Something funny happened the other night. Funny, though not in the ha-ha sense. A humorous English writer won the Booker Prize for the first time since Kingsley Amis in 1986.
Leaving aside the fact that humour from Waugh to Wodehouse and Waterhouse is what the English do really well, what made Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question the bookies’ “rank outsider” for the award is that the glittering prizes in the arts are generally not doled out to the quipsters, the jokers, those who write or act with an arched eyebrow.
Bill Murray in his Ghostbusters, Caddyshack and Groundhog Day period, wasn’t garlanded with anything like the same critical love as when he moved into Broken Flowers and Lost In Translation mode.
They had to give Groucho the Honorary Oscar in 1974 to make up for the scandalous omission of nominations for the classic Marx Brothers era.
Look at some of the laugh-fests landing the Academy Award for Best Picture since Woody Allen’s Annie Hall won in 1978 – The Deer Hunter, Terms of Endearment, Schindler’s List, Titanic, The Hurt Locker … safe to say the Farrelly Brothers never won Best Director in that time.
Even a musical (Chicago) has won the Best Movie gold ‘un more recently than a comedy.
When Harry Met Sally, Airplane, Best in Show, Groundhog Day, This is Spinal Tap, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Shaun of the Dead – not even nominated in that category.
Movies dubbed as comedies which do receive serious attention come that time of year – Four Weddings…, The Full Monty, Shakespeare In Love, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno – have their amusing moments, but the comic moments are outweighed by the dramatic ones. Note: the compound “dramedies” is banned from this piece.
In music, the light-hearted leave light-handed.
Mercury Music Prize winners Pulp stand out in a sea of more serious-minded victors like Portishead and PJ Harvey. Artists who try wilfully to be funny and nice with it, like Ben Folds, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon or They Might Be Giants, can receive the cold shoulder from most music critics, who lavish praise on sourly acerbic wits like Morrissey and Alex Turner.
Randy Newman wasn’t seen as a great artist when he was writing waspish songs like Short People and Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear but only once he got into film scoring, did critics appreciate him.
The London West End’s OIivier Award for Best New Play was last won by a comedy in 2005’s The History Boys. Since 2006, all dramas.
Kate Winslet, via the writing of Ricky Gervais, told his character in Extras about how she’d only win an Oscar if she acted in a Holocaust movie. Soon after, she appeared in The Reader and you know the rest.
Comedy is a serious business, said WC Fields.
When the not-so-serious business of handing out awards and critical plaudits are concerned, comedy takes a back seat. That’s even though many actors and writers say that making an audience laugh is the toughest thing an artist can do.
That’s what made Jacobson’s win so rare.
What price a comedy winning Best Picture at the 2011 Oscars? Not even a comedian would put money on that.