“They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now.”
Whether or not you found that joke funny (for the record, it is), the actual setup to the joke is something that is so true when you look at the various forms of entertainment. If a child says they want to be a singer, no-one really bats and eyelid, but say you want to be a comedian, and people look at you as though you must be some kind of scumbag. A comedian? Couldn’t you be a chimney sweeper instead?
This kind of reaction is made doubly interesting when you consider just how emotive comedy is to the listener. If you watch a TV drama and you don’t like the performance, you might just think “I didn’t really like that show/performance,” but if it’s a comedian you don’t like, this brings in a whole other range of emotions. You’ll question how they even make a living when they’re “such a shit comedian”. The subjectivity of comedy is immense, and if a comedian doesn’t tickle your fancy, then woe betide them.
Rich Hall sums it up when he says people used to ask him “how did you end up being a comedian?” “End up?” he would retort, “you make it sound like I made a bad decision, a wrong turn.” And that’s what people think: you do comedy because you screwed your life up somewhere. Forget the fact that making people laugh is one of the hardest things you can do (trust me, I’ve tried it!), that doesn’t matter because you have clearly messed your life up. It’s a ridiculous way of thinking about comedy, something which a lot of people rely on to cheer their days up.
But this doesn’t just apply to the stand-up section of comedy, it also applies to the big screen. In 2009, The Hangover took over $270m at the box office, beating films like Star Trek1; it was the highest grossing R-rated (18 rated) comedy film; it had a 78% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (which means 78% of online critics liked it); it got 73% on metacritic (Inception only got 74%!). All of these are all pretty impressive, it did well at the box office, and the critics generally like it. So it got nominated for an Oscar, right? Wrong, of course it didn’t; the academy can’t be having a film that made you laugh in its Best Picture nominations. One of the nominations this year, The Blind Side, was actually rated worse on both metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes when compared to The Hangover.
It’s not like this was an isolated incident, either. In 2005, The Wedding Crashers had similar success to The Hangover, taking $205m at the box office, and 75% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The nominated films for Best Picture at the Oscars that year were, Million Dollar Baby (91%), The Aviator (88%), Finding Neverland (82%), Ray (81%), and Sideways (81%). And you’ll find this all throughout the history of the Oscars (Ghostbusters anyone?2).
So why is comedy always shunned like this? Is it snobbery? It could very well be, and it would go back to the medieval times when you had court jesters who were seen as one of the lowest of the low jobs you could have. For some reason, whether we’re aware of it or not, this kind of mentality, this snobbery, has stuck in society. It might not be as prominent as it was all those centuries ago, but you can still see it and it’s a shame.
Making a whole audience laugh is hard. It really is. Whether it’s a comedian up on stage, or movie goers in a cinema, it’s hard. Just remember, if you go to see a “chick flick” and it doesn’t make you cry, you don’t think ‘that film was rubbish,’ but if you go to a comedy and it doesn’t make you laugh, you will think ‘that film was rubbish.’ So when you do walk out of a gig/film that really made you laugh, just remember how much work was put into making you laugh.
1. You might try and discredit that source as it lists Avatar as having only taken $209m, do please remember that this is for 2009 and Avatar took a lot of its taking in 2010.
2. Ghostbusters did actually get nominated for 2 Oscars in 1985, but they were for visual effects and Ray Parker Jr’s legendary Ghostbusters song. It didn’t win either. But it didn’t get nominated for Best Picture. Extra trivia: Ghostbusters got a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 1985’s Best Picture, Out of Africa got just 63%!