Beauty may be, but comedy definitely is, in the eye of the beholder. Of all genres, comedy is the most subjective. We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a theater, most of the audience in a near laughing fit, while we stare stone-faced at the screen. What the heck is everyone finding sooo funny? Which makes the task of reviewing a book about comedy fraught with peril—who can say for sure what is funny and what isn’t?
Take the current book under review: Saul Austerlitz’s Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (512 pages, Chicago Review Press, $24.95). One jumps to the back of the book to find Austerlitz’s list of the “Top 100 American Comedies.” While there are many classic, deserving films on the list, there are some real head scratchers as well–the Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor remake? The Woody Allen flop Deconstructing Harry? Todd Phillips’s Old School? How did these turkeys make the list of all-time great American comedies? So the reader approaches the book with serious misgivings about Austerlitz’s judgment and taste.
But the news is not all bad. There is a great deal of interesting and helpful material on the makers of American film comedy over the years. Each chapter (thirty in all) discusses a different comedy icon, arranged chronologically from Charlie Chaplin (whose work, Austerlitz says, “stands at the undoubted apex of American comedy”) to Judd Apatow. Most of the directors/performers Austerlitz spotlights aren’t too surprising (Preston Sturges, Jerry Lewis, Billy Wilder, Steve Martin), although there are a few unconventional choices, people who’ve worked in as much drama as comedy, such as Robert Altman and Dustin Hoffman.
It is also something of a surprise that of the thirty names, only three are women (Mae West, Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day); in the introduction, Austerlitz says, “The reasons for the relative absence of women, African Americans, and other minorities have more to do with the history of film, and American culture, than with my own aesthetic preferences.”
Austerlitz spends each chapter discussing the person’s background (most importantly, how they got started in comedy), but chiefly analyzes their film work. While the author writes glowingly of most of the figures, he doesn’t for everyone in the book. For instance, he spends a chapter discussing the work of Mel Brooks, though he admits he finds most of Brooks’ films to be overrated and outdated. In addition to the thirty main chapters, there are also fifty short entries for figures who did not quite make the final cut, which range from Wes Anderson to John Hughes to Renee Zellweger (!?!).
While Austerlitz’s research is admirable, and the book is an easy read, one questions his approach to discussing the history of film comedy. By focusing solely on the lives of these specific figures, Austerlitz seems to miss the bigger picture. Questions such as—how has film comedy changed over years? And are the basic principles that made people laugh in the 1920s, still present today?—are never brought into focus, because of Austerlitz’s micro-approach. The author never bothers to draw any larger conclusions (a chapter or afterword serving as an all-encompassing overview might have helped), based on the careers of those he discusses. While the book is a good read for those interested in a quick survey of some of the seminal people involved in American comedy, it is a disappointment for those looking for a broader perspective of how film comedy in America has developed and changed over the past hundred years.