Why Aren’t Epic Comedies Ever Funny?

With A Million Ways to Die in the West underperforming at the box-office, we wonder about the place of the epic comedy.

Now that the vaunted Criterion Collection, for some unfathomable reason, has given Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World the full star treatment, a lot of people are going back and reappraising its virtues both as a comedy and as a piece of  epic filmmaking. I gotta say this is something I’ve been doing at least once a year for the past two decades, long before Criterion latched onto it, and every time I do I come to the same conclusion: “Nope, still not very funny.”

For the past twenty years I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s not funny. It makes no sense, right? After all, the cast is made up of virtually every living film comedian of note, from Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, and Jack Benny to Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Dick Shawn, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, and about a hundred others. The opening credit sequence alone, seeing all those names in the same film, is a thing of wonder. By all accounts it should’ve been the funniest goddamn movie ever made.

Even though it wasn’t by a long shot, even though it was just kind of a  tepid, loud, exhausting ordeal, people treated it like it was the Greatest Comedy of All Time. So much so in fact that it spawned a run of big-name, big-budget epic comedies that lasted through the rest of the 1960s before filmmakers finally gave up. None of the follow-ups had quite the ambition of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and none of them were terribly funny either. After taking another look at it last night, I think I’ve finally figured out why they never really worked.

Epics have, of course, been with us since the earliest days of cinema, from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, and David Lean up through Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Akira Kurosawa, Kubrick’s Spartacus and 2001, Coppola’s Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, Warren Beatty’s Reds, and on and on. Along the way almost every conceivable genre got the sprawling, three-hour, all-star, cast of thousands treatment. There were epic romances and historical dramas and westerns, epic gladiator and religious films, epic gangster movies, epic war films and musicals, even epic sci fi, horror, and disaster movies. There were a few grand and humiliating flops (like Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate), but in most cases the sheer spectacle of it all was enough to have people lined up to pay good money to sit quietly for three hours and be dazzled by an enthralling story.

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For some reason it wasn’t until the early ‘60s that someone finally decided to apply the same formula to the one genre that had been so sorely neglected in all this: the comedy.

It seemed such an obvious, inevitable, and great idea. If people were willing to sit through a three-hour Biblical epic, why not a three-hour slapstick comedy? It’d sure be easier to take than all those “thys” and “thous.” So Stanley Kramer started with a basic premise (a wild cross-country scramble to find some lost loot), rounded up a core cast of known greats (Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, Buddy Hacket, et. al.), then filled out the rest of the landscape with every other comedian in the world, letting them all do their patented shtick along the way. Sure, the finished cut ran three hours and 12 minutes, but it couldn’t miss.

And in box office terms, it didn’t. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a huge hit. As these things happen, once the numbers started rolling in everyone else in Hollywood jumped on board with the same formula. Get a basic premise with lots of action and locations, sign every comedian you can find and let them do their thing, and don’t worry about the run time.

So in 1965 Blake Edwards released The Great Race. The premise was a car race from New York to Paris. The cast included Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, and Keenan Wynn. It may not have boasted the same massive cast, but it was still two and a half hours of madcap slapstick set in several international locales.

That same year brought us Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, about an early airplane race between London and Paris. The two and a half hour stunt flying extravaganza was an international production featuring a less stellar cast (Stuart Whitman, Benny Hill, Robert Morley, Red Skelton), but did have some dazzling aerial shots and plenty of wacky hijinx. Four years later it spawned a sort-of sequel about an early trans-European auto race, Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies, with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Tony Curtis (sort of reprising his Great Race role), and several repeats from the original. Both films proved that titles alone aren’t enough to carry a comedy, a lesson they should’ve learned from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Norman Jewisin’s 1966 satire of small town hysteria in the midst of the Cold War, The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! doesn’t exactly fit the standard epic comedy formula in that it’s set in a single locale and runs a mere two hours, but it does have a huge, star-studded cast of comedians (Alan Arkin, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, and maybe about a third of the actors who were in Mad, Mad World) and bumbling antics aplenty.

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The original Casino Royale from 1967 had little to do with IanFleming’s original James Bond novel. Instead it was a broad train wreck of a spoof, with a cast that paralleled that of Mad, Mad World, including David Niven, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, and Orson Welles. That it had six credited directors (including John Huston and Val Guest) and a whopping ten writers (including Ben Hecht, Terry Southern, and Billy Wilder) should tell you right off the bat you’re dealing with less a movie than a drunken miasma. I can’t tell you how long this one runs. It felt like forever, and I’ve never made it to the end.

The era of the epic comedy pretty much came to a sad and whimpering close in 1970 with Catch-22. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Joseph Heller’s darkly comic novel had another unbeatable and sprawling cast, with Alan Arkin again, and Welles again, and Norman Fell again, plus Tony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Bob Newhart and on and on and on. Plus an Italian setting, a WWII backdrop, and zaniness to spare.

Yet for all the collective comic genius involved in the above films, none of them are funny. The one possible exception is The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, but that one only half counts anyway. And in Catch-22, you get the idea that after the success of The Graduate, Nichols’ eyes grew bigger than his plate and he found himself in way over his head, trying to corral both a cast of hundreds (most of them name stars) as well as a squadron of B-29s. Maybe that’s why the film’s darker material works so much better than the easy yuks. On the whole, for all the running around and shrieking and jumping and pratfalls, the films come off as bloated and ponderous, and everyone involved seems to be trying way, way too hard.

A lot of the films made money, and maybe that’s all that matters, but they weren’t made to last. They were products of the times, when audiences were desperate for something, anything, to laugh at, something they could at least pretend was funny for a couple hours even if it wasn’t.  But the world became a very different place in that stretch, =nd by 1970 it seems audiences had had enough of comic extravaganzas.

It was a lesson Steven Spielberg apparently didn’t take to heart when he set out to make his own epic chucklefest with 1941. 1979’s massively-budgeted comedy about stateside hysteria in the wake of Pearl Harbor follows to a tee the models of those earlier epics with its simple premise and a cast made up of damn near everyone in Hollywood at the time )from John Belushi and John Candy to Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee, and Toshiro Mifune. But that seems to be about as far as he got in his planning before he began shooting. That’s all he needed, right? Big names and a solid premise?

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Yeah, well, and as a result the film was about as funny as any of the others. Difference was, this time around the crowds weren’t there to pretend otherwise. It’s almost too bad, given his clear inspiration was The Russians are Coming!, the one that almost works, but Spielberg had to go on ahead and make the same mistake the others did, ending up with a top-heavy film that collapsed in on itself. Also, unlike Jewison, Spielberg was working under the mistaken impression that listening to people scream for two and a half hours was somehow hilarious.

Epic comedies are doomed by their very nature, and here’s why. Start with that basic formula. You begin with the High Concept, a simple, solid comic premise like a car chase or a case of mass hysteria. Then you sign up every big actor in the world. Because you need to give each of those big names enough screentime to be recognized by the audience (and justify those paychecks) things tend to run way too long. I mean what, you’re gonna leave Peter Sellers on the cutting room floor to make room for more Ursula Andress, or cut two of Jonathan Winters’ scenes to keep the pacing snappy? Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen.

Worse, because you have to fit all those people in somehow the story rarely gets beyond the premise, and there’s not much by way of a narrative flow. The picture becomes a mere pastiche of wacky hijinx and set pieces, each designed to highlight the stars and give them something to do. But as Freud could tell us if he weren’t dead, wacky hijinx cannot be maintained for three hours and still be funny at the end. Comic tension doesn’t last that long. Instead the films are just exhausting, especially when they have to keep pounding the audience over the head to remind them that what they’re seeing is funny.

Films like Lawrence of Arabia, say, or even Gone With the Wind work because they have real narratives and real characters, and it takes that long to tell the story properly. They aren’t just a matter of watching an endless string of recognizable faces doing silly things or screaming a lot.

You look back on those epic comedies now and it’s clear that, again unlike Ben-Hur or The Great Escape, they were designed to be disposable commodities, simple ephemeral entertainments despite all the time and effort and money involved. What most of them feel like, more than anything else, are three-hour versions of Cannonball Run II, and who the fuck would want to sit through that?  In the end it’s far better (and funnier) to watch Dr. Strangelove for the 34th time than to watch any of these bloated epics for a second.

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