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Comedy Junction

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Mark Kermode | 15:26 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010

Drawing on the world of both Saturday Night Fever and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's new movie Cemetery Junction is a delight, but just because it's them, does that mean we should expect it to be the definition of comedy?

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  • Comment number 1.

    Knocked Up never made me properly laugh out loud and that is mainly viewed to be a comedy movie. However this movie did make me chuckle quite a lot and also other elements of the movie are great.

    So whilst I would say that a comedy movie has to be funny. I don't think that it has to have an arbitrary number of jokes or laughs in it, it just needs to make you feel better after viewing it.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'd say by your dictionary definition, comedy doesn't necessarily mean you have to be laughing start to finish, but surely it should produce laughter, not just the sense that you know it's funny, but it's not so funny that you need to audiably express it; otherwise it's more of a light entertainment film, the equivalent to The One Show(That's a light entertainment magazine show that airs at 7 o'clock, BBC1).

    However, going by your 5 laughs rule, for an average comedy of 90 minutes, that's one laugh per 18 minutes. To me that seems too little laughter.

    When I think of great comedy films, I think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Play it Again, Sam, Wrongfully Accused(well I like it), etc. The type of film you can go back to again and again and laugh and laugh, and find new things funny, and old jokes funnier.

    For example, I recently watched Superbad for the first time, and after been told it was one of the funniest films ever by some friends (I'm 21) I watched it, and laughed twice, with the odd giggle here and there. I was most disappointed, but I couldn't help thinking if it'd have been better had I watched it at the time, with the whole zeitgeist thing going on. Or maybe it was just cheap, immature comedy.

    But in conclusion, yes, a comedy anything has to be funny, be it a film, song or stand up; otherwise it's just a film, song or a man standing up talking.

  • Comment number 3.

    There is definitely a scale for 'great'comedy movies, I think that is what's causing the dilemma.
    1. Some have obvious comedy, the physical stuff or the literal joke, that makes you laugh out loud like Airplane, Uncle Buck, Wayne's World, Meet the parents and Elf.
    2. Then you have your more subtle humour with witty scripts that don't necessarily make you laugh out loud but you can appreciate the genius of the writing and have a little titter, like When Harry met Sally, Swingers, Clerks etc.
    3. Last but not least you have your dramas with a slight comedic twist, that are so brilliantly written they can be amusing without trying, again you don't laugh out loud but you wallow in the wonderful script, like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, M.A.S.H., Dr Strangelove.
    So, no Mark, a 'great' comedy film does not have to make you laugh out loud 5 times. It seems to me that Cemetery Junction may lie somewhere between 2 and 3?

  • Comment number 4.

    And on your thesis Mark, I laughed like a drain at In The Loop, but unlike the definition of comedy it doesn't have a 'light' ending, because they end up going to war! I could probably say the same for any other 'black' comedy film: Brazil, Catch 22, Man Bites Dog etc. Dark subject matter doesn't preclude humour from arising. Dare I say it, TV's very own 'The Sopranos' demonstrated that effectively enough for my liking. Therefore, it should be the same for you!

  • Comment number 5.

    Perhaps if a comedy doesn't make you laugh then the film makers have made an error. . . or maybe they've made a comedy (full) or errors.

  • Comment number 6.

    The kinds of film that illicit guffaws and belly laughs from an audience are usually stupid Jim Carrey vehicles, or other such tripe. Comedy films last if their humour is more deep seeded than an annoying voice or a clumsy fall - look at The Truman Show (to give Carrey his dues), or In Bruges.

    Another point to make is that a comedy is the type of film that is enhanced by watching in good company. A good drama requires the viewer's immersion, so one is often irritated if a fellow viewer is constantly conversing during one. Comedies, on the other hand, lose some of the sparkle if watched alone - I was convinced that Austin Powers 1 was a complete shambles until I watched it a couple of weeks ago with friends - it's genius.

  • Comment number 7.

    Out of interest, Dr. K., are there any romantic comedies out there in which one or more of the main characters ends up being hideously killed? Doesn't have to be a very gory death, but that kind of black twist would be a damn sight better than the dreck we get at the moment.

    I look forward to your thoughts on Neil LaBute's remake of Death at a Funeral.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm going to have to mention Dr. Strangelove! Yeah sure, it's a great film ; with marvelous performances, gorgeously framed cinematography and overall, a film with a ballsy set of principles (considering the time it was made)...

    but the sheer fact of the matter is, there are very few laughs in it! It does have some amusing moments (only yesterday was I thinking about the president's phone-call conversation with Dimitri), but no "laugh-out loud" moments, from what I can recall...

    and yet, whenever Empire or Total Film (or anything else film related) has a 100/50 Best Comedies list, Strangelove is almost always in the Top 10!

    And I have to agree with Craigfunkulus, about the "five laugh rule" being flawed, as some films seem funnier being shared with other people at a cinema ; rather than watching them alone on DVD.

  • Comment number 9.

    Do comedies have to be funny? ABSO-BLOODY-LUTELY NOT!

    Finally this topic has been brought up. I have mentioned it to several people before that some of my favourite films are comedies, but, I don't laugh at them, which they say doesn't make sense..."how can you like a comedy if you don't laugh at it?!". For me it is the atmosphere they create, not the chuckle or laugh count.

    Prime example of some of my favourite films which I never laugh out loud at:

    John Carpenter & Tobe Hooper's Body Bags

    Tim Burton's Beetlejuice

    Michael Lehmann's Hudson Hawk

    John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles (which, incidentally, is perhaps the greatest film of all time next to The Exorcist, Masters of the Universe, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Blue Velvet, Carnival of Souls and Eyes Wide Shut)

    Joe Dante's The Burbs

    What makes these films so great for me is the mood and atmosphere they create, a mix of light and dark humour, in some cases macabre, and the fact they are "comedies" is just a mere labelling system to me, not a definition.

    May I also add I find Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to be completely unfunny. Seona Dancing was a much more interesting pursuit.

  • Comment number 10.

    I cherish the movies of the great comedian Charlie Chaplin, in particular ‘The Kid’ and ‘City Lights’. However I doubt if there are five laughs in either. But both are still comedies.

    As is Woody Allen’s ‘Crime and Misdemeanours’. This is a favourite of mine but it’s not that funny.

    On the other hand 'The Exorcist II – The Heretic', which I viewed for the first time a couple of months ago had at least eight laugh-out-loud moments. How do we class a film that isn’t a comedy yet has more laughs than your suggested measure of five?

  • Comment number 11.

    Should comedy make you laugh? YES!
    The 5 laugh rule i would say is a weird standard to set,but a good way to define comedy.
    With the exception of 40 year old virgin,all the "revenge of the nerds" comedies (as Dr.K names them) never managed to make me laugh,and surely i don't understand the fuzz around "the hangover" which made me smile maybe only once.
    The comedy that gave me 4000 laughs was pink panther with Peter Sellers (pick one).

    All Sellers had to do is show up,and that was comedy.Today's comedians are trying too hard and most of the times it ends up being simply pathetic.

  • Comment number 12.

    A comedy does not need to make you laugh to be great. In fact some of my favourite comedies - for example Manhattan, Amelie and A Serious Man - don't break the five laugh rule, however more importantly than making me laugh they have me smiling all the way through them and remembering them fondly. They have great characters, or great stories or a beautifully put together and are all, in their own ways, delightful. Meanwhile breaking the five laugh rule doesn't necessarily make a comedy great for me. Airplane! for example is very funny however I can never call it great because there isn't much else to it - no razor sharp satire, no subversive darkness, no endearing or interesting characters, nothing else to engage with. It's just a bunch of jokes. Very good? Sure. Great? Most definitely not.

    Part of the problem here is not so much with the definition of comedy but instead with the usage of genres at all. Genres should not be used as boxes which films should try and fit in to. Genres are, at best, a general and extremely reductive guide to the content of a film so saying that a comedy didn't make you laugh enough is akin to complaining that a western didn't have any shootouts - perhaps an appropriate complaint depending on context, but perhaps completely missing a film's intentions or ignoring its true strengths.

  • Comment number 13.

    Should comedies make you laugh? Do bears defecate in the woods?

  • Comment number 14.

    I have a rule of thumb regarding comedy films. Avoid comedy films that are advertised as, "No1 US Box Office Smash Hit Comedy."

  • Comment number 15.

    Does comedy have to be funny? there's a poseur. We've all heard people coming out of the cinema who have said 'well that wasn't funny'. So perhaps that is what is expected today. Dr K once said that the BBFC produce their criteria on ratings from current public opinion, so perhaps, likewise, our definition of what is comedy must also move with the times. I wonder whether the OED's definition is therefore out of date.
    Also, what bearing does the status of society have on our definition of comedy? When life is particularly tough, do we see 'comedy' getting 'funnier', more laugh-out-loud, to counter the hard times?

  • Comment number 16.

    No the audience needn't laugh, oftentimes comedy is merely a vehicle by which to expose or comment upon certain themes - i.e. Gilliam's satirisation of bureaucracy in Brazil (the film, of course). The majority of my favourite comedy, regardless of format seldom makes me laugh - Stewart Lee comes to mind. A physical reaction is not necessarily the best imaginable outcome to art, there are far more interesting emotions to be evoked.

  • Comment number 17.

    Will Chadwick
    best comment ever.

  • Comment number 18.

    It really depends on the type of humor you find funny. Some people would laugh out loud at a silent movie - while the best of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd make me chuckle and are memorable, they are not laugh out loud funny to me. Others find innuendo amusing, or spoof movies. Watched in a large crowd movies like Austin Powers or Airplane! (both already mentioned) can have an infectious laughter - the silliness of it all relaxes audiences and works on an easily accessible level. Something more satirical and razor-sharp like In The Loop might be more appealing to some. I love the films of Wes Anderson and find the subtle humor in his movies to be laugh out loud, but I know this is rare. I also find dark humor to be very funny - In The Company Of Men, Heathers, Vampire's Kiss...these are all movies I was in hysterics over, but I know people who were shocked or offended by them. It depends a lot on the individual viewer, so I don't think the quality of a comedy can be judged on the definition of that word. The '5 Laugh Rule' is definitely a valid one, but it doesn't indicate the overall quality of the movie. What if it just wasn't your kind of film? I'm fully aware that Monty Python And The Holy Grail is a comedy, it's a well crafted piece of work with some very clever writing and a few giggles. Did I laugh more than five times? No. Is it still worthy of its classic status? Yes. Just because it didn't achieve what some might call a 'genre goal' doesn't detract from its overall value. As another poster has mentioned, Dr. Strangelove isn't that funny. But it looks, and is, great...

  • Comment number 19.

    Does comedy always have to be funny? Of course not!
    Remember the great Swiss master of drama, and comedy, Friedrich Duerenmatt who once said:"I'm always laughing at things others are not and vice versa". Quod erat demonstrandum ;-)

  • Comment number 20.

    One film I laughed out loud at a lot was Chan Wook Park's 'I'm a Cyborg', but I struggle to think of it as a comedy, although there doesn't really seem to be any better genre to be forced to squeeze it into. The thing that has always got me about music and I guess it equates to film too is the idea that a piece of music/film is SUPPOSED to be something as opposed to just BEING something. A song with thrashing drums and heavy distorted guitars you wouldn't describe as a reggae song, that reel of film isn't in itself a comedy until I have seen it and laughed, it is just a movie.

  • Comment number 21.

    By my standards, comedy isn't about whether or not you laugh, but rather how it makes you feel. I don't know where you get the 5 laugh rule from (why 5?), but comedies such as American Pie have certainly left me groaning in disgust, while some movies meant to be dramas or horrors have made me laugh until I cried. So this is a rare time when I have to disagree with you because you don't need to laugh for it to be a comedy.

    I understand what a movie tries to be, but in the end, its all about how it made me feel. If you take "Groundhog Day", which is a wonderful comedy, I don't laugh a whole lot, but I am brimming with glee throughout. That doesn't take away from its humor though, and movies like Adaptation are certainly not comedies, but the laughter is plentiful.

    I would do away with the laugh seems rather arbitrary. Instead I would focus if you felt good when funny things happen...not whether or not you externalized these feelings.

  • Comment number 22.

    When I first watched 'Shaun of the Dead', I didn't really laugh (perhaps this was due to my age at the time). However, after many other viewings the comedy became funnier and funnier, and I still laugh at it today. I think that you don't have to laugh at a film to appreciate the comedy, in the same way you don't have to be scared by a horror, to appreciate the horror (I refer you back to your review of 'Paranormal Activity')

  • Comment number 23.

    Hold on here, Are you trying to make an excuse to lower your standards? Because if so, for therapeutic reasons, then comedy does not have to be funny AT ALL. But for everyone else here COMEDY and LAUGHTER have something in common.

  • Comment number 24.

    It must surely be the INTENTION of those concerned to be funny, regardless of whether-or-not it actually is?

  • Comment number 25.

    Saw Cemetery Junction this evening and liked it a lot. Found it to be moving and funny throughout, and really quite a bold change of direction for Gervais and Merchant. Emily Watson is tremendous and rather restrained, and hers is oddly like a performance out of another film. But that's it really- the film is restrained, and all the better for it. This is a comedy, but it's not as laugh-a-minute as The Office or Extras or even The Invention of Lying, and it still beats the hell out of many of the American counterparts to which it pays homage.

  • Comment number 26.

    It's funny you're asking this Kermode. I was recently re-watching Boogie Nights and it brought up this familiar niggle in my head about the overlapping domains of comedy and drama. It has lots of clearly laugh out loud dialogue and situations in it - hell the basic premise of the film, "a guy with an extra large schlong" reads like an Apatow tagline. But can I actually bring myself to calling it a comedy? Well no, not really. Boogie Nights, just follows the meandering events of people's lives, and if they happen to make you laugh at the cast's desperation, well that's because life is occasionally funny.

    PT Anderson's other entry in my library There Will be Blood follows just one life for an extended period of time. And sure enough the scene where Plainview is forced to feign submission to the church made the entire audience and I laugh. But I was there in the cinema and it was really out of relief more than anything else, as it's such a relentlessly nihilistic experience that no sensible viewer could get away with classifying it as anything other than a drama. (Even the unhinged ending falls outside the bounds of "dark comedy".)

    So I think you're looking at this the wrong way around. It's not that comedies can get away with not making you laugh - they can't. Comedies, like action or horror, are genre films, sometimes rising above their formulaic tappings, but essentially machines with central mechanisms or 'set pieces' designed to extract one specific reaction. Rather, it's that straight drama remains the most liberating non-genre, a blank canvas where the audience is allowed the opportunity to have a whole mixture of reactions. They can laugh, cry, scream, throw up and everything in between... just like life.

  • Comment number 27.

    Todd Solondz's films are incredibly funny but hard to laugh at....

  • Comment number 28.

    Do I class a film a comedy if it doesn't make me laugh?

    We could ask the same question with regards to other genres. Is a horror a horror if it doesn't scare you? Is an action film and action film if it doesn't exite you?

    I think the broader question is: Should films be categorized according to the intent of the film makers or should they be be categorized according to the reaction of audiences?

    I think the former. The reason being that the extent to which something is funny, scary or exiting is very subjective.

    This is why I personally think that a comedy should still be classed as a comedy even if it isn't funny. I think that if the intention of the film is to be a comedy it should be classed as a comedy.

    I still call it a comedy but if it's not funny, I just say that it's not funny.

  • Comment number 29.

    Ghostbusters is my favourite comedy. Does it make me laugh? No. Do I find it funny? Yes. It makes me smile. It amuses me. It tickles my funny bone BUT it has never made me laugh out loud.

  • Comment number 30.

    Ghostbusters is rubbish for every scene not involving Bill Murray. There's no chemistry between him and the others and the ending is really poor.

    Have to disagree with the early point about Dr. Strangelove not being laugh-out-loud funny. Anyone who doesn't laugh at the line: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is a war room!" needs to take a long hard look at themselves (no offence) :P

    Sticking with Kubrick, is it wrong to treat A Clockwork Orange as a black comedy (aside from a deeply disturbing psychological drama and a paedophobic horror tract, and everything else that little masterpiece manages to be)?

  • Comment number 31.

    I wouldn't say that Ghostbusters is rubbish for every scene not involving Bill Murray because it has more to offer than just comedy for its entertainment value. What I would say is that the scenes that don't involve Bill Murray arn't particularly funny.

  • Comment number 32.

    Surely The King of Comedy needs mention. It's humourous in the same way In The Company of Men or Starship Troopers are - deeply disturbing but to the extent that all we can do is laugh; the satire is right on the money. However, I don't think I've laughed out loud at all at the film, despite it being a classic, revered comedy, with a terrifying, cheerfully odd and upbeat ending.

    Well, maybe I laughed once, during the phone-call-hostage sequence.

  • Comment number 33.

    Add to that Putney Swope, the Robert Downey film. Another strongly satirical comedy, but I find it such a scrappy film, and one which has such attitude that I'm almost afraid to laugh out loud, despite finding it quietly funny. But it's still a comedy. I stand by that.

    I can't even laugh at "Mr. Swope, brothers in the black room" being called out over an office intercom.

  • Comment number 34.

    There is a technical term for a comedy that you don't laugh at: it's called "bad comedy". Just as a martial arts film with just two badly-staged figth scenes is a bad martial arts film, and a horror movie with no scares, shocks or splatter is a bad horror film. I recently saw THE HANGOVER in company, and they laughed like drains while I was moderately amused. I certainly never LOL'd (or whatever it is young people do these days) and your Five-Laugh Rule was never, never in any danger.

    And, Dr K, that Five-Laugh Rule is incredibly lenient, especially for something that lasts an hour and a half. Try a Fifteen-Laugh Rule. Two laughs in half an hour would be an unacceptable ratio on a sitcom (unless it's an ITV sitcom, in which case it's a distinct improvement) and even something as semi-scripted as a topical panel show usually achieves a good smattering even in an iffy week. The question is: why can't they do it with film? They used to: His Girl Friday, several Marx Brothers outings, mid-period Carry Ons, the Naked Gun movies. But with many of those, those, there are about a hundred gags in the film so even if two-thirds of them don't work you're still laughing fairly consistently. If the makers of modern comedies only put in twelve moments that THEY believe are funny that's setting it far too low.

    Don't forget: your own review of Ocean's Thirteen runs about five minutes and that's got at least three big laughs.

  • Comment number 35.

    Surely the judgement of a comedy being 'laugh out loud' funny is subjective. The last movie I remember laughing uproariously at was Naked Gun when I was 14 and still found such slapstick humour hilarious. As a reserved person I wouldn't be laughing out load at most 'comedies' but they would illicit a smile and make me feel better and I think that's what's most important. Think they should be judged more on an 'enjoyment' scale than a 'laugh' scale because as mentioned above humour - as well as being very subjective - comes in many forms from subtle to slapstick.

  • Comment number 36.

    Comedy is not Slapstick. But Slapstick is Comedy.

  • Comment number 37.

    I watched kick ass the other day, and it didn't make me laugh much, but I had chills down my spine and a grin as big as the great wall splattered across my face.

    It was hilarious.

  • Comment number 38.

    Dear Dr. K,

    I'm sorry but post The Office this whole Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant movie collaboration series is just far below par and just not funny full stop. The set ups of these movies are tedious and will be forgotten behind the much stronger films from Judd Apatow and friends.

    YES a comedy movie should be funny but this whole '5 Laugh Rule' is a load of rubbish in the same way that the '3 Act Structure' in writing is complete bull.

    Funny means different things to different people. Take a film like The Royal Tenenbaums, it's quirky and humorous in a way that isn't about trying to get lots of laughs out of the audience in the way that say a Charlie Chaplin film is.

    Comedy comes in a wide variety and your '5 Laugh Rule' is not going to help define, categorize or judge the material properly.

    Also bear in mind that some people find certain movies funny or comedic that (when released) were certainly not billed as "comedies": Top Gun is hilariously funny, Raging Bull has brilliant comedy throughout and Aliens is also very funny.

    All these films could easily get more than 5 laughs but they aren't comedies which also proves the baloney in the theory.

  • Comment number 39.

    I found Todd Solondz's films (well Storytelling and Happiness) to be funny on first viewing and downright hysterical on repeat viewings. I honestly think Happiness is one of the greatest films of all time.

  • Comment number 40.

    I don't think there is a definitive answer.
    That said, I will never forget what my father said to me when I asked him (prior to watching it myself) which parts of Dr. Strangelove had made him laugh.
    He replied

    "It's not really a comedy that make you laugh. It's a comedy that makes you cry."

  • Comment number 41.

    Many films portray themselves as comedies but don't make me laugh, either because of personal taste or a misrepresentation by the trailer (count every scary movie/disaster movie etc).
    But I have laughed at movies which have no reference to comedy, i.e. Twilight, Alone in the Dark, etc. This is because of bad acting, writing or plot.
    It may be because I'm mocking these films but I have enjoyed them, even if it's for completely the wrong reason.

  • Comment number 42.

    Wristcutters: A Love Story. one of the most mislead films ive ever seen. marketed as a 'romantic comedy', posters and dvd sleeves plastered with the whole "best romantic comedy of the year" shindigs. did i laugh? not once. did i smile, ALL the way through. i wasnt laughing as such... but i think what was happening behind my smile was similar to what would happen if i was laughing(?).
    A comedy, in its generally accepted definition today is a film that makes you laugh, one that doesnt is either just a general feel good film or a movie too terrible to not make you laugh.. However a film doesnt have to be a comedy... to be a comedy?
    *cough ANGELS AND DEMONS. cough cough*

  • Comment number 43.

    Billy Wilder has rarely had me in stitches, but he's made a number of my favourite comedies.

  • Comment number 44.

    Comedy does not need to be funny.It needs to have a story that is as many people on the blog have said "Light Hearted", "Fun" or "Enjoyable". A lot of comedies have not been laugh out loud funny, but have been very enjoyable and make you feel good. So Comedy does not need to be funny, but it does a fun filled story.

    Mark i think your 5 Laugh rule is fine, its your rule you may use it to your reviews. Besides i have not seen as many comedies as you have so i can`t say that your rule is a success or not.

    I have seen a lot of great comedies that didn`t make me laugh out loud but were still considered comedies. Ed Wood is one of them, i found it very funny and very entertaining, but i never laughed out loud because i was engaged in the story and the character`s journey. Back To The Future is another one that struck me. Despite it being an adventure film, it did have certain comedy elements to the film which was one of the formulas to its success and Christopher Lloyd is also wonderful to watch.

    If you don`t laugh at a comedy, its not your fault, you maybe just never liked the film or didn`t get the jokes. Yet certain other people may disagree with you and find the jokes funny, and when it makes other people laugh, they will then say its a comedy even if you don`t.

  • Comment number 45.

    as a wise man once said

    "Jeez, I picked the wrong day to quit sniffing glue!"

  • Comment number 46.

    I never found Shakespeare's comedies funny at all (too much bottom humour in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and I couldn't find any good jokes in Dante's Divine Comedy, but maybe that's just me.

    Films like "Groundhog Day", "Dr. Strangelove", "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" might not all pass the 5 laugh-out-loud test but are consistently funny.

    There are films that are not comedies that have laugh out loud moments.
    Film Noirs like Stanley Kubrik's "The Killing" and Polanski's "Chinatown" might pass the 5 laugh test. Neither Carrie or Jaws are comedies but have genuinely funny moments. Black Comedies like A Simple Plan, War of the Roses or Fargo probably don't pass the 5 laugh test (unless you laughed every time Frances McDormand said "Yar" in which case you will laugh at anything)

    Maybe a comedy just has to be funny without having to make you laugh.

  • Comment number 47.

    This makes me think of films that are in one way deadly serious and in others completely ridiculous. Naturally the Coen's come to mind in relation to this, especially Fargo and No Country for Old Men (for me their best two films). Both could be seen as serious crime dramas but then it'd be equally easy to see them as a ridiculous series of events. And to a lesser extent Barton Fink and A Serious Man would fall into this category. Both of these I would consider more openly comedic but they would still be very far from most peoples views of comedy films.

    Then, as someone pointed out before, there are the brutal satire's that are exceptionally funny but without being laugh out loud funny. The King of Comedy, Starship Troopers, Robocop, Battle Royale, etc. They are all so brutal that it's hard to laugh at them but on the inside you know it's all too tongue in cheek for it not to be amusing. They're comedies disguised as something els.e

    Then of course you have the unintentionally hilarious or the "so bad they're good" films. Plan 9, Return of the Living Dead, most Jean Claude Van Damme films, etc. Let's face it, Ed Wood was trying to scare us but all he managed to do was make us laugh.

    Is Plan 9 From Outer Space a comedy? No. Is it hilarious? Yes.

    Is No Country for Old Men a comedy? Yes. Is it hilarious? No.

    Argument solved.

  • Comment number 48.

    I laughed out loud a few times when I first saw The Exorcist (in a cinema, when it was first released back in '73); it just struck me as having cack-handed special effects and lacked any plausibility factor. (Big disappointment, the book was genuinely scary.)

    So, does that make The Exorcist a comedy?

    Steptoe and Son. Remembered as a great comedy series. But it can also be seen as both great drama and as a tragedy.
    Dad's Army was series about human fallibility; characters dealing with the quiet tragedy of being who they were in the situation they faced.
    The same could be said for the much maligned Carry On's (great mirrors of the social changes of their time); what would they have done with the credit crunch?

    Dr Strangelove is mentioned above. Where does 'black comedy' fit in with the five laughs hypothesis? Film adaptations of Joe Orton's plays, M*A*S*H or many of Luis Bunuel's films are other examples. Life of Brian is more a black comedy than a laugh-out-loud-feel-good-film.

    Cemetery Junction and films like the Breakfast Club, American Graffiti, Brassed Off, Stand by Me etc are also hard to define. At least in terms of advertising slogans.

    Likeable? Yes. Has one or two comedic moments? Yes. Has drama also? Yes. Pays attention to character? Yes. Also deals with some serious issues? Quite probably.

    Could the overused cliche 'feel-good movie' also apply to them. Quite possibly.

    Unlike Dr K I found Slumgood Millionaire a 'Feel-good movie'. It delivered a big old fashioned, teary eyed, against-the-odds happy ending.
    The same could be said for Shawshank Redemption, it also had a happy(ish) ending.

    And how do we define (in advertising terms) Gran Torino? Drama obviously. But for me a feel-good movie for the values it expressed; it stays stuck in my mind. One of the really great films of the noughties.

    Or the films of the prankster Michael Moore. You can laugh even if you don't agree with his politics. Everyone like seeing the rich and powerful being deflated.

    I liked both 40 Year Old Virgin and The Hangover. I found them amusing rather than laugh-out-loud-funny; though they both made me laugh occasionally.

    But how would 'the most amusing film of the year' work as a strap line?

    Films that have reduced me to helpless tears with laughter: The Pythons (Holy Grail in particular), the Austin Powers trilogy, Mel Brooks at his finest (fart gags and all), much of Dream-works animation and the Ice Age films.

    Mood affects how we receive films. You have to be in the mood to open yourself to a comedy; without some effort on your part the humour can't get past your amour.

    If your sat challenging a movie to make you laugh then you might as well just watch Taxi Driver, Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara's), The Wild Bunch or Schindler's List instead. All great movies BTW. But they definitely require a different mood.

  • Comment number 49.

    Above (48) I meant Slumdog Millionaire, not Slumgood Millionaire (imagine you've guessed that). Damn Word's auto-correct; it even guesses when you're not looking. How do you turn it off?

  • Comment number 50.

    Just thought of this: I guess the difference between a comedy and a tragedy if whether it happens to you or someone else.
    I'll get my coat and head off to bed.

  • Comment number 51.

    I would suggest that the definition you read out is incorrect when it comes to the comedies having a happy conclusion. For instance I didn't laugh out loud at Fargo which is undoubtedly a magnificent comedy movie but certainly doesn't have an uplifting ending, nor does In the Loop, where, despite laughing many more than five times,ends in dark and thoughtful manner. Even a film as laugh out loud funny as Monty Python's Life of Brian ends with the main protagonist being crucified and Holy Grail ends with the knights being arrested by the police.

    Great comedy films recognise the comic potential of the scene is more important than always prompting a physical reaction? In Fargo you recognise the absurdity of the situations and the inherent comedy in many of the characters without actually laughing. Ricky Gervais is someone who particularly understands this I think with his TV shows Extras and the Office. Often they do not prompt a physical laugh but are nonetheless brilliant examples of comedy.

    In fact in real life generally the things we find most funny are slapstick - someone falling over etc. But just as slapstick is psychical and induces something physical from its audience, namely laughter, many of the best comedies reject it in favour of perhaps more intellectual comedy which in turn gives a more internal reaction to its audience and might not prompt outright hilarity.

  • Comment number 52.

    I would argue that a comedy doesn't have to make you laugh, as well as a drama doesn't have to make you cry. The absence of either doesn't take away from the core of the story.

    At the core, drama is about man's possibilities. Comedy is about man's limitations. Furthermore, comedy is drama extended. Any given comedy has at its heart a drama premise that has been pushed.

    Charlie Chaplin understood this well, and through him the audience were given (for the first time) the chance to empathise with a cinema character.

  • Comment number 53.

    Strangely enough, there are films that I laugh out loud at that I do not even think would be considered comedy and perhaps, worringly, indicate some unsavoury aspects of my character. I think that Vincent Gallo's BUFFALO '66 is one of the funniest films I've ever seen and no I don;t dislike his character in it.

    So this leads me to think that there are many types of films that people laugh at but perhaps they wouldn't consider COMEDY.

    Secondly, perhaps because I watch so many films on my own at home (get your violins out) I don;t tend to laugh out loud. I think for some people it holds true that they only laugh out loud in the company of others, or at the cinema etc. I think Herzog mentioned this in a DVD interview once. It's certainly not a RULE. But when I was growing up, I would hear howls of laughter from my brother's bedroom on a regular basis as he was watching a film or something on tv and I noticed that while I found the smae thing very funny, I just didn't laugh. Because I was on my own in my room? I think so...

  • Comment number 54.

    I thought I would revise something...I don't actually think it's strange to find laughs in non-COMEDYs. Life is full of humour and we find humour in very grim and saddening situations too.

    Also, apologies to the grammar police for all the mistakes in the previous post.

    As far as my own definition of a COMEDY film though, I'm still working on it.

  • Comment number 55.

    Strict systems of nomenclature and taxonomy are necessary in some fields (ornithology, for example, where something can't be both a Spur-winged Plover AND a Eurasian Tree Sparrow), but I wonder how useful they are in cinema, where each time we turn up we're secretly hoping to discover an entirely new "species" that won't fit neatly into any existing definition and where entire genres can spring up from nowhere and disappear within a generation or even less. Terms like "comedy" and "drama" are meaningful perhaps in the marketing and promotion of films - or at least have some use in managing viewers' expectations - but this is all the more reason to be wary of them. By the way, is there anything LESS informative than classifying a film as a "drama"?

    Comedy is a tool, a method. It's not a genre. Isn't it more useful to focus on both what a film is actually trying to do as well as how it tries to go about doing it, and not simply just the latter?

    Isn't it interesting that the films of many writer-directors with significant bodies of work behind them, people with greater total control over their films than non-writer-directors (Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, occasionally Woody Allen), that it is their films which so often defy simplistic labels like "comedy", even when they have us rolling in the aisles. This is because they have a clear vision and intent and are higly skilled artisans who have many more tools in their tool box than the tickling feather alone. And usually they want to make us reflect deeply on the human condition. Comedy is just one part of getting us there.

  • Comment number 56.

    Mark, long time fan and I'd just like to say thank you for the endless amount of entertainment you and Simon provide for us. In consideration of your foible for playing strange musical instruments, thought you would get a kick out of this:

  • Comment number 57.

    Tarantino once made some interesting comments in an interview about how he found Taxi Driver, Carrie and Jaws "hysterical", and that he'd place the likes of these in the comedy section of a video store!

    Sorry you couldn't be present at the Phoenix Square today for the 'Beggars of Life' screening. Flippin' volcano! Oh well, will have to get my book signed another time. Thoroughly enjoyed the film and music - hats off to your Dodge Brothers and Neil Brand.

  • Comment number 58.

    Your dictionary is defining the classical definition of comedy in which Dante's bleak , moralising and pretentious journey through hell can be described as a comedy , a divine one at that!(though many so called modern comedies can be so unfunny that a journey through hell might be more amusing), But to me a comedy in the modern sense I think you need to laugh a lot, if not a lot loud at least a silent smirk or chuckle

  • Comment number 59.

    I'm not so fussed about physical belly laughs, but if I can see adequate dark satire, irony or something generally definable as humour, that's usually enough for me to accept I'm watching a comedy.
    What I resent is when dour dramas get marketed as comedy, such as "About Schmidt" which barely scraped anything resembling humour from its premise or comedies which simply aren't funny, such as Mel Brooks' "Dracula dead and Loving it" or any film spoof in the last decade with the word "Movie" tagged onto the end of the title in bold red letters... you know who you are.
    Laughs are ideal but optional, humour is mandatory. Scott Adams of Dilbert comic-strip fame uses a 2 out of six category rule, which while it's not foolproof comes close to a working theory. His categories are cuteness, meanness, bizarreness, recognizability, naughtiness and cleverness. The theory goes that if a situation exhibits a combination of at least two of those qualities, a situation can usually be considered funny. The rest is talent...

  • Comment number 60.

    Isn't the problem with pure comedy the same as that with abstract art. They both shun an accurate representation reality to try and achieve a mysterious almost transcendental state ( yes I know this sounds incredibly pretentious) .

    If it doesn't work, if a comedy film isn't funny,or an abstract doesn't painting "say" something profound and deep , to the viewer it fails completely because it has nothing to fall back on, it's technical proficiency counts for nothing, precisely because it isn't aiming at literal accuracy, and it has betrayed the hope and expectation of it's audience .

    So it usually either brilliant and gives a massive lift to the spirit, or utterly abysmal and very depressing, inspiring love or hatred but rarely ambivalence

  • Comment number 61.

    Walked into a well-known DVD story the other day and saw Life of Brian on sale, advertised as 'feel-good'. Don't know about that...

  • Comment number 62.

    Slightly at a remove, the plays of Anton Chekhov were described by the author as comedies. They are not always produced as such, but that is another story. However , feed this through to a film close in spirit to a Chekhov play , like The Apartment. For me this is indeed a comedy ; dramatic but still a comedy. Would it pass the five laugh rule ? Probably doubtful.

    Or something like In Bruges : more gore than Coriolanus, but still a comedy.

    You can hedge your bets with "comedy-drama" or "tragicomedy" but comedy is still involved.

  • Comment number 63.

    Am I alone in laughing out loud more often when I'm watching with other people? I don't tend to laugh when I watch something by myself.

  • Comment number 64.

    In response to your question, I don't believe you can truly justify describing a film as a "Comedy" unless, on the whole, it is played for laughs and can genuinely leave an audience laughing ( or enraged/sickened/insulted/offended depending on taste) throughout or is intended as such a vehicle( any puerile attempts at toilet humor and slapstick should be disqualified from the "Comedy" genre and should at best be described as "Stupid"). That being said, if you go to see films described as "Romantic comedy", "Lighthearted/Feelgood comedy" and "Black comedy" you may well feel expectant of, or even entitled to the occasional chuckle or sensations of mirth and merriment here or there, but it would be unwise to feel expectant of the genuine full on hilarity that you would find in say Monty Python, Mel Brooks or the Marx Brothers films. As for comedies that didn't make me laugh? Sleeper, The Apartment, City Lights. As great comedies they are, they only really left me feeling amused.

  • Comment number 65.

    Am I alone in laughing out loud more often when I'm watching with other people? I don't tend to laugh when I watch something by myself.

    It's like ticking, not the same on your own. Laughter is infectious.

  • Comment number 66.

    Isn't alternative comedy - not funny.

  • Comment number 67.

    Instead of analysing the film perhaps best way to look at this is your current mood at the time. I have found myself both laughing at loud and just chuckling to myself quietly inside when watching my favourite comedy outings (M.A.S.H, Dr Strangelove, and the films of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson).

    Plus it is unfortunate to see a usually intelligent blog having so many people saying that they actually enjoyed (let alone laughed out loud) The Hangover... shame on you!

  • Comment number 68.

    I wouldn't describe a lot of Richard Curtis's recent output as laugh out loud hilarious from beginning to end, but I still enjoyed The Boat That Rocked, Notting Hill, 4 Weddings etc...

  • Comment number 69.

    Aaaaah Funny weird, Funny haha!

    I was bent double when Ace Ventura did that whole sports-replay-in-reverse thing.

    I was equally amused when the dude said: "Obviously, you're not a golfer!" though i made no sound but just sat there and smiled. (Strangely, the joke stayed with me longer)

    I dont really care which is funnier and why.

    "These are my ethics. If you dont like them - I have others."

  • Comment number 70.

    Comedy is a very personal thing indeed. I like mine much like a good bottle of wine, chilled,dry,and crisp. And the likes of In Bruges, Sideways,Little Miss Sunshine,and Midnight Run to name but a few have amused me no end in the past,and will continue to do so in the future. However if you are looking for really clever comedy look no further than Laurel and Hardy, slapstick aside,the wonderful Mr Hardy only has to give one of his infamous withering and lingering looks into the camera lens and it cracks me up every time.
    And the supposedly non comedic moment that saw me hang my head in shame as I left the cinema, mainly due to the fact that I was the only one who laughed out loud was the classic 'Is it Safe' scene from Marathon Man, and it still makes me smile when I think about it today.

  • Comment number 71.

    Whether you laugh or not at a film has much to do with where and how you view it. In a social setting such as a cinema or with a group of friends, I find that i laugh much more when watching films alone. Laughter is a group activity more than anything else, a way of showing others you are enjoying something that they are.

    I think really good comedy puts you in a specific mood: there is cirtianly the possibility for laughter, however it is not nessesary outside of a social setting. Its the way the film makes you feel that is important, laughter is just a by-product.

  • Comment number 72.

    Perhaps the critics could come up with a comedy scale to show how funny they think a comedy is.

    1 Not funny
    2 Mildly amusing
    3 Funny
    4 Very funny
    5 Hilarious

  • Comment number 73.

    For me one name leaps to mind on this 'does comedy have to be funny' debate - Wes Anderson.

    One of the finest comedy filmmakers, yet his films aren't loaded with belly laughs. The Royal Tennenbaums for example, probably his best work, is really funny but I maybe laughed two times watching that movie.

  • Comment number 74.

    sure what would Dr. K know about comedy, he didn't like the Big Liebowski

  • Comment number 75.

    then again what would I know, I think Mike Leigh's Naked is hilarious

  • Comment number 76.

    I think a comedy should be funny. If not it becomes what is sometimes generously referred to as a "gentle comedy" - somewhere between a comedy and a drama - let's call it a coma! They often put me to sleep (boom, boom)!

  • Comment number 77.

    61. KubrickandScott wrote:
    "Walked into a well-known DVD story the other day and saw Life of Brian on sale, advertised as 'feel-good'. Don't know about that..."

    Cheer up, Stanley and Ridley
    You know what they say

    Some things in life are bad
    They can really make you mad
    Other things just make you swear and curse
    When you're chewing on life's gristle
    Don't grumble, give a whistle
    And this'll help things turn out for the best, hey

    Always look on the bright side of life

  • Comment number 78.

    Hey Dr. K,

    I have read all of the posts on here and it seems pretty conclusive that no one really agrees with your arbitrary ‘5’ laughs per film rule; it simply makes no sense. Also, there seems to be a general consensus that films can have a ‘feel’ to them that is far more important that the exact count of belly laughs you get from it when deciding if it is a comedy.

    Personally I think something like Robocop deserves a mention as it is a very dark satirical comedy but you will always find it in the action section of Blockbusters (or any other film rental establishment…).

    Finally the film I think would define the word comedy is The Princess Bride. It’s the film that did everything: Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...

  • Comment number 79.

    My favourite comedy shows do not make me laugh that much. Spoofs make me laugh, bloopers make me laugh. Comedy amuses me. I love the office it gives me a feeling of amusement, I recognize the absurdities and I love watching it. It does make me laugh, but not really that often. I watched "The proposal" recently and it made me laugh three times (I counted to see if it fit into the kermodian comedy-law). Something about Sandra Bullock rapping about "sweat dripping down her balls is hilarious to me. I'm not proud of it , but there it is. I love Woody Allen films even though they don't make me laugh, they do amuse me. One can be amused and not laugh. As for comedy films if all they're out to get are straightforward laughs,as most spoofs films are , you can go by the criteria you describe.But if they're cleverly written and deep you are allowed(IMHO) to describe them as comedy and enjoy them as comedy.

  • Comment number 80.

    All though I also laughed in "the proposal" when we were supposed to be moved. At the end when they talk about THEIR FEELINGS, I couldn't help cracking up, Ryan Reynolds looked so incredibly funny when he was trying to express his FEELINGS. That's why most romantic comedies do not work. They stuff all this smaltzy crap down out gullets and it never works. You have no sympathy for the characters as they're basically walking sterotypes, and then the emotion becomes phony and makes us all "throw up in our mouths a little.

  • Comment number 81.

    I went to a Kenneth Anger retrospective at the Cornerhouse many years ago. I just liked the writeup in the ad, I'd never heard of him. I was the only one in a packed cinema who laughed once and I laughed all the way through. I can't help wondering why all those po-faced cineastes were bothering to watch.

    I came out of Micmacs with an aching throat and jaw muscles. I went with friends who also laughed but nobody else did.

    Three classes of comedy film;
    Feel-good - not necessarily an unsuccessful comedy, feel-good can reach to total blissful euphoria without causing laughter.
    Cynical - observational, satirical comedy that makes us snort with world-weary recognition.
    Rolling in the aisles - 5+ belly laughs or uncontrollable giggles up to "please call an ambulance, I can't breathe".
    Unintentional - nobody expects the fourth class of comedy film.

    Of course films will not have to sit in just one category, The Princess Bride, Life of Brian and Micmacs manage the first three with such style.

  • Comment number 82.

    Maybe you can use these wry observations next time you wittertain us with your "straight man" Mayo.

  • Comment number 83.

    Three words: Jacques Tati's Playtime. I don't know many fans of this film that laughed out loud much, but it is near-universally regarded as a masterpiece among those whose opinions I most value, and it is generally considered a comedy. Maybe a "satire" - "the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices" (Compact OED). That sort of fits, and satire in Tati's sense would still probably fall under the general umbrella of comedy, but I think Tati, even with his bittersweet moments, was very optimistic in tone. The gags on display in Playtime are the kind of things you might laugh at in real life; you might not. In any case, they'd be the memorable thing you'd tell anecdotally to friends and family later on. "You know what I saw the other day...?" Those little vignettes are entertaining in and of themselves, even if they don't get belly laughs. Somehow, hearing an amusing story makes life a little lighter for a few moments, and to me, that's what comedy does best -- especially if it can also provide some insight along with the buoyancy.

    By and large, I tend to agree that a comedy should make me laugh, but it's not a hard and fast rule. I can still appreciate good writing and execution in a comedy that doesn't quite strike my funny bone, especially if yuks aren't really what the filmmakers were going for.

  • Comment number 84.

    I know it's not a film, but David Firth's Salad Fingers really sends a chill up my spine, in a good way. It is darkly funny, but i don't laugh when I'm watching it.
    With films, I agree with the suggestion of In Bruges, quite a funny film and i enjoyed it quite a lot, but i didn't laugh.

  • Comment number 85.

    Whenever I think about the question Dr. Kermode poses here, and I do quite often, I think of the 80's comedy Spies Like Us. It stars Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, and it is a terrible movie but a funny comedy. And in my opinion, a comedy does not have be a good movie, it just has to be funny, which makes it a good comedy.

    Ironically, I think the general modern mainstream comedy is a better movie than the average comedy of the 80's, many of the funniest of which starring classic Second City and Saturday Night Live alumni, but they are less funny, with a few honorable exceptions (Anchorman!!). I'll get to the disqualified Judd Apatow/ Seth Rogen-garbage later.

    Now, if forced to watch either Ricky Gervais' Invention of Lying, a less than hilarious but intelligent comedy, or Spies Like Us, five times in a row, I would choose Spies Like Us in a heartbeat. Because when I watch a movie intended to be a comedy, with comedy sensibilities, I want to laugh more than anything. Two of my favourite films are Groundhog Day and The Big Lebowski. At the end of the former, I could care less whether or not Phil Connors gets the girl or not, it's all about the ride. It's about the "for your information hairdue"'s and the "What a shock"'s. Bill Murray is better as a cynical, sarcastic prick than as an out and out sweetheart. The Big Lebowski is the greatest comedy ever, period. As Dr. Kermode has pointed out several times, it is far from the Coen brothers' best film, but it's the funniest, and therefore the funniest comedy.

    As for funny. A dramatic movie can be funny as well. That obviously does not make it a comedy, but a comedy has to be funny. I will of course watch Cemetery Junction, although I am increasingly less excited about the once so awe-inspiring Ricky Gervais because of his film work. Ghost Town made the cut as a bonafide comedy, but Invention of Lying is a toss up. I would like a bit more nihilism from Ricky Gervais, because compared to the Judd Apatow/ Seth Rogen-garbage, a valid term I contest, he has more intelligence, more class and is a greater writer and comedic actor than mister Apatow's favourite booger from school, Jonah Hill. That's the one he did not swallow in class. That is at least my theory. Ricky Gervais will never challenge the great SC or SNL alumni, but I wish he would stop trying to save the world and just be funny like he was in the office. Already in Extras, I thought he started taking himself and comedy a bit too seriosuly. More bullshit please mister Gervais. From an avid fan still.

    So, after hearing Dr. Kermode's take of Cemetery Junction, if asked, I would probably choose Spies Like Us against that as well.

  • Comment number 86.

    Yes, comedies should make you laugh, should make you feel good... but not necessarily
    Cemetery Junction may be a comedy, even tough it barely made me laugh once, or maybe it's a light drama... whatever it is, it's a highly UNoriginal movie, with a dull main character and pretty standard cliches.
    I'm sorry, I really thought it was pretty much nothing...
    Except that a lot of critics say they liked it, just because it's a English film and it takes about a time which most of them have grown up in.
    Sorry Ricky, sorry Steve... This one might have been a work of love... but I was bored to death

  • Comment number 87.

    I think the classical example of a comedy without laughs is Mike Nichols's "The Graduate". It doesn't end in marriage, but kind of, it sure has a feel good atmosphere. The film made the top ten at AFI's 100 Years…100 Laughs list. The diving dress scene is funny, like many others but not LOL funny. Yet, it's one of my favourite films ever.

  • Comment number 88.

    "At the end of the former, I could care less whether or not Phil Connors gets the girl or not, it's all about the ride."

    -Well the point is that he realises other people are more important than himself. In order to be loved he has to love others. This defines the film - Phil goes from selfish jerk, to hedonist, to despair, to enlightenment. Getting the girl is simply the indicator he finally realised after (according to the writer) hundreds of years in a time loop. The ride has no meaning without this.

  • Comment number 89.

    Doesn't a lot depend on your mood? Or who you are with? I watched "What's Up, Doc?" on a ferry after half a bottle of Chablis and nearly crippled myself laughing. I saw Peter Chelsom's "Funny Bones" on my own at home and didn't laugh much, but it's the cleverest and best written comedy I've seen for years. Is "Local Hero" a comedy? I think so, but the funniest bits are only in the dance scene ("I wonder what all the poor people are doing tonight?" is a line my brother often me).

    Can you start a discussion on the "Most Said Line In Film"? My offering is "Let's go", which must have been said in almost every film since (memorably) The Wild Bunch.

    Do you actually read all these emails?

    David MacGowan


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