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  • Comedy/Cinema/Theory
  • James Morrison
Comedy/Cinema/Theory. Edited by Andrew Horton Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Comedy’s not pretty—as the title of an early-eighties Steve Martin album instructed us—and to judge from Comedy/Cinema/Theory it’s not very funny either. Peter Brunette on the Three Stooges: “In the refusal to have meaning, to make sense, the Stooges’ violence in fact constitutes an anti-narrative. It is precisely their violence, as an ‘originary’ writing, that both allows for and destroys narrative . . .” (178). Dana Polan on Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith: “Screwball comedy bears the traces of confusions and contradictions in a later moment of capital when this commodification of desire reaches new extremes” (146). Scott Bukatman on Jerry Lewis: “The feeling of entrapment and of the impossibility of action or change arises agonizingly. Within such spatiotemporal distension, the physical dominates character, as the individual is reduced to automaton . . .” (195).

Bound to become a standard in university film-comedy courses, this collection of essays eschews Lubitschean epigrams or Stoogean banana-peels in favor of Derridean stencils or Heideggerean slip-knots. The volume is necessary and useful, and some of the essays are brilliant, but the effect is at times one of unmistakable homogeneity. In his introduction, the book’s editor, Andrew Horton, makes much of the “non-essentialist . . . thus open-ended” (3) theoretical approaches the contributors favor, but by the time this panel of unreconstructed post-structuralists get through with it po-mo comedy looks a lot like any other po-mo genre (if post-modernism can be said to leave any genres in its wake, a question the contributors here never ask). It represses the feminine/maternal (as Lucy Fischer suggests); it articulates the phallocentrism of Hollywood’s unconscious (as Peter Lehman claims); its carnivalesque potential is either triumphantly realized (as in Horton’s own essay) or self-consciously stymied (as in Ruth Perlmutter’s), thereby either subverting dominant ideology (as in Stephen Mamber’s) or reproducing it (as in Dana Polan’s). Unapologetically recuperating the genre for post-structuralism (hereafter PS), the versions of comedy constructed in this volume tell as much about contemporary academic film criticism as they do about comedy itself. What the book most forcefully proves, finally, is that you can put the same top-spins on comedy that you can on, say, melodrama or horror or soap-opera—as if anyone ever doubted it.

In fact, some may well have doubted it, and a book like this one is comparatively late in coming, after a line of similar anthologies dealing with less problematic genres, perhaps because of an assumption that comedy does not readily lend itself to PS analysis since, in effect, comedy beats the critic to it. Much eighties criticism of popular culture is heavily dependent on a conception of the text (and to a lesser extent of its consumer) as naive. Theories of comedy, though, tend to emphasize the selfconsciousness of the genre, claiming that comedy by its very nature draws attention to its own stylistic operations, explicitly positions its audience in relation to it, catalogues all its own intertexts—performs, that is, the very functions criticism of popular-culture ordinarily arrogates to itself. Lucy Fischer’s psychoanalytic discussion of “comedy and matricide,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” in itself a fine essay, also exemplifies the effect of such critical claims to apprehending the “unconscious” level of a naive text in cultural criticism. Her analysis of the Howard Hawks film His Girl Friday (1940) finds in that text a particularly striking instance, because “the humorous text does not mandate [the mother’s] presence through the exigencies of plot” (65), of the “elimination of the maternal” she sees as endemic to Hollywood comedy. The “devaluation of the maternaI” (66) emerges here as, if not exactly unconscious, at least “gratuitous” (65) in Fischer’s view. But Fischer’s argument depends on her repression of the text’s keen self-consciousness about gender in, for example, its satirical references to the historical personae of its male actors, Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy, or—more importantly—in its overt parody of its source, Hecht and MacArthur’s The...