What has happened to comedy?
In recent years, I’ve had extreme difficulty with almost any film termed a comedy overall. Certainly, senses of humour are all right, there are great bits within films of other genres, but films labelled comedy over anything else…well, my DVD collection has a strong skew toward the 80s and 90s overall, but in the comedies it is even stronger–only 37 of the films one site I use for database purposes terms comedies–out of 159 total in my collection–are from 2000 or later.
I’m notoriously difficult to make laugh, leading some to claim I have no sense of humour–the truth being it’s simply harder to surprise me, and I think an element of surprise is necessary for comedy to really work, unless you simply have a brilliant performance and delivery involved. I’ve seen enough movies that it’s easy to predict many things watching a film, which is okay with plots–there is only so much one can do plotwise–but deflates comedy, which is a more immediate and emotional response. Most fall flat, even some that I enjoy otherwise (I liked Napoleon Dynamite all right, for instance, but found little of it to actually be funny) and so many think I don’t actually find anything funny.
My sense of humour, based on the premise of surprise, then falls primarily into two categories, or possibly three–the absurd (thus leading to my appreciation of humour in the vein of the Pythons, or the Kids in the Hall, amongst other things), the dry and witty (such as my recent experience with The Philadelphia Story, though this one is less “funny” and more “bemused enjoyment” or something similarly based around smirking and smiling, rather than chuckling and laughing) or the referential (such as Mystery Science Theater 3000). So, it must be completely nonsensical (naturally making it unpredictable), surprisingly clever, or referencing something unrelated, appealing and unexpected, but logical in retrospect. Probably a fairly strict set of rules, but it’s not something one can simply relax; things are funny or they aren’t, that’s just how it is, it seems.
So, what does all this have to do with a 43 year old movie about a bumbling French inspector? Plenty! The second film in the series alternately referred to as the Pink Panther and the Inspector Clouseau series, A Shot in the Dark is the film that brought Clouseau to the forefront of the series, making him the star over the previous suspected hit character of the Pink Panther himself (played by David Niven in the first film, and not even appearing in this film). We see the introduction of characters I’m told are later recurring–Kato (later Cato, played here by Burt Kwouk) and Commissioner Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru, also known as Herbert Lom, who I recently saw as a sympathetic doctor in, of all things, The Dead Zone).
Clouseau is unwittingly (ahem!) assigned to a murder case in the home of millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders), completely ignoring the obvious evidence and facts against maid Maria Gambrelli (Elke Summers) because of an infatuation he immediately finds himself in for her. Commissioner Dreyfus is disturbed to discover this and intends to remove Clouseau from the case, only to be directed by some higher powers that he should re-assign him. Beyond this, the plot matters little–this is all about Peter Sellers as Clouseau, his brilliant timing, delivery and comic sensibilities.
The best part of these films–from what I’ve seen–is undoubtedly Sellers, but also the editing and direction provided (here, Sellers is again directed by Pink Panther director Blake Edwards) that compliment and enhance these things. Some of the gags were familiar, especially the slapstick variety (there are limits to these things, I think, in terms of possibility and numbers) but what surprised me every time was the way they were carried out. I’ve seen other bumbling characters knock over displays of numerous parts and attempt to wrangle them back into control, or to get tangled in something which no person in their right mind could possibly get tangled in, and it always comes off as forced, awkward and uncomfortable for the audience, the scene tending to linger longer than it is welcome, and the offending character seeming to be unrealistically stupid in their approach to fixing things.
This is where Sellers and Edwards showed skill that later films have not–when such scenes occur, they take only as long as the physical action itself dictates, never hovering over them to try and drag out the last few chuckles from an audience that already gets the joke. More importantly, Sellers and the actors around him respond somewhat differently. When Clouseau–inevitably–does something stupid, the characters around him acknowledge but ignore it, never rolling their eyes–as the audience likely would be in later examples of the same thing–unless such an action is dictated by their character. Often they show a stuffed politeness, pretending, through character, not actor, that this is something that could reasonably happen and they are being terribly polite to the silly Inspector. They don’t laugh at him, nor do they get exasperated. They offer help, or give him excuses to suggest his behaviour is not out of the ordinary. Sellers, on the other hand, consistently portrays Clouseau as a man not totally unaware of his own buffoonery; he does not realize how stupid he is intellectually, but always notices when he does something silly physically, but doesn’t just switch into “physical comedian” mode, rather he stays in character and Clouseau acts like a cat–using body language (and occasionally words) to make clear that he most certainly INTENDED to fall off the couch while speaking. These acts are also absolutely naturalistic from Sellers, who inevitably performs them at the exact right time in the exact right way, with the exact right attitude, so that even if you see the gag coming, it works anyway, because you believe it in the character, not as a deliberate and clumsy set-up. His indignation at other characters for his own faults is also amusingly familiar, as almost everyone has tried to pass off, if they thought they could, some simple accident as the fault of another, further enhancing the character as someone who is believable despite his unreasonable klutziness.
Lom and Kwouk actually do their part to add more humour in roles other than Clouseau’s as well, Dreyfus being driven increasingly insane by his hatred of Clouseau, his eye twitching and his body often betraying his barely contained rage, leading him into awkward positions. Lom is fantastic at maintaining something as silly as an over-emphasized twitching eye and fits of maddened giggling, something that most would stumble their way through and ruin completely. Kato is instructed to keep Clouseau on his feet and in training at the martial arts, and does so at Clouseau’s occasional and unexpected expense, his timing and physical control at least up to Lom’s level, keeping the suspension intact for these scenes (which I wouldn’t want to ruin, of course).
Shame that they don’t come around like this so much anymore, and instead find that bodily functions are the only source of humour left. Those jokes are tired, they can only be done in so many different ways so many different times. Let’s get a little more wit and skill back in comedies, eh?