Setter’s ‘Spective: The Madness of Undervaluing Comedy

Are there any great comedians left who haven’t turned to drama?

I ask this question sometime after grumbling my way through Hyde Park on Hudson, director Roger Michell’s innocuous 2012 film starring Bill Murray as the womanizing Franklin D. Roosevelt. I couldn’t believe Murray, the wonderfully dry, talented jokester whose it-just-doesn’t-matter attitude enlivened flicks such as Ghostbusters and Meatballs, was playing it so straight–and dull–as the inimitable wartime President. This was what I was watching Murray for?

Sadly, he’s not alone when it comes to actors in his trade, nor is he a pacesetter in gravitating toward drama. Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Robin Williams and even Jim Carrey have all starred in dramatic pictures that didn’t take full advantage of their laughtastic talents. And I lament that, because it’s as if they’re discarding their specialties–the stuff that humorous dreams are made of–for something they’re not as good at, seemingly in the hopes that they’ll be recognized for their serious efforts more than their silly ones.

Yeah, watch Chaplin’s Limelight, and tell me it’s more enjoyable than Modern Times. I dare ya.

The truth is, great comedy’s just as respectable as great drama–and the idea that it’s not as important is nonsense. Look at Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro: the pinnacle of comedic (or, frankly, any) opera. I’d listen to that any day over Nixon in China. And would any of us really opt for Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio over any classic Beatles song? There’s nothing lowbrow about great art…even if it’s a popular form.

Not that I’m imploring Allen to go back to making wild movies like Bananas. His style has evolved, like so many other comics, and I don’t think that can change. But I thank my lucky Hollywood stars that Laurel and Hardy didn’t make Antony and Cleopatra. Or that the Marx Brothers made fun of Eugene O’Neill’s plays rather than put them on.

If that isn’t worthy of respect, I don’t know what is.

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