IntroductionWhat constitutes comedy and the comic is complex. Film comedy is frequently a genre hybrid.Comedy can be made as; ‘black comedy’ with a bleak sense of humour; it can be reliant uponslapstick, gags or sharp-edged satire; it may be parotic of other cinematic conventions.Comedies frequently rely far less than most other genres upon standardised narrative devices. Astudy of how the comedy genre operates throws the issue of narrative into sharp relief.DefinitionThe diversity of comic forms means that a single definition of comedy is insufficient. Thesignifier of laughter isn’t enough to define a film as a comedy. This is because comedy is widelyused in other genres for fleeting effects. Think of the rather deadpan comic aspects of theTerminator films for example. These effects are a feature of the films rather than the centralpurpose. The Terminator films can’t be defined as SF-comedy. The term ‘comic’ means theability to cause laughter. Even a real event can be comic. ‘Comedy’ is an aesthetic term with twodistinct meanings:The Oxford Concise Dictionary definition is: Stage-play of light, amusing and often satiricalcharacter, chiefly representing everyday life, & with happy ending The key meanings here are:‘amusing’ and ‘a happy ending’.Notably the word laughter isn’t mentioned in this definition although the expression ‘amusing’can be seen as a partial synonym for laughter but it expresses far more than this.Comedy and Comic ConventionsIn comedy note the importance of creating a happy ending and also the representation ofeveryday life which was normally concerned with the middle and lower orders of society.‘...comedy was for centuries the most appropriate genre for representing the lives, not of theruling classes, of those with extensive power, but of the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ orders of society,...whose manners behaviour and values were considered by their ‘betters’ to be either trivial, orvulgar or both’ (My emphasis: Neale & Krutnik, 1990: 11-12 ).A happy ending is a convention usually coexistent with other conventions, such as the constantgeneration of laughter through funny lines and situations. Where films have only brief funnymoments but with a happy end both the film’s concerns and the structure can be close to thegenre ‘we tend to think of as melodrama’ (Neale & Krutnik,199: 13). Under this criterion we canconsider Thelma and Louise and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) as melodrama crossing -over withscrewball comedies which are comedies about the battle of the sexes.The majority of comedy films can be seen as being genre hybrids, About a Boy (2002), The FullMonty, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting, Shallow Grave (1995) rangethrough a number of genre hybrid combinations from romantic comedies, to ‘black’ comedies.They have strong narratives as a vehicle for comic aspects. The stronger the narrative the morethe film takes on either multi-generic or hybrid generic aspects.Films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1978) are straight comedies. The longer-term successof this type of film relies upon the sophisticated use of a combination of comic conventions. Thisallows it to appeal to a wide audience base despite having a weak narrative and avoiding genre-
hybridity. Instead of being multi-generic or hybrid generic it utilises parody to raise a laughfrom a deliberate send-up of other cinematic conventions of representation particularly thehistorical heritage costume genre. It also uses political satire when for example King Arthur hasa political debate with the peasant’s collective. Black comedy is combined with slapstickhumour, simultaneously satirising the power of liberal democracies giving defiant people ‘achance to change their defiant position’ before being quite literally disarmed like the BlackKnight.Comedy and Comic Conventions in Cinema‘Comedy’ as an aesthetic term has two distinct kinds of meaning. It can refer to the genre as awhole. Alternatively it can refer to particular works - Some Like it hot. (1959).The use of the indefinite article ‘a’ tends to imply a narrative form; The TV sitcom the RoyalFamily is comedy rather than a comedy, because it is non-narrative being based upon acontinuous invariant location - the front room in front of the TV. This is a comedic form specificto broadcast media which can concentrate on series production.The generation of laughter can mark all forms as comedy. It can also mark all genres which leadto a considerable amount of genre hybridity. Hitchcock’s North by North West (1959) can beseen as a comedy-thriller for example.‘Comedy, however, seems especially suited to hybridization, in large part because the localforms responsible for the deliberate generation of laughter can be inserted at some point intomost other generic contexts without disturbing their conventions’ (My emphasis: Neale &Krutnik , 1990 : 18).SlapstickSlapstick is another mode of comedy that can be found in a very diverse range of forms. Theorigins of the term stem from a type of prop which were a pair of paddles to create a lot of noisewith minimum danger. This marked violent comic action of the kind to be found in pantomime,circus and ‘low’ forms of farce. The physical plus visual qualities of slapstick were crucial in theearly comedy of the silent period. Slapstick is valued for the populist foundation of its aesthetic.Slapstick is inappropriate and inadequate as a vehicle for romance or its fulfilment. It lacks a plotstructure that is capable of taking romance seriously. Narrative comedy can accommodateslapstick but the reverse isn’t the case.GagsThe term can apply to any kind of visual comic effect. They can involve a comic effect like a‘pratfall’ where somebody falls over. In Life is Beautiful (1998), perhaps the darkest of ‘blackcomedies’, Guido falls off his bike into Dora for example. At the beginning of the film there area variety of gags which lead the viewer to think that this is comedy which is pure farce as thebrakes fail leading the car past a reception for royalty. Gags can be a part of the narrative or elseentirely incidental to it. Thelma’s husband putting his feet in the pizza in Thelma and Louise forexample.ConclusionIt is important to differentiate between comic and comedy and it is also important to note thediffering forms of comedy which in more sophisticated products might all be present, which
lends appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is usually the case that stronger narratives are lessreliant upon slapstick styles of comedy and also that these comedic forms are more likely to bemarketed as a genre hybrid. In the next section there is a more detailed account of the ways inwhich narrative works to increase comic effects.