Dumb, But Clever: How Carl Reiner and Steve Martin use comedy, and how comedy has changed.
After learning of the death of the great Carl Reiner earlier this week, I took some time out of doing whatever it is I do these days (honestly, even I don’t know at this point) to sit down and watch his three feature-length collaborations with comedian Steve Martin. For years The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and The Man With Two Brains have been favorites of mine. Certain aspects haven’t aged all that well when viewed with a 2020 mindset, but I’ve always found something comforting about these films.
For me, they’ve been key pieces in the larger story that is my journey as a film fan and filmmaker. I was obsessed with them when I was a kid, eagerly watching the recorded off the TV VHS copies I had, and then later viewing and reviewing them on DVD.
I once read an interview with Martin where he described his approach to humor as something along the lines of, “I like a smart joke, and I like a dumb joke,” and this always felt appropriate when talking about these three movies. They’re so filled to the brim with both smart and dumb jokes that it’s difficult to quite get a handle on them. And each joke comes so thick and fast that the fact that oftentimes the hit ratio isn’t all that high doesn’t tend to matter. If a joke doesn’t land, who cares? There’s a hilariously clever or hysterically stupid one on the way in a minute anyway.
And what’s more, Reiner and Martin don’t seem to be striving for anything other than being as ridiculous or as funny as they can. There’s little care for sense or logic. Rather each of the films have no defined internal logic, and the narrative and settings instead serve simply to act as a line on which they can hang an increasingly bizarre and surreal set of gags.
Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, is their total disregard for consistency in the humor. If a joke is funny then it’s funny, seems to be the motto, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s clever wordplay, totally off the wall sight gags, or anything else that takes their fancy. At one point in The Man With Two Brains, Martin’s Doctor Michael Hfuhruhurr (and yes, that names is as insane as it looks) is pranked by co-workers who put bunny years on his surgical cap. It’s a little gag that gets a chuckle, but it’s hardly outside the realms of possibility and believability. Two scenes later, however, he’s performing surgery by screwing off the top of a woman’s head like a bottle cap, asks for sweat to be applied to his lower lip, and demands the resident theatre cat be removed from the room, which men dressed up as the Lond Ranger and Tonto watch on through an observation window. Further on in the movie, he scales the outside wall of a building by licking the palm of his hands and using them as for suction.
Such disregard for logic or sense or, indeed, consistency is arguably what makes the movies work so well. Martin’s comment on liking clever jokes and dumb jokes are key to understanding just why I find them so charmingly enjoyable. They don’t make sense. They don’t care to make sense. Is it funny? Yes? Then go with it.
The freedom and the craziness at which these films are allowed to operate is genuinely admirable, especially here in 2020, where comedy seems to have moved beyond this approach. We now have two types of apparent comedy movies, as I see it; the improv comedy made popular by the likes of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, which seem to rely almost exclusively on dialogue to get their jokes across, and often appear to struggle to know how to end a scene, or the low-brow, broad comedy of the likes of Bad Grampa or Holmes and Watson, which, instead of trying to be funny, seem to rather try to be as dumb as possible in the hopes that it could be funny.
Both of these strands are missing something for me. That’s not to say that they can’t occasionally throw out something of note – I like Knocked Up, for example, and Adam McKay’s Anchorman is so wonderfully idiotic its impossible not to crack a smile – but the truth is we seem to have lost the sense of creativity, or enjoyment, of sheer comedy glee that Reiner and Martin were so brilliant at capturing.
I’ve seen people refer to the toning down of absurd comedy, the emphasis more of dialogue-based gags and “realism”, as being a sign of a more cinematically-savvy or aware audience. I disagree. The so-called “dumb” jokes work, often just as well if not better, than the so-called “clever” ones when it comes to films like The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains. And they don’t work because they’re simply “dumb”, but rather because they’re deceptively clever.
For all the talk of throwing out logic and sense that I did earlier, the truth is that in all three of the films, although they seem to have little regard for things adding up into a realistic way, and the focus lay squarely on getting a laugh that works – even when it doesn’t – Reiner and Martin also seem to understand that these things only really come together when they are part of a larger whole.
So when Private Detective Rigby Reardon makes a cup of his “famous java” and we spend nearly 30 seconds straight simply watching him pour coffee into a pot in one long unbroken shot, it may seem absurd and unnecessary, but it also furthers the story, allowing us to understand a) something about the character Martin is playing, and b) understand why he is distracted when the villains burst into the room and murder Burt Lancaster (oh yeah, there are a bunch of iconic film noir movie stars in this film, and if you don’t know how that is the case then you should watch it because… it’s just so clever and well done).
When you compare this to something like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters (admittedly an easy target, but whatever) where Melissa McCarthy shouts at a takeaway delivery guy about wantons three different times in the movie because… shouting is funny, I guess (?), and scenes tend to drag on long after they’ve served their purpose because the movie needs to get the improv in there somehow, then you do start to notice just how different the approach is.
For me, when I was growing up, these films were a joyous experience. There are certain gags that I’ve since come to realize are problematic, but that doesn’t change how I feel about them. I was sad to learn of Reiner’s passing, and I wanted to do something to talk about these films, even if just for a brief moment because they were and are so important to me.
I miss this kind of comedy. The “dumb” but “clever” comedy that relied on a decent script, carefully planned visual gags and the art of filmmaking. It certainly appears, at least as far as I’m concerned, that comedy movies haven’t toned down because audiences have grown smarter or more cinema-savvy, or whatever excuse is being thrown around at this point, but rather that they’ve become lazy. For Reiner and Martin, the jokes may not always land, but lazy is not a word one could use to describe them, and I’m glad these movies exist so that I can return to them whenever I need a pick me up.