Comedy has been around since people understood the meaning of laughter. When there were hard times, people would use comedic entertainment to let themselves feel joy in a time of struggle. When cinema came about, film makers decided to use the idea of laughter to sell movies and make money. There are two important things when it comes to the idea of comedy. “ A speculation: each theory of comedy faces a double task- to account for comic forms, i.e., the laws of comic discourse, literary/dramatic/(filmic), and to account for the phenomenon of laughter, and of course to relate the two” (Henderson, 1978). In essence, a comedic film will have writing and directing that take the form of comedic discourse but also include the laughter aspect to a comedic film.
One sub-genre of comedy is considered the screwball comedy. Generally, in a screwball comedy all of the characters are perceived as crazy and zany. Generally, if all of the characters are crazy in a comedy there is no mean or standard of behavior to which the character is held to (Henderson, 1978). “But in what is called screwball comedy there often is comparative judgment of behavior and therefore at least an inchoate “philosophy of conduct” (Henderson, 1978). So, what Henderson is trying to say is in general comedies the standard of behavior is held at the standard of the character. However, in a screwball comedy all of the characters are ‘screwballs’, but the norm of conduct is still there and that is what makes the screwball funny humorous.
Common themes of the screwball comedy include escaping constraints of authority figures, playing out different roles, and shedding an old identity for a new one (Greenberg et al., 1992). Other qualities of a screwball comedy include characters who are polar opposites; poor or rich, conservative and liberal, male or female, etc.
One example of a screwball comedy is “Thelma and Louise.” The two main characters in the film set out to escape their current identities and lives. One is controlled by her husband who has authority over her and the other is escaping her life as a waitress. Throughout the film, they are portrayed participating in screwball acts and acting against the law and their lives in a humorous way.
One movie that some theorists claim to be the modern version of the screwball comedy is the movie “Role Models”, starring Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott. In this film, the two men are polar opposites. Paul Rudd’s character is a conservative and stern individual while Sean William Scott’s character is more carefree and goes with the flow. Towards the beginning of the film, they get arrested for driving their company’s truck away from a tow truck and inevitably damaging both trucks. Afterwards, they are sentenced to do community service at a big brother program. Although this is not the original screwball comedy from the 1930s and 1940s, it still contains many themes and motifs from the screwball comedy genre. To start with, the two main characters are completely opposite and a lot of the humor comes from witty arguments that Rudd and Scott’s character get into. Furthermore, their little brothers they are assigned in the film are complete opposites from them. Rudd’s character is assigned a boy who is far from what he would consider normal. Rudd’s little brother is into a completely imaginary life while Rudd is very much cemented into reality. Scott’s little brother is a tiny boy who has a mouth worse than Scott does. This movie also portrays the screwball comedy because Scott and Rudd are trying to escape the constraints of authority. By doing this little brother program, they are trying to free themselves from the law and get their record clear. While doing this, they face many ‘screwball’ like situations which helps to portray the humor in the film.
Screwball comedies really originated and became popular in the 1930s and 1940s. These films were released around the times of The Great Depression. Many films released during this time had a depression motif and screwball comedies were one of the most popular films people came to see (Taylor & Stricker, 1976). As previously stated, themes of the screwball comedy include escaping identity, escaping authority, and the idea of having polar opposites in the casting. The popularity of screwball comedies may have stemmed from the similar feelings people had about The Great Depression and WWII. For example, W WII, as in any war, had two polar opposite sides. By making screwball comedies, people were able to laugh about opposing views instead of fear them as many people did. Furthermore, the idea of escaping authority and escaping one’s identity can relate to WWII and The Great Depression. Many people during this time wanted to escape their identity for many different reasons. If they were not American, they would not have to be going off to war and would not be living with such little luxuries. Furthermore, the idea of escaping authority may reflect people’s feelings about being drafted. Many men may have wanted to escape their identity as an American man to avoid the draft. Many woman may have wanted to escape their identity as an American woman and be an American man so their loved ones did not have to go away to war. Or, many people would want to escape their American identity altogether so they did not have to deal with the heart ache of war. By putting these subliminal meanings in the movies, people were able to laugh about these issues without having the fear and pain of the war and The Great Depression.
In conclusion, a screwball comedy takes the idea of escaping one’s identity and authority and puts it in a comedic light. Although these comedies may have been more popular in the 1930s and 1940s due to economic and political issues that were going on in society, themes of screwball comedies are still used in modern films. Comedy has been around for ages, but many of the themes still hold true.