What Makes a Comedy a Comedy?

Since the announcement of this year’s Golden Globe nominations, a debate has sparked over the Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy nominees. All of the five films nominated in the category — American Hustle, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, and The Wolf of Wall Street — are unarguably not laugh-out-loud movies, but according to Entertainment Weekly, the only qualification the Hollywood Foreign Press Association upholds for a Musical/Comedy category film is whether it makes an audience laugh. From the article:

In pop culture, comedy often implies a position where you’re outside of things, laughing at them; whereas drama suggests empathy, identification, compassion, with no laughs to get in the way. A lot of our best pop culture fuses both, so that we can laugh at a character we do feel compassion for. And when that’s happening, the distinction is moot. But comedy, as a classification, essentially repositions the purpose of a movie. It says: That movie is there to entertain you. And, of course, it is. But our relationship to a comedy can sound like a bit of a transaction: We pay our money, and we want to laugh. We want results. Whereas a drama, when it’s great, offers something more mysterious. It’s an experience that we take with us, because there’s no guffawing human coin to measure it by.

The article points out the shared comedy/drama blend evident in films like Rain Man, Boogie Nights, Dazed and Confused, and Goodfellas but goes on to call the comedy categorization of American Hustle a potential “trivialization of the film’s achievement.” Doesn’t that positing, in turn, trivialize the value of a good comedy? Whatever the case, judging from the last three Musical/Comedy films to win Golden Globes (Les Misérables, The Artist, The Kids Are All Right), it doesn’t look like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association finds funny movies — however they define them — very award-worthy.

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