"I mean, isn’t it so stupid? I mean, l-look at all the people up there on the screen. You know, they're real funny, and, and what if the worst is true? What if there's no God, and you only go around once and that's it? Well, you know, don't you want to be part of the experience? You know, what the hell, it-i-it’s not all a drag."
Woody Allen from Hannah and Her Sisters
A partner in crime at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, recently suggested that I should address a relatively familiar (meaning it was probably two people who asked) question asking why we don't show more funny films.
Believe me, I want to show funny films. If I could, that's all we'd be showing. I've little patience for dark, humourless films (e.g. Lipsett Diaries, The Brothers Quays, Simon Pummell films). The problem, mon chums, is that I just don't think that most of you make funny films. The so-called funnies I see each year are predictable, unoriginal and, well, not very funny. Most jesters prefer tired visual gags, familiar scenarios and oh-so-familiar characters. It's paint by numbers ha has, made mostly by young animators who've barely been out of their computer, let alone parent's house. There are also older animators who keep churning out the same tired bits to audiences who never tire of seeing the same movie over and over. It aint edgy. It's all clean, inoffensive and tired and, NOT FUNNY (to me and my taste chums). Bill Plympton's films are not clean or particularly safe in many ways, but I just don't find them all that funny (at least not since Guard Dog - and even that ran out of steam). Arthur Metcalf's Bubblewrap is another film that comes to mind. It's not a bad film at all, but he put all his eggs in the bubblewrap and the result is mild amusement. It's not a film that you need to see again cause you got it all swallowed, digested and shit out in one go. The problem, as I see it, is that there are too many Jay Leno's of animation and not enough Louis C.K.s, Bill Burrs and Jim Nortons.
Want more examples of the types of comedies I'm talking about? Just look at the yearly Oscar animation short contenders. Most of the ha ha films aim for safe humour that is desperately trying to appeal to everyone (one of the most foolish goals of any human being...and one that reveals a thoroughly intolerant and narrow-minded view of humanity cause you, one person - or committee in some cases, have the temerity to think that YOU know what will please the majority of humanity. You GET the world, do ya?) In a recent Playboy interview, comedian Craig Ferguson slammed comedians who think they know what makes everyone laugh: "I'm always amazed when a writer pitches a joke and says, 'This will get a big laugh.' "Oh really? How the fuck do you know? Anybody who has worked in comedy for any length of time will tell you that the best case scenario is every joke has a shot."
Who am I to take this tone with you? Am I some kind of comedy expert? Well, yes, yes I am. I am in charge of what makes me laugh. Does the fact that I don't find, for example, Bubblewrap, Hot Dog, French Roast, A Matter of Loaf and Death to be funny films mean they aren't funny films? Of course not. Obviously MANY people find Bill Plympton's films funny. He's earned his audience. People forget that taste is subjective, especially when it comes to humour.
In fairness, it is HARD to write, comedy and harder to write something funny. Anyone can churn out a tragedy. In the book, And Here's the Kicker, writer, Buck Henry (Get Smart, The Graduate, To Die For) says, “It’s harder to make me laugh than it is to make me cry... Comedy is also harder to write. Things are either funny or they’re not. You can’t fake it with comedy.”
Back to the question of why we don't show funnier films, I'd argue that we show many funny films that, well, maybe you just don't find funny. It might be more accurate to ask, "why do you show so many dark films?". I can't really deny that, but I'd say that most of those "dark" films are often all incorporating a lot of humour, much of it black, satirical, absurd and surreal. Some of the sharpest films we've shown find their humour in dark, twisted spaces. Who I am and What I want (Chris Shepherd and David Shrigley) and any of Don Hertzfeldt's recent films (e.g. I am So Proud of You) take mental illness and fractured identities as their source, twisting painful humour from them. Anthony Hodgson's Hilary turns abandonment into a strangely funny and mesmerizing classic. Phil Mulloy's films are frequently scathing attacks on society's so-called "truths". Chris Hinton's Flux finds humour and tragedy in the cycle of life itself. Priit's Parn's 1895, Breakfast in the Grass and Hotel E along with Konstantin Bronzit's masterful, At The Ends of the Earth, manage to find humour in shifting political scenarios. Joanna Quinn's films (e.g. Body Beautiful, Dreams and Desires) find their humour in daily struggles with between gender, identity, body, and the workplace. Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, told an interviewer once, that "having to overcome unhappiness gives you a desire to manifest happiness just to get above your own darkness." All of these films unearth dark humour from scenarios and characters that could just as easily be labelled tragic.
The best comedy, for the most part, whether we're talking about The Marx Brothers (Duck Soup), Larry David, Buster Keaton, George Carlin, Mark Twain or Richard Pryor (has any comedian made greater comic use of their fuck-ups?), comes from dark places (although I will give you that absolutely absurd pieces like Monty Python's "Fish Slapping Dance" or the Hungarian animation short, Little Cow, a beautiful silly film by Igor Lazin about a cow sitting in a tree singing about being a cow sitting in a tree. Is there a more beautiful, exhilarating tribute to the joy of existence?), give me neverending and significantly insignificant laughs.
And isn’t that the great challenge of life? Like Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, we can look at our life's events as either tragic or comic. It's easy to take the miserable and cynical route when dealing with life's fuckyou moments, but what takes balls (and believe me I know) is getting through it, overcoming the unhappiness and finding a laugh in the darkness. I don't know that laughter is anymore braver than tears, but it's a hell of a lot more fun.