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Have You Heard the One About the...? The Use of Humor in Documentaries

By Tamara Krinsky

From Mark Lewis' <em>Natural History of the Chicken</em>. Photo courtesy of PBS

While donning my other hat as Associate Director of the Film Program at HBO’s Comedy Arts Festival, I was faced with an interesting conundrum. I have a personal commitment to programming documentaries and getting them out to wider audiences, yet labeling a documentary a comedy has several inherent problems, such as the possibility of implying disrespect towards one’s subject matter. While many serious docs use moments of humor to draw in their audiences, achieving tonal balance can be tricky when juxtaposing weighty issues with moments of lightness. Additionally, those docs that deal with seemingly less critical subjects are often treated like the black sheep of the documentary world, not taken seriously because they’re not investigating the vanishing rainforests or the plight of homeless children.

“People assume that documentary has to be very serious, very dry, very earnest,” asserts Lisa Ades, director of Miss America, which looks at the history and impact of the Miss America pageant. “And the truth is, documentary should be like any other form of entertainment—it should be smart, it should be entertaining, it should be funny, it should be moving,” The 2002 Sundance Film Festival screening of the film that I attended rang with the audience’s laughter, yet Ades was quite emphatic about the fact that she would not want her film to be labeled a comedy. She grew quite fond of the Miss Americas whom she researched and interviewed. Despite being set against a world filled with swimsuit competitions and Atlantic City antics, or perhaps because of it, the stories were honest and emotional, and deserving of respect. Ades felt that a comedic label on the film would take away from that.

This is familiar territory for Mark Lewis, known for his humorous animal documentaries such as The Natural History of the Chicken and Cane Toads. “There is a prejudice against films that aren’t the ‘Mother Teresa’ documentary style,” he says. “You’ll never win an Oscar because it was a funny story. The informed and uninformed mentality is that a subject needs to be worthy or socially commentative. People don’t see that we can make funny films about real things.”

That’s exactly what Rich Fox and Kris Curry, co-directors and producers of Tribute set out to do. The feature rockumentary follows the struggles of tribute bands and their fans in their quest to live their rock-and-roll dreams. Fox and Curry definitely thought theirs would be a funny film, but at the same time, also believed that it could touch on deeper issues they were interested in exploring—namely, the effect of fame and the continued pursuit of dreams as one gets older. Says Fox, “Personally, I wouldn’t mind if people referred to it as a comedy. There are a lot of great comedies about other things than just the humor. The same is true for docs.”

Tribute actually gets rather serious fairly early on, and the filmmakers liked the idea that it took audiences by surprise. They recognized that they would probably not win any festival awards, but hoped to cast a wider net out beyond those who usually attend docs, to fans of cult movies, rock and roll and Spinal Tap. They knew when shooting that getting the humor would be the easy part. Harder would be finding a way for that audience to relate to what they saw onscreen. However, according to Fox, audiences have been happy to discover that the piece is more than just a comedy, as most are uncomfortable going to documentaries to laugh at people.

Indeed, David Weissman and Bill Weber, co-directors of The Cockettes, both felt that respect for their subjects was of paramount importance. Their film tells the story of The Cockettes, a rag-tag, gender-bending, cross-dressing bunch of hippies who took the stage at the Palace Theater in San Francisco in 1969, and developed a cult following that included the likes of John Waters and Divine. Says Weissman, “Not poking fun at our subjects was central. We approached the themes and characters with reverence and respect, telling their story with the richness and complexity it deserves.”

Ades felt similarly about the Miss Americas she interviewed. “It just seemed to me that the humor and irony was going to come out naturally in the material; there’s no way around it. [But] I did feel very strongly from the beginning that I didn’t want to be mean spirited, make fun of the pageant or the contestants in ways that would be offensive to the participants.”

One way to avoid such disrespect is by not taking clips out of context. Explained Tribute’s Curry, “Most of our subjects can see the things that are ludicrous in their lives, but they are not ludicrous themselves…If they were brave enough to put themselves out there, then we had a personal responsibility to back up that trust.”

Mark Lewis cites Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, The Big One) as one who walks this line responsibly. “Moore, a wonderful filmmaker, has a different way of creating humor. He’ll pick people who deserve to be made fun of, put them in the two-shot, and then make fun of them on camera.”

When humor is used in such a manner, it can serve as a great tool, helping in “our ability to cope, understand and feel safe and connected,” says The Cockettes’ Weber. “It allows us a joyous way in which to relate to human life and some of the absurd conditions that are presented to us. That makes it a very valuable documentary technique. I would be surprised if documentary filmmakers wouldn’t strive to be comedic, if only for moments when working with difficult subjects.”

This philosophy is shared by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold, co-producers/directors of Blue Vinyl, in which the filmmakers travel to America’s vinly manufacturing capital and beyond in search of answers about the nature of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The result is a humorous but sobering and uniquely personal examination of the relationship between consumers and industry.

When Helfand and Gold first pitched the film, they actually called it a “toxic comedy” because the inclusion of humor in the piece was so important to them. According to Helfand, this was not simply to make what could be perceived as a dry environmental piece more appealing to audiences and buyers. Rather, it grew organically out of their exploration of the issue. “We had a commitment to make a film that looked like the way we were experiencing this wacky world of toxicity,” she says. Moments of zaniness and irony for the filmmakers included celebrating Mardi Gras while in Louisiana to investigate a factory, and going to a meeting at the Vinyl Institute and finding themselves following directions that included the instructions, “Make a right at the intersection of Corporate and Trust streets.”

As important as it was to the filmmakers to include humor, they were also extremely concerned about achieving the right tone for the piece, and not allowing the moments of levity to undercut the issue being explored. As such, there were lines they wouldn’t cross. For example, in the film they interview an Italian doctor who tried to take charge of the question and answer session—in essence, attempting to direct the directors. Originally, Helfand and Gold included a piece of accompanying narration in the film that commented upon his controlling behavior, with Helfand exclaiming, “What did I expect from a guy who does controlled rat experiments for a living?” A funny moment, but they chose to take it out of the film because it worked against what they were trying to achieve.

Arthur Dong (Family Fundamentals; Coming Out Under Fire) uses what he calls “ ‘the Terms of Endearment structure.’ The first half is hilarious; the second half she gets cancer. It’s basic character development—drawing the audience in, using humor, then introducing the deeper, darker topic.”

In Coming Out Under Fire, a historical account of military policy regarding homosexuals during World War II, Dong very specifically used humor when structuring the film in order to help develop the dramatic situations. He felt it was important to get out of “victim mode”; thus, the first part of the film focuses on the camaraderie the soldiers had with one another. Dong highlights the fun the men had developing covert communications, such as the publication of the newsletter The Myrtle Beach Bitch. Later, however, this publication was used as evidence against them, resulting in persecution and imprisonment. Thus, Dong was able to organically use an instance of fun to foreshadow a more serious element of the story.

Similarly, the humor found in The Cockettes helped to set up the more grave issues in the film. Says Weber, “The Cockettes’ handling of ideals, politics and, for many, their early deaths, becomes more poignant after laughing with them.”

Regardless of how comedy is used in a documentary, ultimately, it remains a sticky subject., “There is resistance from some audiences to see documentaries,” Weissman admits, “and a resistance from the documentary community to take entertaining documentaries seriously.” It’s important, then, to make the best film possible, using all of the elements at his or her disposal. Gold and Helfand spent hours constructing some of their shots in the attempt to combine humor with the presentation of factual information. Gold utilized equipment such as a jib arm and dolly shots, for example, to add to the film’s quirky style. This approach paid off in a 2002 Sundance Film Festival Award for Excellence in Cinematography.

Dong’s careful attention to structure while in the editing room for Family Fundamentals, a piece about three politically conservative Christian “families” who discover their children are homosexual, speaks to the importance of the tool of story development. Recognizing the ability of humor to break boundaries, he was very particular about the placement of certain key moments, such as when one of his subjects points to a picture on his fridge of “Homo Milk,” and jokes about it being the cause of his homosexuality.

Ultimately, regardless of the perception of the significance of a film’s subject, all documentarians share the mission of telling their stories, as Helfand describes it, “in the best, most true, most alive way possible.” It would be a shame to leave humor out of the mix.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of International Documentary.