Friday, February 28, 2020

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Is This Funny? Navigating the Confusing Space of Ironic Reality


If you know me and read some of my articles, you know I am a big fan of Atlanta (two seasons on FX with more to come), and what makes that show so innovative and creative is that it's funny until it's painful. And when it becomes painful you realize that you stepped into a reality that is dark, ironic, and telling of our times. Recently, I've been asking myself: Is this funny? On purpose? And is this a means to access something darker, something realistic and fatal in the commentary?

I grew up loving slapstick comedy of Faulty TowersMonty Python, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase and because of these comical influences, we were kids who cited lines from movies. And from there we liked watching offbeat humor like The Young Ones and even Twin Peaks because it was strange, kind of funny, and scary all at the same time. These elements shaped my sense of humor (along with my family) and it made me look for the humor and the irony together in comedy. And sometimes, it wasn't all comedy, but there was enough silly or quirky parts to keep me invested. Eventually it brought about great movies like Fargo, Quentin Tarantino films, and other odd movies that were hyper real while being funny. We all remember Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs because no one wants to be Mr. Pink. And frankly this style of absurd humor and stark reality was also absorbed into David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk. Is it meant to be funny? 

Eventually, off beat movies like Fargo (billed as a black comedy thriller) would begin the absurdity of storytelling with hyper-real lives dealing with realistic and dark stories of murder and mayhem. Eventually, that would become a television show that lends itself to the same conceptual point. Some of these films and shows lend themselves to a comedic format and others feel like dramas with some humor sprinkled in. Is Pulp Fiction funny when two hit men blow off a guy’s head in the back of a car and have to have the cleaner come out and deal with their mishap? Marge Gunderson is funny as the police detective, not because she is telling jokes, but because of her character and her vision of policing in the Midwest. Is it funny?

And then Wes Anderson comes along and changes the way we see the world. His innovative style and creative flair changes the way we see things. In his "coming of age" film Moonrise Kingdom, he creates subtle and cartoonish elements to set his story into a brilliant narrative that is constantly in the hand of a creative visionary who sees scenes and setting as complicated and meaningful experiences. In my personal favorite, The Grand Budapest Hotel (comedy drama), we are taken on a journey that is both profoundly silly and stunning. And at times, you don't know what to think until you see the purpose and vision of this storyteller. Is it just damn quirky? Or is it funny? 


I find that I am constantly reading books that I don't find hilarious, but I think are humorous in the ironic sense of their circumstances. I rarely read and laugh out loud. But if you read The Black Obelisk by Erich Remarque and watch the complicated, funny, silly, and often sad vision of life after World War I, you get the sense that the world is crazy. The story and the vision of the lost generation after this carnage is both funny, endearing, and often down right sad. Which brings me to Jojo Rabbit which is billed as a comedy-drama. This film is complicated, endearing, and hard to watch. Is it funny, sometimes? Is it pushing back on the darkness? Yes. But I feel like I am struggling between the laughter and the stark reality of the film. Even Parasite (a black comedy thriller) had some funny parts to it that drew me in and kept me watching. But in the end, I didn't think the film was really that funny at all. It felt like a strange, twisted version of American Beauty, a drama on the notion of middle class values in America as they refocus beauty and materialism. Don't get me wrong, it was an interesting movie to watch, but it wasn't funny in terms of a comedy. But it was ironic. 

I go back to Atlanta (comedy-drama) and think: there are parts of this show that are funny. And that is why I watch it. I watch it like I love to watch Monty Python episodes to catch the lines, recall the skits (I would like to have an argument. No you don't.) and to see how they created that interconnection for me. There are a lot of cultural connections to Atlanta that I see all the time. But more important, there are also connections that were created in the show, like Teddy Perkins that was brilliant, kind of funny, and very creepy. The cast is funny, endearing, and they show you life through different lens, but there is a stark reality in the shows. Someone is killed by the police wearing Earn's jacket. Drugs, poverty, violence, and cultural misunderstanding. Allison Keene of Collider said, "Atlanta is a deeply specific portrait of a certain way of life, one that's often desperate but that's tempered - for our benefit - by a casual, sometimes even caustic humor." That caustic humor is where irony and social commentary linger. And in creating that broad emotional response to humor, we also have the response of gravity, the response of hitting bottom. 


The shows and films that I've been discussing fall into a hybrid mix of comedy and drama. As we see complex plots and stories evolve in the binge worthy world of streaming services, we also see hybrid version of the stories we are telling. These labels (genres) we use begin to shift and misrepresent the work. Atlanta is funny, sometimes,  Some of these stories lean heavy on the comedy or push hard the reality of the drama, but they are deepening the way we see good storytelling. In the world of books, some of the best conflicted labels that we've slapped on novels have been the most intriguing for me. And in thinking about the philosophical
adventure of Moby Dick (Herman Melville), or the picaresque A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole) have created slow to arrive visions of humor, irony, drama, and stories that emerge in our culture. This is now coming into the stories we see in video and film. When humor and drama blend and shift, we don't see one thing or one color, we see the complexity of our evolving vision and expression in the medium. Some of the best books and films are not clear, no funny, but not too serious. And that brings about this complex sense of humor along with a vision of irony and social commentary that is moving us forward. 



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