All modern movie comedies can be divided roughly into two categories: character-driven and joke-driven. The first category includes movies like “Beverly Hills Cop, ” “Meet the Parents, ” “Manhattan” and “The Hangover”; the second includes movies like “Austin Powers, ” “Blazing Saddles, ” “Bananas” and “Airplane!” The primary distinction lies in their respective relationship to reality. In character-driven comedies, funny people say funny things and fall into funny situations, but it’s all contained within the realm of plausible realism; nothing absurd or unbelievable occurs. Joke-driven comedies, by contrast, start with the absurd and unbelievable and go from there. Their jokes burst the boundaries of realism; in fact, they’re often about bursting the boundaries of realism. Character-driven comedy is Meg Ryan loudly faking an orgasm in a deli and an old woman saying, “I’ll have what she’s having”; joke-driven comedy is a woman (in “Top Secret”) being asked to translate a conversation and saying, “I know a little German, ” then turning and waving at a midget in lederhosen.
Interesting idea. I first wondered if you can translate this to standup too. Like that great standup comedy is either character-driven/reality-based (Pryor, Birbigs, Patrice, Shillue) or joke-driven/absurdist (Hedberg, Demetri, Galifianakis, Steve Martin).
But that seems a bit too tidy to me. Especially since character-driven stuff still requires jokes in the mix. Also, punchlines often involve straining reality and heightening to absurdity. That's why they're surprising/funny.
Actually, it feels like a lot of great standup involves a hybrid of the two categories. Like how PFT starts off real and then voices a migrant laborer on "Impersonal." Or how Dangerfield is a defined character who tells reality bursting jokes about his parents/wife/doctor treating him like shit. Or how Bill Burr is a real dude who fantasizes about what it would be like to plow over 30 pedestrians in his car.