A long-time comedy writer once told me that one of the greatest crimes most modern hacks commit is that they fail to adaquately enhance their jokes by writing against character or using situation to their advantage.
One example where one can clearly see this is a simple comparison using two famous nudity scenes. The first is the “nudist camp” scene from the classic A Shot in the Dark starring Peter Sellers and directed by Blake Edwards. The second is the nudity motif in the Austin Powers movies starring Mike Myers.
In the former, Inspector Closeau – a comicly stiff, proud, well-meaning aboveboard Frenchman – is forced to track his suspect into a nudist compound. At first, he does not even understand what the place is as a naked guitar-playing man stops him from entering with his clothes. He of course protests but to no avail. As he nervously walks around the compound, he covers himself with a floating raft. The nudist’s naughty bits are all cleverly covered as well – such is one of the absurdities of filmmaking with censorship. This upright man is forced to walk exposed through a compound of free-spirits; because he is forced by circumstance to do something opposite to his character, the humor of the nudity is enhanced and is sustained for a longer period.
Compare this to the popular motif in the Austin Powers movies where the main character and his female companion consistently move food, balloons, tea cups, and other items to humorously block their private parts. While blowing a balloon up to simulate an erection while nude is clever, it lacks the comic punch of the Sellers scene because Powers and his woman are there by their own free wills doing things entirely in character (Austin, being the raucus swinger that he is, relishes being naked). The humor reveals itself to be novelty.
This isn’t to say that the Austin Powers movies are horrible or not funny; generally speaking, they’re good pardoy, and Mike Myers is a very talented and funny individual. Rather, my point here is that too often modern comedy writers refuse to utilize the power of character and circumstance. Instead, far too many write strings of jokes and bits and then find a way to tie them into a possible plot. This is backwards writing, and it’s part of the reason the state of comedy is the way that it is.
Character humor is the reason so many comedies are still funny the third and fourth time you see them. A great example of this is the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. While it is no where near as funny as its most die-hard fans will tell you, the film has a solid story as a backbone that consistently puts characters in situations that woulnd’t be as funny with any other character. As you watch the film multiple times, the more you seem to understand the character and just what is so funny about what happens.
Two of their later comedies, O Brother Where Art Thou and The Ladykillers, are no where near as endearing because the story and characters simply don’t go mesh as well, though the characters are just as absurd. Is there any circumstantial reason for those five men to be working together in the Ladykillers? Not really, they were just chosen for their eccentricities.
O Borther, Where Art Thou? suffers from a rigid story. Since they chose to adapt The Odyssey/Ulysses to the 1930s south, they were limited as to what they could do. The characters are also weak and don’t seem to fit the story as well. Why is it funny that a fast-talking schemer winds up on a zany trip? What is funny about Tim Blake Nelson being an idiot? The trio just doesn’t work the same as Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi in The Big Lebowski.
The grand point here is that comedy is more than just eccentric characters or nudity or a string of jokes. Memorable comedy comes from a melding of absurd character and situation, which sadly too many of today’s comics willingly forget in their rush to be clever or vulgar.
Comedy is about more than just doing whatever is funny at the time. There is a craft, and the sooner writers understand this, the sooner we will have real humor again.