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What Is "Smart Comedy"?


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#1 Macks Fiiod

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Posted 22 November 2016 - 05:16 AM

I'll punch up scripts for guys every now and then and the clients will keep hitting me with the phrase "smart comedy", "I like smart comedy".

 

I just ignore it and tell them I'm in the business of "good comedy". However I've recently been trying to figure out what they mean (because I never get a clear cut answer).

 

Some would assume it's lack of profanity, but the "1000 Good Clean Jokes" books are like grade school level thinking.

Grade schoolers aren't smart. And I would assume something high brow needs to also be funny, so at that point it's just "smart words".

 

Then I think, maybe the audience is required to be smart in the sense of having a lot of prerequisite knowledge on a variety of things. However if your jokes are based on knowledge that teeters on uncommon, no one will get them. If no one gets your jokes you essentially suck.

 

What is SMART COMEDY, guys? What are some films which embody SMART COMEDY?

Open discussion let's do it thanks.

 

 


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#2 George Ebersole

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Posted 23 November 2016 - 12:41 AM

Smart comedy is smart comedy.  Example; "Zorro the Gay Blade" is a comedy about two brothers who follow in the footsteps of their father who was the actual Zorro in old Spanish ruled California and Mexico. 

 

There's no fart jokes, no groin kicking jokes, the sexual humor is tasteful with just the rightr amount of innuendo and a bit of silliness.

 

In simple terms it's tasteful. 

 

Compare that to some raunch comedy that someone mentioned here about a serial killer.  There's a shot where someone's being put through a wood chipper and their guts, blood and just gore are being spewed out the other side.

 

Why on Earth is that funny?  It isn't.  You've got to be really sick and perverted in the most sincerest way to think that's funny.

 

Smart comedy doesn't have to be about science or politics, though it can be.  Woody Allen in "Love and Death" tosses in a lot of old fashioned sight gags, but then makes fun of the intellectual elite with metaphysical debates between himself and Dianne Keaton's character. 

 

Smart comedy is tasteful and makes fun of all kinds of things without being base.

 

If you've been weened on Porky's or sexploitation films with a lot of jokes about human waste (feces and urine) and putting down people for their bodies, then I feel somewhat bad for you.  Not too much, because you took the low road out of peer pressure, thinking it was cool to include tasteless material into a humorous vein.

 

I'm glad old guard Hollywood has had to transform, because there really was a sort of "old boy's network" in some social circles that excluded good honest people who had taste, but were otherwise excluded for whatever reason, because old guard Hollywood, even though the government clamped down on them from getting nearly out of hand, made quality films with quality humor.  Fun films.

 

Now that nearly everyone's got a "video" camera of some sort on their person; phone, go-pro, or people like us with high end consumer or professional gear, you find absolute horrendous junk being uploaded everywhere.  So it's a little harder to get to good smart comedy, but it can be done.

 

It's all a matter of your personal character.


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#3 Macks Fiiod

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Posted 20 February 2017 - 10:54 AM

I forgot I made this thread.

 

I'm at a point where I've completely separated verbal vulgarity from physical vulgarity (like George mentioned before). To remove curse words removes dialect so it's at a point where I feel cursing isn't trying to be a punchline, but just certain words are needed to make dialogue sound real. It has the potential of helping a joke too, but that's not the main reason I use it.

 

I'm not six years old and think swearing started in 1997, but I've definitely noticed people born in the 70's and forward swear a lot more than people older than that.

I made this discovery by watching "last day of high school" tapes on Youtube and noticed the kids in the late 80's early 90's blurted out far less sadistic things. A typical statement of a 1990 tape would be "piss off ya dumbass" or something oddly tamed like that.

By the time I reached 1998, kids would start saying "I want to f***ing murder my math teacher and rape the whole school."

 

Maybe Grunge was a bad thing after all.


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#4 George Ebersole

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Posted 22 February 2017 - 02:45 AM

I shrug my shoulders at it now.  Early on I realized that not everyone was a connoisseur of comedy, in spite of all the classic comedies that were shown on TV during the 70s and on up through the late 80s.

 

These days anything goes, and to me it seems like people aren't any more civil than they were in past generations.  Films are used to inspire and set examples, and when you let the tasteless genie out of the bottle, you're going to get a kind of wish fulfillment from people who think all that kind of tasteless stuff is okay and normal.  

 

And that's just kind of the way things are.


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#5 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 22 February 2017 - 03:26 PM

I would assume 'smart comedy' refers to smart people bantering with witty dialogue, sardonic deadpan humor, irony, and more complex multi-layered setups to jokes.

Challenge the audience to keep up with the pace of the film and assume that they will get the tone, rather than hitting them over the head with obvious jokes. Construct complex characters with more nuanced motivations. Basically, make the audience feel smarter by not dumbing things down for them.

So more Woody Allen, Buster Keaton, 'Dr. Strangelove', and 'Robocop', and less 'Scary Movie' if that makes sense.
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#6 Macks Fiiod

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Posted 22 February 2017 - 04:17 PM

I agree that Scary Movie is not the smartest of comedy, but what I'd ask is; if you write something with the intention of exhibiting that challenging wittiness, and every joke goes over the audience's head, are they stupid or is the writer trash?

 

The majority of the time I don't get a laugh, it was because someone didn't get the joke, not because they got it but didn't find it funny. But regardless of that, wouldn't it still be up to the writer to make sure it isn't JUST for X or Y class of people?


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#7 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 22 February 2017 - 04:52 PM

I agree that Scary Movie is not the smartest of comedy, but what I'd ask is; if you write something with the intention of exhibiting that challenging wittiness, and every joke goes over the audience's head, are they stupid or is the writer trash?

 

The majority of the time I don't get a laugh, it was because someone didn't get the joke, not because they got it but didn't find it funny. But regardless of that, wouldn't it still be up to the writer to make sure it isn't JUST for X or Y class of people?

 

Maybe that example was too extreme, but I meant broad comedy films of that ilk. Mel Brooks (whose films I enjoy) would generally fall into the same category. Comedy is visceral and subjective, so you can't really have objective answers to these questions.

 

But I will say that in general when comedy works, it connects with a specific audience. Broad comedy will work for a larger audience but is generally considered 'dumber' or more common because it lacks sharp focus and seeks not to offend particular demographics. Think Jay Leno-era 'The Tonite Show.' Or someone slipping on a banana peel. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but I wouldn't call it 'smart comedy.'

 

Contrast that with Jon Stewart-era 'The Daily Show', which objectively has a much smaller demographic than 'The Tonite Show' because of it's sharp focus on American institutional hypocrisy. Within it's demographic, it was extremely popular and influential but I suspect that within politically conservative and establishment circles, most struggled to find anything funny about it. This is not a criticism of the material itself, but rather an observation that the creators of the show and these particular audiences are not connecting.

 

Ultimately, I think the best comedy comes from expressing one's deeply felt truths about the absurdities of life. And it's hard to deliver that material when you are limited by certain segments of your audience that just don't get it. To me, the best comedians and comedy writers are those who write unfiltered and let their audience find them.


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#8 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 22 February 2017 - 04:58 PM

Also, I've noticed that the best comedians work really, really hard to continually craft jokes that aren't landing. Always tweaking or trying to figure out how to make something personal connect with their audience. It really is a craft that takes many years to learn, just like filmmaking.


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#9 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 22 February 2017 - 05:09 PM

Lastly, there's a concept in comedy called 'punching up', where you focus the targets of your ridicule on the more powerful people in society. This is generally considered classier and thus funnier than 'punching down', or making fun of people who are weaker and less able to defend themselves. Broad comedy in general often punches down quite frequently, since it's easier and less risky. Something to keep in mind.


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#10 George Ebersole

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Posted 23 February 2017 - 04:51 AM

My first student film was a comedy about the world's worst hit-man.  It was inspired by my crew's student producer from the previous semester who put on a quick shtick with a squirt gun and trench coat.  The man was a natural closet comedian, so I wrote a treatment about him.

 

My friends were pretty good as actors, especially my lead who was (and still is) a natural comedic character actor.  The problem wasn't with the sight gags and slap stick, but his narration.  Student audiences, no matter how hip they are with what's in their cultural niche, don't have enough life experience to laugh at some of the more sophisticated jokes.  Some of the older people I showed it to thought it was decent.

 

And I think that's how audiences tend to break down, though I think I would add that the bar for sophistication has been tragically lowered over the decades.

 

One of my favorite comedies is "Kiss me Goodbye" with Sally Field, James Caan and Jeff Bridges.  That film came out when the average and mean age of the movie goer was around 35 or older.  

 

Compare that with a couple of films I saw a few years back; "What's your Number?" and "Our Idiot Brother".  "Our Idiot Brother" was the smarter of the two films, but even there the jokes skewed towards the edgy demographic with a lot of swearing.  "What's your Number?" was nearly all about raunch jokes about sex.  Not smart quips and truths, but a kind of "punching down".

 

To me it seems like the big comedic shift over the last 30 years has been from setting an example of appropriate and tasteful humor to the biggest audience, to catering to every taste (no matter how foul) by making films for niche audiences.  

 

I'll also add that the film demographic is now a comparative ghetto to the computer game industry, so Hollywood probably also feels it has to cater to juvenile or tasteless material to recapture younger audiences and recoup revenue lost to teenagers buying games.


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#11 George Ebersole

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Posted 23 February 2017 - 05:06 AM

I think I'd like to take a page out of Susuki's posts and add some more pertinent info; I was at DunDracon, a gaming convention, this past weekend, and I asked why there wasn't more support for games and support for current games didn't seem all that sophisticated as opposed to the 70s and 80s.  

 

The response I got was that "In case you hadn't noticed, this isn't the 70s or 80s.  There's simply no money in it."  I think the same can be said for movies, and specifically comedies.  Example; "9 to 5" (1980) with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton had sexual humor, but it wasn't oriented around body fluids or flashing nude bodies or put downs.  Compare that with "Teen Movie" where the shock value of the edge humor is the salespoint to the audience.  

 

I'm thinking that the studios believe that making good smart comedies is a risk with no or little return, because the marketing data shows that teens like tasteless jokes.  And yet if you look at the two most successful comedies in the 1990s, they were "Frasier" and "Seinfeld", and I guess more recently you can toss in "The Big Bang Theory".  Compare that with "Meet the Fokers" or "Get Hard".  The demographic dictates the comedy style.

 

I think the audiences today have different expectations because the studios think the audiences are different, but "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" have shown this not to be true.  And yet no one makes better comedies.

 

Oh well.


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#12 George Ebersole

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Posted 24 February 2017 - 11:47 AM

Macks Fiiod​; sorry to hijack your topic, but one of the reasons I went into film was that back in the late 80s I noticed that more and more tasteless humor was creeping into mainstream culture.  There's always been jokes with swearing, sexual jokes, even the racist joke that no one wants to admit to hearing or telling.  But in the mid 80s it really started to creep into mainstream television.

 

Well, okay, I thought to myself as a teenager and young man, you don't air Vegas shows unless it's on HBO or Showtime, where adults can appreciate sexual humor without damaging their young kids' development.  But it's like sitcoms aimed at families were next to sitcoms aimed at College and older audiences, and the bleed over in humor styling seemed real apparent.

 

It could be I was, as I am perhaps now, naïve when it comes to tasteful comedy in mainstream media, but it really got me fired up that you couldn't go to a theatre and see a good G-rated or PG-rated comedy that wasn't aimed strictly at kids.  In the mid to late 80s the topic of the large number of R-rated films made the news, and it bothered me.

 

No one was making the likes of "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" or some other well meaning, funny ​or at least entertaining film that could be enjoyed by everyone; the high school or college age couple, the family with two kids, the single dude and dudette, the older retired folks and young kids with an allowance to spend.  No one was making them anymore.  And they still don't make 'em. 

 

Science Fiction, my favorite genre, seemed to be the last genre holdout where you could experience that kind of film (though scifi had its share of sex and violence, even in the 80s).  It's like the majors were employing talented film makers who had no taste or no regard for taste, and so made films that they thought would help the audience vent social frustration (as films are aptly designed to do).

 

Right now I'm just a hobbyist (washed out loser, so to speak), and probably don't have the right to complain, but it's like I remember even the "sex comedies" I grew up with ... oh, something like "What's New Pussycat", could be viewed by kids because the sexual material would go over their heads.  

 

I guess I still get fired up about this topic, and some of it comes from my dissatisfaction that I'm not seeing good films with clean humor made these days.  And it can be done.  And used to be done.  What the criteria is for making any kind of film for commercial release, at least to me, has me baffled.  Ergo, I'm a hobbyist now, and not a grip, PA, AD, AC or whatever.


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#13 Samuel Berger

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Posted 27 November 2017 - 02:56 AM

I watch "Impractical Jokers" on Xfinity on demand, and while the show is always fun for me, the commercials for TruTV's other shows aren't. There isn't a single funny thing about the other shows. I guess in 2017 to be a comedian you don't have to actually be funny. It's odd how unfunny it all is, especially when airing next to "Impractical Jokers" which actually is hilarious.

 

It makes me wonder if programming directors are so desperate to fill time slots that they will put anything up there.


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