Comedy: A Most Disrespected Genre

 

It’s been 42 years since a comedy won the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was in 1977, meaning that the highest honor a film can receive in Hollywood hasn’t gone to a comedy during my lifetime and my hairline has already started to look like Woody Allen’s. How old do you feel old now?

There have been a few hopefuls throughout the years, Lady Bird, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Grand Budapest Hotel just to name a few. If those recent titles don’t sound familiar to you then perhaps you’ve fallen out of touch with current trends, but one can hardly blame you. While you’ve missed some gems, you’ve also saved yourself many wasted hours watching computers attempt to replicate reality through a lens of fantasy. If you are an old fuddy-duddy (whether that be at heart like me or actually due to your birth certificate) then perhaps you even remember watching the live telecast where Woody Allen snubbed the Oscars by not showing up to accept his award for Annie Hall - a bold move that could have easily backfired on any other director, especially when he refused to allow posters of his film to include the phrase “Academy Award Winning Film”.

However, the Oscar’s aren’t completely oblivious to their decades of neglect. At the 79th awards they employed Will Farrell, John C. Reilly and Jack Black to give audiences what they crave when tuning into the broadcast - a catchy original song and dance.

“A comedian at the Oscars the saddest man of all. Your movies may make millions, but your name they’ll never call.”

The great irony in this is that ask anyone who’s blurred their career path with both comedy and drama and you’ll most likely get the same answer. Comedy is harder to pull off than drama.

The British screenwriter Laurence Marks wrote in The Telegraph, “Anyone who has ever attempted to write, let alone perform, comedy knows that only neurosurgery requires more skill.“

I think I agree, although once I try neurosurgery I’ll let you know for sure.

Starting in 2010 I embarked on one of the biggest growth periods in discovering my voice as an artist - a task that I still work on daily. In December of that year, having recently moved back to California, I released my first comedy sketch on YouTube with Happy Hour Sketch Comedy. The premise of the sketch? A parody movie trailer for a film where Santa Claus terrorizes unbelieving Jehovah’s Witnesses by forcing them to celebrate Christmas. This was before I had an HD camera or any idea what I was doing, really…

After a few early attempts at making people laugh, soon I met the innately funny Jon Gormley who blessed our little sketch comedy show by bringing to life his highly inaccurate, yet entirely hilarious, impersonation of Anthony Weiner. If any of you are unfamiliar with the Weiner saga, he’s the US politician who got caught tweeting dick pics. Not only were we trying to be topical, but the opportunity for comedy seemed to be given to us on a golden platter. You couldn’t make this shit up.

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While we moved on to other characters, the real Weiner just wouldn’t go away. He confessed to the error of his ways, claimed he’d learned a lesson, and reentered the political arena. During his next campaign, Weiner would be up to his old tricks with more dick pics, including the infamously cringe worthy snap that depicted his sleeping child in the background of the photo. Needless to say, the crew at Happy Hour Sketch Comedy leapt at the opportunity to railroad this disgraced politician and we brought Weiner back.

We used Anthony Weiner… well, primarily we used him as a vehicle for penis jokes. Can you blame us? But in the final Wiener sketch - that is unless he returns to politics again (you can’t keep a good Weiner down) - we used the absurdity of our Weiner persona to lampoon the two most hated political candidates in American history, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In our sketches, it would be dick pick snapper vs. pussy grabber as we depicted Anthony Weiner running as an independent third party candidate for the Happy Endings for America Party. He would crash the presidential debates with political ads reminiscent of Viagra commercials warning against the dangers of PD, or “political dysfunction”.

After 4 seasons and nearly 50 episodes, I was burnt out from doing sketch comedy. In the later seasons of HHSC, my style was already shifting away from simple humor and closer toward political commentary, which shows itself in later sketches like El Gringo Contador Del Winnebago - a dystopian post-Trump saga where a white collar American accountant sneaks over the border to Mexico in search for work because the USA’s economy has collapsed.

In my new dramatic work I shifted my lens to slightly less hilarious topics: murder, the American gun crisis, abortion, women’s rights, police brutality, and healthcare reform. You know, topics for your typical friendly banter at a dinner party. Apparently writing comedy was the challenge that people made it out to be, so I guess I chose these topics because they sounded… easier?

I truly felt that I’d nailed the comedy of some sketches and completely missed the comedy in others, but above all I learned one thing was true: everyone has their own opinion of what is funny.

If a drama film is dull, it can hide it’s dullness behind the truth of it’s topic. With comedy you constantly have to ride the precarious wave of absurdity, timing, satire and parody, and above all induce belly laughs in skeptics. Ask any comic and they will tell you that most people don’t give the benefit of the doubt. You’re guilty until proven innocent; lame until proven funny.

Even I can be a tough crowd. My taste in comedy is quite divergent from the current trend. While I’ve appreciated many a Judd Apatow film, his method of crafting comedy around improvisation has permeated the face of modern comedy and the downside is that most people can’t pull it off. Even the master of this technique himself has fallen flat on his face with a film or two. Improvisation is a skill that is even more difficult than comedy.

To me the best comedies are those that are meticulously planned and executed. Arthur (1981), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, just to name a few. I’m drawn toward comedies that are less about jokes and punchlines and more about character studies.

Bottomless is a departure from my past comedic sketches. It’s an odd blend of Woody Allen mixed with two of my favorite Anderson’s - Wes & Paul Thomas - and a dash of Ferris Bueller. It follows the story of an emotionally disenfranchised man-child, Jackson (played by Jon Gormley), who drunkenly reflects on modern existence while being dragged to a bottomless mimosa brunch by his successful vlogger girlfriend, Peyton (played by another HHSC cast member Amanda Maston).

To cope with the dystopian present, eventually some comedy was bound to seep out of my subconscious… When writing the screenplay I was in a very different place in my life than I am now. Not only had Trump just won the presidency shattering my worldview of what I thought was possible, but I was infinitely unhappy because I was in a corporate marketing job that was killing my most prized possession - my creativity. I’ve found that when you’re paid to be creative in ways that you don’t want to be, you have little energy at the end of the day to use your creativity for yourself.

Call me overly-confident, but I’ve always felt that I had a large artistic contribution to make, and the itch to pursue that contribution was not being scratched by creating branding for corporate America.

I was conflicted. I believed in my abilities as an artist. I knew my art was so intertwined with my identity that I had to try. I had to pursue my art as far as my circumstance would allow or else I’d look back and regret it. But regardless of this confidence and belief in myself, I had this nagging voice in the back of my head that would only add a layer of doubt. A voice telling me that artistic success and worldly success are two very different things and while I could strive to be the best artist I could be, there would be a likely chance that I still might not make it.

From the top hits on the radio to the people we elect to government leadership - I often look at what pop culture and the mainstream has to offer and think to myself, “This is the best you got?”

To illustrate, I’ll quote my favorite flop from one of my favorite directors, Cameron Crowe:

Success is the only god that people worship - not greatness.
— Elizabethtown

After spending a few months wandering around the great museums of Paris, London & Edinburgh with my then-fiancé/now-wife, I was struck by how much shit gets celebrated in this world. I remember choosing to stare out the window at the Parisian scenery vs. turn around at the top floor gallery of the Museum of Modern Art to join my fellow human beings in over-intelltualizing crayon scribbles of an “artist” who was being celebrated with an exhibition that took up an entire floor. His work literally, I shit you not, looked like this:

 
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I thought to myself, “Well if that’s what they want. That’s what I’ll give them.”

With Bottomless I attempted to create something beautiful and then destroy it for the sake of getting noticed. The result is hilarious and the irony is that there is so much content out there these days that no matter what you shoot it seems almost impossible to get noticed - so who knows if I’ll be successful in this experiment. It was this theme that motivated my lead character to shuffle through life in an aimless depression with uncontrollable outbursts of creativity, frustration, heartbreak, profanity and stereotypical male vulgarity - all without anyone around him noticing.

Bottomless is a project that’s lingered too long. I was shooting the first unit up until the day before I quit my corporate job and moved to the UK. Like so many before me I made the classic mistake of not backing up my footage immediately. Once in London I would discover that the SD card had corrupted and critical shots were missing.

Axiom

I wouldn’t return to the states until December of 2018 to shoot another short film for the Voutsinos brothers (Axiom which will be released later this year). I used the opportunity for reshoots and now two years after principal photography Bottomless is ready to show to the world. I’ve grown so much as an artist since that this hardly feels like my latest film, still, I hope it makes you laugh.

You can catch a sneak peak of Bottomless at Kino London’s Short Film Open-Mic on June 6th, or hopefully at a festival near you… unless I get beat out my someone who’s made a film that looks like this:

 
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Niralee Patel