Hello, dear readers, this is Dan. I'm pleased to announce a new feature on DelinoDeshields.com called "Däń on Humour." In this feature, my colleague Däń (see photo) will be writing brief critical essays about some of the leading topics in modern comedy. Däń is an old friend of mine who has written widely in newspapers and journals across Europe, including Der Spiegel, Il Foglio Clandestino, and Le Canard enchaîné. Däń isn't a very tech-savvy guy, so I'm letting him use my account to post. He and I tend to agree about nearly everything. Enjoy!
Let me first say that I enjoyed Knocked Up and Superbad and to a lesser extent The Forty Year-Old Virgin. That being said, I have to say that Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen are getting, in my humble European opinion, a bit too much credit for their accomplishments.
As the Mainstream Media would have it, Apatow and Rogen are really "alternative" guys who write/produce "edgy" comedies, and this whole group's rise shows that "alternative" comedy is on the upswing. And the idea is "the losers become the winners!" in their movies, which is a new idea (supposedly)
But something That Girl's dad said yesterday struck me as very appropriate here- he was talking about how we often have this notion of premium cable shows (HBO, Showtime) versus network shows, with the premium cable shows Obviously pushing the boundaries by being far edgier and more alternative. Yet as he pointed out, when you think about it, most shows even on HBO or Showtime don't push any real boundaries - they may curse or have some sexual and drug content, but those are really faux boundaries. He's completely right- getting to say "fuck" or showing some boobs or a joint being smoked hardly qualifies as challenging, revolutionary television. The Upper Middle Class already sees these things as not a big deal. Truly revolutionary, challenging shows, like The Wire for instance, actually question some of the Upper Middle Class's basic assumptions - that our society's institutions more or less work, that segregation ended 50 years ago, etc.
Which brings me back to Rogen/Apatow. On the surface you have several aspects of their films that might make you think "hey, these guys are really doing something alternative." You've got drugs being smoked, porn being shown, unattractive protagonists with Jew fros, etc. But when you look one level beyond the surface you realize a few things. As mentioned above, the whole drugs/porn thing is something the Upper Middle Class long became comfortable with, and even America on the whole is not terribly bothered by it. And the unattractive/awkward protagonist always gets the hot blonde girl in the end, which is exactly what any male protagonist in a mainstream Hollywood movie wants. Then when you really look at the jokes, for every trenchant observation about society, there are 40 dick jokes that you might cringe at if put in another context.
As for any of this being new at all, see Revenge of the Nerds from the '80s, for instance (though Apatow's are of course a little more highbrow). What has really been questioned about contemporary American society at all in an Apatow/Rogen movie? All of the various issues can be boiled down to the basic point that in the end, all of the Apatow/Rogen characters kind of "get their weirdness beaten out of them" and end up conforming to society's standards of normalcy in order to get the girl. Not to mention the question of "are these characters actually that weird to begin with?" They like to smoke pot and watch porn, they are very horny, and they have a tight-knit group of male friends- I'd venture to say this covers about 70% of guys in their early 20s. At least the characters in Apatow/Rogen movies seem real and are not being laughed at - more than can be said about a lesser work like Napoleon Dynamite.
What would an actually "bold" comedy look like? Off the top of my head, South Park comes to mind
All of this is not to say that Weeds on television or Superbad on the big screen aren't good and funny. I think they are, i'm just saying they're not as "bold" as they are often perceived to be.