|by Collin Souter
Writing about comedy can be just as daunting as, well, writing comedy. How can anyone possibly be expected to write out a Top 10 list of Funniest Movies Ever Made or Best One-Liners of All Time? Why even try? Few things can be as personal or subjective as humor or music. But when you look at past generations of humorists, actors and filmmakers, itís not hard to see who blazed a trail for future comics. Itís very easy for a cynic to dismiss everything these days as derivative or a complete rip-off or of something that has been done a million times before. I disagree. This lists showcases 11 directors, comedians, actors and filmmakers who have been at their peak for the past few years and who are currently changing the face of comedy; artists who refuse to pander, dumb down or go for the obvious punchline or pratfall. There are plenty of other noteworthy candidates for this list, but Iíve chosen to only go to 11, for obvious reasons.
1. Judd Apatow The man of the hour, as far as Iím concerned. After producing some of televisionís most innovative (The Larry Sanders Show, The Ben Stiller Show) and underappreciated (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared) TV shows, Apatow continues to prove he knows more about whatís funny than any other writer/producer/director/working stiff in Hollywood. With his two directorial effortsóThe 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked UpóApatow has created something of a miracle in the realm of movie comedies: Both movies run 2+ hours and neither of them wear out their welcome. Both movies treat their characters (as well as the audience watching them) with great respect, never shying away from a Beautician and the Beast reference or casting a relatively unknown actor in the lead role. (Come to think of it, Seth Rogan deserves a spot on this list as well). Apatowís movies and TV shows are joining the ranks of those comedies that have been held sacred for the past few decades (Stripes, Animal House, Caddyshack). Itís not hard to picture Harold Ramis passing down the torch.
2. Steve Carrell and The Office Itís not supposed to be this way. An Americanized version of an ingenious and original British TV show should not be this good. Remember what happened to all those pale American imitations of Absolutely Fabulous? Or Bea Arthurís take on Fawlty Towers? Yet, somehow, Executive Producer Steve Carrell and his cast have made The Office one of the best shows on television, so much so that we donít just watch it for the laughs, but to see if Pam and Jim will actually take one step closer to getting together (well, I do). The show takes the format of the original Office, but doesnít try to imitate the substance of it directly. It has a life of its own and stands on its own without ever inviting comparisons. But this paragraph is also about Carrell, a former Daily Show staple that has mastered the art of making stupidity look sweet (The Office, 40-Year-Old Virgin) and sweetness look stupid (Anchorman), while also showing uncommon levels of emotion and depth (Little Miss Sunshine).
3. Dave Chappelle While he has been rather quiet as of late, Chappelle nevertheless leads all other African-American comics in terns of his eye for satire, his spot-on imitations of both black and white figures (both famous and non-famous) and his ability to downplay his fame and good fortune. Last yearís concert film Dave Chappelleís Block Party could have been an irritating ego-trip from any other comic, but instead Chappelle threw a party, booked some top-notch musical guests and invited all his fans, not to celebrate him, but to celebrate life in general. Can you imagine Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence pulling off this kind of generous act? Me neither. And while Chappelle did graciously turn down an ungodly amount of money for a few more seasons of his brilliant show on Comedy Central, I feel certain we havenít heard the last of him.
4. Sacha Baron Cohen It doesnít matter if you thought Boart was over-hyped (it wasÖguilty as charged). It gave moviegoers a lot to talk about afterwards, while also engraining unwanted images of assholes and testicles that remain hard to erase. But the movie did more than that. It encompassed numerous elements from a wide range of comedic styles: Slapstick, verbal jousting, documentary, mockumentary, absurdist, road comedies, buddy pictures, Monty Python, The Yes Men, jackass, Tom Green and South Park. Itís all there, packed into a tight 82 minutes. But Cohen is also thankfully modest, as was demonstrated by his wonderful acceptance speech at the Golden Globes and the fact that he didnít try to upstage his co-stars in Talladega Nights. On the other hand, he did receive a $40 million advance from Universal to do a Bruno film (a satire of fashion reporters, this one with a Nazi fetish). Itís too soon to see whether or not itíll fly, but for now, Cohen has solidified himself as this generationís Andy Kaufman.
5. Tina Fey Itís sad, but true. Comedy remains a male-dominated industry. Somehow, Tina Fey persists, and the rewards (for her and for us) remain plentiful. After her stint on Saturday Night Live, Fey penned a screenplay based on a self-help book and the result was Mean Girls, a smarter-than-average teen comedy that so impressed audiences and critics, that it also got Paramount Pictures to take notice and send out screeners and a copy of the screenplay to Academy voters and critics in hopes of getting taken seriously at awards season (it received an impressive WGA nomination). She followed that up with 30 Rock, the far superior and, oddly enough, more sophisticated of the two NBC shows that depict the behind-the-scenes frenzy that takes place on a weekly basis on the set of SNL. As Liz Lemon, the producer of The Tracy Jordan Show, Fey proves she can hold her own against the best of them, while also displaying just the right amount of insecurity that makes us all human.
6. Ricky Gervais It would be enough if Gervais had stopped at creating one of the most original and uncomfortably funny TV comedies ever made (The Office). But then he had to hit another home run with Extras, the Curb Your Enthusiasm-like plight of background actors and the movie stars they unintentionally hound, humiliate and hinder. Gervaisí boyish charm and his wince-inducing aloofness is the key to what makes these shows work so well. We all know or have known someone who should just hire themselves a social editor. Yet at the same time, we cringe, because we know all too well that at some point in our lives, we might have actually been that person making that unknowingly inappropriate remark.
]7. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell Ferrell by himself? Not always a good thing (Bewitched, Kicking and Screaming). Ferrell with Adam McKay? Comic gold. I, for one, was not the least bit surprised when Talladega Nights went past the $100 million mark last year. It took a while for audiences to discover the absurdist brilliance of the first McKay/ Farrell outing, Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy (both produced by Judd Apatow). The key to McKayís success as a director is (like Apatow) to let everyone be funny. Itís never about how to make Ferrell the center of all the humor. Paul Rudd, Sacha Baron Cohen, Steve Carrell, John C Reilly, Amy Adams, Gary Cole, David Koechner and Christina Applegate all get to shine at some point. McKay trusts his actors and trusts the audience to be a bit more sophisticated than Hollywood would like to believe.
8. Alexander Payne Like Ricky Gervais, Payne knows exactly how to make an audience wince with recognition. With four films (five, if you count his hilarious short in Paris, je tíaime), Payne has found his humor in the most unusual places (abortion activists in Citizen Ruth, high school elections in Election, old age in About Schmidt and wine enthusiasts in Sideways). Within these places and people, Payne finds humor that speaks to all of us, whether we want it to or not. He knows exactly which song to play in the background, which American accent the secondary characters should have and which character should get completely nude so as to embarrass the audience. His comedy lurks within the uncomfortable details of a seemingly mundane existence. He has become a master at making laughter a painful process.
9. Sarah Silverman You may not agree, but I believe every generation should have a Sandra Bernhard, a female provocateur who shows no fear of losing her audience. While sheís not the first comedian to find humor in the Holocaust, rape or 9/11, she does so with such consistency and fearlessness that the comparisons to Lenny Bruce start to become warranted (not an easy feat in this day and age). Her concert film Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic and her show on Comedy Central stay true to her approach, that nothing is sacred and everything can somehow be turned into a catchy, campy Broadway melody. Sheís basically a one-woman South Park. She reminds me of what Roseanne Barr said not too long ago: ďThese days, young people are offended if theyíre not offended.Ē And letís not forget her brilliant twist on the Aristocrats joke: ďJoe Franklin raped me.Ē Hilarious!
10. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg The English auteurs behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz have made a name for themselves as guys who know how to balance genre conventions, high comedy, arrested development in male behavior and their own fanboy geekdom without alienating anyone in the audience. Both movies could have been lame-brained, unimaginative parodies, but Wright and Pegg know how to put the story and characters first. Everything else is just icing on the ubiquitous chocolate-and-strawberry cakes. Who wasnít moved at the end of Shaun when Nick Frost made his final fart joke? No, seriously. It was beautiful. Thatís how good these guys are. They also managed to steal the 3+hour Rodriguez/Tarantino project Grindhouse with their 90-second pitch-perfect parody trailer for the Ď70s haunted house thriller Donít.
11. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report Seriously, what can be said about these shows that hasnít been said a thousand times already? Nothing. There. Iím done with this.
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originally posted: 06/03/07 18:34:15
last updated: 06/03/07 18:39:51