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Comedy has to be funny? Don’t make me laugh

Donald Clarke: Humour has forever been a tool for gutting the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in bigoted thinking. Do we really need to explain this?

What the hell is a comedy? The Greeks and the Romans said all you needed was a happy ending. Well, that rules out Woody Allen films such as Purple Rose of Cairo and (probably) Annie Hall. It rules in laugh-riots such as The Searchers and The Shawshank Redemption. It should have jokes all the way through? Well, a significant portion of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, possibly one of the best comedies ever made, concerns a woman attempting suicide at Christmas. So, no. But we can say we know a comedy when we see one. Right?

If the Golden Globe awards are good for anything – and that is in dispute – they are good for fuelling this perennial debate. Some inclusions in the “best comedy or musical” category are not worth even pondering. The folk behind Ridley Scott’s space yarn The Martian, the most startling winner of recent years, must have employed sorcery to get it included in that less competitive race. More interesting are the controversies surrounding Get Out, The Banshees of Inisherin and, this year, May December.

Those debates says a lot about how conservative audiences are in their willingness to stretch the definition even a nanometre beyond pratfalls and custard pies. It confirms too many people have not noticed that the grimmest of human conditions have, throughout the history of civilisation, been dissected through comedy. This column has no issue with any of those three films being called a comedy. Each is also something else. That is how culture works.

The most grating recurrent criticism is that to define a story involving a serious issue as a comedy is to suggest you find that issue in itself hilarious. There was a lot of this around the discussion of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017. Following the Globes nominations, one Briana Isaiah, writing in Odyssey, declared “the Golden Globes shouldn’t find racism to be funny”. One hardly knows where to begin. Peele, who teasingly referred to the satirical horror as a “documentary”, had, to this point, been writing and performing in sketches dealing with racism for years. Nobody objected.


When Mel Brooks literally danced around the rise of fascism in The Producers he was not arguing that fascism itself was hilarious. “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi Party!” Humour has forever been a tool for gutting the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in bigoted thinking. Do we really need to explain this?

There was some of this in the swooning at May December’s nomination for best musical or comedy this week. Todd Haynes’s brilliant film – named best of the year in The Irish Times – is loosely inspired by the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, an American schoolteacher who, after serving time for seducing a 12-year old student, spent 14 years married to the victim. “How you find a movie about grooming and abuse funny?” a typical X person fumed.

Again, nobody is finding those things inherently amusing, but Julianne Moore, working a knottily ironic script, certainly draws much clenched humour from the perpetrator’s creative self-delusions. “The label of comedy is often a trivial thing,” Jordan Peele said at the time of the Get Out dispute. “The real question is, what are you laughing at?” That is indeed the question. We are not here laughing at sexual abuse. We are laughing at the absurdity of human evasion. At our stubborn ability to hide from ourselves.

Peele is also right to squirm at the suggestion that comedy is fundamentally trivial. Uncle Vanya is a comedy. Twelfth Night is a comedy. Most pertinently, Waiting for Godot is a comedy. Nobody could reasonably deny that The Banshees of Inisherin – clearly in debt to Beckett – was full of jokes (whether you found them funny or not), but there was yet another round of sighing when that 2022 film was described as a comedy. There were arguments that no comedy could deal in such dark material. There were even arguments that is was anti-Irish to see it as a comedy (the notion being the characters were demeaned as trivial “micks”). “People whine that comedy doesn’t get enough respect,” Guy Lodge, critic for Variety, noted at the time. “And then when an intelligent, complex comedy is recognised as such, they complain that it doesn’t represent the genre.”

None of this helps with a definitive definition. But we can offer a few worthwhile notes. Comedies can deal with the most serious of social issues. To call something a comedy is not to demean that work. Comedies are not necessarily optimistic. You may flatly respond you found nothing funny in the three films discussed above. Fair enough. I found nothing funny in Sex Lives of the Potato Men. But I know what genre I’d class it as.