August 03, 2008

Stereotypes in Comedy

A couple weeks ago, as part of a review event for Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, the question of stereotypes in movies was raised. A number of reviewers felt that black and gay characters in the movie were stereotypes. Much discussion ensued, including input from people who hadn't seen the movie.

Okay, I took part too, despite not having seen the film, which isn't in general release yet. But my take on the discussion was a little more general:

The thing about stereotypes in a comedy is that almost every character starts as one. It gives the filmmaker a set of viewer expectations to violate. The question is where do these characters end up? Are they still stereotypes by the end of the movie?

I didn't get an answer, in part because that comment thread was, at heart, only tangentially about the movie. Today, though, the local paper has an interesting article on the uses of ethnic stereotypes in film. There's the discussion of the current state of the art:

In an ever-more-diverse United States, movies that trade in ethnic humor increasingly aim to give us laughs we don't need to feel guilty about. They often have, or at least claim, a de-stigmatizing effect. They lampoon bigotry, or the prejudices of people who imagine themselves open-minded when they are anything but, turning chauvinism into a punch line.

But the piece that really caught my attention was this:

Nearly all comedies traffic in stereotypes -- it's a quick-and-dirty way of connecting with audiences, giving them something they recognize, exaggerated for humorous effect. In fact, humor often depends upon that context of familiarity.

Vindication! Not that I thought I was wrong, but it's always nice to be agreed with, especially when I'm talking off the cuff. There's nothing quite like generalizing from a small sample and broad impressions and turning out to be onto something.

The article itself goes into much more depth and is worth reading in full, particularly for anyone who wants to write comedy.


Anonymous said...

So, did you read Stranger in a Strange Land? Laughter comes from a recognition of other's misfortunes, according to Heinlein. We laugh because it hurts others, if I remember correctly. It's a lesson that Data had a hard time learning.

It makes sense that stereotypes are an effective shortcut to tapping into humor. Look at how easy it is to laugh at Republicans.

Stephanie Zvan said...

What's the difference between comedy and tragedy? Comedy is when it happens to you. Tragedy is when it happens to me.

I have read it, and I think the idea is fine as far as it goes. It certainly doesn't include all humor, though. I subscribe to the idea that humor is a response to things that make us uncomfortable--but only uncomfortable. It isn't that it's funny because someone else gets hurt. It's that it isn't funny when we get hurt because we're too busy dealing with the pain.

To bring it back to politics, this is why I think so many extremists of various stripes have no sense of humor. Their ability to be made uncomfortable is missing, either undeveloped or deliberately shut off.