Skip to main content

Issues & debates

From Comedic Fools to Academy Jewels: Is it time we change how we perceive Comedy in film?

Written by Henry King

If you were to collect a series of reviews of ‘lowbrow’ comedy films, they would all most certainly criticise the lack of intellectual and artistic vision involved. Whether it be Seth Rogan or Adam Sandler, comedic films have been awarded with the reputation of uncultured film from the community. This has resulted in flicks that can be categorised as comedies being conspicuous in their absence when browsing the film canon. Instead, it is much more likely that a production which places itself in the drama or biopic genre being included in the prestigious list and will have a far higher chance of receiving critical praise. But do these films which take themselves more ‘seriously’ deserve to be positioned upon a throne above the rest of cinema or should comedy be granted the same academic attention as any other genre?

The belief that there is a partition between highbrow and lowbrow entertainment has existed for centuries, being used to connote those who were cultured and those who were not. However, comedy does not seem to fit this generalisation. The author Thomas Mallons suggests that: “Speed is imperative, and rumination is out. The brow that’s really in danger of disappearing is the furrowed one”. It seems much more fitting to view this medium with a sense of critical hesitance yet basing this upon one sole desire — being entertained. Afterall, people rarely say that Derek Jarman’s Blue is their favourite film. Whereas I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t enjoy Coming to America or attend a screening of The Hangover and not hear the room erupt into laughter.

It has become somewhat of a trend for comedic actors to transform into award nominees. This has been the case with such stars as Robin Williams and Jamie Foxx. But perhaps the most notable example of this shift is that of Michael Keaton. The man known for his hilariously hyperbolic portrayal in Beetlejuice and his inability to move his neck whilst donning Batman’s cowl in Tim Burton’s 1989 classic reignited his career with an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for his leading role in 2014’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

This pattern of comedians becoming dramatic actors seems to have its roots in inherent talent rather than simply being a good actor. It is not too uncommon for a successful actor to be the offspring of similarly successful actors. In comparison, it is extremely infrequent for a comedian to be have parents who have also had the same occupation. As John Cleese explains “acting is all about faking. We’re all very good at faking things that we have no competence with”. Acting exists as a trade that is possible to learn but difficult to master while comedy is a skill that seems to be much harder to execute successfully in any manner. Furthermore, the ability to perform comedy effectively requires performative qualities like that of acting. I must clarify that I am not saying all talented comedians are automatically good actors but, instead, that it is easier for a comedian to negotiate their career into dramatic acting than it is for an actor to the do the opposite.

“acting is all about faking. We're all very good at faking things that we have no competence with”

John Cleese

This rule extends to behind the camera too as comedians such as Jonah Hill and John Krasinski have experienced success with their directorial debuts Mid 90s and A Quiet Place respectively. Both stars began their careers as comedic actors on American television then moved onto dramatic roles with Hill being nominated for an Academy Award in The Wolf of Wall Street in which he starred alongside megastar Leonardo Dicaprio. Thus, it feels only natural for this wave of ‘Avant-Garde’ comedians who have been lucky enough to receive praise in both comedic and dramatic roles to helm their own projects.

However, nobody has enjoyed as much success, both financially and critically, as Jordan Peele. The Director is now possibly known more for his 2017 instant hit Get Out, for which he took home the Oscar for best original screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards, in addition to his second Us which was released earlier this year to similar success. Nonetheless, the filmmaker is also widely known for his work on the sketch show Key and Peele in which he, alongside his partner Keegan Michael-Key, satirise the reality of living as an African-American in the United States. Due to this, when it was announced he would be writing and directing a horror film, the expectations of most were not high. This lack of hope was contributed to by his appearance and writing credits on the underwhelming Keanu.

Peele’s debut was so much more than a horror film. Jump scares and common tropes of the genre were almost entirely absent. Alternatively, the terror lays within the commentary Peele depicts exposing the futility and inequality of American society by depicting what appears to be at first a stereotypical white, middle-class family but later revealing them to be sadistic, ‘neo-Nazis’. The release of the film stunned audiences as, regardless of personal background, everyone recognised at least one moment in the film as they would have encountered it in their everyday life. Peele has been praised continually as a result of Get Out; however, when analysing his work on Key and Peele, it becomes apparent that this is nothing new. In fact, the film can be viewed as a more subtle and extended version of one of the pair’s sketches. It is palpable that the accusations Peele presents are the same as what he has been doing in his comedy for many years the only difference being the genre in which it is conveyed.

The success of Get Out suggests that the general audience will disregard or turn a blind eye to serious topics if presented in comedy favouring to pay attention when the tone in which a message is expressed is more dramatic. Despite conventional beliefs, comedians often acknowledge these issues in the most human nature as they operate in the only field that allow complete freedom.

“Despite conventional beliefs, comedians often acknowledge these issues in the most human nature as they operate in the only field that allow complete freedom”

John Cleese

So, should we, as an audience, update how we address films that present themselves as comedies? Or is it a natural consequence of social criticism to relegate and promote certain genres based upon a hierarchy of prestige?