23 March 2010

Comic Relief

Before we moved here, Jamie and I had no intention of buying a television or subscribing to any kind of cable service while we are in Moldova. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to a year without TV. Of course, then we moved into an apartment that already had a television, and since we were already being billed for satellite TV - at a mere $12 a month, including HBO and Cinemax - we took it as it came.

We still hardly ever watch it, but every once in a while, it is kind of interesting to watch television channels from this region of the world. Admittedly, it's also nice to watch some familiar shows in English every now and then as well.

The satellite TV provider is based out of Romania, so many of the channels are, too, including HBO and Cinemax. Consequently, any stand-up comedy specials that are broadcast on either of those channels tend to be in Romanian.

My grasp of the language is getting better. I'm to the point now where I can typically get through an entire day without having to converse to anyone other than my family in English. Still, when I watch stand-up comedy in Romanian, I just don't get it.

Paradoxically, even though laughter is in many ways the universal language, that which prompts such a response is often very dependent upon linguistic subtleties. In my English conversational group, on more than one occasion, I've made jokes that have completely bombed, and I like to think that this has something to do with my students' command of the nuances of the English language. Of course, then the lesson momentarily shifts focus to explain why something I said could have been interpreted as funny, which actually makes it even less humorous.

On the same token, when I watch stand up comedy specials on HBO Romania, I can usually understand the gist of what they're talking about, but I have no idea why it's funny, just because my command of the language is not yet strong enough.

To make an obvious point, this is why physical comedy translates fairly well: because it's not so dependent on language. In terms of films made in the past twenty years, we have seen a fairly significant shift to this type of comedy dominating mainstream culture in the U.S., and I suspect that this largely has to do with the fact that foreign markets have become such an important consideration in regard to motion picture distribution.

After all, domestic ticket sales are only one aspect of box office revenue, and what's funny in the U.S. may not be in other cultures. This is especially true with language-based humor. Consequently, "Jackass: The Movie" does significantly better in overseas markets than something like "Hamlet 2" (the latter of which I happened to think was particularly funny). Of course, "Jackass" did much better in domestic markets as well, but I wonder if American audiences have been conditioned to a certain degree in terms of defining a collective sense of humor.

We all find different things to be funny than someone else. It's one of the things that makes us each unique. But when comedic films are marketed to reach a mass audience, are they essentially telling us what we should think is funny? When comedy actors and actresses are making $10-20 million per film, they need to sell a lot of tickets to recoup those kinds of costs, and filmmakers do this essentially two ways: they create a film that appeals to as broad of an audience as possible, and by trying to convince us that this movie is in fact hilarious.

In terms of my first point, this is why we see so many cross-genre movies in the past 10-20 years. Not a fan of comedies? Can I interest you in a science-fiction? Or a western? Or an action film? What about a remake of something with a proven track record? We'll take "Land of the Lost" and make it funny. Ok, bad example, but you get the idea. Lowest common denominator equals biggest potential audience. To "dumb it down" in this sense, means to make it less dependent on language. Then it can reach a foreign audience more easily, if only a domestic audience can also be convinced that this stuff is funny.

This brings me to my second point, that what is mass-marketed as comedy tends to wear the label in vain. For example, "Funny People" wasn't funny any more than "Smart People" was smart. Comedy, as an art form, must surprise us, as all art forms must do. It must present an unfamiliar perspective of something that is familiar. If it doesn't, then it is a cliche. Comedy is no exception.

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