Monday, September 28, 2009

Is Year One A Sign Of The Comedy Apocalypse?


Not long ago, my son and I sat down and watched Year One. I can't say I was too excited. I have yet to see Jack Black rise again to his High Fidelity glory and because of that I've been disappointed with movie after movie in which he stars. I will admit that over the years School of Rock has grown on me, though. As the opening credits rolled, I saw Harold Ramis' name pop up as a writer, and so I thought "well, how bad can this be? Harold Ramis is a wonderful comedy writer." And then I saw Harold Ramis' name pop up as director, and so I thought "well shit, this is going to be good. Minus a Multiplicity and a Bedazzled, Harold Ramis is a wonderful comedy director."

And so I watched. And I laughed. And I laughed some more. And for the most part, I thought Year One was a very nice surprise. Certainly worth watching again to make sure the first time wasn't a fluke. Michael Cera continues to play up his boyish charms and Jack Black was pretty good. No one played against type, but they played "type" very well.

But here's the rub. Harold Ramis has always been known for smart comedy. Let me 'splain. There has been a shift in comedy and I won't even add the phrase "as of late" because it's been going on for quite some time. And that shift in comedy is that there's funny in idiocy. There's comfort and comedy in knowing that as an audience member, you're smarter than most everyone on the screen. Dumb and Dumber of course took this to new cinematic heights. And then there was Adam Sandler. And Ben Stiller. And of course Will Ferrell. And in little doses, that's funny. Billy Madison is funny. And Ron Burgundy is funny. But when that's all that' gets served up, it gets a little unfunny. One can't help but think back to Chevy Chase in Caddyshack, or Fletch. The humor was that he was always the smartest one in the room, even if he wasn't literally the smartest one in the room. Or Otter of Animal House. Or Bill Murray in Meatballs and Stripes and Groundhog Day. Certainly not the sharpest pencils in the pack, but the comedy never came at their expense.

And when you look at that list, Harold Ramis is responsible for most of it. He wrote Meatballs, Animal House and Caddyshack (which he also directed) and Stripes and Groundhog Day (also director). But now with Year One, he has written and directed a movie about cavemen, the lowest end of the evolutionary chain.

I think it's safe to say that with Ramis' resume, he is one of the best comedy writers of our time. And he has gotten to be that way by making us laugh because the main characters made everyone else look stupid. Not the other way around.

So what am I to make of all of this? Is this Ramis giving up and giving in? Is this his commentary on the state of comedy a la Idiocracy? Or maybe, just maybe, in the land of dumb comedies, this is the one-eyed dumb comedy that could be King.

14 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Piper: Good post, and interesting question. Given the comedy trend you cite, maybe Ramis is giving in (which might be different than giving up). What you don't mention, but easily could have, is that against the current comedy landscape the Apatow films have been praised for being "adult," despite being packed with some of the most base and sophomoric humor around (funny though it often is).

The only counter I would make in respect to Year One is that its funniest jokes might be at the expense of stupid characters but require some kind of smarts from the audience. Do we really think in this day and age that the target audience for this movie knows its Old Testament? Granted, you can get the gist of the jokes even if you've never cracked a Bible. And when in doubt the film has the delivery of Black and Cera to fall back on. But the more you know the Bible and history, the more enjoyable this comedy is, I believe.

So maybe it's not quite as dumb as it seems? Just a thought. Great post.

J.D. said...

If I'm not mistaken Ramis' previous directorial effort THE ICE HARVEST was not a commercial success (it was a smart, underrated mix of comedy and drama) and so maybe he felt that he should make something more accessible, more of a crowd-pleaser this time out. Which is too bad because as you pointed out, he's written and/or directed some of the best, smartest comedies out there. To be fair I haven't seen YEAR ONE yet. The ads kinda put me off but I really should get around to seeing it.

PIPER said...

Jason,

Yeah, I missed on Apatow's work. It seems with his stuff, he's trying to find a happy medium. But my problem with his work is that because he works with so many improv comedians, his movies feel disjointed. He takes you on weird little side stories less to support the arc and more to support the funny. My problem with Apatow, other than he can't seem to edit himself, is that in reality no one really talks like that. There may be moments of sophomoric humor, but not as commonplace has he makes them. So he plays in a strange world where, like you said, he wants to be more "adult" which to me equals "real" and yet he can't completely give-up the easy con.

And you're right about having to know your bible and history to get some of these jokes. It's a bit Python-esque from that standpoint. And although Ramis has tested the dumb comedy waters, he certainly hasn't submerged himself, which I'm glad to see. I think it would be impossible for him to go full dumb.

PIPER said...

J.D.

You're correct. I have not seen The Ice Harvest, even though it stars one of my friends as the corrupt policeman, but I understood it to be a tad dark. This might be Ramis saying, okay I'll go back to more of what I know. And I was with you that the trailers certainly didn't do anything for me, but the film is pretty funny.

Emily Blake said...

Multiplicity is an awesome movie.

More Michael Keaton=more awesomeness. Unless it's White Noise.

Greg said...

um...

it's October.

PIPER said...

You'll get nothing from me this October. I've had no time. You'll have to find lesser sites that go by the name of... oh you know what I'm talking about.

I'm glad you commented. I've been meaning to visit. I'll do it now.

Greg said...

but...

you're the crazy clown. I mean, busy? Whatever. I want my killer clown.

Greg said...

um...

it's still October.

Also...

cheap wow gold. Just saying.

elgringo said...

I watched Multiplicity this morning...

elgringo said...

Oh, I forgot to mention, one time I watched Groundhog's Day with Ramis commentary. He spent the entire time pointing out Bill Murray's coat and letting us know that that coat is currently in his closet...because he took it from the set. HOLLYWOOD CRAZINESS! And if you remember the plot of that movie, he got to tell that coat story over...and over...and over again.

Fletch said...

I saw Evil Clown and thought Bizarro month was upon us. This post added evidence to that thought, though I've not seen Year One.

Turns out I was wrong, though. *sigh*

EVIL CLOWN said...

Fletch,

Do you think for one moment that Bizarro Days would come and go without you knowing it?

NEVER. And let me grab this vase and smash it to the ground to emphasize my point. NEVER!!!!!!!

You will know my friend. And it will be soon.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

BEDAZZLED WAS GOOD. I WILL HEAR NO EVIL WORDS AGAINST IT.

Well...maybe not "good," but I liked it as a teenager. I wonder why.