That could just be me, though. Like I said, comedy is subjective. What do you find funny? What comedy for you falls flat?
“GOOOOOOOOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM! It’s Oh-Six-Hundred, what does the Oh stand for? OH MY GOD IT’S EARLY!”
I don’t think the 1987 Barry Levinson film Good Morning, Vietnam needs any introduction beyond that.
Airman Adrian Cronauer, United States Air Force, was the main radio personality stationed in Crete in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, he was transferred to run a morning program for Armed Forces Radio out of Saigon. He brought his own style, his comedic style, and a taste for modern rock-and-roll music. Unfortunately, his personality and energy run counter to those of his superiors. He does his best to maintain his independence and commitment to the truth, and starts befriending locals. Things begin to get complicated when he runs afoul of both a vindictive base commander and the mascinations of the Viet Cong. The troops love him, though – if there’s ever a time to be reminded of the importance of laughter, it’s wartime.
Before we delve into the people responsible for bringing Cronauer’s true story to life, we should take a step back and consider that this film, broadly considered a landmark comedy, also took it upon itself to depict the conflict in Vietnam in very human terms. When Cronauer isn’t cracking jokes over the radio and flipping off authority, he’s teaching people English slang and trying to get to know a local girl and her brother. None of these secondary characters are treated as parodies or charicatures. In a time when the United States was still wrestling with its conflict against Soviet powers, this film eschewed jingoistic viewpoints and presented both the Americans and the Vietnamese as what they are – human beings.
Every character in this film feels very real.
Barry Levinson, Good Morning, Vietnam‘s director, was already a veteran film-maker in 1987. He worked with Mel Brooks, and had major success with The Natural. He clearly demonstrates that he has an excellent sense of balance and timing in his direction. The comedy that practically runs rampant through a great deal of the film is balanced out perfectly with character development and the aforementioned pathos. All of the shots are clear, and everything is clearly defined. But I feel I’m stalling a bit, so let’s get to the heart of the matter.
It is a great tragedy that we recently lost Robin Williams. This film is one of his best performances. Much like the direction, his work is very well balanced. When he’s on the radio or mouthing off, his comedy is fantastic and side-splitting. When he’s teaching people or trying to relate to his ladyfriend or her brother, he’s likeable and charming. And when he’s faced with adversity, we believe his agony and frustration. On top of his comedy skills and improvisation, he was a fantastic actor. We miss him already.
His performances are, thankfully, immortalized.
Good Morning, Vietnam is a bonafide classic. It is a slice from the past that tells its story with authenticity and earnestness. Despite the fact that it’s told from an American perspective, it shows the conflict in a very human light and keeps us engaged from beginning to end. And the comedy is on-point and fantastic. It’s available on Netflix, and if you haven’t seen it, even if it’s been a while, you should call it up. It’s a fantastic watch.
As much as people will say “Lightning never strikes twice,” the Empire State Building in New York City would beg to differ. It’s why sequels keep getting made. The folks in charge of the production of entertainment like to keep giving the people what they want. Sometimes this leads to degradation through iteration, like seasons of Jersey Shore or movie adaptations of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At other times, though, quality is preserved for the most part, like seasons of Supernatural or the sequel Red 2.
Retired & Extremely Dangerous ex-CIA counter-intelligence asset Frank Moses is settling into a domesticated life with his main squeeze when his paranoid buddy Martin tries to rope him into a job. Martin’s car is bombed and Frank decides it’s time to strap his spurs on again. It turns out that an operation they did back in their heyday is coming back to haunt them in the form of a weapon of mass destruction hidden somewhere in the Kremlin. With the US government sending relentless goons and hiring expert assassins, and betrayal waiting around every corner, Frank must stay one step ahead while trying to keep his girl safe, even as she tries to be a bigger part of his life.
So here we are again, in a follow-up to Red, a harmless and somewhat formulaic action comedy based on Warren Ellis’ graphic novel about old folks kicking ass. To the film’s credit, it’s more than a little aware of its roots in the media of panels and dialog balloons, as transitions from one world-wide locale to the next find the characters rendered as art before they’re swept away. It was a little touch I appreciated, and I also liked that Red 2 feels more like a global film. Like Pacific Rim, it feels larger in scope than the unfortunately jingoistic tendency of Hollywood films to remain focused on America. I mean, this year alone we had two movies in a row about the White House getting smashed by terrorists.
Just another day out with friends…
The other aspect that Red 2 shares with Pacific Rim is the fact that not a lot of time is spent in emotional low states. This is a movie more concerned with having fun and keeping the story moving than being grim or brooding or even all that realistic. Like its predecessor, the aim is for largely unoffensive entertainment for audience members of age for its subject matter. The movie is kept afloat on its situational humor, some inventive fight and infiltration scenes, and a good deal of star power. If you’re interested in Red 2, chances are it’s because of who’s in it. A good deal of Anthony Hopkins’ role involves what I might uncharitably call fan service. While it’s enjoyable on the whole, a few elements feel slightly tacked on to emphasize this or that star. It doesn’t take anything away from the movie, at least for me, but it’s a flaw that bears a mention.
As much as Red 2 does what every sequel sets out to do – build on the experiences of the previous story, expand its scope, raise the stakes, and draw in more audience – it also bears mentioning that more of the same might not be what you’re looking for as a movie-goer. Then again, enough people went to see Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness to justify more of those same coming soon (and yes, I was one of them, so I’m just as guilty), so maybe I’m just making mountains out of molehills here.
Classing up everything she’s in.
Stuff I Liked: The broader scope works in keeping the formula fresh. The action remains inventive and, at times, quite funny. It’s nice to see a relationship dynamic that, while troubled, is stable enough that discussions do not explode into arguments or pointless shouting matches. There’s a maturity to this action comedy that I appreciate; no cheap jokes or toilet humor here, save for one scene. Stuff I Didn’t Like: It’s still a formula piece, for better or worse. The motions the cast goes through are familiar and for some it may be a case of more of the same not being enough. There’s very little to challenge the mind, and the writers take no real risks with the material. Stuff I Loved: I’m so glad they brought back Brian Cox, albeit briefly. I loved seeing Anthony Hopkins switch so easily from tottering old crazy man to razor-edged mad scientist. For someone who wasn’t a big fan of the GI Joe movie but appreciated the martial artistry of Storm Shadow, Byung-hun Lee was a delight to see in action. The entire cast is on board for this, they have a great time, and the fun is infectious.
Bottom Line:Red 2 is, ultimately, completely inoffensive. On the one hand, it’s a sequel so safe and linear that some might find it downright boring. On the other, though, it’s infused with more than enough character and just enough heart to keep any audience who liked the first movie interested in seeing the second through to the end. If nothing else, in a summer that seems overly concerned with making their movies grim and dark and brooding and serious, sometimes all you need is the sight of Helen Mirren shooting people with all of the elegance you’d expect from someone of her stature.
I can finally remove a stigma from my character in the eyes of my friends. I used to confess that I’d never seen Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy and there would be a collective gasp. Apparently it was an ironclad classic of comedy and I was doing myself a disservice by not watching it. That was the impression I got from some, anyway. And in any event, it’s now a moot point, as I finally made the time to watch this little Will Ferrell gem.
Will takes the title role of Ron Burgundy, the lead anchor of Channel 4’s Action News team in San Diego. This is in the 70s, “a time before cable,” and network news was a big deal, especially the ‘action’ slant on it. Ron’s backed up by his suave man in the field, the ten-gallon-hat-wearing sports commentator, and a weatherman who’s a few cold fronts short of a weather map. They’re at the top of their game, and everything is going smoothly, until their boss tells them there have been some concerns raised about diversity and – much to their shock – a woman is added to their team.
There’s something timeless about Anchorman. Unfortunately, the timeless element is the misogyny observed within a male-dominated professional environment. To its credit, the movie definitely comes down against the behavior of those that would keep Christina Applegate’s character from advancing. We observe these idiotic shenanigans from the outside, and as much as the setting of the 70s may underscore the silliness of the mens’ behavior, the opportunity to point and laugh at such simple-minded perspectives is a welcome one. It’s subtle, but under the more obvious jokes is the impression that our fearsome foursome are seriously out of touch with the world around them, wrapped up in their own legends and the reputation of their news team.
Ron’s mustache is unimpressed.
I will go on record and say I’m not the world’s biggest Will Ferrell fan. I’m generally more interested in subtle or deadpan humor than overt, pie-in-the-face silliness. Timing is everything in comedy, and too much in-your-face relentless slapstick just turns me off. Anchorman does have some flashy, overt set pieces – the jazz flute sequence, the news team brawl, and so on – but the film is actually rather balanced. For every overt sight gag, there’s a subtle jab either at a character in the film or at society in general. While it’s certainly not the highest of comedies, nor is it steeped in satire like some other works, it does not make the mistake of relying entirely on on particular kind of humor, be it repeated gags or body humor or innuendo. The variety in the comedy keeps it fresh enough to not overstay its welcome.
Another factor in Anchorman‘s favor is the spot-on performances of the cast. From Paul Rudd’s unctuous Brian Fantana to Steve Carell’s somewhat simple Brick Tamland, the cast behind Will Ferrell brings their A game. Christina Applegate, in particular, not only puts Veronica Corningstone side by side with Ron Burgundy in every way, but holds her own in comedic timing and delivery right next to Ferrell. As much as the world of the movie revolves around Ron Burgundy, I was glad that his character did not entirely dominate the proceedings. The construction of the film is overall very solid and balanced, and this leads to a very enjoyable viewing experience.
I don’t review comedies often, and it feels like my usual breakdown is detrimental to them. I don’t want to spoil any more jokes than I already have, so let’s just skip right to the Bottom Line:
Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a well-paced, well-staged, and very funny comedy. It’s silly fun, similar in tone and timbre to older parody movies like Airplane!, and while it doesn’t quite reach that level of brilliance, it’s still a good time, especially with friends.
To bus, or not to bus. That is the question —
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous tedium,
Or to take arms against a sea of terrible games,
And, by opposing, end them? To quit, to sleep—
No more — and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand spattered bugs
That game is heir to — ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To quit, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream — ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of quitting what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this Sega CD,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long a marathon.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ highway’s length, the wheel’s necess’ry justments,
The pangs of despised hours, the end’s delay,
The insolence of comments, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ others take,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a pulled plug? Who would travels bear,
To grunt and sweat with a sweaty gamepad,
But that the dread of never helping children,
The undispensed charity from whose bosom
No comfort issues, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those roads we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus the Moonbase does make donors of us all,
And thus the loading bars of livestreams
Give way unto the pale cast of the room,
And an enterprise of great pith and moment
With this regard makes ready our captive eyes,
As once again, we run to Vegas.
Or, you know, back to Tuscon. Depending on what hour it is.