[This is a spoiler-free article.]
Steph and I picked up the blu-ray of The Hangover, released yesterday, and enjoyed a little mommy-daddy movie night with the bawdy and hilarious film. The story of four men who storm Las Vegas over a weekend to enjoy a bachelor party and wake up with no memory of what happened is truly a worthwhile watch, and is probably the second best movie of 2009 after Pixar's Up. There are a great many f-bombs, sexual dialogue, and brief breast nudity in The Hangover, so it is certainly not a movie you would want to freely show the young'uns, but mature (relatively speaking) teenagers can probably handle it. If you haven't yet seen, I strongly recommend.
The typical Hollywood comedy delivers its laughs by having the characters tell jokes or zing one-liners at each other and/or by employing slapstick or bathroom humor. This is forced and more like the performance of a skit or stand-up routine. The audience can laugh at it the first time around, but the comedic impact diminishes after that. (In some cases, it diminishes a great deal after that.) It is no accident that many actors in that kind of movie are former comedians. They are simply doing what they know. Hollywood has figured out how to execute such films and make them profitable, and there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying a chuckle or two at American Pie or Deuce Bigalow. But those never become truly timeless movies that can be watched again and again. After a few slices of Pie... you're basically full.
Part of what made The Hangover great, aside from excellent casting and pacing, is that it followed the comedic principle that the context has to create the premises for the humor. This kind of comedy is in evidence also in film such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Big Lebowski. None of the characters "tell jokes" or "zing one-liners" at one another, and physical comedy is generally developed instead of being slapstick. The comedy is delivered by the characters' actions and reactions to the context of the story developing around them. Usually, this is accomplished by writing a character to have certain attributes and history, and then straining at the edges of that characterization and testing the limits of what the character might do if he were pushed just a bit too far.
For example, it's audacious, cringeworthy, and brilliantly funny to watch Ed Helms' cuckolded dentist Stu in The Hangover desperately trying to convince his friends that his girlfriend's illicit affair with a bartender was nothing to be concerned about. (Not a spoiler; this happens during exposition.) Watching, we laugh at Stu's explicit take on the physical implications of the act, cringe at how pathetic and wussy Stu's rationalization makes him seem, and feel a twinge of pity for Stu as we begin to understand his underlying naivete and good-heartedness. At no time did Helms crack a joke -- all we viewers needed to laugh was to see in context Stu's completely believable dialogue with his buddies Doug and Phil. Royal's audacious hospital set-up in Tenenbaums and the Dude's pining to the policemen for his Creedence tapes in Lebowski are perfect examples of this kind of comedy.
With a sufficiently well-developed context and plotline, a comedy like The Hangover has the freedom to engage in absurdist humor without having it fall flat or look forced. When Our Heroes wake up after the party (again, not a spoiler; this happens during exposition) and see their hotel room in shambles, there are some "unexpected guests" that are completely over-the-top, but since the movie earns it by expositing realistically and confining the comedy to action/reaction and not jokes, the "unexpected guests" are funny to the point of sideache. The punchlines later in the film when their presence is explained gain additional impact and reach almost legendary status -- and that is how a "classic scene" is born. Our Heroes return at one point to their hotel room to hear Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight playing over the room's sound system, and a Crowning Moment of Awesome ensues. Tenenbaums and Lebowski earned and cashed in on absurdist scenes as well, from Walter Sobchak's amazing "This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!" scene (citing the television-edited dialogue), to the scene in which Royal takes his grandsons Ari and Uzi out for a night on the town.
Despite the clear effectiveness of following the contextual, situational comedic method, writing for actual so-called "situation comedies" or "sitcoms" remains generally of the jokes-and-one-liners variety. In some respects, this is an artifact of the necessity of fitting a plot into a 21-minute skit with two intermissions breaking continuity. However, it is telling that some of the most successful sitcoms of the modern day were the ones that took the time and effort to develop context and deliver comedy from action and reaction instead. Great examples of this are Seinfeld, Friends, and That '70s Show, and it is no accident that all three cashed in on contextual development with brilliant absurdist turns. Cue Joey's matter-of-fact explanation that he did, in fact, mean that something was "a moo point," not "a moot point": "You know, it's like a cow's opinion. It doesn't matter. It's moo." Or perhaps Red Forman rescinding half of Eric's punishment when he learns that Eric sneaked out on the town in his Corvette "in order to impress... this... girl." In full absurdist regalia, we have the hilarious "Reefer Madness" spoof that started That '70s Show's third season and the early concession of Seinfeld's Kramer from the wager to see who could be Master of (his or her) Domain. If you know anything about the characters, you can appreciate why those scenes were funny... but neither is ever as funny in the abstract as it is when you see it delivered while watching the entire episode.
Come to think of it, I hypothesize that the reason The Simpsons has never been as good in recent seasons as it was in seasons three through eight is because the writers largely abandoned contextual humor for, yep, jokes and zingers and farts and Homer getting beaten up a different contrived way every other week.
I have my doubts that any of this will change in practice anytime soon -- it takes more time and better writing skills to deliver contextual comedy, and Hollywood already knows how to profit just fine off the other, cheaper, faster kind. Still, if we as consumers understand the difference, we will be in a better position to gauge from the promotional material whether a comedy movie or TV show is worth our time and money, and perhaps will experience more "hits" and fewer "misses" in the future.