Drama Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard

Jeff Bridges Element 79 Chicago AdvertisingSo the Dude picked up the Best Actor award for Crazy Heart. Huh.  That’s ‘gut-wrenching drama’ for you–Academy types eat it up.  And yet this same group has no nose for comedy, and never has.  All Jeff Bridges got for The Big Lebowski was the ongoing appreciation of legions of dialogue quoting fans, undimmed some twelve years later.  The Dude abides…

Will “Bad” Blake?  I don’t think so.  Oh, his is a dramatic story–talented songwriter loses himself in booze/stumbles into a good-hearted woman/tries to fly right/fails/drinks himself into a puddle/hits rock bottom/decides to get sober/bravely faces one day at a time/the end.  And yet, despite the considerable skills of Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal and even Robert Duvall, it was every bit as boringly predictable as it sounds.  Oh it was dramatic–pukingly so–but that’s the problem.  Drama can be so annoyingly formulaic. “I’m an addict–look at my journey!”  “I’ve got a disease–look at my plight!”  “I’m a beaten survivor–look at me every freakin’ night on Lifetime™!” Everyday, drama fills the Metro section of every major city’s dying newspaper.  Gather a few talented actors, tell the sad story, then pick out your sparkly dress for the award show…

Now comedy is a whole another animal.  To really work, it has to be new and unexpected.  It can not survive without surprise.  And that’s why comedy has a hard time gaining broad critical mass; it has a thousand niches and a thousand tiny audiences.  Arenas full of people may enjoy Dane Cook; and yet the internet teems with people convinced he’s ‘not funny’ (proof he has been at least sporadically hilarious here).  Almost every Pixar movie ever made qualifies as a comedy, despite the box-office poison of being ‘family friendly.’  And while The Hangover may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it became the third highest grossing R rated film ever in the U.S. last Summer.

People can agree on what constitutes drama: “My, what a terrible choice they gave Sophie.” But comedy comes in all sorts of flavors, from SpongeBob to Borat.  What is hacky and broad to one group is inspired and hilarious to another.  What feels tame to some is waaaay over the line to others.  Worse, you need surprise in your material, which makes comedy really, really hard.

None of this amounts to particularly fresh insight of course,  But it hopefully adds context to why for me, the big acting performance of the weekend didn’t happen Sunday night on the Oscars but Saturday night on pay-per-view.  My wife and I ordered the uneven, but largely funny The Invention of Lying. In this slight film, the singular delivery of Ricky Gervais stands as a far more jaw-dropping achievement than the dramatic drunkenness of even the likable Jeff Bridges.

Gervais is pants-wettingly funny.  He delivers lines brilliantly, but what he does perhaps better than anyone on the planet, is react.  His reacting skills tower above the norm.  He can deliver the quick reaction with great style but he’s far more amazing when dissembling over the course of ten to thirty seconds, doing nothing more than reacting with a constant stream of inventive nuance.  In an industry thick with action heroes, he is the definitive re-action hero.

Invention of Lying, Element 79 Chicago AdvertisingIn the scene pictured at right, Gervais has just convinced his unrequited love that sex outside of marriage is a no-no, thus ruining Rob Lowe’s character’s designs on her.  For a moment, he is the picture of smug self-satisfaction until he opens his birthday card and finds her handwritten coupon for birthday sex.  Caught in his own web, his face meticulously catalogues the slow realization of his error over the course of twenty-two hilarious seconds.  It is nothing but a reaction shot, executed by a virtuoso master of the art.

And in that reaction, that pitch-perfect, undeniably fresh and surprising reaction, Ricky Gervais reveals the depth of his truly remarkable talent.  Even if it’s not the kind of performance that will win him an Oscar.

Comedy like that sticks with you.  Ricky Gervais abides.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

RTB says:

Yes, the story arc of “Crazy Heart” is predictable. Indeed, it is similar to Bridges’ “Seabiscuit” except this time he plays the horse. Furthermore, I think his Oscar is similar to the one Paul Newman received for “The Color of Money”–it was a make-up award for not being previously recognized for more worthy performances, as well as a tribute to a distinguished career. For my money, Bridges’ passive-aggressive turn in “The Contender” as Jackson Evans, a President of the United States so enamored of the office that he would demonstrate his power by ordering obscure dishes from the White House kitchen, is the one for which he should have received an Oscar. There are so many great Jeff Bridges performances, from “The Big Lebowski to “The Last Picture Show;” “The Fabulous Baker Boys” to “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” that the Academy’s credibility was at risk if it did not choose to recognize him for something. I mean, Marisa Tomei has an Oscar for “My Cousin Vinnie” fer crissakes.

BTW–the Academy once again proved it loves it when you sing for your trophy. (Looking at you, Reese Witherspoon.)

I would also argue that Bridges’ “The Contender” is an example of a drama with its allure rooted in its unpredictability. (If you have not seen it, add it to your Netflix queue, especially if you have a daughter.) Ditto this year’s Oscar darling, “The Hurt Locker.” Surprise is as essential to good drama as it is to comedy. The difference is, surprise can rarely be deployed as quickly in drama as in comedy with good results. The opening minutes of last summer’s popcorn flick “Star Trek” are a notable exception. I was shocked how truly heart-wrenching the first 15 minutes of that movie were, and how quickly director J.J. Abrams elicited that response.

Genuinely surprising drama is even more difficult to create in 30 seconds; surprising comedy not so much. That means drama’s applicability in commercials is a dicey thing. While many laud the heartfelt quality of director Joe Pytka’s spots, I feel he wields sentimentality like a blunt instrument. I often feel manipulated as the emotion is sprung on me. The opposite is true for me with comedy–the surprise seems to heighten the fun.

So, in my opinion, Jeff Bridges deserved an Oscar for something and surprise in any endeavor, be it dramatic, comedic, or as seemingly insignificant as a commercial, is hard. But the fact it is difficult is what makes it worthwhile.

Clients, please take note. And remember, there are no make-up awards for you.