Imagine Mel Brooks directing Strindberg. Or Groucho, Chico and Harpo playing the Brothers Karamazov. Or Kevin Smith announcing an all-slacker version of “Gotterdammerung,” replete with spear-carrying convenience store clerks and bong-sucking Valkyries.
Horrible. Extreme. But, like good science fiction, not all that divorced from plausible reality. Because with the admirable exceptions of Brooks, Smith and the Marxes, it’s commonplace in American comedy that the people making you laugh would really like to make you cry.
Jerry Lewis has gotten serious (“The King of Comedy”); Jim Carrey has gotten serious (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”); Robin Williams has gotten way too serious (pick a movie); way back when, Jackie Gleason got serious — in “Gigot,” which was bad, and “The Hustler,” which was good.
The latest manifestation of this phenomenon arrives in theaters Friday, as Judd Apatow, perhaps the most successful American director, producer and writer of film comedy today, embraces sobriety: “Funny People” stars Adam Sandler (who got serious already, in “Punch-Drunk Love”), as a stand-up comedian who thinks he’s going to die — not just on stage, but from an incurable disease. Sounds about as hilarious as Sarah Silverman playing Hedda Gabler.
Still, Apatow — who in his various creative capacities can be given the credit (or blame) for “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” “Pineapple Express,” “Step Brothers,” “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” — is suddenly not kidding.
What gives? Apatow told The Wall Street Journal’s Lauren A.E. Schuker that he’s “run out of topics,” and maybe that’s true: He’s made movies about adolescence, virginity, romance, pregnancy, Caribbean vacations and NASCAR racing (as a producer of “Talladega Nights”). But it’s also true that Hollywood imposes on comedians and comedic filmmakers a pronouncedly second-class citizenship. For a town that believes in a lot of the wrong things for the wrong reasons — for instance, that “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is a good movie, simply because it’s made nearly $400 million — it takes itself very seriously. And seriousness, it seems, is not about making people laugh.
It certainly doesn’t win you Oscars. The last bona fide comedy to be named best picture was “Annie Hall” in 1977. Not even Charles Chaplin ever won a competitive Oscar. Will Smith may be a huge star, but he knows perfectly well he’ll never get an Academy Award doing funny stuff (which is why he makes screamingly unfunny stuff like “Seven Pounds”). “As Good As It Gets” (1997) might have qualified as a comedy, but it’s hard to recall best actress winner Helen Hunt adding much to life’s mirth and merriment.
So if you live in Hollywood and have an inferiority complex, you’re probably a riot at parties. But what you want is the validation. The statuettes. A theater named after you. Things that don’t seem to happen to funny people. Rodney Dangerfield used to complain about not getting any respect. He might have been talking about the entire brotherhood (and sisterhood) of humor.
The evil twin to this compulsion for esteem is the all-too-common tendency to regard the thing that we do — however well we do it — as never being enough. A security guard who wants to be a police officer is one thing. Paul McCartney is another: Perhaps the greatest pop songwriter of the 20th century, he feels compelled to write classically inflected oratorios. On a level less grand, Carla Bruni — world-class model, and France’s first lady — insists on being a pop singer; so do Bruce Willis and Kevin Bacon. Michael Jordan, during one of his retirements, tried to be a baseball player.
It’s hard to figure whether all this is about egomania or inferiority: Are the most accomplished among the unfulfilled by what they do? Or do they just think they can do anything?
The egoless artist is an oxymoron; for high-achievers, exploration and diversification are, perhaps, natural. But so is a perverse desire to follow an artistic Peter Principle — rising to the level of one’s own incompetence. It was hard to look at Lance Armstrong conceding the Tour de France last week and not realize that the only thing that could ever stop the man was defeat. In America particularly, success has to be repeatable, lest one risk being dismissed as a failure. And so, perfection is pursued until failure is achieved.
Is that what Apatow’s doing? The qualities of “Funny People” may be less interesting than what the effort represents. And how it makes fans feel. The case of Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris” is a classic example: In 1923, Chaplin was free of his earlier contractual obligations, was the biggest star in the world and could do anything he wanted. Did he make the greatest comedy ever made? No, he made a drama, one with a moral and a message; a good movie, but not what was expected by his fans, who rejected it outright.
The audience for Apatow films is young, raunchy and attracted by rude humor. A movie about mortality doesn’t seem like the best way into their hearts.
Directors who have gone off the comedy rails, successfully and otherwise.
CHARLES CHAPLIN — His comedies made him the idol of millions, but Chaplin’s first film for the fledgling United Artists — and his first box-office failure — was the serious drama “A Woman of Paris” (1923), starring his then-favorite actress Edna Purviance. As biographer David Robinson wrote, Chaplin’s fans weren’t interested in him as a great artist. “They liked him because he was funny.”
LEO MCCAREY — Too versatile to be pigeonholed, McCarey nonetheless directed some of the funniest movies ever made — “Duck Soup,” “The Awful Truth” and “Ruggles of Red Gap” among them. In 1937, however, he made “Make Way for Tomorrow,” about an elderly couple split up because none of their children will take them both in. “It would make a stone cry,” said Orson Welles.
PRESTON STURGES — The prodigiously gifted writer-director of sophisticated ‘40s comedies (“The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story” “Sullivan’s Travels”) followed up his classic “Hail the Conquering Hero” with “The Great Moment,” a maudlin biopic about anesthesia pioneer W.T.G. Morton. When “Moment” was included in the Sturges box set released a few years ago, the reaction of most critics was “Whaaa?”
WOODY ALLEN — Apparently smitten with Ingmar Bergman and Anton Chekhov, America’s foremost comedy director segued from the Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” to “Interiors,” the somber tale of sisters dealing with the breakup of their parents’ marriage. “Interiors” created a sort of parallel Allen oeuvre, to which he later added “September” and “Another Woman.”
THE COEN BROTHERS — As dark as some of their films had been (“Blood Simple,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Miller’s Crossing”), Joel and Ethan Coen essentially were comedy filmmakers — at least until “No Country for Old Men,” a film with pure darkness at its heart. The film won the best picture Oscar (and others) for 2007.