Character-driven vs. joke-driven

From ‘The Hangover’ and the Age of the Jokeless Comedy:

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.

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2 Comment(s)

Blogger Matteson said...

Great Link. I don't agree with all of the author's conclusions, but I found the article a great read. I was disappointed in the Hangover 2, and this article struck a cord b/c 20 min into the movie I thought to myself "I haven't laughed - has there even been an attempted joke yet?" To me the biggest problem with the film was how joyless it felt, which was the opposite of the first, which I think has a direct correlation to stand up. The first hangover was a low budget affair made b/c everyone involved thought it would be funny. The second was made b/c everyone knew they could make a TON of money. Kind of like the difference between writing a joke to pander to the audience and one you truly think is funny. The pander joke may even work, but people truly paying attention will see the joylessness of it.

6/8/11, 7:03 PM  
Blogger Abbi Crutchfield said...

"The pander joke may even work, but people truly paying attention will see the joylessness of it."

Well said!

I didnt' see the Hangover 2. I thought they were warning me with the gritty, unsmiling, pee-colored ad that it would not cater to my Julia Roberts Massengil needs. Then again Bridesmaids was marketed as a pink, zany buddy comedy, and it turned out to be a coming-of-age tale of sad bastard proportions. I liked it by the way.

There are character-driven comedies based in absurdity. See: Eddie Murphy films.

6/9/11, 11:05 AM  


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