Comedy, It’s No Laughing Matter
One professor changes how we look at film.
Seen any good comedies lately? Apparently no one has – at least not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Go by its esteemed expert opinion, and you’d think there hasn’t been a truly outstanding traditional comedy since 1977, when Annie Hall won Best Picture.
But John Bruns, for one, is tired of great comedies being laughed off as immature or somehow unimportant. For him, comedy is no laughing matter.
“Comedy should be on a level playing field with the other genres – it has just as much meaning and just as much to teach us as dramas or historical films do,” says the assistant professor of English and director of the College’s Film Studies Program. In his new book, Loopholes: Reading Comically, Bruns “attempts to rescue comedy from decades of literary criticism trivializing it and reducing it to a source of relief or a break from all things serious – kind of like recess in school.”
After all, comedy isn’t all fun and games.
“Comedy is not an escape at all. If it’s an escape from anything, it’s from the predetermined, scripted way of looking at things,” says Bruns, explaining that his approach to comedy – which is largely inspired by Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque – appreciates it as a way of understanding the world through an almost absurdist perspective. “By doing what I call ‘reading comically,’ you are mindful of keeping things open to other possibilities – there is no final word. It’s a way of evading foregone conclusions.”
This approach, which has its origins in ancient rhetoric, both takes comedy seriously and finds comedy in the serious – in the unexpected outcome, the illogical behavior, the unsettling turn of events.
“Comedy is never seen as an option, and I want to show that it’s actually the opposite: Comedy is always an option.” Even, Bruns says, when you’re talking about the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The kind of uncertainty and chaos and lack of control that we felt at that point in history is the very core of comedy – the idea that we can never know what to expect, there’s no certainty in the world, so we can never really have the last word,” he says. “The tragic take on that is that the world is full of risk. But, in the comic spirit, it means that the world is full of unforeseen opportunities as well.”
The fragility of the world as we know it is reflected time and time again across all cinematic genres, and – for those of us who aren’t mindful of our perspective – how we read the uncertainty depends largely on how it’s presented. In the book he’s currently writing, Bruns explores what we can learn from this.
“Film teaches us how to remain hopeful and have ethics in a disturbing world. It teaches us how to live, how to behave, how to think,” he explains. “Film is a huge part of our culture, our memories, our lives. It defines part of who we are.”
Film first became an important part of Bruns’ own life when he was around 12 years old.
“I was sitting on the couch, watching Jaws, and it really just blew my mind,” he says, adding that Fahrenheit 451 and Rear Window were the other two major eye-openers for him. “Those three films made me realize there was someone behind the camera, and that that person was having so much fun.”
It’s this awareness of the people behind the camera – the decisions and the choices they make – that Bruns promotes in his students.
“I want students to pay attention to how films are put together,” he says. “Once they’re alert to the directors and what they’re doing – what they have to lose to give us something – then they can really appreciate film.”
Comedies and all.