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.


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.

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.

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