Saturday, May 9, 2015

When not being funny is supposed to be funny

All I ever heard after I watched and didn't like Wet Hot American Summer was that I was crazy and that I had missed what was so funny about it.

Okay, Kingdom of Comedy Nerds Who Consider This Movie Your Bible, I'll watch your precious Wet Hot American Summer again.

So I did last night.

Nope. It's just not funny.

I'll go you one further. It's not funny because there are not any jokes.

Wet Hot American Summer expects to slide by on an ongoing undercurrent of absurdity, with nary a peak or valley, or a moment specifically constructed to make a person laugh in any traditional sense. While this may be why some people worship it -- and no, worship is not too strong a word -- it's why I'm hoping there's a silent majority that doesn't "get it."

I also wonder if people think that David Wain, who has since morphed into a much more traditional (and therefore more effective) type of joke-slinger (and therefore won me over), has sold out. I mean, the nerve of the guy, deciding it's time to try to actually make people laugh.

I can see all you Wet Hots (that's what we'll call you guys, like Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads) champing at the bit to get this post over already so you can get to the comments section and tear me a new one. So, I will steal your argument right from behind your lips and tell you why it doesn't work.

"Vance," -- you're still calling me Vance in this argument -- "it's a parody of an unfunny 1980s camp movie, so the very fact that it's unfunny is kind of the point."

No, parodies of unfunny movies are still funny, as long as the people who are writing them are funny. As long as those people can actually write jokes -- you know, bits of a humor that have a beginning, a build-up and a payoff, or simply zing by in a blur of crackling wit.

The scenes in Wet Hot American Summer are not even constructed to end on a joke. They move on to other scenes when they feel like moving on to other scenes, not once they've released us on a laugh. Because if they were waiting for that, this movie would just be one long scene.

Look, I get what this movie is trying to do, and I respect it. And there are moments that work in an almost performance art type of way. But far too much of the time, the direction seems to have been "Okay, react to what this person says in a way that is exaggerated or wildly inappropriate in context." You know, like the campers guffawing at the terrible Borscht belt comedian, and booing the genuinely good performance of the song from Godspell.

And I suppose that's where this film gets its most defining trait: its inconsistency. If there's any one comic mooring this film should have, it should be to do what it starts out to do, which is to establish Janeane Garofalo's camp director as its straight man. Garofalo should serve as the one person who is above the fray, navigating the last day of camp with a clear focus and a solid head on her shoulders. In short, she should be the audience surrogate, the one who looks aghast at all the daffy shenanigans and tries to sort her way through them.

Instead, her character has at least three epsiodes where she becomes just another braying lunatic. There's the trip into town where the group parties so hard they become heroin addicts. There's the return of Joe Lo Truglio to report that the campers have been abandoned on their rafting trip, when she starts running around like a chicken with her head cut off and in fact wipes all the items off a desk in her directionless panic. Then there's her earnest participation in the goofy science experiment designed to change the path of a falling chunk of space station.

Let's take the first of those three incidents. The idea is great. A group of camp counselors jumps at the opportunity to ride into town, not wanting to miss ... Lord knows what, but it's gonna be great. The movie then has the right idea by having them get involved in all sorts of ludicrous activities (including mugging an old woman), and then revealing that the trip only lasted an hour. Yes, this is funny. What's not funny is the execution. We don't let out surprised laughter when they mug the old woman. We don't let out surprised laughter when they buy a bag of cocaine as big as a football. And we don't let out surprised laughter when they lie around a flophouse with needles sticking out of their arms. Because the actual direction of the scene is flaccid. I told my wife, a newcomer to this movie, that this was the type of montage that Leslie Nielsen could (and regularly did) make funny.

"Oh great, Vance. You are comparing one of the most arch, sublime comedies of the 21st century to a guy who bugged out his eyes and made incredibly broad genre parodies."

But at least Leslie Nielsen knew how to play a scene for a laugh. Did every scene in every Nielsen movie end in a laugh? Of course not. Did his career whimper out into ten years of forgettable garbage? Of course it did. But when Nielsen was on, he was on. And his overall success rate is probably higher than the success rate of the "humor" in Wet Hot American Summer -- even with his years of duds thrown in.

Maybe that's too harsh. I mean, there are certainly moments in this movie I respect. The one that probably works best is when the counselors sit around discussing getting back together in ten years from this day, and spend a dozen lines of dialogue just on whether the meeting time should be 9 or 9:30. And it ends with what I would consider the type of punchline I'd like the whole movie to have. "Because I have something at 11."

Something at 11! On a random day ten years from now, which had only just been nominated for consideration as a reunion date 30 seconds earlier! That's funny!

But it still didn't make me laugh. It made me smile.

There was one single image from Wet Hot American Summer that I carried with me through the nearly 14 years since I first saw it, as the defining image of what didn't work about it. During this viewing, I was kind of waiting for the scene to arrive, to see if it was really as much a thud as I thought it was the first time. I imagined this single scene would be a litmus test to whether I found the whole movie salvageable or not.

And there it came: Ken Marino, driving down the road in that van, singing happily to himself and fully paying attention to where he was driving, but then suddenly hitting a tree, out of nowhere.

"See, it's funny because it's so ridiculous! It's supposed to be contrived! Where did that tree come from??"

But as with everything in Wet Hot American Summer, I feel like I'm looking at this joke sideways. It just doesn't land because the timing, because the delivery, because something is off.

So I'm sorry, Wet Hots, my second viewing of this movie also totaled itself against that tree. Not only will a third not be forthcoming, but I won't be watching the upcoming Netflix show based on it, either.

I'm just glad that David Wain figured out how to make movies like Wanderlust and They Came Together, and no more like this one.


Jandy said...

Senses of humor are funny things (heh). I tend to find full-on absurdity like this film has to be funnier than more traditional jokes with set-ups and pay-offs. You complain that the "jokes" (if there are any) don't pay off, and to me, that's what makes the film funny. It's not even that it's like an anti-comedy where it's satirizing comedy or whatever, it's just that it has no interest in playing by any existing set of rules or structure, and I like that.

This type of humor doesn't appeal to everyone (obviously!), but you can't really analyze it, either. You can describe why it doesn't work for you (and you did), but that bears essentially no relation to whether it's funny to me or not, because that setup-payoff structure you want the film to have isn't important to me.

Derek Armstrong said...

Too true. But I guess this raises the question: In order to find a film funny, do you need to laugh at individual moments, or can it create a kind of cumulative "funny vibe" that renders individual bursts of laughter irrelevant? If it's the latter, I can't get you to describe it any better than you've already done, which is excellently. However, if there ARE some individuals moments that specifically make you laugh, I'd love an example of one or two.

Thanks for the comment!

Jandy said...

I'm really bad at remembering specific moments in films, but I was definitely laughing. The dinner scene with Paul Rudd throwing a tantrum over picking up his dishes is one that stands out - I revisit that one on YouTube frequently because it cracks me up so much. It's just the timing and look on Rudd's face, and the look on Garofalo's face. Really, Janeane Garofalo can pretty much just stand there and make me laugh. I just turned the movie on just now briefly and her first scene (sitting on the steps calmly as all the boys scramble back to their bunks) where she goes (after it's really too late, they've already gone by) "You guys aren't supposed to be out of your bunks - you're in big trouble" in a total deadpan...I'm already laughing. Her delivery is priceless. I might just rewatch the whole thing and tally up all the times I laugh, just for your edification. :)

Have you seen Quentin Dupieux's Rubber or Wrong? I think Wrong especially has similar absurdist humor, and I'm curious if you've seen/hated it.

Derek Armstrong said...

Nearly two years later, I am randomly realizing I failed to answer your follow-up question on this post. (And am curious to see if you will be notified that I added another comment.) One of the reasons not responding was a terrible oversight is that I *LOVE* Rubber. I think it's hilarious, especially the opening part where the cop asks why certain arbitrary things happen or do not happen in certain famous movies and concludes "No reason" for each. However, where the rubber meets the road (heh) in our differences may come down to Wrong, which should have worked for me in the way Rubber did but totally did not. I guess I need to see Wrong Cops in order to determine where I really stand on Dupieux.