“The premise for all comedy…
… is a man in trouble”, Jerry Lewis is supposed to have said. If that is true, isn’t it a paradox that comedy and documentary films not more often go hand in hand? Because a lot of documentaries are surely about somebody in trouble: about someone mistreated by society, some pariah or outcast who stands up against someone or something. So there should be plenty of possibilities to make that funny to look at. How come it so seldom is – funny to look at, I mean? How come we often avoid using humour in any form to get our message or communication across?
Well, in the Lewis-quote it is kind of inherent that we laugh at the man in trouble and we as filmmakers surely don’t want to have people laughing at our main characters. But why not? In his book, “Comedy is a Man in Trouble”, Alan S. Dale writes something like (quoted from memory): “Slapstick humour doesn’t feel very profound but yet very truthful to our own experiences in life.” I immediately link the second part of that sentence to something very much related to the nature of documentaries. I mean: “truthful, experiences in life”? Isn’t that widely acknowledged as documentary commodities?
Of course, we are all interested in getting a sober and well-balanced message across, especially us who works in the field of fact-related films. And we do tend to be very afraid to make our main characters look dumb or stupid or to let the notion come across that their situation is self-inflicted. But all in all, are we doing our main characters a disservice? Isn’t good comedy and a good laugh real means of change and improvement? Are we afraid of not being taken seriously? Or are we just not… well… funny?
When you turn to fiction film and look at some classic comedies, you can easily find comic films about big issues. “Dr. Strangelove” (1963, S. Kubrick) is about militaristic arrogance and nuclear war; “Manhattan” (1979, W. Allen) and “The Odd Couple” (1968, G. Saks) are both about a personal and severe male crisis, and we could also mention Chaplin or Buster Keaton. The key thing is, that comedy surely can have (but doesn’t always, of course) a deep and profound “sounding board” which really can provide meaning and a deeper understanding.
In documentaries, we do have Americans like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock who has a talent for amusing details and/or ironic repartee which they use deliberately, but it’s like most of us tend to stop ourselves after a good laugh: “Ok, let’s be serious. What would people think if they knew we sat here and laughed about this topic?”
I do often love poetic and clever and serene documentaries without an ounce of comedy in them, but I hate films which take themselves too seriously. And even if you don’t built your film around any “man in trouble” but instead are making a film about some injustice going on somewhere, you surely would be well off if you ridiculed said injustice by making the whole damn thing funny – especially if you put yourself on the line too. And I would really love to see more right down funny and amusing documentaries about serious subject matters… because I think it would help… At least it will make me laugh and I’m definitely more fun to be around when I’m in a good mood.
 Bear in mind, please, that I here merely talk about filmic and creative documentaries and not TV documentary shows; be that reality TV or docu-soaps or what have you.