[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
We sometimes say that comedy is a very serious business, and we’re right; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make us laugh. Comedy is serious when it makes us laugh in an important way, at something—whether big or dangerous or overrated—with which we can deal more easily once we’ve laughed. Annie Hall brought humor out of things that cause people great pain, and those who love the movie seem to value their laughter very highly, as a kind of liberation: as a friend put it, “Annie Hall may do for neurotics what Rocky did for everybody else.” But the laughter is crucial, and unfunny comedy is just depressing.
In Jabberwocky, for instance, we may be taken with the way Terry Gilliam has cast an attack by medieval dragon in the first-person mode of Jaws and King Kong—complete with tuneless, throbbing background music—or with his satiric images of life in the Middle Ages, which look like the work of a wicked 19th-century cartoonist. We may laugh in spite of ourselves the first time the innocent-abroad hero, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), is accidentally peed upon—likewise when garbage is thrown on him or he falls into a manure pile—but it’s hard to laugh the second or third times: we can take only so much offal humor at a sitting. Cooper’s grotesquely fat lady love Griselda, sitting on her lake porch munching placidly on a raw potato, may strike us as a marvelous creation, until we realize how little will be done with her; that first glimpse contains everything we’re given to laugh at through every one of her appearances.
The daring of Jabberwocky is really all on the surface, safely distanced by the medieval setting. That surface is picturesquely squalid and slimy, and momentarily arresting as such; but it doesn’t take long for even the most striking visual settings to pall if they are meant to be the substance of the movie as well as its background, and if there isn’t enough in the foreground to hold our interest. Quirky first impact aside, Jabberwocky is repetitive and clumsy in ways that undo it. Repetition can be effective in comedy when used to build upon an initial response—the escalating violence in Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business, to cite a classic example. Terry Gilliam repeats jokes endlessly in Jabberwocky, but in a monotone instead of at an ever-rising pitch, so that they just go on and on and then stop, rather than building to a climax. King Bruno the Questionable
(Max Wall) sits watching a joust and each knightly encounter (offscreen) splatters him with a little more blood, until he and his counselors are soaked with it. But the tone and rhythms of the scene undercut its effect: the King’s conversation with his minister drones on at an unchanging pace, and the speed of the business isn’t increased once the joke has become familiar.
Gags don’t succeed on the strength of the comic idea alone—they need to be made to work. Gilliam gives his so little help they die in front of us. We are left glumly watching the carnage, which—because Gilliam’s humor runs heavily to severed limbs, squashings, disembowelments, and the like—is literal as well as figurative. The television backgrounds of both Gilliam and Palin—Monty Python veterans—may account for some of this. On television we’re often given just the ideas for jokes; the haste with which shows are slapped together precludes much care or polished timing. This was especially true of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a very uneven series which was funniest when its ideas were daring and plentiful enough to have an effect regardless of how bland their presentation was. In Jabberwocky there just aren’t enough good ideas, and those there are get ridden into the ground.
© 1977 David C. Chute
Direction and co-screenplay: Terry Gilliam.
The players: Michael Palin, Max Wall, David Prowse.