Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Humor, Movies 

What makes a comedy funny?

Let's compare two comedies, both directed by Frank Oz, and both with very high scores at IMDb.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of my favorite movies of all time. Hilarious, exciting, scheming, and with great acting performances by Steve Martin and Michael Caine.

It's about two con-men tricking women out of their money, and how their paths cross on the French riviera. It turns into a competition that has many unexpected twists, and a very surprising ending.

The other comedy is Death at a Funeral, which is about the craziness that can happen when family secrets are revealed at a stiff English funeral.

I found almost nothing funny about this movie, and this got me thinking about the subject of humor, and why people see it so differently.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels leads the viewer through a series of events which are cleverly put together, and where it is very hard to predict what will happen next. You laugh because it is outrageous, and it makes you uncomfortable, but somehow it all makes sense. It is as if the filmmakers figured out something clever that you never thought of before, and you can't help but laugh about how true it is.

This seems to be the core of humor; when the story takes you to a place where you are intrigued and embarrassed at the same time. If it is too plain and crude, where you can predict what will happen, it's simply not interesting. If it doesn't contain the spice of embarrassment it also falls flat. Death at a Funeral fails in both categories. The story line is completely predictable, and the scenes played out are only embarrassing for uptight English people. So it feels stupid on both accounts.

It is interesting to note that people use the labels "smart" and "stupid" on movies, and I think it very much applies, especially to comedies. So who are the people who give a stupid comedy a high rating? Are they stupid or simply different? I believe there is a case for saying that a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence, and that many (but not all) of the funniest people are also very smart. Their job is to think up things no one has thought of before, to make unusual mental connections between things in the world. This is the same business as scientists are in, however working on totally different subject matters.

However, making a joke difficult and convoluted almost always makes it less funny. Trying to impress the audience with a superior intelligence never works, and far too many people try. Instead, the real intelligence lies in how well crafted and universally understandable the joke is: finding the shortest and clearest way to lead the audience to a place where they suddenly are uncomfortable and fascinated at the same time.

I once dated a woman who could see nothing funny about this clip when Larry David tries to open a stubborn piece of plastic package:

I think I have watched it 50 times by now, and it still cracks me up with laughter. So I had a hard time respecting her. 

It is interesting how a sense of humor, or the lack of it, can make you judge people very strongly. I can easily accept that people appreciate different kinds of beauty, and for example rank a lineup of beautiful women differently. But when they don't see the humor in something I find hilarious, it is as if I have nothing in common with them; we're not even of the same species. So humor really sits in the core of the personality and how we perceive the world.

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