Fireside Chat #15 (Spring ’06)


Woody Allen once said something like, “I won the August Strindberg award for attracting women.” This is an example of what a jerk Woody Allen is.

While I happen to know who Strindberg is because of an internet cartoon starring the morose would-be alchemist and a happy talking balloon, many people aren’t so lucky. What Allen is trying to say is that he is bad at attracting women, but instead of going out and saying just that, or perhaps making a joke about winning the “40-Year-Old Virgin” award (ha ha, remember the scene where he gets his chest waxed?), he makes a joke that says, “Everyone see how smart I am!”

Allen’s ‘insider jokes’ are a dying breed in modern movies, which has led some (me) to say that movies are better than they’ve ever been.

Test audiences have helped a lot. For years, test audiences have honed movies from raw singular visions into theatre-ready entertainment everyone can enjoy. When a main character dies and a test audience tears up, they get to write on an input card, “Make it so the main character doesn’t die” and he won’t.

I hear talk about this kind of “Hollywood ending” like it’s a sign of phoniness. Even if they’re right, this phoniness is a mandate from the people. And who goes against mandates from the people? Fascist dictators.

But while the happy endings are great, even more sophisticated is the joke selection process. They record the audiences for their reactions to the films and if not enough people are laughing at a particular joke, they just take it out and replace it with something more people will understand.

These changes are common because the reasons we laugh have evolved. Laughter used to be man’s happy response to the absurd. If a lemur ran up a villain’s pant leg, it was always hilarious when he danced around in surprise.

Today laughter has become something much more sophisticated: it is a sign of joke comprehension. “Ho ho,” we say, “I understand that joke.”

Example: If a beautiful woman in a movie tells a man he’s about as good-looking as Steve Buscemi, we need to laugh so that everyone knows that we know that Steve Buscemi is not a good-looking man at all.

If I may give a word of advice, well-placed laughter can be used for dating and business connections. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been cracking up in a movie theatre and had a beautiful woman hand me her card and explain that she has written her home number on the back. Let’s keep in mind, though, that I am very attractive.

Therefore, a movie is going to produce a lot of laughter if it has tons of witty pop culture references. I’m not talking about August Strindberg references, I’m talking about references to those on “American Idol,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “People” magazine’s “Most Attractive People” list.

Of course there are exceptions. “Family Guy” constantly makes references to TV shows that were big when I was two years old, “The Daily Show” makes jokes that only people who read newspapers can appreciate and Woody Allen, at the age of 110, is still making snob comedies. But leave these exceptions to the old people in training by avoiding the small, independent theatres that probably don’t even have stadium seating.

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