To laugh or not to laugh: the subjectivity of comedy


Graphic of two people in a theater; one of them is laughing hysterically, while the other looks at them in disbelief.
Graphic of two people in a theater; one of them is laughing hysterically, while the other looks at them in disbelief.
Graphic by Kash Patel

A couple of weeks back, I went to see the film Easter Sunday. I very quickly learned that this was a mistake. Easter Sunday is a ”comedy” film starring ”comedian” Jo Koy. Now perhaps due to how I phrased the prior sentence, it’s evident that I did not find this movie funny. Indeed, I did not. However, note that I did not say that the film objectively wasn’t funny, only that I didn’t think it was. The audience I was with was cackling the whole time; you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone had thrown laughing gas into the theater. If the audience reaction is any indication, it would be fair to say that most people who see this movie would think it’s funny. If most people find Easter Sunday funny, perhaps it’s me who’s got it wrong. Does one of us have to be getting it wrong? 

Of all genres, I believe that comedy is the toughest one to pull off. Making a comedy that people find funny and want to rewatch is a herculean task. This becomes especially difficult when comedy snobs like me enter the picture. About 8/10 of the comedies that I see I don’t find funny, or at least not funny enough. Myself and other cinema blowhards have lambasted the Adam Sandler comedies, the Jumanji remakes, and the Minions movies among many others. Critique them as we may; it doesn’t change the fact that these films gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only are people watching them, people are loving them. So the question must be asked, why do my snobby comrades and I revile these sorts of comedies? 

To explain this, let’s use the example of one of the timeless classics; Airplane! (1980). Airplane! maintains a very specific tone throughout its runtime. The deliveries of jokes are always deadpan and dry. The film’s characters take themselves seriously despite the obviously absurd circumstances the film depicts. This juxtaposition makes it clear to the audience that they shouldn’t be taking the film seriously, thus making it easier for them to laugh. This isn’t to say that to be a successful comedy, the film must have a dry presentation, but finding ways not to take yourself too seriously is beneficial. Often when I’m watching something like Jumanji: The Next Level (2019), it feels like the jokes are being jammed down my throat by The Rock while he screams at me to laugh. It is very possible for comedies to take themselves too seriously, and when they do, it takes away from the entertainment. In Airplane! It feels like the movie doesn’t care if you laugh or not. In something like 2019’s Jumanji, it feels like the movie is begging you to laugh. 

There is also the question of effort. There’s an easy way to make jokes and a hard way. One of my favourite comedies is What We Do in the Shadows (2014) in which there was clear effort made with the jokes by taking vampire tropes and putting them in a realistic context. It expertly highlights the ridiculousness of said tropes, and through their clever use of mockumentry filmmaking are able to show the audience how funny the tropes can actually be. In contrast, a common feature of (for lack of a better word) low-brow humor is a reliance on slapstick, gross-out humor, and referential humor. On their own, these comedic techniques aren’t necessarily bad. However when I see them thrown into a film for cheap laughs, and it comprises the majority of ‘jokes’ told…, it comes off as lazy. 

With all of this being said, plenty of people will disagree with me. I’ve watched Airplane! and What We Do in the Shadows with many people who didn’t find them funny at all. Undoubtedly, what I consider lower-brow humor has persisted and become exponentially more successful than films that I consider humorous. Does this mean someone is wrong?  

In this kind of conversation, it’s easy to lose track of the subjectivity of comedy. There is no right sense of humor and  everyone will find different things funny. I may not have found Easter Sunday funny, but most of the audience seemed to love it. How could I say that they’re wrong for enjoying something which is completely subjective? I don’t try to dislike certain comedies, it’s just the reaction I have. A more rational reaction would be for me to feel envious of the audience members – they were able to enjoy something that I could not. Those audience members certainly aren’t wrong or stupid for enjoying it, they’re are merely lucky, and I am therefore unlucky for disliking it. It’s kind of funny when you think about it. 

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