Ha-ha. Ho-ho. Tee-hee. Like the Eskimos and snow, we have hundreds of different ways to communicate the same thing: laughter. While everyone can agree on what laughter is, it is impossible to find something that will make everyone do it. Whether it’s a slippery banana peel or poignant social satire (not to say that the slippery banana peel, if placed correctly, can’t create poignant social satire) everyone has different tastes for what makes them chuckle. However, sometimes a film comes around that is so uproarious in the way it reflects the truth, it aligns the taste buds of the world like no others could. It capitalizes on what is called a comedic trend — and in America, we’ve had a lot of them.
In an effort to chronicle these changing movements in American comedy films, the Pacific Film Archive launched the “Funny Ha-Ha” film series. It ran from January 16th to February 22nd, and included a wide variety of films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s.
After “Funny Ha-Ha” will be the complementary series “Joker’s Wild” and “Rude Awakening” which will cover comedies dating all the way to present day. According to film curator at the Berkeley Art Museum Steve Seid, there is a very intelligent method to all of the comedic madness.
“In certain ways a lot of the decisions were kind of built by the period because the comedies of different decades kind of address different things,” said Seid. “In the 30’s so many of the comedies really are touching on the depression. And then the 40’s are a little more gleeful. And then when you get to the 50’s there’s this attempt to be a little more sensational, risqué in a sense.”
“Risqué” may be in the eye of the beholder however, especially when considering today’s standards. Humor (and media content in general) was much tamer back in the 50’s. In those days comedians couldn’t curse and Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds every week on national TV.
Seid himself recognizes the difference between the tastes of today and those of the past. There’s a reason he titled the final installment of his comedy series “Rude Awakening.” He even remembers what movie changed it all.
“To me ‘There’s Something About Mary’ came out and kind of set a new bar for a certain level of crassness that was permissible…” said Seid. “To me a lot of comedy these days tries to kind of royal the edges of what is permissible.”
Seid has a point. The Farrelly Brothers cemented their reputations as the raunchy authorities of the male-centered romantic comedy with this story of semen jokes, electrocuted dogs and dark perspective on being a hopeless romantic. A huge commercial success, movies have been pushing the envelope signed and sealed by “Mary” for the next decade and a half.
The lineup from the “Funny Ha-Ha” series featured films that were considered crass at the time they came out. It might be for that reason that they became cultural icons even today. These famous titles include the Clark Gable screwball comedy “It Happened One Night” (1934) and Billy Wilder’s raunchy, cross-dressing misadventure “Some Like it Hot” (1959).
To Seid, the changing comedic trends in film history stand out like night and day. “To me one of the things that happened between the different chapters in this series is that in the 30’s 40’s 50’s you’re really talking about very funny screenwriters working with actors who can do comedy,” said Seid. “And when you get to the 60s you start dealing with people who have come right out of standup.”
Seid believes there’s a drastic difference between comedies that star comedians and comedies that star actors. There is a different sort of gravitas that exists when a dramatic actor does a comedy, especially if paired with a comedian. A recent example is Todd Phillip’s 2010 smash “Due Date.” Robert Downey Junior played the straight (and neurotic) man to Zach Galifinakis’ maladjusted train wreck, and the chemistry was akin to the entertaining sparks between Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.”
It makes one wonder what will be said about our current taste in humor fifty years from now. Surely our recent trend of self-referential humor will be easily pinpointed. This could be in a large part due to the evolution of TV comedy (think of the meta layers into which NBC’s “Community” plunges to deliver some of the show’s biggest jokes). One of the most successful comedies in the past year was the star-studded “This is the End,” in which the country’s most popular comedians literally played themselves, even making a home-movie sequel to “Pineapple Express” at one point.
The “Funny Ha-Ha” film series provided audiences a taste of the past, but did not feel dated. The rapid workplace banter of “His Girl Friday” (1940) and the antic exploits of the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” (1933), plus the many others screened at the PFA these past months, will always have a place in our culture, as well as in our funny bones.
It will be up to the Steve Seid’s of the future to go back through our current-day box office stubs and analyze them for the Rorschach tests they are in order to determine just what it was that meant laughter to us.
Ryan Koehn covers film. Contact him at [email protected].