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Comedy at the Oscars

Gabe Braden, Movie Critic

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The annual film awards are held every year to audiences and critics alike. Since their inception, the Academy Awards have annually awarded the best of the best from the film industry. Recently though, the comedy genre has seen less and less representation within the nominee and winner’s circle. And not only have the general categories seen an overwhelmingly higher ratio of dramas to comedies but when they announce a comedy film at the annual telecast what we are seeing is a changing of the genre into something that is so unlike the classic comedy many claim it is not comedy at all. They are hybrid “dramedies” with either a comedy script, that has dramatic actors, or dramatic script that has comedy actors. It’s become so bad that screenplays that even have a semblance of “jokes” or “situational comedy” they automatically include it in the comedy genre, when in reality the true plot or events of the film, or inherently dramatic.
“Defining” the comedy genre, and its films is not an easy feat. Every year Hollywood rolls out with a slew of B-comedies, with recycled jokes and recycled actors, that occasionally have box office success, but never achieves anything more than single digits on their Rotten Tomatoes scores (a online website that generates reviews from the nation’s top film critics to assess a film’s quality and caliber). While they are all defined in the comedy genre on their Wikipedia page, these film’s similarities (lackluster scripts, two-dimensional characters, or the stand-up comedians turned directors) would leave you to think that is what makes a comedy film a comedy film. But these shared flaws aren’t what makes a comedy film, but what makes a comedy, a comedy comes down to the humor and experience of the viewer. The experience shouldn’t be “heavy.” It should be light and enjoyable. While there are successful “tragic-comedies” and other sub comedies that manage to walk this line successfully, typically films that attempt to combine this genre with the “heavier” elements of other genres don’t succeed on the comedic level as much as the classic comedies do. This is perhaps why so many producers veer away from comedies. They’re not easy to execute well, and it’s hard to elicit the emotion necessary to make a good comedy.
Defining “good comedy” is even harder. Of course, it’s hard to argue that the bathroom scene in Jack and Jill is “good comedy.” But ironically there’s a rather much similar scene in the much-lauded 2009 film Bridesmaids. The scenes are extremely similar in their nature, yet Jack and Jill has a horrifying 7% on Rotten Tomatoes to Bridesmaids 94%. There is no simple answer to why something funny, is funnier than something else. It’s multiple different things. It’s the preservation of the quality of the comedy. It’s the light-hearted feeling the audience should have when leaving the theater, yet still having the feeling that they were taught something new and exciting. But the easiest definition to define it as is that comedy comes down to joy. Good comedy will elicit pure joy in its audience. Wikipedia’s definition of a “comedy film” is “a movie that is intended to make an audience laugh.” Laughter comes from joy. All the different types of comedy (screwball, slapstick, verbal) creates joy for the audience, which should end in conditioning laughter from the audience. Laughter comes from happiness, which comes from joy, which (should) come from an excellent comedic film. When comedy films fail, it happens for two reasons: 1) joy is not elicited 2) joy is sacrificed in order for intelligence (Unfortunately, it’s more often than not that it’s our insatiable need to find intelligence that causes bad comedies). If the audience feels like his brain was stretched or overexpanded, comedy isn’t created. It doesn’t mean it can’t be an amazing film (Her, Wag the Dog). But it can’t be included in the comedy genre. It’s not like they don’t have their own category. It’s Dramedy. Just not comedy. Comedy is comedy. Not dramedy. So as long as a comedy film preserves its quality, joy is elicited and doesn’t ask too much from its audience, a good comedy is formed. And this is why the bathroom scene in Bridesmaids is much better than its counterpart in Jack and Jill. Bridesmaids hold its quality as it doesn’t focus on sound effects, and gross visuals to tell its story. It elicits joy from an audience who can relate to the bloated girls. Yet doesn’t cause its audience to think too long or hard about what they’re watching. This is good and excellent comedy.

Bridesmaids (5/10) Movie CLIP – Jack and Jill – Bathroom Scene
Food Poisoning (2011) HD

Early on “The Oscars” (slang for the Academy Awards) nominated across all genres. Some of the earliest Best Picture winners and nominees were historical laugh-out-loud comedies. The 7th Academy Awards saw the hilarious screwball comedy “It Happened One Night” dominate the awards show, winning “The Big 5” (Picture, Director, Actress, Actor, and Screenplay) a feat only achieved by the 1975 psychological drama “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and the 1991 horror film “The Silence of The Lambs.” After that, the award ceremonies saw decades of historically lauded comedies being represented – 1938’s You Can’t Take It with You, 1944’s Going My Way, 1953’s Roman Holiday, 1959’s Some Like It Hot, 1960’s The Apartment, 1963’s Tom Jones, 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, 1969’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid all won the most Oscars of each of its respective years. Those comedies were something that would be completely foreign at the ceremonies that came afterward. The next 15 years would see a depressing and dark turn for the Oscars with the only comedy film winning anything was Annie Hall in 1977 (albeit that being somewhat of a darker film than the true comedies Charlie Chapman imagined). The last “true comedy” the Academy Awards saw represented was the 1983 ceremony where Tootsie represented with 10 nominations and 2 wins and Terms of Endearment which won Best Picture. Since then, the Oscars have had 207 nominees for best picture, but only a measly 30 of them have been in the comedy or sub-comedy genres. In fact, there have been 13 ceremonies without a single nomination going to a comedy film, including 5 straight dark years from 1989-1993.

Figuring out what the recent downfall of the AMPAS is rather complicated. Many claim that it’s because of that lack of original comedy films that are made in general. A trend The AMPAS has seen recently is a lot less original films then the adapted films. With less original stories and comedy being more difficult to write, it would make sense there would be a smaller pool for the voters to choose from. But this is unfortunately not true: 6 of the 90s years, and all ten of the 2000’s saw more comedies made than dramas. Just because they are adaptations, sequels, and prequels should not ruin their Oscar chances. Others credit the lack of comedic representation to a lessening of quality (I mean it’s hard to argue that one of Adam Sandler’s film will ever win an Oscar). But this just isn’t true. There have been lots of fantastic comedies passed over for subpar “Oscar bait” dramas. In 2012 The Oscars saw 8 of its 9 nominees for Best Picture being of the dramatic genre, excluding of one of the greatest films of all time, Kristin Wiig’s brilliant screwball comedy Bridesmaids (Which had a higher Rotten Tomatoes score with 90% than 7 of the other nominees, notably Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s disappointing score of 41%). Same with such acclaimed comedies as 1998’s The Big Lebowski, 1999’s Election and South Park, 2003’s School Of Rock, 2004’s Shawn of the Dead, 2007’s Superbad, and 2012’s Crazy Stupid Love. All hilarious classic comedic films that had higher critical acclaimed than the films that were nominated and won at The Academy Awards in their respective year. So it’s not the content that’s the problem. The reason there has been a stark lack of comedy at the Oscars and other awards ceremonies is that The AMPAS have grown “too good” for comedy films. The Academy Awards are respected: black and white suits, elegant gowns, late nights of good poster and elegant speeches, and very little dialogue that reaches above a couple octaves. How would it look if the Best Picture nominees included a clip of Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious, albeit lewd, scene of defecting in a wedding dress? South Park’s record-setting one swear word per 20 seconds? Or Steve Carell’s fall into Ryan Gosling’s crotch? It doesn’t matter if these are some of the funniest scenes, in some of the best films of all time, the voters hold a certain pride in their ceremony that could all be risked by the inclusion of “The Dude.” The AMPAS president once called Oscar night the most prestigious night in America, and that same dignity the ceremony drives the barrier it built to keep out 20th-century comedies from the winner’s circle. They built a dignity and pride that has turned into an intolerable circle that is prejudice to all things comedic.

But even the ones that are nominated from the comedy genre, aren’t really comedy films. Birdman competed at the Golden Globes in the comedy genre (and eventually won the best picture at the Oscars), but despite a few dark humor moments the majority of the plot is about rather unfunny topics such as a failed career, heroin addiction, and ends with a gruesome suicide. Her was nominated in 2012, but no one left that theater laughing. Even Little Miss Sunshine, which has some of the best laugh-out-loud scenes in film history, had a lot more depressing scenes than the funny ones. In 2002 Jack Nicholson won The Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Comedy and Musical for his film About Schmidt, and accepted it by famously saying how “I didn’t realize we made a comedy.” While About Schmidt is listed as a drama-comedy on Wikipedia, it clear there’s more drama in that film. It seems like after the 70s the successful “classic comedy” was replaced by dark humor and this affluent, but confusing “dramedy” (i mean Adaptation is a fantastic film but isn’t it just 4 different films combined?). David O’ Russell became known throughout the 2010s Oscar ceremonies for his “comedies” that were really just dramas with comedically known actors (adding Bradley Cooper to a film about beating one’s cheating spouse to death shouldn’t automatically allow you to compete in the comedy awards at the Golden Globes). Another thing that films have to be if they want to compete at the awards circuit today is a lot smarter than the classic comedies of the first half of the 20th century. The comedies that win at the Oscars are so sophisticated in its humor, that even the concept of jokes has been thrown out for the writer’s room for comedic “scenarios”. Filmmakers don’t even attempt at the classic “witty-dialogue” anymore but have opted out for road trips, mental illness, and millionaire money heists to get their audience to laugh. Filmmakers who dream of winning an Oscar need to humor Harvard Ph.D. professors, instead of the common audience. This is why so many Hollywood producers who wish to win Oscar’s veer away from comedies today. They are so hard to achieve success now that The AMPAS has set up this barrier that we won’t be seeing any of the critically darling comedic films released August-December anytime soon.

The past Oscar ceremonies have seen mixed critical reception and fast dropping viewership. This year it saw the lowest viewership since the 80s. If the Oscars wish to succeed more than its current state it should take a hint from The Tonys. During the 90s the annual play and musical awards saw low viewership and little public care. In response to this, they began performing scenes from their musicals and plays – specifically, the most well-liked ones and began making the awards show something fun and enjoyable for the audience. It became interactive and joyful for the audience, and in turn, the annual Tony Award see the highest viewership and critical appreciation than most of the other awards shows. If the Academy wants to achieve this they need to do the same: stop making the show a formality and a bore, and make it fun and interactive. Recently The Oscar ceremonies have included some movie-musical performances, and look backs at famous movies, which has definitely helped the entertainment factor. But if they really want success they need to honor the movies that the common viewer watches. If Deadpool was nominated this year over perennial “Oscar bait” Florence Foster Jenkins, and Fences, The Oscars would have no doubt saw better viewership. The Academy needs to realize that the ceremony isn’t about them, but it’s about the audience and consumer that watches their film, and by nominating the films that the audience watches and WANTS to watch, then maybe one day The Oscars will see better viewership and higher buzz comes the award season.

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Comedy at the Oscars