[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.