Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Gratuitous Violence


These photos are the property of the MoMA film department, and came from the Cruel and Unusual Comedy blog, film notes for the screening “Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Gratuitous Violence.”

From the film, Their First Execution.

There was nobody better way to celebrate my renewal of my cherished MoMA membership than going solo to a film screening with four of my favorite words in the title: cruel, unusual, comedy and gratuitous.

I was only able to catch the last night of this series, Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Social Commentary in the American Slapstick Film, but here’s an excerpt of the description on the MoMA site:

“This series examines how silent-era slapstick comedy treats social, cultural, and political topics that continue to be central concerns in America today. Rude forms of comedy have long used incendiary subjects like industrialization, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, violence, and substance abuse as vital source material—and enjoyed great success with mass audiences. The exhibition draws on a body of silent work that is a particular strength of the Museum’s film collection.”

The films were all silent, and accompanied by live piano. Last night’s screening included Their First Execution (1913), The Phoney Cannibal (1915), The Counter Jumper (1922) with
A Deep Sea Panic (1924) Cold Hearts and Hot Flames (1916). And while they were all just like any other funny, slapstick silent films I’d seen (MoMA did a Buster Keaton series a while back) they dealt with some alarmingly serious, seemingly unfunny topics. As the “Cruel and Unusual” blog notes, the films in this series take the “basic ingredient” of slapstick and “run with it” creating a “mad, surreal universe.” It’s interesting that the experts mention this kind of chaos is usually only seen in animation, because when I saw these movies and read the blog, I immediately thought of (the best show ever made): South Park. Like South Park, these films innocently joked about an array of appalling of subjects.

In Their First Exectution, the audience must discover what’s hilarious about the electric chair. Turns out quite a bit. This movie was funny in a way that even South Park wouldn’t dare to be, beacause South Park at least seems to acknowledge the fact that it’s politically incorrect. What made this movie so hilarious, and so wonderful, was that nothing about it exuded any commentary on the horrors of the electric chair, or the death penalty.

Rather, it followed the formula of all these silent films, which is essentially, people have a task, people are incompetant, people are unable to complete the task, somebody more important than the aforementioned people is very angry about the task fail, people make wildly contorted comedic faces, people fall down, and the piano helps cue the audience on when to laugh.

And we laughed. We laughed because we are conditioned to laugh at this formula. I found this kind of habitual response very telling, and somewhat disturbing. It indicates simultaneously a high level of social and artistic comprehension and a total lack of awareness. When we watch Borat, for example, we laugh because we know he’s being outrageous. We know he’s challenging the system. But these movies were almost an anti-challenge. What’s so jarring about these movies is that they take things that aren’t funny, mold them into the standard shape of something that is funny, and we laugh not because we notice anything particularly unusual, but because we pay more attention to form than content.

The films are a testament to the power of packaging. Admirably, I think that as a society, we’re becoming savvy to at least certain kinds of manipulative packaging. For example, we ran a story today about a man who is using a mullet to raise awareness:

“In the latest project by Jake Nyberg, a writer and director based in St. Paul, Minn., he takes on the role of social scientist. Nyberg is assessing reactions to his new hairstyle—the 1980s ’do known as the mullet. So far, his hair has elicited plenty of mean-spirited giggles from passersby in the western suburbs of Minneapolis.” [full article here]

This is a great example of something we assume should make us laugh. Yes, most of us are too politcally correct, politically active, etc. to laugh about the death penalty, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t unknowingly pass frequent judgements based on form, and ignore content. (What? You mean behind that mullet is an intelligent, literate human being??!!!)

But as the world as we know is being upended, we’re not going to be able to use forms, formulas and packaging to make decisions anymore. If we don’t understand the real substance of matters, we’ll have no idea what was going on.

That being said, the insurance fraud in Cold Hearts and Hot Flames lead to a pretty hilarious deadly inferno. (And some pretty fabulously primitive special effects–yes–actors in 1916 can fly.)

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2 thoughts on “Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Gratuitous Violence

  1. Gotta say, my initial reaction to the notion of death penalty comedy brought up at the beginning of the post was to want to express my outrage…then I thought about my all time favorite comedy: Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, which ends with the hilarious juxtaposition of “We’ll Meet Again Some Sunny Day” and the entirety of human civilization being destroyed in a worldwide nuclear inferno…actually, just describing that makes me think I’ve gotta put that on the top of my Netflix queue again.

    Another thing this post makes me think of is Dave Chapelle’s sorely lamented decision to end the Chapelle show…specifically because he felt that a lot of his viewers weren’t getting it…as he mocked racial stereotypes in often brilliant ways, he suspected some people were laughing just as if it were the 30’s and they were watching Stepin Fetchit…and, in a world in which right wingers don’t get that Stephen Colbert isn’t really one of them (and in which a lot of bigots loved Archie Bunker, and, no doubt, a lot of anti-semites love hearing Borat ask what the best gun is for shooting Jews), that’s really not surprising….Thus, when the “packaging” is more sophisticated, and asks viewers to question it, many still can’t seem to get out of those same old conditionings….

    Me…I just ramble on and on…cool post…

    Reply
  2. I love slapstick but I agree with the previous post. Taladega Nights–the real mullet heads don't know that film is making fun of them.

    I didnt know that about the Stephen Colbert thing. After what he said to “W” I would think that would have been making the rounds via E-mail.

    Thanks for the great commentary on the social value of Slapstick performances. I always suspected that Americans Funniest Home Videos is our most recent incarnation of old-time slapstick. Minus the Racial stuff, but plenty of anger directed at male genitals though.

    Reply

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