Dying is easy, comedy is hard it has been said. Comedy is the riskiest genre of film to create because while making it you never know if it is working until the editing room. You hope, your extincts serve you well, but you just do not know, this is where having great cinematic sense serves the director. Onstage it is easier because those around the director are watched carefully to make sure they are laughing, but a film set is very different.
There are also crossovers where one form merges with another to become one, or the entire genre is merged with another. The most recent form of new comedy is the parody, more or less created by Mel Brooks who made affectionate fun of various film genres in the seventies beginning with Blazing Saddles (1974). The oldest form is slapstick coupled with burlesque, ribald even vulgar comedy.
It was Chaplin who understood how to make comedy great, sneaking in his powerful social messages among the gales of laughter or happy tears. His gift for slapstick was genius, but he merged that with his ferocious social awareness to create some of the finest comedies of all time. In the forties, Preston Sturges made some of the great film satires, while Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) was among the first black comedies to find an audience. And so they evolved, great directors emerged directing brilliant comedies with actors doing brilliant, though often ignored work. Today there ten sub-genres within the master comedy genre. Here they are defined, with examples of the very best of the genre.
1. Black Comedy
Perhaps the most sophisticated form of comedy, black comedy depends on making an audience uncomfortable and drawing laughter from taboo subjects such as murder, sex, religion, politics, anything that has been taboo in exploring on film. Good writing and smart direction are essential, and a true black comedy remains dark through to the very end of the film, there is nothing to brighten things up towards the conclusion. The creators must have the courage of their convictions and follow the comedy through to the chilling finale. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) was the first great such film, based on the long-running play that could not become a film until the Broadway run was over. Chaplin attempted a black comedy with his brilliant, unsettling Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a chilling film, but his audiences did not warm to him in the role or really, speaking. Considered a masterpiece today, it was reviled upon released.
The greatest black comedy for many remains Kubrick’s masterful Dr. Strangelove (1964), a stunning work about the end of the world made shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world was genuinely fearful of a nuclear war. True black comedy right through to the dark ending where we see the world end, it is hilarious but darkly so, daringly so. His film A Clockwork Orange (1971) is often hailed as a black comedy as well, though also crosses into social satire, equally dark, equally brilliant. More recent black comedies include Death Becomes Her (1990) and the viciously comic Very Bad Things (1998). To an extent Suicide Squad (2016) is a black comedy as well, turning the superhero film upside down making the villains the heroes, sort of.