Recently, at a Bridesmaids Q&A sponsored by, apparently, the LA Times and Land Rover, comedy writer/director Judd Apatow revealed his secret desire to see a the annual Academy Awards ceremony feature a category for comedic films. Speaking as the voice of the current comedy generation, Apatow described how rarely it is for comedies to be recognized by the Academy with nominations, much less taking home real live Oscars. Maybe there’s still some residual shock from Shakespeare In Love’s victory over both Elizabeth and Saving Private Ryan, but nothing that could primarily be considered “a comedy” has won Best Picture, and even that movie fails to represent modern American comedies. Or, really, any American comedy since the late 1970s.
So, as with Best Animated Feature, Apatow thinks there ought to be a Best Comedic Feature (which would turn Best Picture into Best Dramatic Feature, I guess) to showcase and honor a given year’s… well, the year’s best comedies. You can watch the ubembeddable video here, but his basic argument is that a successful comedy is at least as hard to make, if not harder, than a successful drama. Actually, he flat out says his own movies would be exponentially easier to make if he didn’t have to worry about also making people laugh. Basically, that it’s an inherent misunderstanding of the art of comedy that they don’t get more routinely recognized.
And, really, Apatow is far from wrong. Comedy is hard, and most artists who have done both would probably attest to that. Being funny, much less consistently funny where enough people recommend you/your work because it made them laugh that you can make a respectable living off it is nearly impossible. It’s why there’s usually only a small stable of successful comedic actors, writers, and directors in any given 10-year period. Before the Internet, anyway. It’s why I wasn’t being too ironic by calling Apatow a the voice of a comedy generation, The 40-Year Old Virgin is absolutely award-worthy. One can argue that movies that contain comedic elements do frequently perform well at the Oscars, but movies that live or die on whether they make people laugh are practically never rewarded. If you care about movies at all, that should be of interest to you.
But Apatow is mistaken in believing there ought to be separate category. For one, there is no question about whether a movie is animated or live action to determine whether it should belong in the Best Animated or Best Picture categories — not counting Green Lantern, of course, but that would never be nominated, anyway — but what constitutes a “comedy” is less clear. Are upbeat movies like (as /Film points out) 500 Days Of Summer or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World comedies? According to Best Buy, yeah, probably, but they’re pretty far removed from Walk Hard or Wedding Crashers. And then there’s the Golden Globes’ Musical/Comedy/Misc. route that pits The Hangovers vs. the Alice In Wonderlands vs. the Burlesques, which is just fucking dumb. Finally, there’s the classic slippery slope argument of, Why stop at comedies? Why not a Best Horror Feature, or Best Fantasy, Best Children’s, Best Musical, Best Tyler Perry Movie, etc, etc.? The broadcast long enough as it is without honoring all the unique permutations that the Art of Film can take.
Really, it ought to come down to the Academy members themselves broadening their horizons. I’m not sure how that happens without broadening the ranks of the actual Academy, because right now the members the people who make movies that generally get nominated for Academy Awards. That tends to happen when you only allow those people to vote, and is probably why we even have an “awards season” between November and January for wide movie releases, where only the so-called “best” movies come out. So everyone with an Oscar-bait film has the same edge in terms of Academy member awareness, waiting until the last possible moment so as not to be forgotten.
The same isn’t true for any other artistic mediums. Sure, books, albums, and video games get released heavier around the same time of year when Oscar Contender lists are made, but that’s due to the surplus of shopping activity for the holidays. The awards ceremonies for those other industries are held throughout the year, whereas movie awards all happen at the same time. That isn’t to say if The Hangover 3 comes out in December instead of July that we would have a better chance to see a Zach Galifianakis acceptance speech, but if fellow comedians had a vote, he might.
Of course, opening up membership would dilute the Academy and make it less prestigious, which would make winning an Oscar that much less precious. And what’s the point of winning one if it’s not elitist? There was a small window of opportunity when they opened Best Picture up to ten nominees, to appease fans of The Dark Knight, basically, but that’s ending as of this year when it turned out that only five films were ever really in contention for either the 2009 or the 2010 campaigns. No, the only way for Judd Apatow to win an Oscar is for the Academy to take itself less seriously, which would mean taking comedy more seriously.
Actually, Apatow himself made this point much more subtly and (sort of) succinctly in the short he made for the 2009 ceremony. I’d much rather watch an awards show that featured the movies James Franco and Seth Rogen as their Pineapple Express characters watch than what usually gets nominated (okay, not The Love Guru):
Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force and tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar. (He hopes you fight cancer here and fight poverty here.) He really does think Steve Carrell got robbed.