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Comedy class

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Recently I’ve had two students in for a weekly tutorial on film and comedy. We’ve been wrapping our heads around the mercurial question: Why is something funny on the screen? What makes it chug? What keeps me in my seat, and laughing? It’s been a pleasure to dissect a few films, and revisit three really good comedies in particular, funny for three really different reasons.

THE APARTMENT

Billy Wilder

1960

What a masterpiece. Truly. The great thing about this film is how pure it is; how absolutely devoted it stands as a pinnacle in meticulous plotting. The trouble for our protagonist, C.C. Baxter, brilliantly played by Jack Lemmon, is relentless. As a struggling insurance man, Baxter gets deeper and deeper into the complications of lending his apartment to his higher ups for their quickie infidelities – and for no money – just to be a ‘good citizen’ and possibly rise through the ranks. Every story turn is both inevitable and unexpected, and he is slowly, methodically backed in to a corner from which escape seems impossible. Luckily a gorgeous Shirley McClain is there to help him understand his humanity and the meaning of ‘good.’ You feel the pain here, and the humor, simply by circumstance, not by gag, spoof or dialogue. It’s all in the situation in this razor sharp plot. (Okay, the tennis racket as spaghetti strainer is one exception.)

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MY UNCLE (Mon Oncle)

Jacques Tati

1958

This satire finds comedy master Tati’s signature protagonist, Monsieur Hulot, in the French suburbs and disrupting everything around him. His sister and her family live in the most modern house imaginable – complete with gadgetry that hilariously misfires. Hulot arrives to play with his nephew and proceeds to undo all of the fancy, have-to-have-it technology his sister has worked hard to maintain, in addition to later destroying his brother-in-law’s production line in his ultra modern plastics factory. Here, Tati is interested in prodding us to think critically about industrialization and consumerism, and the comedy relies on the progression of gag to gag, mostly involving intricate props. The plot here is quite thin — instead, we are carried by a visual landscape that is rich for its style, ironic content, and potential as a place where one might press the wrong button, trip and simply lose control.

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MYSTERY TRAIN

Jim Jarmusch

1989

Ah, Jarmusch. MYSTERY TRAIN exists as a wonderful testament to his interest in structure. Organized as three chapters, the story unfolds over one night in Memphis, glued together with Elvis references and threaded throughout with overlapping characters. While structure keeps us engaged – each story begins at nightfall and is punctuated by a few shared events – it’s the wry, random details that keep us laughing. Do those details have anything to do with plot? Nothing. Are they gag-based? No. They are dry as a bone, often dialogue-based or in a simple interaction, leaving us with a small smile or a laugh rooted more in ridiculous irony. The Japanese couple who come to see Graceland flip a lighter around with bizarre dexterity. A woman running from her boyfriend talks about how crazy he is and in the next breath says how much she’ll miss him. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins stares at a Japanese plum in disgust, a gift from the Elvis-lovers, and then devours it. The humor runs on these sly turns, and is deeply satisfying.

Who knew there were so many paths to the laugh?

AH