Popular Culture Goes All Anthropological

[In Dinner for Schmucks] Steve Carell earns his laughs not with wit […] but by investing all his faith and energy in deeply boneheaded convictions.  

The Steve Carell character is funny because he doesn’t "get it."  We can rely upon him to leap to the wrong conclusion.  He’s "often wrong but never in doubt."

There is something endearing about this guy.  We wish we were as sure of anything as he is of everything.  He may be a bull in the china shop of daily life, but he means so well we cannot fault him. 

There is something flattering too.  Because by this standard, we are all social virtuosos. We do get it.  By the Carell standard, each of us is a genius.  

But something more than intellectual slapstick going on.  When the Carell character [hereafter, Carell] gets it wrong, he makes a small piece of our culture materialize before our eyes. 

In Dinner for Schmucks, Carell states the obvious, "She’s talking to the lobster."  This is funny because a smarter person would know that the obvious "goes without saying."  

When Paul Rudd is accused by a ventriloquist’s dummy of looking down her dress, Carell asks, "Tim–were you?  God, don’t do that man."  We understand that this discipline of gaze, this new standard of male sensitivity, does not apply to an inanimate object, even an animated inanimate object.  But Carell doesn’t quite see this.  (The joke within the joke: is the dummy sufficiently animated that social rules do apply to her.  But of course it’s a mute question because, this is the still deeper joke, this is really just dummies in conversation.]

Carell doesn’t grasp what the rest of us take for granted.  In fact, he draws some of his humor from the fact that he is violating rules the rest of us obey but cannot see.  And in this respect he acts as a kind of dowser.  He can detect and to bring to the surface cultural rules otherwise invisible. 

The Paul Rudd character in I Love You, Man is almost the perfect opposite.  He couldn’t find cultural rules with both hands and a map, as they say.  The humor of this movie turns on the fact that the Paul Rudd character [hereafter, Rudd] doesn’t understand how to act like a guy.  Almost every male socialized in our culture gets "guyness."  Somehow Rudd just missed it.   

What a splendid piece of anthropology.  The movie acts of a catalog of the rules of maleness.  Which is a way of saying that Rudd ends up drawing his comedy from the same well as Carrel, from the violating of cultural rules that govern the rest of us invisibly.  

All comedy, with the possible exception of slap stick, toys with the expectations installed by culture.  This is why the Billy Crystal character in Mr. Saturday Night is always saying, "Do you see what I did there?"  He is asking the viewer to admire the intelligence with which he played a trick on our cultural expectations.  

But it seems to be that the rise of this school of comedy marks a shift of some kind.  I am not sure what to call this school.  We could use the names of its leading directors: Judd Apatow, Jay Roach, John Hamburg or its stars: Steve Carrel and Paul Rudd.  Or just call it culture comedy.  

But the question is this: why culture comedy now?  If I weren’t rushing to get to the airport and would have a go at it.  I would be your grateful for thoughts and comments.

References

Friend, Tad.  2010.  First Banana: Steve Carell and the metriculous art of spontaneity.  The New Yorker.  July 5.  pp. 50-59, p. 50. 

5 thoughts on “Popular Culture Goes All Anthropological”

  1. Nice piece Grant.

    Reading the post, I couldn’t help but think the success of Seinfeld hinged upon a similar propositions. The ignorance to/challenging of these invisible cultural rules.

    Carrell seems to be owning this brand of comedy — The Office, 40 year old Virgin, Get Smart etc — the guy is becoming synonymous with the oblivious, but well meaning dunce. Much the same way Hugh Grant owns the charming, bumbling Englishman.

    1. Charlie, totally, Seinfeld is very carefully “observed comedy” and Larry David even more. Yes, and nice comparison: Carrell and Grant. Thanks, Grant

  2. you looks for mentors..and Mentors aren’t people that come along side us and cuddle us into greatness, mentors are people we chase. If you see a skill or character trait that you know you need, go get it.

  3. I am not sure it is a distinct school, a lot of comedy feeds of this distance and observation of cultural norms. Or, as you so eloquently put it, “toys with the expectations installed by culture”. I am thinking of the genius of Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Onion or Seinfeld. All great examples of cultural observation.
    But I hear you about the hilarity of the guy that just doesn’t get it. Makes for great comedy (The Party). Steve Martin, in his autobiography, thinks it is the funniest form of comedy!

    1. Dino, excellent, certainly it’s a flattering form of comedy, it makes the rest of us look like geniuses which is a very good thing in an entertainer bec. potentially how many of us could survive a more honest comparison. Thanks, Grant

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