Why don't comedies win Oscars?

Chris Hallam says the genre needs more respect

Why don’t comedy films win more Oscars?

This may seem like a strange time to be asking this question. The Artist has, after all, just scooped the Best Picture and Best Actor awards. Woody Allen also won a Best Original Screenplay award for Midnight in Paris.

Much was made of the fact that The Artist was the first silent film to win Best Picture since Wings at the very first Oscars, that it was the first French film ever to win ever and the first black and white one to win since the much less funny Schindler’s List nearly 20 years ago.

Less has been made of The Artist’s comparative rarity as a comedy Best Picture winner. Arguably, the last comedies to win in this category – American Beauty in 2000 and Shakespeare in Love in 1998 – were not that long ago. Ignoring for the moment the issue of whether American Beauty is actually a comedy or not, the last winner before that was Annie Hall way back in 1977. Before that? The Apartment in 1960. Or if you’re generous, Tom Jones in 1964. There are a few others. But even if you broaden the interpretation of what a comedy is to its widest, at the most no more than 11 comedies have won the most coveted statuette since 1928. Eleven out of 84. And four of those were in the Thirties and Forties.

I’m not actually attacking the Oscars themselves here. Some have argued the Academy members are so old and conservative that they still think most films are silent anyway.

But this isn’t the point. Comedies are too some extent underappreciated generally. Everyone loves to laugh and most of us recognise producing a comedy is no mean feat. Yet whenever a good comedy is held up in comparison to a good drama, we always tend to assume the drama is somehow intrinsically superior.

I am the same myself. I love comedy but ask me what my favourite films are and the list I reel off tends to include sombre long productions like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now. For some reason, I save the likes of The Life of Brian, The Naked Gun, Annie Hall, The Big Lebowski, Zoolander and Borat for ‘Best Comedy Film’ lists only.

And I’m not the only one. Look at the Internet Movie Database’s ever changing list of the highest rated films as voted for by the public. There are currently no comedies at all in the top 40. By my reckoning, there are only 15 comedies currently in the entire top 100. Remove World Cinema, animation and Charlie Chaplin films and the number falls to six. The Artist isn’t actually in there.

Why are comedies held in such regard? Most people, as I say, enjoy them. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has ever said otherwise.

True, many often hilarious comedies are actually quite patchy. Steve Martin’s The Man With Two Brains is a personal favourite but I can see myself that it is inconsistent. But the same cannot be said of many Ealing comedies, Four Weddings And A Funeral, Sideways, Bridesmaids or even (I would argue) Airplane! Some of these were recognised with nominations by the Academy and many were hits at the time and are well liked now. But none did amazingly well at the Oscars. None are ever included among our very favourite films.

Offence is probably another factor. Bridesmaids contains gross out humour as does The Hangover. Borat and The Life of Brian obviously provoked controversy on their release although it should be noted similar controversy did not stop Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ getting a few Oscar nods a decade after Brian.

But ultimately there is no easy answer. We love comedies but are harsher on those who try and fail to produce good comedy than we are on those who try and fail to produce good drama. Given a choice, for some reason, we tend to rate drama ahead of comedy every time.

And yet, I’m guessing if I gave you a choice between watching The Godfather or Anchorman right now, most of you would opt for the Will Ferrell film. This isn’t meant as a criticism either. The Godfather is great. But sometimes I’d just rather be watching Zoolander.

Published: 29 Feb 2012

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