By Matthew Sorrento.
In his essay “A Spanner in the Works?: Genre, Narrative and the Hollywood Comedian,” Frank Krutnik details how classical Hollywood comedies were built around a star comedian. Designed to showcase the talents of the star, these vehicles present him/her as a fish-out-water, to provide comic bits, and then redirect his energy towards success of the community and hence, align him to the status quo. The more anarchic entries, featuring W.C. Fields, the Marx brothers, and later, Woody Allen, portrayed rebellion against the system and, in Allen’s case, his character’s demise (in 1975’s Love and Death). Even the antics of Stan Laurel in a feature often discredited by fans, Babes in Toyland (1934), help lead to success, when he cross-dresses in white veil as Bopeep, who’s forced to marry the villain Barnaby (Henry Brandon – yes, Scar in 1956’s The Searchers), to foil the plan.
Though a dominant style, the comedian comedy gradually diminished, for the rise of the ensemble comedy. Recurring regularly from the 1960s to today, comic ensembles became popular with help from mad combat films like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), the goofy medical support featured in M.A.S.H. (1970) and later, “slob comedies” like Animal House (1978). A pack of misfits stays far from marriage, parenthood, and the traditional family unit; the group promises more iconoclasm beyond one funnyman (and setups from a “straight man”) with the broader appeal that a “ship of fools” provides for audience identification and enjoyment. This unruly gang finds itself in an environment hostile to them, where their rebellion leads to comedy and, in the best examples, continues their resistance through the conclusion. This style offers comedy in its basic form: irony of situation in which character opposes enviroment.
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows calls attention to the dichotomy of the “comedian” and ensemble styles. As a slacker-style comedy (one of many alternative names for the style officially launched by Animal House), Shadows presents a comic group in contrast to their environment: vampires living in contemporary New Zealand. And yet the comedy belongs largely to Clement, star, cowriter, and co-director. In his popular but short-lived HBO series, Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009), based on their comical band of the same name, Clement co-starred with co-creator Bret McKenzie, who played the straight man, for what is essentially a modern treatment of the comedian comedy style adapted for early television. Clement and McKenzie were wise to cast talented comics in supporting roles (Kristen Schaal as Mel, the kooky fan, and Rhys Darby as Murray, the hilarious manager). And yet they essentially serve to accentuate Clement’s comedy, if sharing the spotlight. Working off a deadpan look, Clement uses his cartoonish presence to bring out subtle facial inflections, and his jokes finish the comical effect. He shows as mastery of physical comedy – restrained and hence, the most effective kind – working with verbal wit.
Shadows, though, treats all members of the ensemble as star comedians. Waititi, though obviously important behind the scenes, as the 379-year-old vampire Viago looks strained as a comical lead, with his presence a continually mugging one. The mockumentary approach to the film seems tired at first, though once the film gets going the actors work beyond it, giving the film a relaxed tone. And yet, Waititi can’t get away from the faux-doc camera placement, his face always too conscious of a device that needs invisibility. A very funny film, it still lags when he takes the spotlight. As the 862-year-old Vlad (yes, that one, we assume) Clement understands the absurd frustrtions of his character and restrained physical humor; he recalls, in his best moments, the control that Peter Sellers achieved regularly and which Steve Carell hits, at times.
Like the mock-doc tone, the vampire parody feels worn out, though the production shows its affection for the tradition and insight about the recent genre well: the oldest one of the troupe, an 8000-year-old rat-like beast kept in the basement, appears like a double of Count Orlok – the onset of the actual vampire tradition onscreen, of course – that’s repressed by the current craze (the opening scene, in which Viago rises like Orlok, is cute, if too long). When the vampires fight, they rise repeatedly; the obvious device recalls the bits that Chaplin reused but captured in a relaxed and honest manner.
The ensemble, which reflects aimless millennials with a hangover from the 1990s (they could be a band, and even jam at one point), feels like a boon for the hipsters and post-mumblecore fanbase (they convert a loner who seems trapped between hipster and punk). While films in that trend fret and pose for comedy that never appears (Wes Anderson is a guilty party), Clement and Shadows undercuts the style by delivering skits and wit of actual comedy, just as he did in Conchords. It’s a comedy for the current fanbase that has broader appeal and hence, succeeds if uneven.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012).
Krutnik, Frank (1995) “A Spanner in the Works?: Genre, Narrative and the Hollywood Comedian,” Classical Hollywood Comedy, New York: Routledge.