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No laughing matter, why do comedies get a tough wrap at awards season?


Why does nobody take comedy seriously? Why does everybody think it’s a joke? Those are not just questions that the late Leslie Nielsen might have been able to work with, or puzzlements that Jacques Tati could’ve lent some ‘tears of a clown’ pathos to; they are not even just passable titles for a comedian’s memoir – they are, in fact, very pertinent questions indeed. Why is it that comedy, no matter how beloved and well regarded, can never stand up to more reverential art forms?

Comedy is a cultural boon that helps bring comfort when we need it and offers simple indulgent joy in spiritually sunnier times. It is a precious addition to our dismal daily lives, and there is not a soul alive who isn’t thankful for its day-brightening simplicity amidst the cultural melee of grey. However, if there is someone out there who disagrees, then you have my pity and may the clowns of this world have mercy on your soul. 

As an adoring audience, we’re all more than happy to accept that comedy is a drug that takes great skill to administer effectively. However, whether it be Randy Newman’s brilliant satirical songs failing to capture the same esteem as Bob Dylan’s rather more obtrusively political verse; the wit and wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut’s literary sci-fi diminishing down to the simple, trite title of ‘quirky’ and dwarfed beneath giant tomes of sober Pulitzer approved acclaim, or the Oscars continually denying joyous performances adored by millions even a nomination nod alongside more typically poignant portrayals: comedy is always the silly younger sibling of the reverential deities in the gilded Parthenon of culture. And we want to know why?

The last fifty years’ worth of Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards can be broken down into the following (admittedly broad) categories: 29 dramas, 17 films based on real events, two sci-fi or fantasy, one musical and one comedy. The victorious comedy in question was Annie Hall in 1978, and the only drama with quasi comedic ties is American Beauty in 2000. When expressed in these numerical terms, it all seems quite ludicrous. Albeit an equally vital and surface counterpoint worth clinging to before we descend into the tempestuous rapids of academia is a truth that I can’t elucidate the fundamentals of in words, but there is almost no need to — imagine if you will, Coneheads beating Schindler’s List to Best Picture in 1993. 

Of course, that is a very extreme example, but the extremeness of the whole thing helps to illuminate that there is simply something inherently inconceivable about it. Needless to say, there is an element of the Oscars wanting to take themselves seriously and the historical ties of an artistic front, but this is underpinned by the undeniable reality that for some reason we adore laughter, but we do not venerate it. 

In terms of an academic explanation for this, the amount of research available is surprisingly slight. However, one interesting line of investigation may well have something to do with the science of laughter itself.

According to research from University College London, laughter is primarily a social behaviour. Therefore, you are 30 times more likely to laugh in a social environment than if you are on your own. The primary goal of a comedy movie is, of course, to make you laugh. This makes comedies ideal to be enjoyed in a movie theatre. Thereafter the audience spills out onto the street, discussing their favourite bits, and maybe a few of the gags even enter their social lexicon forevermore… and then, quite quickly, the movie is forgotten. 

Why is it forgotten about? Well, perhaps it is because we often imbue art with a spiritual edge on the insular level. Consequently, comedy misses out on this soulful embellishment due to its necessary social dimension. In short, we can enjoy art on a social level, but we usually process it introspectively. This relates to comedy movies because reviews from film critics are not penned by a committee immediately after the fact. Even reviews that never escape the private thoughts of the viewer are arrived at after scurrying away to some secluded corner where allegories, metaphors and philosophical depth can be probed at by both the conscious and subconscious mind. The gaudy goofball front and centre of comedies make them too luminous for this secluded corner where cognisance occurs and meaningful appraisal is arrived at. Therefore, comedies never even really enter the discussion; more so than pretence, they are laughed out of town by our own state of being. 

It would seem that even when a wealth of the metaphysical is present in comedy, it still gets shrouded out in the surface response of cacophonous social laughter. Take, for instance, The Big Lebowski; it’s a film with more than enough one-liner’s to be considered a comedy also has so much depth that it literally spawned a genuine religion. It is now rightly revered and loved by millions, but it lost out at the Oscars to Shakespeare in Love, a film that I would say was slept through by tens, but that would be cynical because I’ve never seen it — nobody has. 

The reason that The Big Lebowski lost out is that, upon release, it was a giant flop, and the only award of note that it won before rising from the ash heap of history and clambering into the gilded doldrums of ‘cult classic’ was an ‘Honourable Mention Award’ for Best Foreign Film at the Polish Filmmakers Critics Awards. For many, it would seem that the cerebral undertones were at ends with the screwball surface. It, therefore, existed as a failed stoner comedy and took a while to find the right audience to realise that one aspect actually complimented the other in a perfectly realised cinematic masterpiece. Still, for the reasons discussed above and a multitude of others, award-worthy wouldn’t be one of the first superlatives brought to mind.

Perhaps the most pertinent phrase in the argument postulated in the paragraph above is ‘the right audience’. While narrative seems to be something we can universally acknowledge, comedy is very socially specific. One group of people could mirthlessly sit through a comedy simply getting annoyed, while others could cackle like a clan of hyenas. Moreover, we make each other laugh all the time in real life. Thus the response to Oscar-snubbed epics like Bridesmaids is one of surface relatability, less lasting and affecting than a rare emphatic response of being made to cry. 

In the end, it would seem that there are a plethora of underpinning factors as to why comedy isn’t lauded at the Oscars — or in the wider world for that matter — and with the current lack of research into it, there are probably even more explanations awaiting discovery. It surely has some part to do with Oscars stiff-upper-lip and the desire not to be attached to something that dates badly, but also there is an undeniable truth that we just don’t take comedy quite as seriously.