Being funny is never easy, especially when you’re being funny about unfunny things. As far as dark humor goes, death is actually a rather simple topic to cover. However once you start getting into the meaning of death, or mass genocide, or the afterlife, that’s when things start getting a little tricky.
Sometimes you have to stop worrying about offending the people who won’t get it and start worrying about entertaining the people who will. So here are some movies that, no matter what your feelings on them are, managed to successfully make a mockery out of something quite serious.
I Heart Huckabees – Existentialism & Philosophy
It’s not for everyone, but you can’t deny that this has to be one of the most original modern comedies out there.
It’s basically a war between two opposing philosophies. Is there a connecting order to the universe or are we all in it alone? It’s harmony vs. chaos. The end moral is that, like everything, it’s just not that black and white. It isn’t one extreme or the other but rather the best of both worlds. Life is cruel and random and we’re all in it together.
The weirdest part is that both Clooney and Tomlin have regarded him to be extremely talented after the fact – making him my own personal hero. After all, rule number one of being a director is learning how to mentally and physically abuse your talent while maintaining their respect – just ask Sam Raimi.
Being There – Consciousness
The apparent dominating message of this film seems to be that if you look important and know the right people, it doesn’t matter if you’re an idiot. You can even end up running for president. This is, of course, more true than they probably knew at the time.
Then comes the very last shot of the film, and the ambiguity of it’s meaning. We see Chance walk across water Jesus-style as we hear the closing line, “Life is a state of mind.” Suddenly there’s meaning to the whole damn thing, which is pretty impressive when you consider that it wasn’t originally in the script.
In fact, director Hal Ashby had to fight with the studio to keep the new ending in – going so far as to risk being fired over the whole thing. Luckily he won, and now we are left with a much deeper meaning than what was originally intended. Chance defied the physical laws of the lake simply because he didn’t know that was I thing he couldn’t do. The idea being that Chance was born so without any mental complexities that he is truly a man in the moment, simply enjoying uh… well, being there.
The Invention Of Lying – Faith
What a weird film. Its got Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jonah Hill, Rob Lowe, Edward Norton, and Louis C.K. all playing roles – it stars the distinguished atheist that is Ricky Gervais, and it’s presented as a romantic comedy set in a world where humans cannot lie. The premise, of course, is that Gervais becomes the first person to gain the ability to fib, which spawns the first religion.
What’s interesting about it is that the central message, the one muddled by the romantic plotline, is that faith is ultimately good. We see this from the happiness the main character is able to inflict in his friends and family by simply giving them something to hold on to. The flip side is that as this faith he creates raises more and more questions it becomes more and more complicated and structured. Suddenly it’s just a new set of rules and nothing more.
What makes this film so fun is that you spend the first half hearing everyone’s deepest fears and insecurities complete laid out. Once lying is invented we see how all those hang ups can be soothed simply by giving them a little bit of hope. The crowning moment is watching a suicidal Jonah Hill accept for the first time that perhaps he doesn’t have to kill himself after all.
Dogma – Religion
“Human beings have neither the aural nor the psychological capacity to withstand the awesome power of God’s true voice. Were you to hear it, your mind would cave in and your heart would explode within your chest. We went through five Adams before we figured that one out.”
At first Kevin Smith doesn’t seem like the optimal choice to write a film about religion, but when you hear him speak you start to realize how moral of a man he is and how well he’s managed to make religion work for him. His image of a Catholic afterlife in this film is probably the best-case scenario for the religion – a heaven that evolved with the time and doesn’t need to take everything so goddamn seriously. It’s a fun vision of a progressive and forgiving deity, so naturally it got protested to hell.
As someone who was raised by Buddhist hippy parents, I never stepped into a church until I was a teenager. To me, this film comes across as the most appealing view of Catholicism I’ve ever seen, something that should probably be embraced rather than rejected. If you couldn’t swear, screw, and have fun in heaven then why even call it that?
While Smith has announced his future retirement from filmmaking, some years back in the View Askew forums he also mentioned an interest in making a Dogma sequel. Personally, I’d very much like to see what he could do with that.
Dr. Strangelove – Nuclear War
These days no one really gives a rat’s ass about nuclear war, but in the 1960s it was a bit of a touchy subject. Imagine going through your day thinking that at any second someone might decide to put the hammer down and vaporize your essence in a ridiculous blast of hellfire. It would be like owning a pet dragon, only… like… real.
Such a futile and real fear demands to be mocked, because what the hell else are you going to do? That’s why this film worked so well – it summed up the dark absurdity of what we were doing. We made bombs so big that we were scared to use them, and yet we still did. And to the average human, none of this was called for. No one asked for them, and no one had any idea who really controlled them. At that point, all you can do is imagine the worst-case scenario and laugh your ass off.
Also – It’s funny to think that there was a time when a comedic actor could play multiple characters in a film and audiences didn’t sigh in disgust.
Blazing Saddles is the first film I can remember watching on VHS as a kid. Lord knows why I was allowed to watch it, but I feel like I’m a better person because of it. It took such an uncomfortable subject and dug it up for everyone to see in a way that was actually comfortable to watch. It showed how weak minded those with prejudice are as the hero Bart exploits the hate of his enemies rather than falls victim to it. Bart was one of my first heroes growing up because of that.
And I’m not alone here. In an interview with DGA Quarterly, Mel Brooks talked about how when he received his Kennedy Center Award he was told by President Obama, “When I was a kid, I was thrilled with that picture.” So yeah – parents, if you want your kids to grow up to be president, you know what to do.
Fun fact – both Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder were Mel Brook’s second choices for the two headlining roles of this film. Originally Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the screenplay, was set to play Bart while Gig Young was the original Waco Kid. Young had collapsed on set due to alcohol withdrawal and was quickly replaced with Wilder, while Pryor was turned down by the studios because of his apparent drug habit. That’s right kids, the original cast of Blazing Saddles was sacked due to drug and alcohol addiction.
Four Lions – Terrorism and Religious Fanaticism
I’m surprised I haven’t heard more offense in regards to this film. After all – it’s a comedy about four dim-witted suicide bombers of Muslim faith. That’s kind of a touchy subject for more than a few reasons. However watching the film there really isn’t much to be offended about. In fact, during production the filmmakers consulted heavily with former Guantanamo Bay guest Moazzam Begg in order to determine this very thing. Beggs, along with two other former detainees, apparently loved the film.
It really was a fine line they were walking too. For example, a scene later in the film where [SPOILERS] a police officer confronts the four bombers right before they carry out their plan to suicide bomb the London Marathon. To hide their explosives they are wearing various costumes such as a Ninja Turtle and the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster. Referring to the marathon, the cop comments that they are “going to die in that gear.” This sets off one of the bombers who, realizing that he is – in fact – going to die, tries to turn himself in. As he desperately pleads for his life, the other three set off his bomb remotely. It’s pretty dark, except that the whole time this happens, the would-be bomber is wearing an upside down clown outfit.
No doubt the day of shooting involved a lot of people snickering and feeling really terrible about themselves. It’s that kind of blend of terrible and hilarious that makes this movie work.
The Great Dictator – Fascism, War, & Tyranny
Charlie Chaplin once said that had he known the full extent of the Nazis’ evil he wouldn’t have made this film. While I don’t doubt that, I’m sure glad this wasn’t the case. Released in 1940, it was the second film ever to feature a parody character of Adolf Hitler, and certainly a film ahead of its time. To put it in perspective, this film came out almost a year before the U.S. had officially declared war on Germany.
During its release the film was hardly taboo, and rather served as a great form of inspiration during the war. However the moral has remained timeless. It is a cry against men who seek power through greed and violence. Those who care not about making the world better for anyone beside themselves. Dictatorship.
And yet at the same time we get laugh-out-loud moments sandwiched in between. It’s surreal to watch; like an old anti-Nazi Looney Tunes cartoon, you get to watch all your rubber heroes beat the tar out of Hitler like it’s no big deal. I literally belly laughed watching Chaplin fumble with chairs mere moments before tearing up from the climatic ending speech. It’s downright unnatural to cause such a flux in emotion.
Roberto Benigni isn’t for everyone, and while I am a fan of his stuff, had someone told me that he would be doing a comedy about the Holocaust I probably would have freaked out. It sounds like such a bad idea right from the start – a silly, slapsticky comedy that takes place at a concentration camp. Holy shit.
And then you watch the film, and the shock comes not out of offense, but out of disbelief… he actually pulled it off. The clown actually managed to make a comedy out of one of the biggest atrocities in the history of mankind, and he managed to do it with respect in the process. This is especially amazing considering that Benigni isn’t Jewish.
And while the film got more than it’s fair share of bad reviews, it won three Academy Awards, the Grand Prize at Cannes, and the Best Jewish Experience award at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. The reason for the praise is pretty clear – while he does present a much more silly view of the concentration camps, the misery of the situation is not lost. It’s all still there – the bodies, the indifference. But by bringing out the love and warmth between those who suffered Benigni manages to give us a bittersweet reminder that in all the horror there is always a light at the end.
Pretty Much Every Monty Python Film
Where to even start here? Monty Python has made five films, and besides the sketch show ones, the least complex story they covered was the freaking Arthurian Holy Grail legend. That’s as uncomplicated as they get. Then probably comes Life Of Brian, the film that set religious groups in a frenzy over their mockery of the New Testament… and finally The Meaning Of Life, a sketch-style comedy devoted to the question of our very existence from birth to death.
These guys didn’t see any easy way out – they were in it to leave scars, and that’s why they are now legends. It’s the philosophy that drives comedians like George Carlin and Louis C.K. – nothing is off limits so long as it is funny. If you can find the funny side of something then you can overcome it.
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