Humor may be relative, but it’s not accidental. Comedy has to be crafted, and to craft something is to understand its construction. But knowing how comedy works can often ruin the joke, and that may be why so many comedians are miserable and why so many movies about comedy are depressing.
That doesn’t stop people from producing movies that break down comedy, as is evidenced in two new documentaries that explore the makings and makers of humorous entertainment. Misery Loves Comedy features interviews with everyone who is anyone primarily to discuss the titular subject of funny people being unhappy people. Live From New York, which just opened the Tribeca Film Festival, looks at the 40-year success of Saturday Night Live, breaking down everything from the art of impersonation to the significance of political satire.
Neither doc goes deep enough to lose the laughter, likely because keeping things light means keeping the audience happy. But if you’re interested in learning about and analyzing humor more than you’re interested in having a good time, here are 10 more movies, fiction and nonfiction, that deconstruct comedy.
Deconstruction of comedy doesn’t have to be humorless, of course. This documentary directed by stand-up comedian Paul Provenza is hilarious, no matter your taste or sense of humor, provided that you can appreciate a dirty joke. The movie presents at least 100 acts performing the same filthy bit in their own way, be it mime or prop comedy or self-deprecation or whatever. It’s all just a long reiteration of the saying that it’s not the joke but how it’s told that makes it funny. Well, it’s also not the reiteration but how it’s reiterated that makes this doc so wonderful.
Fans of Jerry Seinfeld were easily disappointed by this documentary’s serious approach to a year in the life and work of both the famous stand-up and TV star and a lesser-known comedian named Orny Adams, who is just starting out. Because Seinfeld at the time was returning to the stage with all new material, a lot of the film deals with the process of developing jokes and seeing what works and what doesn’t and the attempt to understand why. Presumably this doc has discouraged many prospective comedians who thought it might be a fun and easy job.
This drama about a stand-up comic on the rise and a novice attempting to break in to the business stars Tom Hanks in an early role proving he could handle the serious as well as the funny. Sally Field plays the middle-aged housewife and mother whom he takes under his wing, and in his showing her the ropes the movie shows us what kinds of personalities and jokes work for the profession. When there’s failure on stage, it can be terribly uncomfortable, for the audience at the comedy club as well as for the audience of this movie.
This documentary actually addresses, by way of stand-up comic Dave Attell, the fact that all documentaries about stand-up comedy are depressing. Ironically, it’s not all that miserable itself, relative to the others. There is a good deal of complaining about the job and the audiences from major talents like Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman. But there are also comedians who, sometimes humorously, lay out the basic, mathematical ingredients of joke writing and joke telling, in case anyone watching still wants to do this kind of work.
Mike Celestino’s documentary tackles the subject of taboos and comedy and looks at where performers and writers have managed to veer into controversy throughout history. It’s really a subjective essay film on the material with focus on the lines that have been broken, for better or worse, concluding that it’s mostly for better. A lot of the doc is an illustrative reiteration of the saying that comedy is tragedy plus time, but its central point is that anything goes in comedy, as an art form.
Albert Brooks tries to teeter the line with this comedy, but that line is what’s funny rather than what’s provocative. In addition to writing and directing the movie, he also stars as “himself” in the satirical story of the United States attempting to learn what Muslims find funny in order to better connect with them. The concept of humor in other cultures is one worthy of exploration, but Brooks’s attempt to make comedy out of the idea rather than finding it there is not the best approach.
Fans of alternative stand-up comics are likely to prefer the 2005 doc The Comedians of Comedy for pure laughs, but this more recent, um, alternative, offers better variety in its representation of the hip new trends in the business. It also has some interesting discussions of what “alternative” comedy even means and the boundaries being broken by acts that fall under that label as far as what all constitutes comedy these days.
Back when he was on MTV’s The State, David Wain starred in a sketch explaining what is and what isn’t funny. From there, he’s gone on to make movies that also deconstruct humor, such as this one starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler that tackles the romantic comedy genre. They Came Together is a great example of the difficulty of spoofing comedy because it can just come off as the very thing it’s spoofing, with awkward meta self-reflection.
To a degree, Jerry Lewis has been deconstructing comedy with his movies for decades. This one, though, directly deals with performers and how they are or are not funny. Lewis stars as a veteran comic whose son, played by Oliver Platt, tries doing stand-up and fails miserably. The world-famous father claims that funny people are just intrinsically funny, that it’s in their bones. Throughout the movie, we see acts and hear ideas about comedy that may make the case of that not being exactly true.
The most brilliant movie to deconstruct comedy is an animated short. This classic Chuck Jones-directed installment of the Merrie Melodies series of cartoons is also likely the earliest instance for most of us to have seen genre and form broken down in such a way. The short stars Daffy Duck (voiced by Mel Blanc) as a self-aware character being tormented by his creator, an off-screen animator. More than any of its exploration of visual and sound effects gags, however, it’s the reveal of that animator’s identity that provides the greatest comedic payoff, one that requires no deconstruction to appreciate.
Christopher Campbell is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and the founder of the documentary review website Nonfics. He holds a Master’s degree in cinema studies from NYU.