Perhaps more than any other cinematic genre, comedy appears to change according to the temper of the times; this is especially true of the comedic sub-genre known as the romantic comedy. Perhaps this ability to adapt accounts for why the romantic comedy has withstood the test of time while other movie genres that at one time were far more plentiful and success, such as the western and the musical, passed out of favor.
The trajectory of the romantic comedy can be traced against the manner in which it has dictated by external social forces. The first successful type of romantic comedy in Hollywood was the screwball comedy of the 1930s that provided an absurdist release of the tensions engendered by the Great Depression through an emphasis on slapstick physical comedy while also providing a sense of optimism with their happy endings. The romantic couplings in the post-WWII years were highlighted by the almost gruesomely sexless series of films pairing Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
These films served to reinforce the middle class dreams of security and conformity of the Eisenhower era before giving way to the more openly sexual romantic comedies of the late 1960s that reflected a new era of permissiveness. From It Happened One Night to Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, however, one element of constancy remained: the girl and the guy never failed to end up together. Tragedy by its nature implies that chaos exists and that all is not right; comedy, by providing a happy ending, serves to reaffirm the prevailing ideology.
The first commercially successful romantic comedy to posit an alternative notion to this underlying concept of the ideology of the genre did not, and possibly could not, be made until the 1970s. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is dictated by the external social forces of that decade just as much as the screwball comedies were dictated by the economic and social upheaval of the Depression. Annie Hall stakes out a claim for being the first romantic comedy to display the multiple neursoses inherent in a realistic sexual relationship. It is the neuroses of Alvy and Annie, in fact, that present the obstruction that leads to what becomes the film’s most unconventional upending of genre of romantic comedy: the two do not end up together.
Until Allen’s film the very concept that the romantic leads would not end up together was the very definition of a romantic tragedy. In another Woody Allen film, Crimes and Misdemeanors Lester, the successful TV producer played to pompous perfection by Alan Alda, manages to boil down the entire essence of comedy into one simple equation: “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.” Lester’s unctuous delivery of his theory of comedy undermines the serious contemplation of its message, but when the message is stripped from its deliverer it becomes clear that Lester is essentially simplifying one of the elements of the far more philosophically expansive suppositions about the what makes a person laugh forwarded by Henri Bergson, who writes of comedy that “Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” What Lester and Bergson both imply is that comedy must by its very nature be distanced from the natural, or least the expected, emotions involved in an otherwise authentic situation.
Annie Hall establishes distance from the pain experienced by Alvy and Annie as their relationship crumbles by subverting the mechanics of the romantic comedy genre. The traditional and typical arc of a romantic comedy since the screwball era is one that begins with an antagonistic relationship between the man and woman that evolves into mutual attraction before finally ending with consummation. Annie Hall reverses this trajectory by presenting Alvy and Annie as immediately attracted to one another and ending with their romantic parting. In doing so the film becomes a part of the tradition of 1970s genre revisionism alongside Apocalypse Now, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Godfather. The distancing from the undercurrent of tragedy within the story arc of Annie Hall is also accomplished through its insistence on breaking down another convention of the romantic comedy. More so than any other type of comedy, the pre-Annie Hall romantic comedy eschews any intrusion into its carefully constructed sense of reality. Even the screwball antics of the 1930s comedies worked within an atmosphere of adherence to the reality of the situation.
Annie Hall, by contrasts, blasts through the fourth wall and at times also becomes an exercise in surrealism: the scene with the subtitles showing what Alvy and Annie are really thinking as they engage in phony small talk; the scene with at the movie theater at which Alvy produces Marshall McLuhan. These and other scenes serve to distance the audience from the excruciating emotions at stake; ultimately, it becomes clear this relationship is not just going to bend, but it’s going to break. Annie Hall becomes the first American romantic comedy to find the comic potential not in two people falling in love, but in what happens after the consummation that climaxed the earlier examples of the genre.
Annie Hall may have been given rise to a new sub-sub-genre of comedy, anti-romantic comedy, but external social forces served to collide with the film’s success and those forces proved to dictate the future of romantic comedy in a way that obstructed the influence that Allen’s film may otherwise have had. Annie Hall was released in the year that has now come to be generally regarded as the year that changed Hollywood forever. While Allen’s subversion of romantic comedy walked away the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was the wildly successful Star Wars that revolutionized the movie business. The record-breaking box office produced by Star Wars and the even more astounding revenue produced by the sale of related merchandise forever changed the business of making movies and the business of making movies changes, so does the art of making movies.
By the 1980s, the business of making movies meant that the bulk of films were marketed to teenagers and young adults. The most commercially successful romantic comedies of the 1980s starred young actors and were produced for young audiences. Films like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles resemble the traditional pre-Annie Hall romantic comedies, especially those of the 1950s, than they resemble Allen’s reflective meditation on the inherent tragic contradictions in a love story, but that is not to suggest that the film does not have subversive intentions of its own. Say Anything follows the longstanding templete of the romantic comedy except for one notable exception: like Annie Hall, the two lovers do not begin as antagonists. Like Alvy and Annie, however, Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court struggle toward romance through conflicting personalities, but the film avoids becoming a comedic riff on Romeo and Juliet because the central conflict that drives the plot is located elsewhere.
Say Anything is dictated by social forces not just as a result of the emphasis placed on marketing romantic comedies to teenagers instead of adults, but because it is a product of its era. The film was released in the final year of the 1980s when the corporate greed that defined business as usual was beginning to catch up with those who abused the privilege; people like Michael Milken and Charles Keating. One of the funniest and engaging scenes in the film revolves around Lloyd’s rejection of the politics of the Reagan era: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” In other words, Lloyd does not want to buy into the greed of the 80s. The conflict in Say Anything, therefore, is shifted from the social differences between Lloyd and Diane; Lloyd is set up as an alternative to Diane’s corrupt father. The first two-thirds of Say Anything presents a romantic comedy that aligns with the expectations of the boy-meets-girl conventions of a romantic comedy. The final third is just as much a rejection of those conventions as the coming recession of the early 1990s would produce a rejection of the Reagan era. Instead of using surreal humor to distance from the painful emotions at play, Say Anything introduces tragedy in the form of the economic problems experienced by Diane’s father. In doing so the film confirms the Lester/Bergson theory that laughter cannot be produced if emotional distance is not applied. Rather than consciously tampering with the ability of the audience to connect too closely with characters like Annie Hall does,
Say Anything chooses the opposite path by rejecting comedic potential for dramatic connection. Groundhog Day was released in 1993, but feels as if it could have been made at any point. The film contains enough elements of absurdity that it could easily have been a screwball comedy if made the 1930s, but has a conservative ideology that would be right at home in the 1950s, yet also manages to introduce a liberal awareness that fits more closely into the introspective 1970s. The film conforms to the pattern of romantic comedy that begins with an antagonistic relationship and culminates in consummation, but the real subject is not the pursuit of love. The film that Groundhog Day most closely resembles is neither Annie Hall nor Say Anything, but Tootsie. Both movies are constructed around a plot that lends itself to absurdity. Those absurd situations exist to propel the main character toward self-realization and the result is a confrontation with the concept that comedy bends, but not does break.
Groundhog Day and Tootsie are the rare comedies that successfully pull off what is usually left to far more dramatic films: the redemption of a human being. Phil Connors is a character that is a rejection of the principle of stasis in comedy. If change occurs in a comedy, it is typically only a surface transformation: single characters wind up married. American film comedy originated with this notion: Charlie Chaplin was always the Little Tramp, Buster Keaton was always stonefaced, Harold Lloyd was always optimistic. The tradition of the happy ending in comedy does not just reaffirm the dominant ideology; it also brings things full circle with only the most inconsequential of change. Groundhog Day subverts this generic tradition by daring to suggest that romantic happiness can only come with a full scale transformation of character.
Comedy succeeds as a genre where others have failed because it can be easily tailored to connect with social and political changes, as well as business changes. The adaptability of comedy is best expressed in the way that comic films have addressed the static conventions of a love story by addressing it through the prism of an ever-changing social milieu and discovering new methods of addressing the element of creating enough emotional distance to allow an audience to laugh at the misfortune of others.