Web of Laughs: Absurdist Comedy

Monty Python There are very few movies that I can remember the exact moment I watched them for the first time, or exactly how I felt when I watched it for the first time. One of the very few, if not the most engrained in my memory, is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I don’t remember how old I was exactly, somewhere south of 11, I think, and I was at my dad’s house and he specifically wanted to show me his favorite movie. I settled in to watch it, and while I’m sure my 11-year-old brain did not really comprehend the jokes (I’m not even sure if my 25-year-old brain can catch them all to this day), I remember laughing the hardest I have probably ever laughed before. The next few months of my life were spent re-watching and over-quoting “It’s just a flesh wound.” Its thick, heavy-handed absurdity was really the first of its kind that I had seen.

Absurdist comedy, while rooted in the same reality as dark comedy, has no qualms in abandoning that same reality after only briefly establishing it. Absurdist comedy takes casual situations and then relies on zero logic, which is what makes it so fun to watch. It’s not bound to one specific style, and as seen in The Holy Grail, can switch between subtitled footnotes, a typical medieval comedy, and then a cartoon. Because of the frequent stylistic choices and changes, the general plot line throughout these comedies tends to remain simple. Essentially, The Holy Grail is just the story of King Arthur and his knights in search for the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail was certainly an original for its time, but going back to the silent era, you can see its influences from films such as The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. The Holy Grail also had a lot of contemporaries around its time, in the midst of what seemed like the golden age of absurdist comedy. Five years after The Holy Grail, Airplane! came around and brought the same level of absurdity, as well as an alarming amount of jokes packed into one movie. While re-watching Airplane!, that’s always what stands out to me the most, the sheer amount of jokes per minute that are packed in. Side note: there was even a study conducted by a movie subscription service back in 2012 that found that Airplane! had the most laughs per minute of the top 10 comedies they selected, clocking in at 3 lpm (laughs per minute). The fast-paced jokes in Airplane! make it endlessly re-watchable, because there’s always a new joke to unpack or something you may have missed.

While there have been some notable, modern absurdist comedy films in recent years, the style has really found its home right now on TV. Maybe it’s harder to apply the absurdist formula to longer forms of entertainment successfully, but when applying it in 30-minute increments, it may be more accessible and easier to sustain over a longer period of time. The rapid-fire style of Airplane! has lent itself to similar modern mainstream TV comedies such as Arrested Development and 30 Rock. While less mainstream and accessible, the TV show version of Comedy Bang! Bang! also successfully blurs the realism line with its post-modern/absurd talk show format.

Personally, absurdist comedy is one of my favorite forms. There are no limits to the amount of weird allowable. A lot of comedy (and life?) seems to be bound by rules and constructs that you’re supposed to follow to get the finished product, but with absurdist humor, there are no rules. Sure, you can put that unicorn on a spaceship and make him the president, why not? It creatively opens up any possibilities and allows the audience to enjoy something that, more than likely, they would have never thought of or expected. It leads the audience into a weird universe that can only exist within this piece of entertainment they’re partaking in at that moment, and that’s such a wonderful, inspiring thing. As my life mantra/favorite quote from the ultra-absurd 1990’s kid’s show Eerie, Indiana goes, “Better weird, than dead.”

Jessica Dorrell is a graduate of the DCH improv program, and is currently enrolled in the sketch writing program. Her one wish is that some day she can have a Mogwai as a pet. You can see her perform every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the current Ewing show.