Comedy’s a serious thing, Woody

Creators of comedy, by one of life’s cruel paradoxes, want above all to be taken seriously. For them, laughter is good – it pays the rent – but what matters more is artistic respectability. They worry that humour is mistaken for triviality, and complain when their books fail to win prizes or their films are not invited to the right festivals.

Woody Allen has just let the comedy team down rather badly by supporting the anti-humour lobby. He may have been nominated for 21 Oscars, winning three, and he may have written comic lines which are widely and affectionately quoted, but his work does not, in his view, qualify as art. “I’ve never considered myself an artist,” he has said at the Cannes Film Festival. “I’ve aspired to be one but I’ve never felt that I have the depth or the substance or the gift to be an artist.”

The diffidence is genuine – Allen is not one of those public figures (Bob Dylan being an obvious example) who like to send the press haring off in the wrong direction now and then. His non-performing self is serious-minded to the point of dullness.

With remarks like these, though, he begins to sound like one of his own more absurd characters – uptight, intellectually insecure, fearful that brighter, more grown-up people will think of him as a lightweight. If films like Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters are not to be taken seriously, then no comedy can be. Allen at his best captured to perfection what it is like to live in a 20th-century metropolis where there is a lot of sex and even more self-consciousness.

Those films were not heart-wrenchingly tragic or profound. Having seen them, one did not view the human condition differently. But they skewered pretension and they captured the mood of modern life. The style of writing and direction was genuinely original, at least in those early days. To say that because they were funny, they lack depth or substance is to confuse humourlessness with artistic seriousness. It is a bad time for a distinguished veteran director to be dismissing the importance of laughter. Among new writers and directors, comedy is already under pressure. Films, if they are not broad farce, tend to err on the side of self-importance.

New novelists are guarded when it comes to including humour in their work. The best way to assure critics, and possibly even audiences, of the serious intent of your work is, it seems, to make it glum. Yet wit is an excellent indicator that a writer or director looks at the world in an interesting and interested way. It denotes a spin on the ball that is being delivered. It can bring warmth, or savagery, or, as in the case of Allen, a sense of the absurdity of the human condition. In other words, it is part of the bag of tricks which any serious artist should carry.

There is something quite new about this snobbish demotion of comedy. At the moment, the works of good or great comic writers of the 20th-century – AG Macdonell, SJ Perelman, Peter de Vries, Dan Greenburg and many others – tend to be less respected by the critical establishment than their more straight-laced contemporaries. The jokes of writers like Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, even the early Philip Roth count against them in elevated literary circles. On TV, there seems to be dividing-line between the ratings-fodder of sitcom and respectable drama. In the world of children’s books, it is the solemn, issue-driven books which win prizes and plaudits.

Film directors who can use comedy to help us deal with the madness of life – Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, John Landis, Mike Leigh, Nora Ephron, Christopher Guest, Mike Nichols, Chris Morris – may be immediately comparable to Allen’s great heroes, Bergman and Kurosawa, but it is silly to grade the humorous in a lower league than the serious. In the right hands, fun and artistic substance can happily co-exist.

Independent, Friday, 13 May 2011