Out Of England 2 - The Boundaries Of Movie Comedy

Thoughts On: Out Of England 2: The Stand Up Special (2010)

Ricky Gervais' second HBO special.

Before we start, if you don't like dark comedy, this post probably isn't for you. Still here? I'll reiterate, if you don't think jokes about rape or abuse can be funny, tap out now.

Ok, what I want to talk about today is my favourite joke in Ricky Gervais' 2010 stand-up special:

What's so great about this joke is the manner in which it is crafted in respect to its subject matter. In short, this joke is simple misdirection; you're horrified at the idea of a daughter being molested, but then thrown in a completely different direction when you find out that the father only inquired out of some sadistic pleasure. The simple misdirection is the source of this joke - the fact that Gervais sucks you into a story with one tone and subtext, but then reveals something of the polar opposite. You begin to laugh because you've been tricked. The joke is so great, however, because of the magnitude of that misdirection; you can't get more of a tonal jump than that between a father's ultimate nightmare and the sick response played out.

There are a trillion examples of misdirection in stand-up comedy and you will also find plenty in cinema too. However, could this Rick Gervais joke be filmmed and still be funny?

My answer is a definitive, no. This is simply because of the authorial control a filmmaker doesn't have. Gervais can perform this bit and get a laugh, in large part, because of his body language and set-up. He sets up the joke by telling someone off-stage to start the car, he then takes a swig of beer and reluctantly begins the joke with the smug grin of a naughty child. This says to the audience that something is coming, that they better get ready for misdirection. And in such Gervais uses a performance trick that is especially prevalent with 'magicians'. Like David Blaine may, he says, with body language and in subtext, that, "I'm about to trick you". In response, you tighten up and say, "good luck". Waiting for the card to show up on your back pocket, looking to see a sleight of hand, you watch a magic trick like you hear a joke... but you never see the punch line coming and the card always ends up in your back pocket somehow.

A filmmaker doesn't have such a dexterous ability to slip cards into back pockets or even warn an audience of misdirection in such an acute way because they frame a story and capture reality (constructed or otherwise), they do not necessarily write the story with the camera and they do not paint the painting of each frame. What I mean to suggest here is that a camera does not narrate a story like a comedian or writer can. There is a silence to which your bound to when your tools of communication are at such distance as they are in cinema. A comedian uses all of his or her biological tools to communicate - voice and body. A writer cannot use their body, nor any real presence, but they can imply this with direct symbols that humans have grown to understand in-parallel to speech - written words. An image doesn't have that intuitive communicative power that a word does. Paint a picture...

... you've got a thousand words. What exactly are those words? Well, maybe you don't have a thousand words, instead an infinite set of variable and subjective interpretations. Cinema takes this idea much further, however, as there isn't just one image to decipher, but millions - which build into shots, scenes, set-pieces and sequences.

This is why a filmmaker hasn't got the same authorial control as a stand-up comic. Furthermore, this is why Gervais can tell this joke, but if you where to just let it play out on screen... I don't know how you'd pull that off.

However, what do I know? A cinematic version of this joke may be possible. I don't know how the tonal jump would be communicated with someone acting out the father and daughter. I don't know how you'd convey the right mood with cinematic language. I don't know how you'd use sound, how you'd set this up, and how the image won't take over. This is because, when visualising the girl actually talking to her dad, not just Gervais playing the two out, you are forced to see the reality of the joke. As suggested in the beginning, the art and purpose of this joke is misdirection, it is not to belittle and laugh at a girl that's just had a stranger whip his dick out in front of her. Even saying "a stranger whip his dick out in front of her" can sound somewhat comedic because they're just words floating about in your head. But, would you see the comedy in the cinematic depiction of this or if it played out in front of you as you walked through a park?

What all of this says about cinema is that, whilst the filmmaker is held at a distance from the telling of the story and so doesn't have much authorial power, he/she does work with a form that is so readily real and close to people. In such, the image speaks for itself, quite articulately, which is why a filmmaker doesn't have so much control. There is no image as Gervais talks, we see him and we hear a very weak description of his story. After all, if Gervais was to describe the green-eyed girl with clean streaks running down her grubby cheeks - tears that washed away dirt; if he was to tell us about her nervous nature, timid spirit and naive intrigue; if he were to make the girl a character, not just a theme or subject, the joke probably wouldn't work. He would create sympathy for her and, if he described the oafish father reading his paper in nothing but his dressing gown and a three-day-old skin suite of unshowered grime, then we'd have antagonists, bad guys, protagonists... and things are getting way too complicated. I think this is why the most out-there kinds of movie comedy are actually animated cartoons...

An animator has a lot more control over the humanisation of character and so controls exactly what an image may say. Imagine for example a live action South Park episode. How much would you hate Cartman? How terrible would the jokes be? Where would the timing and harmlessness of this style go?

The closest you can get to live action comedy that is this dark, yet this successful, is fail videos and memes. In these formats, real life is reduced to a punchline - there are no characters, the context is simple and BAM... everything is over so quickly. It's then clearly the empathy that movies project through their complex imagery that truly curbs their comedy. But, could you get rid of this to dissolve boundaries?

I think this question is the one that may open up the door to a filmmaker trying to produce a comedy as dark and as funny as this Ricky Gervais joke. It would take something of an exploitation approach and it'd be incredibly difficult, but, what are your thoughts? Do you think there are insurmountable boundaries to comedic cinema? Or do you think they may be hurdled?

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