June 19, 2007

What's So Funny?

TIME recently ran the article "Comedians' Little Secret,"in which Richard Corliss examines the recent spate of good and successful comedic films, powered by old pros Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler, late bloomer Steve Carell, and young upstarts Seth Rogen and Michael Cera. Corliss points to many factors in this trend - the relatively cheap cost of comedy flicks, their increasingly broad appeal, the dearth of tv comedy (aside from the schadenfreudian amusements of reality shows), an aging generation of action stars, audience preference for pleasurable distractions from our increasingly scary reality, the declining appeal of classic Hollywood glamour in favor of schlumpier leads. I say huzzah for this comedic richness, especially as it broadens the stereotypical movie star to encompass those whose talents lie not in their rippling abs, chiseled good looks, and machismo but rather in their wit and normal guy qualities.

And yet, all these brilliant, accomplished comics are...men. White men. Straight white men. In his article, Corliss speaks bluntly of the "astounding and appalling" lack of female comedy leads, and rightly so. When is the last time an actress' comedic talents were considered the highlight of a film in the same way those of Will Ferrell or Owen Wilson are flaunted? Sure, Katherine Heigl received top billing in "Knocked Up," but that's primarily due to her "Grey's Anatomy"-minted celebrity rather than any presumption of humor - and indeed, Rogen's character is far funnier. Leslie Mann, on the other hand, was supremely hilarious in that film, as she was in her minor "40-Year Old Virgin Role," but has never been in a movie built around her unique comic skills. Even Tina Fey - the recipient of widespread acclaim for "Mean Girls," which she wrote - has found more fame on the small screen. I guess women just aren't funny enough to carry a comedic film - better to leave that task to Ferrell and his unending supply of arrogant oafs, or Stiller and his...similarly unending supply of arrogant oafs.

Women aren't the only ones ignored by movie comedies - so too are minorities and members of the GLBTQ community. In his day, Eddie Murphy made some stellar films - and now he makes "Norbit". Chris Rock, once noted for his biting stand-up, has gone on to such silver screen gems as "I Think I Love My Wife". Let's not even talk about the Wayans brothers. Asians or Hispanics? Practically nonexistent in the comic film canon. The funniest film in recent memory to feature non-white leads was, in all honesty, "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," the hugely enjoyable stoner film. It was genuinely funny and managed to appeal to a fairly wide audience, thus explaining the failure of studios to pursue more non-white actors for leading funny-man roles (aside, of course, from the film's upcoming sequel. I am completely serious). Wait, what?

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders are even scarcer than minorities when it comes to movie comedies. I'm not talking about stereotypical gay buddies here, like the wisecracking Rupert Everett in "My Best Friend's Wedding," but rather starring characters who lead funny on-camera lives. Now, there's been some luck in comedies about gays - see "In & Out" and "But I'm a Cheerleader" for a couple decent movies in this category - but those are few and far between, and generally feature straight actors in the roles.

Maybe I'm asking too much of Hollywood. They've only just started to accept that if you put Steve Carell's or Seth Rogen's face on a poster it won't scare people away from a movie - in fact, it might actually get them to see it. And maybe studios think that female, minority, and GLBTQ comedians won't draw in the big money in the same way that Steve Carell and Vince Vaughn will - after all, we "know" it's young white dudes who make up the majority of the movie-going public, right? How can we expect them to relate to women/blacks/Asians/bisexuals/queers? And maybe you think I need to pick my battles. But humor captures the zeitgeist in a way that dramas often don't, making us laugh by pushing boundaries and showing our flaws, but without taking them too seriously. It is what we as a group, a society, a generation finds funny that binds us together. The absence of women, minorities, and GLBTQ actors from the upper echelons of comedy speaks to a larger absence in society. Straight white dudes aren't the only funny people out there - but they're the only ones anyone sees.


Anonymous said...

Some good points. Though to be fair to Heigl in Knocked Up she is playing the straight role, and does so brilliantly. She is pretty funny in general - some of her comedic scenes in Grey's are geat and she has a good sense of humour if you see outtakes from some of her movies / tv shows.

Sophia said...

Fair point - I can't comment on her scenes in Grey's, never having seen the show, but she was a great foil for Rogen. I'd simply argue that if she is a great comedian, those talents ought to be given full outlet in a comic movie.