Indie Cinema: Comedy Genre

Next to film noir, comedy is the genre that most excites new indie directors. As in other genres, indie comedy (and satire) has built upon the work of influential directors: Robert Altman, George Lucas, and Barry Levinson. Seminal films, such as Altman's M.A.S.H., Lucas' American Graffiti, and Levinson's Diner, all discussed in this chapter, have left a particularly strong mark on indie comedies of the past two decades.

Indie comedies have differed radically from those produced by Hollywood. Mainstream comedies of the 1980s were largely defined by Ivan Reitman, who has shown keen instincts for commercially viable material. After scoring box-office hits as the co-producer of National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and the director of Meatballs (1979), Reitman launched a spectacular Hollywood career, capped by the whimsical blockbuster, Ghostbusters (1984). But, with the exception of Dave (1993), Reitman's other highly profitable comedies, Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990), both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, employed broad, infantile humor. When Reitman made Legal Eagles (1986), critics praised his foray into “adult comedy”; yet the film was still a teenage comedy in sensibility, albeit one populated by adult characters (playedby Debra Winger and Redford).

American comedies of recent years have been mechanical retreads of old formulas, as evidenced in the retro work of Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, You've Got Mail, a shallow remake of The Shop Around the Corner). Filmmakers seem unable to recognize that it's hard to make screwball comedy in the 1990s, when the social norms and manners that gave rise to those cinematic conventions no longer exist.

Romantic comedy took a turn in 1998, with There's Something About Mary, by the creators of Dumb and Dumber, Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly. Filled with gross-out bathroom gags and overtly sexual humor, this comedy is cloaked in politically incorrect jokes about zippers, dogs, and hair gel. The Farrellys turned the genre on its ear, moving it away from the predictable, well-mannered yuppie romantic comedies of the past decade (While You Were Sleeping, Forget Paris, One Fine Day) into a much raunchier territory.

There's Something About Mary cut across all demographics, reaching beyond the typical Jim Carrey audience of teenage boys. The key to the film's success is its universal story of love lost and found, and a central female characater (Cameron Diaz) who's bright and appealing enough to make four men vie for her. The Farrellys felt that the studios have given up on adult comedies and that romantic comedies have become too stale. They have arguably both brutalized and energized the genre, displaying taste for a crasser but also more poignant material.

But There's Something About Mary is the exception to the norm, and a deep gap still prevails between Hollywood and indie comedies. The function of non-studio comedy fare is to challenge the standard formulas by subverting audiences expectations. Hence, for a satirist like Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election), what gives indie comedies distinctive accent is their “flawed, unlikable” characters. This is not an easy goal to achieve as the twin “enemies” of indie comedies are broad television sitcoms and big-budget, hyperactive “dumb” movies, exemplified by the work of Jim Carrey. Both types have threatened to squeeze the more character-driven indies out of the market.

Most American comedies nowadays are so broad that they are about nothing–consider some of Carrey's films, Ace Ventura and its sequel. A comic working inside the studio system, Carrey has tried to do darker, less mainstream fare, like Cable Guy, which was not a box-office success by studio standards. “Carrey was violating his sacrosanct position in comedy,” said Kevin Smith, “What he did with that movie was very ballsy, but ballsy isn't what the studios want.” Indeed, anxious to reclaim his box-office stature, Carrey chose for his next comedy the safer Liar, Liar (1997), and the public responded with the expected enthusiasm.

The distinct sensibility in the eclectic variety of American comedy of the 1970s, in the work of Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, and Paul Mazursky, no longer exists. Woody Allen has retained his strength as an inventive comedy director (Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway), but he has lost his broad base and now works as a niche filmmaker supported by a small audience.

The work of gifted indie directors has tapped into the zeitgeist, armed with topicality and point of view that defy the mass-marketing approach. Christopher Guest's style of mockumentary and improvisation, Kevin Smith's verbal gyrations among the randy twentysomething, David O. Russell's neo Woody Allen, neurosis-tinged comedies, Alexander Payne's political satire. Trying to sell Spanking the Monkey to the studios, Russell thought they would quickly buy a movie that, after all was about incest, but he underestimated the skittishness that topic would engender.

Alexander Payne's sharply-observed satire, Citizen Ruth, sank quickly at the box-office, despite Laura Dern's star power and Miramax' marketing clout. The cult status of This Is Spinal Tap, in which Christopher Guest also starred, didn't help his charming mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, which enjoyed limited run in specialized venues. “What I do is just naturally a tough sell,” acknowledged Smith. “The studios don't know what to do with my stuff.” Chasing Amy, depicting the stormy love between two comic book artists–with the twist that he's straight and she's lesbian–is a sexually charged-movie whose tonal shifts from light comedy to mature drama were deliberately designed to confound expectations. Payne hopes that the studios will return to the character-based comedies of the 1970s. More optimistic than other directors of his generation, he says: “The Coens and Scorsese are studio filmmakers in the classic sense, so it's kind of hard to totally trash the studios.” Guest, however, claims that pitching cutting-edge comedies to the studios is now less likely than it's ever been, because of their conglomerate nature. For him, the studios “are seduced by expensive projects,” to the point where “it's a disgrace to make a movie for two million.”

Unlike dramatic realism and noir, in which young directors have drawn on the seminal work of Cassavetes and Scorsese, in the area of comedy, there is no single major figure. With a number of significant satires to his credits, Altman has influenced the new indie wave, not so much thematically as stylistically. Equally important is Altman's model in maintaining independent spirit in what could be described as a truly maverick and erratic career.

Altman's film oeuvre is so rich and diverse that he could have been placed in any number of chapters. If he is profiled here, it's because two of his main disciples, Alan Rudolph and Tim Robbins, made comedies and satires. If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).