Who's Laughing Now: Dark Comedies At Sundance
E. B. White wrote, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” As such, it was brave of Sundance to convene a panel called “On Comedy: Laughing in Dark Times.” Screenwriter Larry Gross moderated the following group of funny filmmakers: Mark and Jay Duplass (BAGHEAD) [www.sundance.org], Marianna Palka (GOOD DICK) [www.sundance.org], Taika Cohen (EAGLE VS SHARK) [www.allmovie.com] Clark Gregg (CHOKE) [www.sundance.org], Pam Brady (HAMLET 2) [www.sundance.org], and Jason Reitman (JUNO) [www.foxsearchlight.com], Short Film Juror.
Gross started off reminding people that DR. STRANGELOVE was originally intended to be a serious film about the threat of the atomic bomb, but they found they couldn’t stop cracking jokes, and then couldn’t conceive of the film as anything other than a comedy. This strategy was familiar to many of the filmmakers. Palka’s GOOD DICK dramatizes a rather dark love story between a traumatized girl (Palka) and loser video store clerk (Jason Ritter). “It is not necessarily the funniest thing in the whole world,” admits Palka, “but funny stuff comes out when you are writing things that are dark.”
For these filmmakers, the idea of dark comedy turns out to be a matter of shading. If you make the story dark, it’s tragedy. If you push it even darker, it’s comedy. HAMLET 2 follows the antics of a failed actor/drama teacher (Steve Coogan) who tries to save his arts program by writing and staging a musical, time-traveling sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “The original was the world’s greatest tragedy,” jokes the film’s co-writer Pam Brady, “but we think we have out done it. Ours is the story of triumph of enthusiasm over talent.” Nearly each director acknowledged that it’s nearly impossible to know who will find what funny, although EAGLE VS SHARK’s Taika Cohen felt his black humor was cultural: “Until recently most of the films we made were shot on overcast days and had to have a kid die.” To try to give the “audience permission to laugh,” Jay Duplass explains, “We are not super craft people, so early on we cue the audience in to laugh.”
To be sure, festival audiences this year are cued to laugh. Partially this has to do with the success of such previous Sundance fare as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Some pundits perceive the rise of dark comedies to be the natural consequence of a general cultural anxiety about the war, the economy, and everything else that is going wrong in America. But John Cooper, the Festival’s Director of Programming, suspects the rise of comedies might also have something to do with commercial appeal. “No one is making dark movies for dark sake,” Cooper suggest. “Filmmakers realize there needs to be a twist to get people into the cinema.” And his point seems well taken by distributors since the first three narrative films bought this year – CHOKE, HAMLET 2, and HENRY POOLE IS HERE – were comedies, and BAGHEAD was nabbed by Sony Picture Classics a few days after that. And all the filmmakers are now laughing all the way to the bank.