Captivating and Enlightening
Proposing to fill a twenty-year void of books examining the comedian film, editor Frank Krutnik has amassed thirteen scholarly works for The Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader. This compilation is both captivating and enlightening. The book is divided into five parts: Part One—Genre, Narrative and Performance; Part Two—Approaches to Silent Comedy; Part Three—Sound Comedy, The Vaudeville Aesthetic and Ethnicity; Part Four—Comedian Comedy and Gender; Part Five —Post Classical Comedian Comedy.
In the essay "Buster Keaton, or the work of Comedy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Tom Gunning focuses his discussion [End Page 86] on the oft-made comparisons between Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Gunning does a nice job of highlighting the differences between the two, making reference to the overt social commentary often seen in Chaplin's films (this is discussed in further detail in William Paul's "Charlie Chaplin and the Annals of Anality") and how this differed from the approach Keaton took in his work. Gunning also speaks to the way each performer used the camera to relate to their audience, stating "[w]hereas Chaplin used film to create a startling intimacy with his audience, allowing them insight into his most private moments of romantic longing and disappointment . . . Keaton's relation to the audience remained distanced" (74).
Joanna Rapf's fascinating piece entitled "Comic Theory from a Feminist Perspective—A Look at Jerry Lewis" begins with a look at femininity, as well as masculinity, in the comedic world: "If women are indeed primal earth mothers, sources of life and order, comfort and reassurance, apple pie, chicken soup, and everything that builds a foundation to give others the strength to grow, the comedy . . . is anathema to the feminin" (146). Rapf then transitions to examining how Jerry Lewis, through his film work, interprets not only male patriarchy, but "idealized" masculinity in general. According to Rapf, "[Lewis'] flagrant rejection of conventional standards of realistic and narrative expectation, and his ambiguous approach to gender and sexuality all put him in what can only be called an unexpected and surprisingly revolutionary camp" (152).
Part Five of the book, entitled "Post-Classical Comedian Comedy" may have the most resonance for modern-day movie-goers. Bambi Haggins, in her piece "Laughing Mad—The black comedian's place in American comedy of the post-Civil Rights era" effectively traces the history of black comedians since the 1960s. Beginning with Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, Haggins outlines the rise of each of these performers and the adaptations each made during their careers to either conform to the mainstream, or reject it. Haggins uses the term "negotiating blackness and the mainstream" (73).
Haggins then turns to "the next generation" which includes performers such as Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, comparing this "next" generation to the previous generation of Pryor, Murphy and Cosby. Is Murphy the true "air apparent" to Pryor? Is Chris Rock a blend of both Pryor and Gregory or a completely different type of comedian based on the times in which he lives? These are just a few of the questions that Haggins' essay implores the reader to ask. As race and racial identity are inextricably linked to any discussion of the black comedian, Haggins appropriately ends her piece by stating "[a]s long as conventional wisdom dictates that sardonic, cultural critique cannot play well at the Cineplex, the underbelly of race relations and racial inequity in post-Civil Rights American will not be the stuff of which Hollywood comedies are made. So . . . who is laughing mad now?" (184).
Finally, Philip Drake's piece—"Low Blows? Theorizing performance in post-classical comedian comedy"—focuses on comedian Jim Carrey. By examining Carrey's films such as Ace Ventura, Liar, Liar and Me Myself and Irene, Drake examines such questions as whether films focusing on the physical are part of the "dumbed down" comedic film milieu, what goes into an audience enjoying a comedic "screen performance" and, as Drake states in his piece, "what we mean by 'dumb' performance and what is at stake in its interpretation and critical evaluation" (189). As Drake points out, many comedians who go on to stardom in the film industry, hail from vaudeville, comedy clubs and television. It is often this background, especially that of television, that shapes the nature of the comedian's performance and the familiarity that the comedian's audience has with the performer. Ultimately, Drake questions what influence the audience's own identification with the comedian's star persona has on the lens through which a filmgoer views that star's performance.
Additional essays include Steve Seidman's "Performance Enunciation and Self-reference in Hollywood Comedian Comedy," Mark Winokur's "The Marx Brothers and the Search for the Landsman," Peter Kramer's "Derailing the Honeymoon Express: Comicality and Narrative Closure in Buster Keaton's The Blacksmith," and Kathleen Rowe's "She Done Him Wrong: Spectacle and Narrative." There are also contributions from Patricia Mellencamp, Henry Jenkins III, William Paul, Steve Neal, Frank Krutnik and Steven Cohan. The introduction states that the book " . . . illustrates the disparate critical and theoretical projects that have embraced the comedian film in recent years"(1). The Hollywood Comedians, the Film Reader accomplishes this and much more.