Adam McKay – What Is Smart Dumb Comedy?
When you think of the best character introductions in film history what comes to mind? there’s Frank in “Once upon a Time in the West”, the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Willy Wonka, Quint, and Here’s another I would rank among them. [A-one-two-three-four] [ba hoo ha] Derek Hough and his family from Adam McKay’s 2008 film Step Brothers and No, I’m not joking. This is a very, very, silly scene, but consider this in, a little over a minute, we now have a total understanding of what kind of person Derek is. [Okay I’m gonna save it with this solo.] We understand that his kids are essentially monuments to his own excellence and that his wife is trapped in a hostile loveless marriage This is really effective characterization in addition to being totally absurd. [I can sing hi-i-i-igh.] [Oh Jesus!] Adam McKay’s comedies are some of the many movies produced by Judd Apatow, probably the single biggest influence on American comedy over the past 15 years. Most Apatow productions are grounded, relationship-driven comedies, like raunchier versions of James L Brooks or Woody Allen films. But McKay’s films are pretty much the opposite. They’re anarchic, absurdist,
and not grounded in the slightest. Even though he’s now earned the status of ‘Serious Director’ and won an Oscar for the “Big Short”, Mckay is probably the best filmmaker working today when it comes to smart dumb comedy. Adam McKay’s comedies, all of which are collaborations with Will Ferrell, don’t take place in our world. In the world of these movies pretty much every character is a moron. Even the smarter ones think the best way to remove a knife from someone’s leg is to pry it out with another knife. In these movies, a scene of 40 year old men beating the shit out of middle-school kids is presented as a moment of heroic victory. Murder is shrugged off as a funny surprise. [Brick killed a guy.] Absolutely nothing in the stories is meant to be taken seriously. It’s not surprising that McKay points to “The Simpsons” as a major influence. Homer Simpson is one of the great comedy protagonists. Whose stupidity has a level of brilliance and originality that could only be crafted by truly smart writers. [Hey! Get off my sugar! Bad bee! Bad! Ow!] [Oooowww!] I know there’s nothing more annoyingly pedantic than someone explaining why a joke is funny. So I won’t bother attempting an academic analysis of this…[Paa!] comedy is incredibly subjective anyway and subjectively something about Rob Riggle making that sound in the middle of a dialogue scene is funny. [Pow pow!] But while I’m not going to discuss specific jokes, I do want to look at McKay’s approach to constructing comedies. Looking at these movies on a macro level, structurally they could all be serious dramas. Anchorman tells the story of a man’s rise, fall, and redemption as he learns to grapple with the concept of gender equality. Talladega Nights is a classic sports biopic and Stepbrothers tells an archetypal story of two people starting at enemies then realizing they’re meant to be together. Mckay uses familiar structures and story beats but for each plot point finds the weirdest funniest most interesting way to approach it. Basically he’s using the approach to improv you learned from studying under del Close for constructing stories. In Anchorman, Veronica Corningstone falls for Ron Burgundy not through an enlightening emotional conversation but from seeing him give a virtuosic jazz flute performance. In The Other Guys, Terry Hoitz, in classic cop movie fashion, is haunted by a dark event from his past. But it’s not shooting a child or letting a criminal escape, its accidentally shooting Derek Jeter and costing the Yankees the World Series. In Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby leaves tickets for his father for every race in the hope that he’ll finally show up. At the climactic race he finally does and Immediately turns around and tries to scalp the tickets. [Who needs two? I’ve got tickets.] The movie sets up a big emotional payoff only to immediately subvert it. There’s a feeling of anarchic glee running through the movies, [Anarchy! Anarchy!] as McKay grabs traditional narrative structure and dives headfirst into absurdity. There is never a tension between story and jokes. The story is simply a vehicle for the jokes the greatest moment of conflict in “Anchorman”, the battle between the rival news teams that results in actual fatalities, is a total non sequitur that has absolutely no impact on the plot or characters. The mere idea of story is itself a joke. This is what separates McKay’s work from the rest of the pack. We’ve all seen plenty of Hollywood comedies where, in the 3rd act, it suddenly gets serious. The movie realizes it has to deliver an emotional climax and gets heavy on plot forgetting to be a comedy. “Stepbrothers”, McKay’s most deranged movie it takes that idea and twist it into something insane. In the movie’s 3rd act, the characters have all gone their separate ways and to follow in the Hollywood formula we’d expect some sort of emotional reunion, and we get one in the most brilliantly stupid way, imaginable. [Let
me go for a few bars.] [Come in soft but then finish strong.] [Ok.] The climactic scene features the two psychotic, manchild protagonists performing an Italian opera song at a helicopter leasing event that is so transcendent and beautiful that all the characters experience moments of emotional enlightenment. It’s making fun of the very idea of an emotional climax. [I made a kite fly. Brendan your the best big brother ever.] We obviously have to talk about improvisation which is a major component of comedy movies in the 2000s. While the movie is directed by Apatow or his alums, like Seth Rogen, they’ve have largely used improv in the form of friends riffing jokes at one another. [Your face looks like Robin Williams knuckles.] Mckay uses it to deepen the characters and mythology. Since the characters are already exaggerated cartoons, the lines improvised aren’t jokes the characters are making, they’re absurd details about themselves. They reveal their thoughts and fantasies building on the fictional worlds they inhabit. [I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says like ‘I want to be formal but I’m here to party too’.] As silly as these movies are, all the absurdity is built on a foundation of strong characterization. We understand the characters’ motivations, their fears and desires. The absurd choices they make are funnier because they’re consistent with who the characters are. [Milk was a bad choice.] So what exactly is Smart dumb comedy? As McKay, himself, put it “It’s that weird kind of satire where you’re making fun of it but you’re also doing it.” These movies proudly mock the concept of a logical story but at the same time operate on their own internal logic. Everything makes sense within the bizarre worlds they’ve built. And as much as I’ve talked about these movies being dumb, it can’t be ignored that McKay laces politics into everything he does. “Anchorman”, “Stepbrothers” and particularly “Talladega Nights”, were sharp commentaries on Bush Era America. Their protagonists were arrogant, narcissistic men with delusional views of the world and, honestly, in 2017 these might be more relevant than ever. Hey guys, thanks for watching and for indulging me because for months now I’ve been trying to find a way to talk about the “Stepbrothers” car acapella scene in a video essay. And I did it! Now you may have noticed that there have been more video essays than usual lately and that’s for scheduling reasons because I can make these totally on my own. But pretty soon, it’ll be back to just one a month which I’m excited about because I think these are more exhausting and harder to make than like shooting narrative stuff on location. I don’t know how some channels make one every single week. Anyway, if you like what we’re doing and you want to help us make more of these videos check out the Patreon. If you want to yell at me about anything and get updates on what we’re working on, follow me on all the social media platforms, and I will see you next Wednesday.