The Problem with Evaluating Comedy


Currently I am reading Steve Seidman’s book, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film.  For my purposes, the book is invaluable.  In all my reading, I was continually on the lookout for small pieces of information that could be instructive.  Tips on how things are done.  Each tip was a clue.  Any of them might spark and idea or a direction, or solve a problem.  It’s about collecting tools and materials for artists to work with.  I have read a great many books on the topic of comedy, and it is interesting how many different approaches are taken. In the introduction to his book, Seidman makes some observations about how other writers treat comedy, and I find those observations to be thought provoking.  Here is a quote to get the discussion started:

This study intends to avoid the tendencies of this literature; it is not based on a validation of my personal tastes or my subjective conception of morality.  If the reader is looking for a list of the “best” comedies, the “funniest” comedians, or praise for the most “human” the most “meaningful,” most “significant” “statements” about society and human values to be found in certain films, then he or she will be disappointed.

The idea here is to take an objective look at the art of comedy.  Rather than try to explain why something is funny (an effort that is often unsatisfactory), Seidman’s book makes an effort to create meaningful terms to describe the sub-genre he calls “comedian comedy.”  (I will probably go into more detail about that in another post.)  By creating these terms, he is able to explain how different comedians are similar.  By understanding their similarities, it is then possible to open up new ways to discuss comedy, and, for us, to create new comedic characters.

In one well known book about animation, the author dismissed Buster Keaton as inferior to Charlie Chaplin because Chaplin’s work had more emotion.  I wonder if a young reader would take that statement, and avoid Keaton in favor of the “superior” Chaplin.  What a loss that would be!  As a fan of Keaton, I did not support that concept.   I am constantly on the look out for new physical comedians to observe. Other authors dismiss Chaplin because his work can be overly sentimental, so it’s all opinion anyway.  In my book, Comedy for Animators, I tried to focus simply on them as individuals, and avoided qualifying either as “better.”  Traveling down the road of judging which comedian is funnier could lead to a sort of tournament bracketology.  You start with a whole field of competitors, and narrow them down by pairs until you have a “champion.”  And what is to be gained by that?  How does that help animators to understand the vast potential of comedy.  Continuing with the sports metaphor, a newspaper sports writer has unlimited opinions and judgements about a team’s performance, but they probably would make a bad coach.

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