Competence in Comedy
As I mentioned yesterday, we’ve been watching Parks & Rec again, and it’s reminded me of something I observed the first time we were watching it. And it’s that you can still be funny while being competent.
I mean, I feel like this is something that we used to see a lot in comedies. Thinking of the 80s comedies we grew up with and love. Take a movie like Ghostbusters, made by a Saturday Night Live troupe, and if you had to pick a genre they were working in (which is hard with that movie), it’s comedy. But a competent one – they are right about the ghosts in the face of others disbelieving them. They successfully build the things they need to stop them. And yes, throughout, there are things we get to laugh at them about.
And it’s cool. Last year’s Ghostbusters was also a comedy, but it was a comedy that’s come after all these years in between…
Because I think for quite a while, incompetent was the thing in comedy. I’m thinking the 90s and beyond, with leads like Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. Or in ongoing series like the Scary Movie films and other (bad) parodies like that. I tended not to like these comedies (having not even seen several that are deemed the “best”), but it’s only in hindsight looking at them like this that it makes sense, that they make sense as a group.
Laughing at incompetence, at failure and things not going the right way, can be funny. But only for so long, only so much of it. It becomes the repeat gags, and that worked for, say, the Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello. They created or worked within the world of slapstick gags and the tropes of the genre. But I would also say that they did this so much better than these more recent comedies.
Finding funny situations in the middle of things going well, or people trying to have them go well – I feel like there’s so much more room there.
Let’s look at something that’s full of both – Looney Tunes. Many of the tropes of the comedies that came before made there way in. However, the joy of Bugs Bunny is how completely competent he is, and it plays beautifully off of characters like Daffy Duck (nearly as competent), or Elmer Fudd (nowhere near as competent). Some of the best moments are when Bugs ends up outplayed or outclassed – because it upset our expectation that Bugs always had the upper hand.
These moments or episodes are funny because they upset our expectations. The reverse, when it comes to incompetence comedy, is basically the idiot savant – a common enough character.
Bringing us first back around to the new Ghostbusters. The movie had an idiot (Chris Hemsworth), but he wasn’t a savant! Our savant sort of character was Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann, with her quirks and crazy inventions. We had scientists who, like in the original, were right about the ghosts despite society not believing them. And Leslie Jones, whose character in the trailers just seemed like a caricature, was actually good at her job and very knowledgeable about New York – which was what they needed.
But the movie also had a more modern feel to it, as a movie coming after this modern run of incompetent comedies. They made the two main male characters (Hemsworth, and the main villain) the main incompetents, which played into an entirely different narrative and isn’t my point here… And even the main villain pulls off most of his plan, despite generally being considered a bad villain.
Anyway, let’s round back to Parks & Rec. The show is funny but the characters are also all good at their jobs, like what they are doing, and live in a place that seems just utterly ridiculous. Nonetheless, their descriptions of Pawnee are generally much worse than the Pawnee we actually see in the episodes. It’s a group of normal-ish people with a slightly askew absurd bent. And it’s great.
Sure, the show also has a couple of incompetent characters – one close to the idiot savant trope, although mostly just idiot, in Andy Dwyer; the other being Gary/Jerry/Larry, who we find out just plays along and is clumsy perhaps, but is really just there for the paycheck and benefits, a commitment to public service, and to have time with his picturesque family. And with the 4th-wall breaking stares into the camera, or the overblown reactions to these characters, we just get to laugh along.
Do you like competence in comedy? Incompetence? What are your favorite examples of either? Let me know in the comments below!