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The secret of movie comedy

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Mark Kermode | 12:52 UK time, Monday, 26 April 2010

Are there such things as successful movie comedies that are not funny? You tell me there are.

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  • Comment number 1.

    argument absolutely solved.

  • Comment number 2.

    The synopsis above is a bit misleading: Dr K and the Commenters effectively answer the questions "Are there such things as good comedies that are not funny?" and "Can a comedy be a comedy without being funny?"

    However, the question above is "Are there such things as SUCCESSFUL movie comedies that are not funny?" The answer to this question is - of course - YES, with reference to the oeuvres of Jennifer Aniston, Vince Vaughn, and a selection of the work of Sandra Bullock.

  • Comment number 3.

    I nearly peed my trousers when I saw Happiness, it's just laugh a second in my humble opinion.

  • Comment number 4.

    I especially liked 'welcome to the dollhouse'. My how I laughed at the school bully threatening to rape the girl after school.

    About Schmidt too, wasn't that supposed to be a comedy?

  • Comment number 5.

    Comedy is best done on television, where you get more time on character development.
    Would a "Frasier" movie been as funny? I very much doubt it.
    Anyway, cinema-going's too bleedin' expensive to waste on 'comedies'.

  • Comment number 6.

    I completely disagree about Dr.Strangelove. I was recently lucky enough to see it at a Kubrick month in a local cinema and despite having seen it numerous times, I (and the audience around me) were in fits of laughter throughout, particularly during Sellers's final speech. Tears were streaming down my face when the explosions filled the screen. Not tears of sadness.

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree with Diarmaid Hanly re. Dr Strangelove. Surely one of the funniest films ever, with many jokes and laugh out loud moments. The genius of it is that the comedy forces us to question our own judgement of the issues of nuclear armourment, as the story unfolding on screen is quite horrific.

  • Comment number 8.

    I have to agree with those who have said Dr Strangelove is funny, every time I watch it I laugh well over the five times required... even the character names were hilarious.

  • Comment number 9.

    Now that I'm an "old friend" can have a slot on the Culture Show? Maybe co-presenter or something?

  • Comment number 10.

    *rolls eyes* The sycophancy...

  • Comment number 11.

    Hey...I do belive I was the first person to mention Dr mention again!

  • Comment number 12.

    I've had the great good fortune to see Dr Strangelove on the big screen twice (thanks to The Broadway in Nottingham and the Hyde Park Picture House). I laughed like a drain the second time around.

    I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

  • Comment number 13.

    I am a really big fan of Todd Solondz and Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse are two of my favorite comedies of all time. Happiness I find absolutely laugh-out-loud hysterical, but Welcome to the Dollhouse is another matter. I tend to watch about once a year and spend most of that time wincing.

    I've spent ages trying to work out why this is and part of it I think is just a matter of sympathy. For all of the accusations of misanthropy, Solondz does give the characters in Happiness their lighter moments and it helps clear the air a little. Dollhouse, on the other hand, is so aggressively nihilistic and mean-spirited that it makes me almost physically squirm. Nothing nice happens throughout the entire movie and there isn't a single nice character in the entire film, it's just a continuous thread of ugly people doing ugly things to one another and for every half inch it climbs up, it slips another five. But, I do think it's a great comedy that subverts the Hollywood-style coming of age story and paints a really honest - albeit cynical - portrait of the public school food chain where cruelty begets cruelty. When I'm not watching the movie, there ARE times when I can think back to certain moments in it and laugh, but I don't think I've ever laughed while watching it (whereas Happiness is, in my opinion, a laugh riot and I'm eagerly awaiting a chance to see Life During Wartime).

    The King of Comedy I'll agree is more disturbing than outright funny, but everything about Dr. Strangelove is hilarious from the opening credits onward. Just the tone of it in itself is funny.

    I've never gone through the effort of signing up and responding to a blog before, but I just spent the last couple of days reading through yours and it's just too fantastic. Love what you've done with the place.

  • Comment number 14.

    I think Kubrick does have a sence of comedy in quite a few of his films, weather or not some scenes are supposed to be funny or not i don't know but i laughed at them. The malfuntioning sound of the HAL voice being shut down in 2001 gave me a chuckle, the picture test near the end of clockwork orange was very funny "cabbages, knickeres, he hasent got a beak". and even the drill sargent stuff within the first 45 mins of full metal jacket are funny in a way.

  • Comment number 15.

    I really wish I could be as sophisticated about comedy as most people here. Fact is I laugh mostly at people embarassing themselves, spoofing other people or acting silly.I CAN and have laughed at "sopisticated" comedy, but it never makes me cry with laughter. Being clever is all well and good but being TOO clever I can appreciate but not laugh at.I didn't think Brazil was funny. I thought it was horrifying. I didn't laugh at dr.strangelove...
    You wanna know what makes me laugh? Dramatic chipmunk...

  • Comment number 16.

    And what of movies that one person (i.e., me) thinks is funny and no one else (i.e., everybody I know who has seen them) does? For example, a very dark, very dry film called "Slither" starring James Caan and Peter Boyle. Cracked me up, but made my friends look at me cross-eyed.

  • Comment number 17.

    Dr K,
    Are there such things as successful movie comedies that are not funny?.....In one word ....Plenty ! For instance anything that says comedy and has Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy in it for kick off and that covers a lot of ground. The list between these two alone would be like writing the Gettysburgh address all over again.If you look at the last 25 years or so Messrs Carrey and Murphy who are in my opinion over rated in so many of the big screen comedy offerings, have racked up a whole lot of box office. But ye gods save me from the likes of Bruce Almighty and The Nutty Professor dreadful dross for the masses. Stick to stand up guys please!

  • Comment number 18.

    Kind Hearts & Coronets. I did not really laugh but i really love this movie!

  • Comment number 19.

    agreed about 'happiness' and 'no country for old men' funny films as too jim jarmusch's 'broken flowers'-i was the only one laughing in the cinema

    if you have the dvd of 'dr strangelove', there's an extras scene with peter sellers doing impressions over the telephone which are hilarious and spot on

  • Comment number 20.

    I missed last weeks debate but was surprised no one mentioned 'Man Bites Dog' - a film that is absolutely hilarious whilst simultaneously being one of the most disturbing pieces of cinema you'll ever see.

  • Comment number 21.

    Argument not solved, since when was No Country for Old Men a comedy? I mean it has darkly comic elements but the overriding tone is very dark and serious, as well as being gruesomely shocking. Not a comedy at all.

  • Comment number 22.

    Isn't it true that there exists a fine line between comedy and tragedy, I think it acts like a safety valve allowing us to cope with unpleasant or traumatic situations. Perhaps we laugh because secretly we are relieved that we are not the characters in the film, suffering the indignities and misfortunes that life can throw at you. Films such as 'Dr. Strangelove' and some of the other films mentioned here would perhaps be best described as 'satires' rather than comedy do you think?

  • Comment number 23.


    This is an extremely interesting discussion, and one which has prompted me for the first time to post my entirely underwhelming thoughts. It's fair to say that I have vicariously lived and loved the the Mark Kermode/Simon Mayo film critique, when available. Until now, however, I have always remained on the other side of the fourth wall.

    I am in such violent agreement with this idea though, that it has urged me to spur on that feral stallion of ambition, and sneak a word in edgeways.

    "Withnail & I"

    One of my absolute favourite films, and something that continues to snowball into hilarity and hysteria after every indulgence; the crux of the matter is the pathos. Like Chaplin, the root of the humour is a very black tragedy, which provides us with a few sensationally funny moments, but for the most part a harsh and intense amusement that remains a constant tone for the film to build upon.

    Try not to go on holiday by mistake again.

    Yours quixotically,


  • Comment number 24.

    Mr. Kermode,
    after years of half hearted listening to your Friday afternoon show I feel I have to say a few things.

    Keep things simple to appeal to a wider audience. Its got to the point now when its almost laboured and trivial the amount of detail you give about each film. Its all beyond me now mate. I use the Independent and Times and Time Out and Lovefilm and IMDB and You Tube for all my research now - its so much more succinct and interesting. A mainstream program like yours should be more straightforward and less woffalie

  • Comment number 25.

    Crimes and Misdemeanors is an odd one to bring up.

    First of all its two parallel stories, only one of which is comedic, so it should only really provoke 2 ½ laughs.

    But its wrong to say the ‘funny half’ doesn’t make you laugh.

    • A strange man... defecated on my sister.
    • I think I see a cab. If we run quickly we can kick the crutch from that old lady and get it.
    • He's an American phenomenon…yeah, like acid rain.
    • Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.
    • Don't listen to what your teachers tell ya, you know. Don't pay attention. Just, just see what they look like and that's how you'll know what life is really gonna be like.
    • I plagiarized most of (the letter) from James Joyce. You probably wondered why all the references to Dublin.
    • When he tells you he wants to exchange ideas, what he wants is to exchange fluids.
    • What is the guy so upset about? You'd think nobody was ever compared to Mussolini before.
    • Show business is, is dog-eat-dog. It's worse than dog-eat-dog. It's dog-doesn't-return-other-dog's-phone-calls

    And my own favourite:

    • Honey, you're the one who stopped sleeping with me, ok. It'll be a year come April 20th. I remember the date exactly, because it was Hitler's birthday.

    Mainly because it’s also my birthday.

    Steve W

  • Comment number 26.

    Take a bow, YorkshireMouth!

    Bummer about sharing your birthday with Hitler. Charlie Chaplin was just 4 days older than Hitler

  • Comment number 27.

    Having thought about this for a while.

    Dr K. 'No Country for Old Men is a comedy' A comedy?

    Does that mean There Will be Blood, The Getaway or The Way of the Gun were also comedies?

    I’m not getting the humour, black or otherwise, in No Country…
    Hubris – plenty, irony possibly, tragedy certainly - but not humour.

    Could Dr K (or anyone else) care to explain what (humour) I’m missing in No Country for Old Men.

  • Comment number 28.

    I've never considered Dr Strangelove to be a comedy and it never occurred to me that others did. To me, it's satirical commentary.

  • Comment number 29.

    granted, 'no country for old men', 'way of the gun' and 'there will be blood' are not comedies, but they have a dark sense of humour throughout.

    the last line of 'there will be blood' is hilarious

  • Comment number 30.

    To jayfurneaux

    For me the tone, style and feel of No Country would definitely fit into what I'd consider a comedy but right on far end of the somber scale (hence why it's a comedy that isn't laugh out loud funny).

    There is just something so outlandish and otherworldly about it that means I can't put it the same genre of a crime drama or thriller. Think of when Anton slowly lifts his gas canister as his victim stands with a look of astonished confusion on his face. Definitely a dark laugh in his weapon of choice and method of execution.
    Or when Llewellyn is being chased by the drug deals in their jeep, the headlights bowling over the silhouetted figure, like a rabbit being chased by a fox. What could have worked as a straight forward chase sequence is given a surreal twist (amplified by the conspicuous absence of diegetic sound) that makes the whole thing slid into the left field of brooding comedy.
    And as for a climax, there is something cheekily comedic of the Coens in how they kill off their main character, badly wound their antagonist but let him go free and then closing on a monologue that may or may not make a huge amount of sense. It's a joke that only they seem to be in on. That's why I consider it a comedy that isn't particularly hilarious. It's like Fargo. The more I watch it the funnier I find it but I still don't think I've laughed during it yet.

  • Comment number 31.

    Also, while I'm here, how about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? There are certainly some laugh out loud moments - like the cliff jumping scene - but ultimately it's just a little too tragic to be funny all the way through. At the end, even with funny lines like "Is that what you call giving cover?" "Is that what you call running?" their ultimate demise is too apparent for it to be funny.

  • Comment number 32.

    Cemetery Junction is a laugh out loud comedy for me, when i saw it, i laughed way above the allocated number 5. The Coen Brother comedies (excluding the big lebowski) don't make me laugh very much and yet i like them very much, notably Fargo, O Brother where are thou?, A Serious Man and Raising Arizona. Quite a lot of them actually.
    What about things like The Truman Show? Not alot of laughs but amazing film.
    I laughed quite a lot in Cloverfield, mainly because the character with the camera said some quite funny things.

  • Comment number 33.

    I can't believe so many people find Happiness funny. I mean, I laughed in parts but the overall tone of the film was definitely not humorous. Even as someone who tends to prefer the darker side of comedy, my response to the majority of the scenes flitted between extreme discomfort and downright disgust. I suppose you could draw a line from this to the work Gervais/Merchant do, which takes us back quite nicely to what kicked off this whole debate.

  • Comment number 34.

    Can a romantic comedy without humour still be a "romantic comedy", or is this a clever subversion of the genre? Can anyone think of a romantic comedy that has absolutely NO humour?

  • Comment number 35.

    It occurs to me now that 'No Country for Old Men' could also be an alternative title for 'Last of the Summer Wine.'

  • Comment number 36.

    I know this is a very old blog post, but only the other day did I see the video on youtube. I found this recent article about "pathos" that has some relevance to the argument and that you might find interesting.


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