Comedy is fun, but most comedy movies and TV shows are not. Indeed, comedies as a genre seem to miss the mark more often than other genres. Why is this? Is it because humor is subjective? Yes, but I also think that a lot of comedies simply fail in concept: They don’t understand what a comedy is. There’s no excuse for this, because setting a side the finer points of literary criticism, a comedy is simply something with jokes. Unfortunately, comedies often try to pass things off as jokes that simply aren’t, hence the failure.
The infamous cinematic excrement produced by Seltzer and Friedberg are the most obvious examples. Their movies can pass without producing a single recognizable joke. But there are actually a great number of joke substitutes of various types, including the following.
It’s true: Humor can be offensive. That’s the nature of pushing social boundaries. It does not, however, follow that offensiveness is inherently funny. You still have to make a joke.
Examples: The Sarah Silverman Program is the ideal example of humor-by-offensiveness missing out on the humor part. Jokes on her show build up ponderously with poor payoffs, and sometimes protracted scenes take place where there is no apparent joke at all. Contrast with the excellent Community, where jokes are often piled on each other in a quick repartee, including throwaway jokes that the viewer doesn’t necessarily catch.
Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2007 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an interesting case. While the circumstances are priceless, his jokes are not actually very funny. All the humor derives from his insulting the administration to its face.
I’m getting the obvious stuff out of the way immediately. No one over the age of thirteen should find poop (or whatever bodily function or gross situation it happens to be) funny, and yet here it is, popping up with clock-like regularity in every bad comedy ever made. It can serve as a litmus test: Once there’s a gross-out joke, you know the movie or TV show you’re watching is going to suck.
Examples: Every movie that has ever made a poop joke. I refuse to link to one.
Destruction is perhaps the purest example of something else being used as a stand-in for a real joke. Breaking things isn’t particularly funny and there’s no reason it should be, but slapstick has trained us to read it as a joke. Unlike gross-outs, destruction sequences can appear in legitimately good comedies, but they’ll always be the weakest scene, the part where the writers couldn’t think of any real jokes to use.
Examples: Listen to the commentary of The Naked Gun and you’ll hear the director say “It’s just destruction anyway; it’s not that funny” during the requisite scene.
Fourth Wall Breaking
The line between comedy and farce can be drawn with surprising accuracy by the absence or presence of fourth-wall-breaking jokes. The fourth wall is broken any time the movie or TV show makes a nod to the fact that it is a movie or TV show by, for instance, intentionally showing part of the set, having the director step in, or having a character make a comment like “This isn’t in the script!” I am not picking on farce here; zany, nonsensical humor has its place. But breaking the fourth wall is rarely funny. The audience knows that it’s a movie and probably doesn’t find the fact inherently humorous.
Examples: Both Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights break the fourth wall, and in neither case does it feel like anything but filler. An even better example is the “Candlejack” sketch from Freakazoid. In the middle of a reasonably well-paced sketch, Freakazoid pops out of the set to thank the crew. Is this funny? No. Are kids going to find this funny? Definitely no. Hopefully it made the crew happy, because otherwise this scene serves no purpose whatsoever.
You may be surprised to see this on the list, since I previously defended sex jokes. But there’s a key distinction: Jokes about sex are fine, but sexual references are not jokes. Often they are just thrown in to carry a scene with no real humor value. The result may be mildly funny, but it will also feel lazy and hackneyed. Comedy without innuendo is forced to be more inventive and consequently funnier.
Examples: I find it striking how much funnier most episodes of the Muppets were than their concurrent episodes of classic Saturday Night Live. Partly SNL has aged poorly because of its culture references, but mostly it’s because the constant barrage of sex references just feels weary after a while. For instance, their Muppets parody segment “The Land of Gorch,” now hard to find, often fell flat because the Muppets were already funny, so the only parody there was to do was to make them swear and talk about sex.
The Muppets, with their all-ages audience, faced a greater challenge in writing jokes that were appropriate for everyone, and they constantly rose to it. None of their guests embodied the show’s spirit of innocent fun as well as John Denver, as seen in this sketch where Miss Piggy reduces him to tears of laughter.
Christopher Guest’s largely-unscripted films are another elucidating example. Best in Show features a lot of sexual humor, and the overall feel is that the actors just threw in a sex joke whenever they weren’t sure where to go with an improv bit. A Mighty Wind doesn’t include nearly as much innuendo, and it feels much more confident.
A historical in-joke is when, in a historical piece, something happens that is only funny because the viewer knows what is later going to happen. Most commonly, someone will say “This will never catch on!” when presented with something that would later become commonplace; it’s also common for someone to egregiously over- or underestimate what technology will be like in the present day. Unlike the other entries on this list, the historical in-joke is legitimately joke, but what a hackneyed one! There is nothing creative about it. Most of the time it isn’t even historically accurate. Nevertheless, it gets trotted out with a sense of obligation in practically every historical comedy, usually with no adornment.
Examples: By far the worst example is, of all things, The Passion of the Christ. The longest flashback in the entire film, longer than the Last Supper, is a scene of Jesus making a table and chairs and Mary saying “This will never catch on.” All I can say is, why?
In contrast, special credit must go to Look Around You. If you like dry British humor and aren’t already familiar with it, go acquaint yourself immediately. Its conceit is one of those dull kids’ science shows from the 70s, but it has the secondary conceit, which initially took me in, of being a parody show from the 70s. Would you guess that it was actually made in 2002? Probably not, because it avoided the obvious historical jokes. And, from that first bit of faulty BASIC code, it’s brilliant.
Is anything so insipid as a pop-culture reference? We have a sadly Pavlovian response to anything that we recognize. This results in the endless parade of sequels, remakes, and movie adaptations cashing in on our love of the familiar, and also in the equally endless references to popular culture. Mentioning a celebrity or current event is not a joke, and we shouldn’t respond to it like one.
Examples: Too many to mention, but Dreamworks’ contender for “worst movie ever,” Shark Tale, is particularly shameless. Look how many they cram into the trailer alone.
Okay, so any movie a kid sees a parent will have to sit through, too, so smart filmmakers make kids’ movies that also appeal to adults. Unfortunately, the most common tactic is just to throw in a joke that kids won’t get. The problem? It’s virtually always one of the types I’ve mentioned above, usually a pop-culture reference or an oblique innuendo. Good kids’ media comes up with jokes that everyone gets, rather than alternating stupid stuff for kids with stupid stuff for adults.
Examples: While well-regarded, Animaniacs and its 1990s Warner Brothers brethren suffer from this. It’s difficult to find a single full episode that doesn’t mention something, or more often someone, that kids won’t get. For that matter, young adults in the 90s wouldn’t have recognized many of the caricatures. Were they really expecting 10-year-olds to recognize The Agony and the Ecstasy?
And here it is. This one might be just me, but it’s also the inspiration for this entire list. Awkwardness. It isn’t a staple of farces or bad comedies—it can be found in highly acclaimed movies and TV shows. In fact, it’s rarely absent. Other people find this stuff funny, I suppose, but for me, awkwardness in film feels just like awkwardness in real life: I just want it to be over.
Examples: Everywhere, but The Office takes the cake as a show where awkwardness is the main motive force and the source of virtually all the attempted humor. This show does not deserve its audience or reputation.
You’ll notice that this list didn’t mention puns, the most deprecated of joke types. This is for two reasons: First, whether it’s good or not, a pun is at least a recognizable joke. Second, the hackneyed nature of so many puns is not inherent to puns, but due to their overuse. A really original pun, like the one at the end of this Scott Pilgrim clip, can still be a slam dunk.
Lest you think my assessment is too harsh, I’m not saying that no good comedy can feature any of these elements. No show or movie is going to feature start-to-finish brilliant, unique humor. But they are not jokes and should be recognized for the filler they are.