The film The Interview starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, is the latest expression of a genre which, given the nature of its conventions, was bound to spark an “incident” eventually. Another example of this genre, where the fallout has been more horrific, is the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
What the film and the magazine have in common is that they conform — one directly, the other more obliquely — to the buddy comedy.
The buddy comedy requires that two (or sometimes more) men behave like unruly, rambunctious boys. If you look at the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, you see a buddy comedy in operation, one that has lasted for almost fifty years. In America, comparable examples are MAD Magazine and the now defunct National Lampoon. All were created by adolescent boys who continued cracking their jokes and drawing their cartoons as they became men and, indeed, old men — as the sad pictures of the victims of the massacre at the French magazine make clear.
Judd Apatow, the producer-director who helped launch the recent spate of buddy comedy films, has a repertory group of boy-men, much as Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, had such a staff. Seth Rogen, who directed The Interview, began his career under Apatow’s tutelage.
Although buddy comedy has thrived in recent years, it is part of a long tradition. Shakespeare may be responsible for its birth when he created the scenes between Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, part I. Vaudeville, film, and television have since brought us such classic duos as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. High culture has usurped it via Beckett whose Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot were inspired by Laurel and Hardy. But ultimately, buddy comedy belongs, irredeemably and unabashedly, to low culture.
Buddy comedy stands in contrast to the Western, where the hero is generally solo and taciturn. It is also the flip side of domestic narrative (the so-called chick lit or chick flick)that relies on the “two-suitor convention”: two men competing for the hand of the heroine. One could say that buddy comedy is to chick lit as the drawing room in a Jane Austen novel is to the “town” that lies outside it and where her male characters disappear for extended and often unexplained periods. One could also imagine it as the place where the rival suitors become buddies, channeling their competition into another form. Think Mr. Darcy in his cups with Mr. Wickham, engaging in a belching contest.
Actually, you can’t imagine such a thing — which explains why the two genres are profoundly incompatible. It also explains why the genre tends to be polarizing — one either likes it or one doesn’t, with the taste unsurprisingly dividing along gender lines.
There are, however, exceptions. I know men who will not, under compulsion, see aHangover film, and women, who find such films “cathartic” (as I do, in occasional doses). In this sense, buddy comedy moves beyond gender to issues of decorum. One could say that it gives release to the damped down id and the chance to carouse with other ids, set loose from bondage. That these released ids tend to be male says something about how the unconscious has traditionally been gender-coded (id, male; super-ego, female). But as gender identities shift and blur, this coding may be coming undone — the subject of a recent article by Maureen Dowd who, unfortunately, did not plumb it too deeply.
Competition between men is inherent to the species, with food and sex being the original focus. But in advanced society, the biological aspect fades in importance while the basic dynamic remains. Competition now takes the form of play, play that, lacking the traditional end of one man killing the other, escalates into ever-new, more extreme forms. Buddy comedy embodies such escalating, playful competition. This escalation, which can be seen as increasing vulgarity, can in this context be seen as an increasing distance from the primal state. And it can involve a change in the shape of the genre itself (which can include, on occasion, the replacement of male buddies by female ones, re: Dowd).
Here in a nutshell is the evolution to date:
The most basic form of buddy comedy is non-narrative stand-up: two comedians playing off each other in a vaudeville-style act. Think of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”, which relies on coordinated timing and mounting frustration between the buddies as the verbal antics increase.
Next, is a curtailed narrative, a kind of extended business: Laurel and Hardy’s 1932 film,The Music Box, for example, in which the buddies carry a piano up a hill (or rather, fail to do so). This mini-narrative serves mostly as a vehicle for escalating physical hijacks in the service of a simplistic storyline — the comic pratfall run amok.
From physical antics, the genre moves into the more extended narrative of thebildungsroman or “novel of growing up.” An especially pure example is Apatow’s film,Knocked Up, in which a young man, played by Rogen, deeply embedded in vulgarly comic buddy relationships, accidentally gets a young woman pregnant and must come to terms with her decision to keep the baby. He first balks at any commitment, unwilling to sacrifice the visceral joys of male camaraderie, but eventually embraces an adult role. In the end, he leaves his buddies behind and takes his place as a responsible member of society — a gainfully employed, faithful husband and doting father.
The different forms of buddy comedy outlined above are not necessarily sequential. We see elements of the bildungsroman buddy comedy in Henry IV, Shakespeare being always ahead of his time. Hal will have to outgrow his relationship to Falstaff –indeed, will be obliged to publicly repudiate it — in order to become King. By the same token, the recent Hangover films seem to be throwbacks to physically-based mini-narratives à la Laurel and Hardy, but with grosser antics. Samuel Beckett was playing off the non-narrative phase of buddy comedy in Waiting for Godot, where the absence of an overarching narrative became the philosophical point.
Still, the genre had its greatest evolutionary advance as a result of its affiliation with narrative film. The lengthier format, the expectations of a large audience, and the availability of screenwriters and directors eager to exercise their imaginations have all contributed to moving into more and more elaborated and controversial terrain. The fact that Charlie Hebdo, a small circulation magazine, managed to arouse such a powerful reaction is incongruous in this respect; magazines nowadays are generally not the conveyors of cutting edge material, and, if they are, are unlikely to be widely read. The only explanation here is that the Muslim terrorists reacted to what they happened to notice, and that, in France, printed material continues to carry weight.
Rogen and Franco’s last two films, This is the End and The Interview, are more in keeping with the sorts of vehicles we would expect to spark controversy. They have pushed beyond the bildungsroman plot of most buddy comedy to encompass issues of wider scope, even as the comedy itself continues to be more extreme and ridiculous. These films are, in their knuckle-headed way, social critiques. Even the stars themselves have escalated in their personas outside the film to embrace more high-profile roles. Rogen is now not only a director and producer but also a political pundit. Franco has fashioned himself into a driven intellectual overachiever, amassing degrees and writing books, even as he plays numbskulls on screen. (It could be said that Franco is engaged in a manic buddy comedy with himself).
In This is the End, the characters confront, in over-the-top comic terms, the arrival of the apocalypse. The film makes Christianity its farcical target much the way Charlie Hebdo made Islam its target. It must be noted, however, that for all its irreverence, there is a nugget of sentimentality and ethical sobriety lurking in the film that conforms to the bildungsroman phase of buddy comedy; i.e. only bad people get whacked; the well-meaning knuckleheads are saved.
In the more recent film, The Interview, the focus is political — political by way of the personal. The filmmakers have opted to represent the North Korean head of state, Kim Jong-un in weirdly intimate terms, as a split persona — an effeminate, ingratiating personality who bonds with Franco’s goofily androgynous character, and a cold, autocratic killer — a combination that the 1999 movie South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, another buddy comedy, employed in its portrayal of Saddam Hussein (shown in a clingy homosexual affair with Satan). The Interview’s rendering of Kim Jong-un parodies the two aspects of the female character seen in so many buddy comedies: seductive lure and humorless disciplinarian. (Treating the head of state in this female-inflected way may have contributed to the film’s generating so much pushback from North Korea. )
Certainly, neither the filmmakers nor the studio that produced The Interview had foreseen the effect it would have on the target of its irreverence. In retrospect, they should have been more prepared. In a world where everything is accessible, where political and religious loyalties are fierce, and where a conception of genre is nonexistent among a large swath of the potential audience, the irreverence of buddy comedy is bound to be misunderstood in some quarters. One of the ironies of our connected world is that it is no longer possible to wave a flag and say: “It’s just a comedy.” Understanding what a comedy is and why it is not to be taken seriously are not comprehensible notions to some viewers. Hence, the eruption of violent retaliation.
By the same token, the extensive exposure to which such films are now subject means that a stupid comedy can have important social and political repercussions. In highlighting the horrors of a totalitarian regime, if admittedly in a very off-handed, foolish way, The Interview became both an exercise in free speech and a means of drawing attention to the plight of the North Korean people.
Am I giving this sort of film too much credit as a launching pad for social awareness and potential social change? I don’t think so when you consider the brouhaha caused by its release. It brought these issues to the attention of a wide, otherwise indifferent public, and precipitated a disruptive action on the part of a totalitarian government that required some kind of acknowledgment from us.
Such films take issues that may be repressed or off limits to normal discussion and give them play in a wide popular arena. They open us to genuine debate, even as their characters behave like fools. This may be the paradox of what is required for the acquisition of wisdom. Socrates was a great advocate for foolishness. If domestic comedy is about taming, buddy comedy is about letting things loose — at least for a while, before they can be reigned in and their characters given a place within the status quo. This is creative disruption in an unorthodox arena, one perhaps more wide-ranging in its potential effects than what we see happening in the world of business. For film has the advantage of being able to place its creative disruption into a narrative context that reigns it in. Moreover, the incorporation of an implicit moral element, the continued vestige of the bildungsroman plot, operates even in the midst of vulgar mayhem.
It remains to be seen what the next buddy comedy — and its stars — will do to press the limits of the genre. And what sort of response this may have in a world more dangerous but also more connected than ever before. It may all depend on whether we can help teach diverse populations to have a sense of humor. And if we can do that we will have gone a long way toward world peace. • 25 March 2015