When I was in college, I made a movie for an introductory film course. It was not very good.
It was called 61 Days, and it was about a guy with a terminal illness. He’s been given the cliche timeline: just two months, sixty-one days, and then whappo. He croaks. So he decides to go on a cross-country adventure with his brother. I gotta say, I packed an impressive amount of emo voiceover and sappy closeups into those five minutes. The best is my main character’s slow-motion, Hallmark-stamp-of-approval grin at the end. Sugary sweet enough to melt your teeth.
The final cut of 61 Days was screened in a theater in downtown Ithaca, New York, along with about forty others. Most were quite impressive. Most of us showed a lot of promise as filmmakers.
But here’s what really struck me about those films: in terms of subject matter, the vast majority of them were like mine. They were depressing, melodramatic, obsequiously emotional. Everyone’s movie was about a bad breakup, substance abuse, mental illness, or, like my film, someone dying. If I had to sum up the afternoon in a single sentence, it would be this: “Look at me, I’m sad.”
Of the forty or so films screened that day, only one sticks in my mind as more than a generality. It was about a guy who travels back in time to feudal Japan in order to steal an ancient hot sauce recipe. The film featured samurai sword fights, goofy one-liners, and intentionally-poor lip dubs.
Everyone laughed. Everyone thought it was exceedingly funny. But secretly, I’m pretty sure everyone was thinking the same thing: amusing, but certainly not an A+ film. The unspoken understanding, of course, was that humor is not art. It’s just funny.
But is it?
When I watched that samurai movie, I felt a little lighter. I felt happy, at ease, even inspired. But when I watched my film and all those others, I quite frankly don’t even remember how I felt.
That film made me realize something: we all take ourselves too seriously. I took myself too seriously when I made a film that was identical to forty others. I said to myself, “I’m a serious filmmaker, so I’m going to make a serious film.” And sure, I did that. But I also made a film that was pretty forgettable.
Out of everyone in that class, the guy who made the hot sauce film was the only one of us willing to set aside his own ego. And, for that reason, he made a film that was far more memorable than the others.
Does that mean that comedy is superior to drama? No, not necessarily. In fact, in the artistic world, the reverse is far more often true. Adam McKay directed Anchorman, but no one seemed to recognize him as a true artist until he directed The Big Short. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, that’s kind of a big deal.
We can’t discount the value of laughter. If everyone could stop taking themselves so seriously, if everyone learned to just laugh at disagreements rather than fight over them, I think we’d all have a much better time. We all deserve to laugh. And, at times, we all deserve to be laughed at.
I never met the guy who made the samurai hot sauce film, but I wish I had. I imagine he’s a pretty cool dude. If I had asked him why he made his film, I imagine his response wouldn’t have started with, “My inspiration was born of my desire to explore the true nature of what it means to be a condiment…”
I like to think he would’ve said something like, “I made it because I thought it would make people laugh.”
And that’s all the reason I would need.