Anarchic comedy film  

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Anarchic comedy (or wacky comedy) is a genre of cinema using nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness humor. Films of this nature stem from a theatrical history of anarchic comedy on the stage. Jokes and visual gags are utilized, usually in a non sequitur manner that eschews narrative for sheer absurdity. Like farce, anarchic comedy uses wildly exaggerated characters and situations to provide humor, but unlike farce, where any outrageous event springs from the situation, the gags used in this type of comedy have no narrative context. The gags are often similar to slapstick, but with less emphasis on physical violence and more emphasis on comic antics.



The anarchic comedy has its roots in the low-brow popular stage, namely the circus, minstrel shows, the traveling medicine and Western shows, vaudeville, burlesque, and the music hall. In these venues, especially the last three, comic business came in the form of sketches which generally had no self-contained narrative. Since the performers needed to get immediate reactions from the audience, any and all appropriate jokes were thrown in these sketches at the expense of telling a story.

Silent anarchic comedy

This type of moment-by-moment comedy made its way into early film. From the dawn of the medium through the mid-1910s, film comedies either showed one single gag – like the Lumière brothers' L'Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) – or, in a one-reeler, showed repetition of the same basic gag – like 1912's That Fatal Sneeze. The famous comedians of the silent screen started out, in their two-reelers, using disconnected black-out sketches built around one theme (Buster Keaton's The Playhouse, for example), but by the early 1920s they had moved on to more cohesive narrative forms and, thus, abandoned anarchic comedy altogether (although Buster Keaton re-captured the anarchic spirit with Sherlock, Jr).


It was in the 1930s that the anarchic comedy started to blossom, as vaudeville performers raced to the big studios. The Marx Brothers were the main proponents of their own brand of no-holds-barred humor captured for posterity in films like Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and Horse Feathers. They had a knack for complex wordplay, double entendres, outrageous slapstick, and being able to walk into a room full of society people and leave the place in shambles. Another comedy team in the 1930s with an anarchic bent was Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, who, while not as creative as the Marx Brothers, were still fun in such films as Hook, Line and Sinker and Hips Hips Hooray.

There was also W.C. Fields, a vaudeville comedian who made the switch to film in the early '30s and worked his own twist on the "up-the-society" theme. In such classics as The Bank Dick and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, Fields perfected an everyman persona who fights the world of henpecking housewives, bumbling bureaucrats, and obnoxious children with made-up words, a shyster's sense of chicanery, and a steady stream of liquor.


The '40s produced Olsen and Johnson, two comedians whose Hellzapoppin' manages to spoof Hollywood musicals, the aristocracy, and the entire notion of narrative linearity, and whose Crazy House contains in its first fifteen minutes the wackiest comic business of the decade. Also in this decade, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour started making the casually anarchic farces known as the "Road" pictures. Hurried ad-libbing by all involved made otherwise corny comedies into gems such as Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia. Bob Hope would later return to the anarchic format in Son of Paleface.

1950s and 1960s Decline

The '50s saw a general decrease in anarchic comedy, although some works of Frank Tashlin (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?)and Jerry Lewis (The Bellboy) definitely had some anarchic elements, as did the big budget comedy epics of the '60s, especially It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Great Race, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

1970s Revival and 1980s

When the Monty Python group made a big splash in cinema with such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, they brought down institution after institution with deadly accuracy. Thus, the 1970s became the Golden Age of Anarchic Comedy; as American society spiraled out-of-control and the populace lost faith in the hypocrisies of the government and the church, the general public embraced a style of comedy that wasn't afraid to bite the hand that fed it. Movies such as MASH, Bananas, Blazing Saddles, Nashville, National Lampoon's Animal House, The Jerk, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, and Stripes wore a thin veil of narrative over the basic theme of the slobs vs. the snobs and attacked the upper crust of society, while the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team kept the stream-of-consciousness comedy alive with The Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane!.

Modern Anarchic Comedy

The surreal stylings of humor that mark the anarchic comedy still reigned supreme in the comedy of the '90s, predominantly in the work of Mike Myers (Wayne's World), Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura), the Coen brothers (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski), and the Farrelly brothers (Kingpin, There's Something About Mary).

The comedy trio Stella is a quintessential example of modern anarchic comedy.

See also

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