The Straight Dope

Go Back   Straight Dope Message Board > Main > Cafe Society

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
  #1  
Old 03-24-2009, 11:10 AM
Argent Towers Argent Towers is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2005
Has the definition of a "comedy" film changed since the 1970s?

I was recently thinking about how the posters, advertisements and taglines for movies - specifically "comedies" - in the 1970s seem to frequently be misleading. Either that, or what was considered a "comedy" back then is different from what is considered a "comedy" today. Here are some examples.

The film "Husbands" by John Cassavetes. Starring Peter Falk, Ben Gazarra and John Cassavetes. The tagline is "Husbands: A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom." This is the jovial poster for the film.

In reality, the tagline should be, "Husbands: Three belligerent drunks being extremely mean to everyone." Because that's basically what the movie consists of. It's a great movie, in my opinion - quite interesting, and very well-acted. But there is nothing remotely funny about it. In fact, it is extraordinarily depressing. NO audiences, today, would consider this to be a comedy if it was shown in the theaters. It would be considered a depressing drama, with a FEW funny scenes. And yet, in 1970, it was billed as a comedy.

Another example: The Heartbreak Kid, 1972, starring Charles Grodin and Cybil Shepherd. Billed as a "Romantic Comedy."

There is absolutely nothing romantic about this film whatsoever. Plot summary: charming sociopath dumps wife of three days on honeymoon to chase after blonde college girl. Sociopath cons girl's family into letting him marry girl. Characters are obviously unhappy and unfulfilled, even at the end of the movie. There are certainly a few funny moments - a FEW - but far from being a romantic comedy, I think if you took a girl to see this on a date, she would run screaming from your car as soon as you tried to kiss her afterwards. And still - by 1970s standards this was considered a romantic comedy.

"Goodbye, Columbus" - same deal. Depressing movie with depressing ending. Unlikable female lead, unfulfilling relationship, and plodding story. And yet the poster for the movie makes it look like the most jolly laugh-fest of all time.

Am I onto something here? Have the standards of "comedy" changed since the 1970s?

I figured out a long time ago, after watching many, many episodes of Starsky and Hutch with my dad, that the pacing of 1970s movies is about 1/4 the speed of the pacing of movies now, and that no modern audience would have the patience to sit through 60 minutes of Starsky and Hutch, an "action" show that featured at least 15 minutes of men in plaid suits sitting around in wood-paneled rooms talking and smoking cigarettes for every two minutes of "action." Is the same true of "comedy?" Did people in the 1970s simply expect to put up with a lot of dark, bleak, or boring material in a comedy film? The comedies today, by comparison, have some kind of gag every 60 seconds. They're real "laugh-a-minute" type films, generally.

What changed? Did audiences just get more impatient?
Reply With Quote
Advertisements  
  #2  
Old 03-24-2009, 11:32 AM
Beware of Doug Beware of Doug is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Nov 2004
Well, where to begin...First off, there isn't one kind of "comedy." There are fewer commercially viable kinds now, I think. But there never was just one.

This particular kind of dark, cynical, adult, but not overly hip or intellectual, movie comedy was a product of a certain time, social context, and point of view. Basically, the white, ethnic (strongly but not exclusively Jewish), educated middleclass that came into its own in the 60s and began feeling very conflicted and normless as the 70s came in. They could aspire, and express themselves, thanks to the 60s, but they didn't always find anything lasting and positive to express. Identity crisis was the order of the day - things are going to hell, nothing means nothing, but we have to do something, believe in something.

There was the sexual revolution to deal with too - again, not always positively at first. Grodin's seducer is taking advantage of a game where the rules are in the process of being rewritten, or might be thrown out entirely. The rules favor men, though, at this point. The protagonists of these stories are typically male, as well as ethnic. Women's identities, culturally, were still fighting their way out of the pre-feminist paradigm. They are not full "actors" in the dark comedies, but totems, like Shepherd's Gentile trophy girlfriend or Ali MacGraw's Jewish princess. The dark comedy in the 70s is about men - certainly not traditional men, but its drives and frustrations are male.

I'll leave it there, before I deconstruct things so far they fall apart. Anybody else?

Last edited by Beware of Doug; 03-24-2009 at 11:35 AM..
Reply With Quote
  #3  
Old 03-24-2009, 11:46 AM
Scumpup Scumpup is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2003
The 70's were not a good time in America. The Vietnam War and Watergate had pretty much destroyed everybody's faith in government. The economy was in a shambles. The Cold War was still in full bloom and it looked an awful lot like we were losing. Oil Embargoes. Trucker strikes. Heavy industry imploding. Social unrest. Forced bussing. The streets were awash in heroin. I could go on...
If you weren't around back then, it's easy to let re-runs of The Brady Bunch and other TV shows give you this grossly mistaken idea about what life was like at the time. Don't let the goofy looking fashions deceive you. The 70's were a grim and bleak time for a lot of Americans. It should be no surprise that the entertainment media of the time mirror that.

Last edited by Scumpup; 03-24-2009 at 11:47 AM..
Reply With Quote
  #4  
Old 03-24-2009, 11:54 AM
Vinyl Turnip Vinyl Turnip is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2002
Location: <--- <--- <---
Posts: 15,079
And yet, just when things were at their bleakest---what's that? A beacon of shining light on the horizon? Lo, the Archangel Reagan, come to dispel the darkness and return us to the grace of the Lord!

Or so the Legend goes...
Reply With Quote
  #5  
Old 03-24-2009, 12:16 PM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Apr 1999
Location: Schenectady, NY, USA
Posts: 35,713
Quote:
Originally Posted by Argent Towers View Post
Another example: The Heartbreak Kid, 1972, starring Charles Grodin and Cybil Shepherd. Billed as a "Romantic Comedy."

There is absolutely nothing romantic about this film whatsoever. Plot summary: charming sociopath dumps wife of three days on honeymoon to chase after blonde college girl. Sociopath cons girl's family into letting him marry girl. Characters are obviously unhappy and unfulfilled, even at the end of the movie. There are certainly a few funny moments - a FEW - but far from being a romantic comedy, I think if you took a girl to see this on a date, she would run screaming from your car as soon as you tried to kiss her afterwards. And still - by 1970s standards this was considered a romantic comedy.
The "romantic" was mean ironically. It is one of the funniest movies ever made, but you have to like black humor. The scene where Grodin explains everything to Eddie Albert is classic.

Also, Elaine May was superb at edgy comedy -- not in its current sense (violent and filled with fart jokes), but emotionally edgy. At her best, her comedy was both funny and very, very disturbing. You laugh, but then she pulls the rug out from under you and leaves you feeling ashamed at laughing. That's best shown in the "key lime pie" scene, where you start out laughing at Jeannie Berlin and, as it goes on, the laughter dies in your throat. Pure genius.

And despite the poster, Goodbye, Columbus was not marketed as a comedy. There are some funny bits, but it's primarily a drama.

I haven't seen Husbands, but here "comedy" was meant ironically.

The main difference between comedies (and other films) of that era was that they were made for an adult audience and assumed that people had brains. Nowadays, you aim your comedies for twelve-year-olds. There's nothing wrong it that, but the comedies like to hit the audience over the head with jokes instead of letting them arise from character.
__________________
"East is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does."
Purveyor of fine science fiction since 1982.
Reply With Quote
  #6  
Old 03-24-2009, 01:13 PM
ftg ftg is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Feb 2001
You know, based on the thread title I was expecting the complaint to go the other way. We wanted to watch something "light" a couple weeks ago and viewed "In Bruges" since it was listed as a comedy. Um, not so much.

As to the original "Heartbreak Kid", it had some great moments. My fave is the bride's whiny line about "the next 40 or 50 years". We still use that. (The awful remake also included it but it was delivered badly, like everything else.)
Reply With Quote
  #7  
Old 03-24-2009, 01:27 PM
MovieMogul MovieMogul is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Apr 2000
I think the OP is ignoring the elephant in the room--the movies as he described them would be impossible for a marketer to persuade people to attend. Pitch those plots to a random moviegoer and most of them would stay far, far away. Of course they're going to call these movies "comedies"; it's a classic publicity bait & switch, especially for a movie that, if you were telling the truth about it ("it's good but not exactly fun"), would be a very hard sell.
Reply With Quote
  #8  
Old 03-24-2009, 01:48 PM
pricciar pricciar is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Apr 1999
Not all of the comedies of the 70s were dark and bleak.

Young Frankenstien
Silent Movie
The Muppet Movie
Blazing Saddles
The Bad News Bears
Animal House
Every Which Way But Loose (maybe thats a little dark. Alcoholic orangutans and all)

to name a quick few. And, from what I remember these were all pretty much laugh a minute type dealies. Well, you are right things are more fast paced nowdays, so maybe laugh a 2 minute.

I think all of these would be considered comedies if they were released today. And, I think there are probably plenty of dark comedies that are around today.
Reply With Quote
  #9  
Old 03-24-2009, 01:49 PM
Little Nemo Little Nemo is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Dec 1999
Location: Western New York
Posts: 59,215
Quote:
Well, where to begin...First off, there isn't one kind of "comedy." There are fewer commercially viable kinds now, I think. But there never was just one.
Movies like the OP described still get made and still get marketed as comedies. Look at recent movies like Burn After Reading, Charlie Bartlett, Definitely, Maybe, Hamlet 2, Happy-Go-Lucky, Harold, How to Rob a Bank, In Bruges, Penelope, Rachel Getting Married, Sex and the City, Teeth, and Vicky Christina Barcelona - all of these were at least nominally comedies but none was a laugh-a-minute movie.
Reply With Quote
  #10  
Old 03-24-2009, 02:02 PM
Superfluous Parentheses Superfluous Parentheses is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Dec 2007
Quote:
Originally Posted by Argent Towers View Post
Either that, or what was considered a "comedy" back then is different from what is considered a "comedy" today.
Have you seen In Bruges?
Reply With Quote
  #11  
Old 03-26-2009, 03:31 AM
foolsguinea foolsguinea is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Jan 2000
Location: Tornado Alley
Posts: 10,473
Quote:
Originally Posted by Little Nemo View Post
Movies like the OP described still get made and still get marketed as comedies. Look at recent movies like....
It's been ten years, but I was deeply disappointed in The Object of My Affection. Or really, anything with Jennifer Aniston. Well, The Break-Up was OK.
Reply With Quote
Reply



Bookmarks

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -5. The time now is 05:45 AM.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2014, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@chicagoreader.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to: sdsubscriptions@chicagoreader.com.

Copyright 2013 Sun-Times Media, LLC.