When Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in 412 B.C., the Peloponnesian War was in full swing and Athens was facing its inevitable demise. This much lauded comedy not only provided some levity and respite for war-weary Athenians, it offered powerful commentary on a male dominated culture in which women held no political power or sway. The idea that the women of Greece would devise a scheme to put an end to war and bring about peace by withholding sex from their men was perceived as absurd, outrageous, and farcical at best. Aristophanes pitted one primal instinct against another and in the end our baser instincts won. Not only did the men surrender under such torturous circumstances, but the women began to buckle too. In reality, Sparta won the war and Athens was decimated. But in the face of impending destruction, Aristophanes offered up a few bright moments and gave his fellow citizens pause for thought.
Comedy has always mirrored the times we live in and prods us to examine every aspect and nuance of our being. It neutralizes our most embarrassing moments and allows us to dissect our insecurities, phobias, anxieties, and idiosyncrasies. The very nature of existence can leave us feeling vulnerable, awkward, and utterly incompetent. We need some kind of vehicle through which we can sort out our ontological dilemma. Comedy saves us from ourselves and tries to help us make sense of a world that is perplexing, frustrating, and often difficult to comprehend. It helps us to frame and reframe all of the events and situations we find ourselves in. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, each other, and the absurdities of life then how can we possibly get by? Whether slapstick, visual comedy, farce, satire, parody, anecdotal humor, or black comedy, laughter is one of our most powerful agents for change, healing, and self-actualization. Comedy translates across all mediums and reaches the widest range of human experience.
During the turn of the twentieth century, waves of immigrants poured into America and were forced to live and work in harsh and squalid conditions. Enter Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and The Keystone Cops. Much of slapstick was derived from vaudeville and burlesque and these visual gags were popular and essential bits in the silent screen era. Physical comedy and hi jinks along with deadpan expression transcended the absence of sound and cut across language barriers. Funny stories and routines were told through the use of the human body, and physical expression was not only key to comedic performances of that era but much of today’s performances as well. As talkies took over the film world, slapstick and visual comedy merged with brilliant wordplay by giants such as Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and The Marx Brothers. Combined, they left us treasures such as City Lights, The Great Dictator, Sons Of The Desert, Way Out West, The Naughty Nineties, Duck Soup, and A Night At The Opera. The wonderful interplay between all of these comedians is truly remarkable. Also notable is the hilarious interaction between Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx. Dumont always played the unsuspecting socialite caught in the midst of all these Marx Brothers’ schemes.
After the premiere of The Jazz Singer, America entered The Great Depression and during the ensuing years saw Prohibition, WWII, The Korean War, The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, The Sexual Revolution, Roe v. Wade, Watergate, The Gay Rights Movement, and the constant push and pull between conservatism and progressive agendas. Comedy not only serves to mirror the times but consistently challenges and questions those times by pushing up against society’s norms and mores. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner masterfully took on the issue of interracial marriage. M*A*S*H depicted our vociferous quest to maintain some semblance of sanity amidst the insanity of war. And Harold And Maude demolished all of our preconceived notions about life, love, aging, and death.
Perhaps there is no one better at tackling our unending obsession with death than Woody Allen. I can’t think of a more brilliant scene than the one from Hannah And Her Sisters in which Woody’s character, convinced that he is dying from a brain tumor the size of a basketball, gives Catholicism a try in an effort to save his soul. He enters the room with a brown shopping bag and pulls out a crucifix, a loaf of Wonder Bread, and a jar of mayonnaise. Of course no self-respecting Jew would ever eat mayo on Wonder Bread. Everyone knows its deli mustard on rye (or perhaps Russian dressing once in awhile).
Woody’s mastery of comedy is also evidenced by such masterpieces as Sleeper, Love And Death, and Annie Hall (my all time fave). I could probably write an entire article alone on Annie Hall because the dialogue is so funny and Woody uses so many techniques and devices to parody family, ethnicity, love, intimacy, psychology, cultural divergence, alienation, comedy, celebrity, and death, of course.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also touch on the comedy genius of Mel Brooks. Young Frankenstein never gets old. I could watch it over and over again and my stomach will hurt from laughter. This spoof on horror movies and monsters is unsurpassed and is undoubtedly one of the best comedies of all time. One would have to add The Producers to this list as well.
The Producers, along with Tootsie, and Bullets Over Broadway are fantastic comedies about acting, writing, and show business. Tootsie examines the lengths at which an actor will go to land a role and how he’s transformed in the process. Bullets Over Broadway shows us how far a writer will go to get his work produced and the zany group of actors that he’s forced to contend with. And The Producers is a marvel, mocking the unscrupulous practices and sleazy goings-on inside the world of show business. It also makes a compelling statement about the definition of art and what makes for good entertainment (more on this subject in a future article).
The Coen Brothers have put their own unique stamp on black comedy with movies such as The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man. Many of their plots involve kidnappings gone wrong, mistaken identities, crime, mystery, murder, corruption, conspiracies, secrecy, and greed. Their characters always grapple with questions of ethics and just behavior. In A Serious Man, the main character’s life begins to unravel seemingly out of nowhere. He goes from having a rather mundane and uneventful existence to losing his marriage, his home, his personal savings, and possibly his life. He’s confronted with his own morality. Should he take a bribe? He seeks solace from various rabbis who offer no answers or insights. Religion and morality are served up on a silver platter in this offbeat tale that challenges our perceptions and misconceptions about loyalty, fidelity, commitment, honesty, faith, the illusion of security, and personal reward.
As a writer, I have grown to appreciate how difficult it is to write good comedy. Watching the high-caliber performances in the above-mentioned movies by actors such as Tracy and Hepburn, Ruth Gordon, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Diane Keaton, John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Dustin Hoffman, Jeff Bridges, Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Woody himself give me an even greater appreciation for the art and talent that goes into great comedic acting.
With comedy, everything is on the table and nothing is off limits. Politics, religion, food, sports, fashion, health, entertainment, family, dating, relationships, love, sex, divorce, work, children, pets, travel, money, news, art, and death. I can find humor in almost every situation and this is why comedy is my chosen genre. The stressors in life can be enormous and everyone I know just wants to laugh. We need to go inside of our existential challenges and find the humor within them. We need to laugh in spite of our frailties, failures, and shortcomings. We need to laugh no matter what the externals bring- despite job losses, breakups, illness, and mounting bills. Laughter makes us stronger and helps us to maintain our perspective and not lose hope in the face of all things.
Stephen King once said, “Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.” Comedy allows us to be our imperfect selves in an imperfect world. It speaks to us, as if to say: “Go ahead, be awkward- inept even. Slip, and fall, but do get up again, and please keep trying.”
Writer-Director-Producer Lisa Meri formed Me Do Productions, LLC, a Massachusetts based film production company in the Spring of 2011. Lisa co-wrote the feature length comedy “4 Helens” with friend and writing partner Christian Clare in 2010. In 2011, Lisa wrote the feature length comedy “You Should Be So Lucky”, which she hopes to produce in the not too distant future. She is currently developing a third script, a feature length comedy that takes place in a nursing home.
Prior to forming Me Do Productions, Lisa formed her own music publishing company. She’s written and placed original music in a variety of commercial, film, and television productions. A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Lisa has produced a wide range of music for visual media. After years of working with major production companies, Lisa decided to form her own production company and focus her energy on developing original stories for the screen. Lisa also decided to write and produce independent narrative feature films because it’s much more stable and a lot more lucrative than a lifelong career in the music industry.
Be sure to check out Lisa’s prior FilmCourage.com article: