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Why are comedy films less critically acclaimed?

In the summer of 2016 the BBC published a list of films to decide the best movies of the 21st century. Very few comedies made the list.

By Ewan Marmo-Bissell, Second Year, History

As part of Epigram Film & TV's ongoing series on comedy, we look at the difference in critical reception between comedies and dramas.

In the summer of 2016 the BBC published a list of films, aggregated from 177 film critics from around the world, to decide the best movies of the 21st century. It featured modern classics like Oldboy (2003), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Tree of Life (2011). Then the next year, the BBC published a new list – noting the reaction to the first list: ‘Very few comedies made that list’.

The general reaction to the list was that there were simply not enough comedies. It was yet another example in popular opinion that comedies are so often left out of critical acclaim, or maybe that comedies aren’t as high quality as drama. To really understand this phenomena, we have to re-interpret exactly what a comedy is, and analyse what genre means in the modern cinematic landscape.

It’s pretty plain why people think comedies are less acclaimed than other popular genres. We can look to the Academy Awards to see very few comedies even being nominated in the Best Picture category – let alone winning the whole thing. In the 21st century, you’d find it difficult to call any of the winners a comedy, apart from Birdman (2014). Before that, you’d have to trace all the way back to 1977 to find Annie Hall, which must be one of the best comedies ever to win - though many were nominated.


IMDb / United Artists

In the new list published by the BBC, they didn’t revise the first list, but rather, they asked a different question. This time they asked: ‘what are the best comedies of all time?’ Now this was a list of real critical acclaim for comedies from all of cinema history, but again there were snags. This list for best comedies included the likes of Pulp Fiction (1994), Ghostbusters (1984), and other films that are, while funny, surely not just comedies. This is the crux of the issue, that we see the word comedy and the comedic genre as reductive, not as enhancing.

Pulp Fiction, for example, is funny, and also a unique crime drama and commentary on popular culture. It is serious and comic; it is part of a modern cinematic world where genre cannot be easily pigeonholed. Ghostbusters too is funny and also a fantasy action film. We can flip this as well, and look at examples of the many best picture winners you would struggle to call comedies, but are inherently funny. This year Green Book (2018) won, which, despite being a serious take on class and race, also had laugh out loud moments. Then going back further we get films like Argo (2012), The Departed (2006) and Forrest Gump (1994) that all take time for humour.


IMDb / Miramax

So what’s going on here? If critics like humour in movies then what is wrong with a comedy movie, which will get you more laughs than Green Book. Well, the answer lies in the slew of comedies often released without substance and without elevating the genre, instead reverting to its base components and hoping for success.

Last year we had a number of these safe comedy films come out – Blockers (2018), Holmes and Watson (2018), I Feel Pretty (2018), and Tag (2018) were all major releases that made more than $80 million worldwide, except for Holmes and Watson which struggled at the box office. None were appreciated by critics and were fairly safe, funny films. These are the films that can be labelled simply as comedies. Films like Game Night (2018), Sorry to Bother You (2018), Love, Simon (2018) and Isle of Dogs (2018) also have terrific comedic value, but they elevate the genre and are more than they first seem. These films received critical praise, and reflect something that should be taken into account in all filmmaking, rather than just dramas.


IMDb / Warner Bros

All films, as part of whichever genre, have to do more than just follow their respective conventions if they want to be critically acclaimed; it’s the trailblazing films that are remembered, not the traditional ones. Annie Hall did just this, and became one of the best comedies ever made, and in turn established itself as one of the best films of the '70s. Once funny films like Pulp Fiction and Ghostbusters elevate themselves beyond their base funny roots, break convention and become a tremendous film in their own rites, we start to see them as above comedy, and we refer to them as such.

It’s not that funny films are less acclaimed, it’s that when they really are that good, we refer to them as being more than the sum of their parts.

Featured Image Credit: IMDb / Columbia Pictures

Do you think more comedies deserve to be considered classics?

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