Laughter really is the best medicine. Fortunately, humor is ubiquitous, for it can be found even in the darkest of times. When it cannot be found in real life, many may turn to a constructed reality on screen. Humor in film allows audiences to see others’ perceptions of the world though a comical lens. Audience members watch comedy films to saturate their stressful days with comic relief, to escape their everyday lives and enter a different world.
Comedy in film thinks outside the box, allowing audiences to laugh at situations they would not find humor in otherwise. Whether it be a complex satire of the horrors of war or a simple gag of someone falling down the stairs, comedy has the ability to mimic reality in the way it captures the two most prominent aspects of life: humor and tragedy. Through the incessant evolution of popular culture, social values, technology, and the entertainment industry, comedy films have experienced an immense transformation since its beginning in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s to the present day.
One of the oldest film genres, it has also become one of the most diverse and versatile, possessing a multitude of subgenres such as slapstick, screwball, parody, romantic and black comedy. Additionally, with the help of several trailblazing filmmakers, comedy has become one of the most respected, entertaining, and popular genres of film today.
When film existed as a silent storytelling medium during its first years, comedy was used to entertain audiences exclusively through visuals. For example, the Lumiére Brothers film L’Arroseur arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinked), the first credited film ever produced in the comedy genre, was released in 1895 and was primarily a “cinematic depiction of a gag” (Horton and Rapf). The film involved a predictable premise of a man with a garden hose becoming victim to a practical joke, spraying himself after being tricked by a young prankster. L’Arroseur arose utilized a form of visual comedy, which was later established as the subgenre titled ‘Slapstick’ comedy.
The term ‘Slapstick’ was named after the wooden sticks that clowns would slap together to encourage applause from the audience (AMC Filmsite). Actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd brought this subgenre into fame with their presentational and pantomimic acting styles, characterizing themselves as “silent clowns” (Hoffman). The Slapstick subgenre mainly utilizes intense physical comedy to evoke laughter from audience members, whether it be a pie to the face, someone falling into the ocean, or a building collapsing.
A fundamental genre of comedy in theater shows during the Medieval Times in Europe, Slapstick possessed lightheartedness, while Latin literature at the time was nothing but serious (Arell). This parallels the relevance of Slapstick comedy films during its the early 1900’s, as audiences found genuine enjoyment and hilarity in them. These films allowed viewers to mentally remove themselves from the detriments of the war and chaos occurring around them and enter a new, untroubled world.
The development of sound engendered a significant transformation in not just comedy, but in the entire film industry. As the advancement of sound in film progressed, the popularity of the Slapstick subgenre declined. Instead of comedy films relying solely on physical humor, comedies in the 1930’s employed dialogue full of wit and banter in addition to visual gags. Such conventions during this time led to the birth of the ‘Screwball’ comedy—a subgenre that involves characters in “bizarre situations that compound as the film progresses, typically in a romance-driven narrative” (Arell). The subgenre was entitled ‘Screwball’, as it indicates “lunacy, craziness, eccentricity, ridiculousness, and erratic behavior” (AMC Filmsite).
These films were much more sophisticated than the ones of the Slapstick subgenre, as it added the complexity of romance and the battle between sexes. Frank Capra was a notable director in this subgenre, and his 1934 film is known as one of the earliest and exemplary Screwball comedy films. Film historian Leger Grindon describes film cycles as “a series of similar films produced during a limited period of time, often sparked by a benchmark hit that is imitated, refined, or resisted by those that follow”. Even today, Screwball comedy acts as the “most famous” cycle of films in the romantic comedy genre; It Happened One Night caused 1934 to become a turning point in Hollywood, as the film became the prototype for the subgenre for the next decade (Grindon).
In the classical Frank Capra film, female protagonist Ellie Andrews (portrayed by Claudette Colbert), a rich socialite, runs away from her father, putting herself in a situation that disrupts her near perfect life. She meets an out-of-work journalist named Peter Warner (portrayed by Clark Gable), a character extremely contrasting from her, whom she needs help from in order to reach New York. Despite the conflict caused by his stubbornness and her helplessness and his stubbornness, the two, predictably, end up falling in love.
The film’s ‘world turned upside down’ trope epitomizes the Screwball comedy, and the adventure the characters experience highlighted the battle between sexes and class. Both characters possess such strong personalities that clash, as well as an immense difference in wealth. It is integral to note that It Happened One Night was released in the midst of the Great Depression. With such a wealthy female protagonist, the film allowed audience members to temporarily escape their impoverished lives and see the world in another person’s perspective, a person with great affluence and power.
The film conveyed the message that love is what mattered above everything, including money, giving audiences a sense of peace and comfort in regard to their future. With their playful combination of “physical humor and verbal fireworks”, the numerous Screwball comedies during this decade afforded the opportunity for viewers to experience joy and amusement during such a difficult time for the United States and its citizens.
In the following decades, the Hollywood film industry underwent immense changes, including less enforcement of censorship, European influences, and a change in culture overall. The 1953 postclassical film Roman Holiday by William Wyler exemplifies Hollywood’s fascination for Europe, as the female protagonist, portrayed by British actress Audrey Hepburn (who was almost unknown at the time), is a European princess in disguise named Ann who falls in love with a commoner named Joe, who is portrayed by Gregory Peck.
This film holds similarities to It Happened One Night (1934), as both females are wealthy heirs rebelling against their families and sheltered lives and end up falling in love with commoners who are journalists. However, Roman Holiday lacks the edge and playfulness the 1934 film carried. Rather, the Wyler film bears a greater innocence and ease, capturing the sense of glamour, liveliness, and romance of its setting, Rome. Although the film is saturated with charm throughout, its ending contains loose ends, a popular convention of this period. While in It Happened One Night, the two characters end up together and married, Roman Holiday leaves audiences with the ambiguity of Joe and Ann’s relationship.
The latter film was released almost a decade after World War II ended, and at this time, a normality existed for films—even romantic comedies—to have endings that lacked happiness and satisfaction. The trauma of the war regarding loss and uncertainty translated to film; although filmmakers tried to maintain a sense of optimism during the war with screwball comedies, the joy began to evaporate, causing even the happiest films to have melancholic endings such as the one in Roman Holiday (Grindon).
The cultural landscape of comedy changed immensely starting in the 1950’s due to situational comedies, or “sitcoms” on television (Ministry of Cinema). These shows fulfilled the public’s needs for comedic content with greater ease due to its accessibility, as people did not have to leave their houses to be entertained anymore. Thus, Hollywood needed to adapt; each comedy film had to now offer something unique to flourish. One film in particular did this successfully, expressing “tensions surrounding the counter-culture of the 1960s through its reversal of romantic comedy conventions” (Grindon).
The modernist film The Graduate (1967) by Mike Nichols is a romantic comedy about a young teenage who is seduced by a much older woman and ends up falling in love with her daughter; it embodies the spirit of the sixties, acknowledging the sexual revolution and appealing to younger audiences with its teenage protagonist. It does not use conventions previously ubiquitous in the comedy genre, such as physical humor or bantering dialogue, rather it uses an odd, yet comedic situation. At the time, a film like this could not be released on television—it had to be released on the big screen.
Television continued to influence film, contributing to the comedy genre extensively. In 1975, the late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live premiered on NBC, and since then it has provided the film industry with numerous film actors and writers and new comedic styles. Actors and writers such as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Steve Martin, and Tina Fey went on to make their own string of comedy films after leaving the show, making them renowned players in the comedy genre.
Another prolific writer who started on television is now writer/director/producer Judd Apatow. Known for his R-rated vulgar and raunchy comedic style and films including an unconventional male lead, Apatow has helped foster the careers of now A-list actors Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, and Steve Carrell (AMC Filmsite). He has produced several influential films of the 2000’s, such as Superbad (2007) starring Hill and Rogen, which is the highest-grossing high school comedy of all time.
Due to the immense increase in sexual liberation and acceptation, films like Apatow’s seem omnipresent in today’s society. Culture and film parallel each other; thus debauchery, hedonism, and self-indulgence only seem to become more and more universal in comedy films. Filmmakers today approach comedic films with a “no limits” regarding propriety, deviating from previous eras. Current comedy films do not portray life as pure, but rather chaotic and depraved, which is frequent convention of the postmodern era. As a society, we have become more accepting to immorality and corruption, and just like all art, films reflect that.
Comedy films have endured colossal changes throughout its history. It has gone through a journey alongside the culture and history of our country. Nonetheless, it has carried its primary goal throughout its journey: to make audiences laugh. Laughter makes life easier; it brings us light during the darkest of times, it gives us joy during the most hopeless of times. The genre of comedy is essential to film, as teaches audiences to look at life, even the saddest times, with a comedic perception. Life is both tragic and funny, and it is crucial we have comic relief; it is crucial we always find the happiness.
- Arell, Michael. “Why Are Comedy Films So Critically Underrated?” The University of Maine, [email protected], 2012, pp. 1–326.
- Cinema, Ministry Of, director. Comedy Movies History – Film Genres and Hollywood. YouTube, YouTube, 25 May 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzHekO4Xw_0.
- “Comedy Films.” AMC Filmsite, AMC Network Entertainment, www.filmsite.org/comedyfilms.html.
- Grindon, Leger. The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
- Hoffman, Michael. “The Comedy Genre: Film’s First Cinematic Movement.” Cinemablography, Weebly, 4 Mar. 2014, www.cinemablography.org/blog/the-comedy-genre-films-first-cinematic-movement.
- Horton, Andrew, and Rapf, Joanna E. A Companion to Film Comedy. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
- It Happened One Night. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert. Columbia, 1934. Amazon. Web. 8 November 2018.
- Roman Holiday. Dir. William Wyler. Perf. Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn. Paramount, 1953. Amazon. Web. 9 November 2018.