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Laughter is the Best Medicine

Adam McKay – What Is Smart Dumb Comedy?


When you think of the best character introductions in film history what comes to mind? there’s Frank in “Once upon a Time in the West”, the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Willy Wonka, Quint, and Here’s another I would rank among them. [A-one-two-three-four] [ba hoo ha] Derek Hough and his family from Adam McKay’s 2008 film Step Brothers and No, I’m not joking. This is a very, very, silly scene, but consider this in, a little over a minute, we now have a total understanding of what kind of person Derek is. [Okay I’m gonna save it with this solo.] We understand that his kids are essentially monuments to his own excellence and that his wife is trapped in a hostile loveless marriage This is really effective characterization in addition to being totally absurd. [I can sing hi-i-i-igh.] [Oh Jesus!] Adam McKay’s comedies are some of the many movies produced by Judd Apatow, probably the single biggest influence on American comedy over the past 15 years. Most Apatow productions are grounded, relationship-driven comedies, like raunchier versions of James L Brooks or Woody Allen films. But McKay’s films are pretty much the opposite. They’re anarchic, absurdist,
and not grounded in the slightest. Even though he’s now earned the status of ‘Serious Director’ and won an Oscar for the “Big Short”, Mckay is probably the best filmmaker working today when it comes to smart dumb comedy. Adam McKay’s comedies, all of which are collaborations with Will Ferrell, don’t take place in our world. In the world of these movies pretty much every character is a moron. Even the smarter ones think the best way to remove a knife from someone’s leg is to pry it out with another knife. In these movies, a scene of 40 year old men beating the shit out of middle-school kids is presented as a moment of heroic victory. Murder is shrugged off as a funny surprise. [Brick killed a guy.] Absolutely nothing in the stories is meant to be taken seriously. It’s not surprising that McKay points to “The Simpsons” as a major influence. Homer Simpson is one of the great comedy protagonists. Whose stupidity has a level of brilliance and originality that could only be crafted by truly smart writers. [Hey! Get off my sugar! Bad bee! Bad! Ow!] [Oooowww!] I know there’s nothing more annoyingly pedantic than someone explaining why a joke is funny. So I won’t bother attempting an academic analysis of this…[Paa!] comedy is incredibly subjective anyway and subjectively something about Rob Riggle making that sound in the middle of a dialogue scene is funny. [Pow pow!] But while I’m not going to discuss specific jokes, I do want to look at McKay’s approach to constructing comedies. Looking at these movies on a macro level, structurally they could all be serious dramas. Anchorman tells the story of a man’s rise, fall, and redemption as he learns to grapple with the concept of gender equality. Talladega Nights is a classic sports biopic and Stepbrothers tells an archetypal story of two people starting at enemies then realizing they’re meant to be together. Mckay uses familiar structures and story beats but for each plot point finds the weirdest funniest most interesting way to approach it. Basically he’s using the approach to improv you learned from studying under del Close for constructing stories. In Anchorman, Veronica Corningstone falls for Ron Burgundy not through an enlightening emotional conversation but from seeing him give a virtuosic jazz flute performance. In The Other Guys, Terry Hoitz, in classic cop movie fashion, is haunted by a dark event from his past. But it’s not shooting a child or letting a criminal escape, its accidentally shooting Derek Jeter and costing the Yankees the World Series. In Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby leaves tickets for his father for every race in the hope that he’ll finally show up. At the climactic race he finally does and Immediately turns around and tries to scalp the tickets. [Who needs two? I’ve got tickets.] The movie sets up a big emotional payoff only to immediately subvert it. There’s a feeling of anarchic glee running through the movies, [Anarchy! Anarchy!] as McKay grabs traditional narrative structure and dives headfirst into absurdity. There is never a tension between story and jokes. The story is simply a vehicle for the jokes the greatest moment of conflict in “Anchorman”, the battle between the rival news teams that results in actual fatalities, is a total non sequitur that has absolutely no impact on the plot or characters. The mere idea of story is itself a joke. This is what separates McKay’s work from the rest of the pack. We’ve all seen plenty of Hollywood comedies where, in the 3rd act, it suddenly gets serious. The movie realizes it has to deliver an emotional climax and gets heavy on plot forgetting to be a comedy. “Stepbrothers”, McKay’s most deranged movie it takes that idea and twist it into something insane. In the movie’s 3rd act, the characters have all gone their separate ways and to follow in the Hollywood formula we’d expect some sort of emotional reunion, and we get one in the most brilliantly stupid way, imaginable. [Let
me go for a few bars.] [Come in soft but then finish strong.] [Ok.] The climactic scene features the two psychotic, manchild protagonists performing an Italian opera song at a helicopter leasing event that is so transcendent and beautiful that all the characters experience moments of emotional enlightenment. It’s making fun of the very idea of an emotional climax. [I made a kite fly. Brendan your the best big brother ever.] We obviously have to talk about improvisation which is a major component of comedy movies in the 2000s. While the movie is directed by Apatow or his alums, like Seth Rogen, they’ve have largely used improv in the form of friends riffing jokes at one another. [Your face looks like Robin Williams knuckles.] Mckay uses it to deepen the characters and mythology. Since the characters are already exaggerated cartoons, the lines improvised aren’t jokes the characters are making, they’re absurd details about themselves. They reveal their thoughts and fantasies building on the fictional worlds they inhabit. [I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says like ‘I want to be formal but I’m here to party too’.] As silly as these movies are, all the absurdity is built on a foundation of strong characterization. We understand the characters’ motivations, their fears and desires. The absurd choices they make are funnier because they’re consistent with who the characters are. [Milk was a bad choice.] So what exactly is Smart dumb comedy? As McKay, himself, put it “It’s that weird kind of satire where you’re making fun of it but you’re also doing it.” These movies proudly mock the concept of a logical story but at the same time operate on their own internal logic. Everything makes sense within the bizarre worlds they’ve built. And as much as I’ve talked about these movies being dumb, it can’t be ignored that McKay laces politics into everything he does. “Anchorman”, “Stepbrothers” and particularly “Talladega Nights”, were sharp commentaries on Bush Era America. Their protagonists were arrogant, narcissistic men with delusional views of the world and, honestly, in 2017 these might be more relevant than ever. Hey guys, thanks for watching and for indulging me because for months now I’ve been trying to find a way to talk about the “Stepbrothers” car acapella scene in a video essay. And I did it! Now you may have noticed that there have been more video essays than usual lately and that’s for scheduling reasons because I can make these totally on my own. But pretty soon, it’ll be back to just one a month which I’m excited about because I think these are more exhausting and harder to make than like shooting narrative stuff on location. I don’t know how some channels make one every single week. Anyway, if you like what we’re doing and you want to help us make more of these videos check out the Patreon. If you want to yell at me about anything and get updates on what we’re working on, follow me on all the social media platforms, and I will see you next Wednesday.

100 thoughts on “Adam McKay – What Is Smart Dumb Comedy?

  1. The Other Guys is the best satire since paul verhoeven's Starship Troopers! It's my favorite comedy of all time, and I watch it at least 5 times a year.
    The scene when Farrell is attempting to talk that lawyer down off the ledge, and he tells him, "there's a lot of reasons to stick around… like a nice fresh can of soda pop — oh look he's fying" GUY'S BODY SMASHES INTO CAR FROM ABOVE makes me explode with laughter still to this day, and that's just a random one off the top of my head.

  2. I would say an example of ‘smart dumb comedy’ would be where the joke is the characters and worlds themselves, not the dumb things they’re saying or doing… like Michael Scott.

  3. Dam man that video was fucking amazing. so glad this was recommened for what ever reason I LIKE IT, NUMBER 1 WISH for someone to invent a men in black forget everything thing but only for movies youv seen before. I might have not stopped laughing at anchor man the entire movie when i first saw it, and took about the 10th time for me not to be in tears for the most of them. Dumb and dumber might have More notable lines but anchor man to me has wayyy more almost every 5 seconds is a killer line. Always be my fav comedy

  4. Dear God, … these videos. 50 seconds in and I'm done.
    You cannot seriously put this family introduction next to the likes of The Joker or Dr. Lecter. Your insane argument being that in one minute of film the audience gets to understand what kind of people these familly members are. They may be true, but it's not because it's such a clever scene.
    It's because the audience has seen this family hundreds and hundreds of times before.
    In contrast, the audience has never seen a psychopath such as Dr. Lecter. The audience is fed piewces of information about what kind of monster that man is. When he is finally introduced to the audience, the scene becomes a true masterpiece because of how the expactations are not met, yet the audience immediately knows what kind of man Dr. Lecter is. That is clever writing,
    Add to that the characters you mentioned – for fuck's sake, The Joker – are incredibly deep and well written and their introductions perfectly set that up.
    And then … then you go in and try to argue that Adam McKay plays in the same league because of a cookie-cutter introduction of cookie-cutter characters.
    I swear, you still believe the emperor is wearing clothes.

  5. What is the song played in the background when talking about smart dumb comedies? It reminds me of One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

  6. I think people who cannot see humor in the absurdity of his films shouldn’t criticize them becuase simply put, if they don’t find it funny then they won’t enjoy it.
    He uses the common story tropes of film and spins them on their back with stupid yet funny jokes. The films are merely for entertainment and theirs nothing wrong with that. If someone doesn’t enjoy these films it doesn’t make them smarter it just means they don’t find this form of humor entertaining

  7. Re: Your comments about Stepbrothers — they're not "psychotic" — you chose the wrong word, Willems.

    Otherwise this is great.

  8. I knew Adam McKay was a real director the moment I saw the other guys. His work in The Big Short did not surprise me at all.

  9. I lost it at “The two psychotic man-child protagonists performing an Italian opera at a helicopter leasing event.” I’ve never stepped back and thought about how truly absurd that scene is.

  10. WHAT?!? When you characters are as simple as a block of cheese, it's easy to introduce them fully in a single scene. This dude misses all the details, and sees only the forest, never the trees.

  11. yes yes yes!!!
    ugh i look up to these guys
    I'm an absurd humour/Non-Sequitur conosir (wtf's the spelling for that wird?)
    i feel like tbere isn't an absurd humour community but whatevs there's enugh in my head
    ANARCHY!

  12. "The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria! I'll do you in the bottom while you're drinking Sangria!" Honest to God, Stepbrothers is one of the funniest movies ever made. Great video, man!

  13. Adam McKay is a really really talented director. His comedies are some of the funniest things you’ll ever see but his serious work is also gripping and enthralling. He has a great range and always brings something strong to the table.

  14. Back in 2017, I would have been annoyed at his suggestion that McKay's comedies also served as social commentary on the Bush era through observation of narcissistic, delusional men; but then he made a biopic of Dick Cheney in "Vice", so hindsight's 20/20 I guess.

  15. After making a terrible political hot take like that, maybe you really do need to see more commentaries on arrogant, narcissistic men.

  16. "…sharp commentaries on Bush-era America" hmm I don't think see these films as "sharp commentaries". Yes, that may be the point behind the films but they certainly don't serve to function that way. If anything, these movies glorify those white narcissistic men. The people he is mocking make up a major portion of it's fan-base and they love these movies. It shows a world where there a no consequences for shit behavior/actions. The mirror reflects back to them a positive image… so I can't see how it is "what we need now". This has always been my issues with his films, interesting that you take the opposite side on this and see the positive effects.

  17. I think this is actually why the Big Short failed. It attempted to tell a real story in the real world, but obviously didn't want to.

  18. Apatow has been more consistent. Step Brothers is the only McKay comedy worth watching more than once. In fact I'd say his best film thus far has been The Big Short.

  19. I have to respectfully disagree. Will Ferrell & Adam McKay's comedies have parts that are funny but a lot of the jokes seem like we're supposed to find them funny simply because it's absurd. I did like Step Brothers and The Other Guys, but a lot of the movies just seemed like they were doing the same gags & characters only with a new script. They are both very talented and they both have films and other projects that I have enjoyed. However, I feel like their work together has kind of run it's course and they need to maybe go back to the drawing board and start with something fresh or maybe do more work on their own. Holmes & Watson bombing kind of feels like a sort of confirmation that people have already seen that act too many times. I did enjoy the video though, very well made!

  20. Every time I make smart dumb jokes everyone thinks I’m stupid. Even though they’re super funny to me and I enjoy to make them, it pisses me off when they assume I’m actually dumb.

  21. Right after I watched this I decided to watch these movies on Netflix since they’re in my recommended. And of course they’ve all been taken down

  22. WHOA! Hey now, Patty. Hold the horses there, partner. "…Judd Apatow, probably the single biggest influence on American comedy in 15 years."

    Thought you could just fit a quick Hattrick in there when no one was looking, did you Patrick? Look, this is the first and probably last time I'll pipe-up with a comment on any of your videos. Until now, your work's been nothing but exceptional, sir. But with one exception, and I think I'll preface that with — I think you meant to say 'Judd Apatow, probably the single biggest influence on American comedic *cinema in 15 years.'

    No doubt, ol' JudApa's a silly feller. But any consequence or influence he may have on American COMEDY is negligible at best. Sure, he himself did have what's been called a background in standup comedy. But even Judd'll tell ya that didn't turn out too well for him. It's not that he wasn't talented, capable on stage, accepted by the standup community to any degree, or anything like that. It's just that he wasn't… He wasn't especially great at it. Nothing memorable or special. And I recall nothing about Apatow having a background in improv or humor writing either.

    Where your statement is correct, sir, is on the back-half of the seventh sentence of this nit-picky diatribe, where it's been revised for accuracy. In cinema, JdAptw's greatest strengths lie in his comedy productions. End rant.

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