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Reality Can Be Funnier Than Fiction: A Look at Humor in Documentaries

By Josh Slates

Morgan Spurlock, from his 2004 film Super Size Me. Photo: Julie Soefer

I know what you're thinking--what could possibly be funnier than a gaggle of documentary filmmakers discussing the use of humor in the nonfiction form? So, we set out to interview a variety of figures in the documentary production and exhibition arena about the ways in which filmmakers can use comedy and humor to reinforce their intended message to audiences.

Perhaps we should begin with Mark Lewis, a documentary filmmaker who is particularly skilled at using anthropomorphism to imbue his otherwise incommunicative subjects with expression and emotion, often to hilarious effect. Known for such titles as Rat and The Natural History of the Chicken, Lewis was especially conscious of this question of cold-blooded perspective during the pre-production of his classic 1988 featurette Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.

"Very early on," Lewis recalls, "I wanted to take the perspective of the toad, to tell the story from the toad's point of view. It was hard not to think that many aspects of the story were funny--man being man and creature being creature, both going in different directions and the cane toad thwarting every attempt by man to control it. With that in mind, the comedy came from many different elements, be it counterpoint between creature and character, visual gag or the use of sound effect or music."

At the same time, Lewis is cautious to point out that the effectiveness of some situational comedy is often dependent upon an audience's detached perspective of the situation itself. "It can be funny when you see a large man chase a rat around a room with a baseball bat," Lewis observes, referring to one of his subject's climactic confrontation with the eponymous antagonists of his 1998 film Rat. "Funny for us, but not for that man whose life has been ruined by a plague of rats."

Although foresight and pragmatic consideration during pre-production can help solidify the tone of a documentary, Lewis also explains how simply having a camera rolling tape at the right place at the right time can capture a lasting comic moment. He points to a scene that unfolded during the production of his latest project, a documentary for PBS about "extreme gardeners competing for a world record giant pumpkin."

"We were filming a scene where one of our characters polishes his giant pumpkin with vegetable oil," Lewis recalls. "I looked to the cameraman and all I had to say was, ‘Think Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and a potter's wheel from Ghost.' He got it."

Director Robert Weide, who is currently in his 18th year of production on a forthcoming documentary about Kurt Vonnegut, points to the origins of a memorable moment of levity in his Oscar-nominated 1998 documentary, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. Sally Marr, the mother of the titular comedian, was scheduled to discuss her son's early aspirations in show business. Whereas other directors might have cued the dreaded "talking head" shot, Weide instead decided to frame the interview in a way that would more properly capture her larger-than-life personality. "I knew that her spirit was just too ebullient to just have her sit still on a couch for an interview," Weide recalls. "We were talking about scheduling the interview, and she said she wanted to have her hair done before she went on camera. Then she added, ‘Unless you want to shoot me while I'm getting my hair done.' Well, as soon as those words fell off her lips, there was no turning back.

"At one point early on in the interview," Weide continues, "the stylist was spraying her hair while she was talking, and she chastised him, telling him not to spray her while she was talking. In the editing room, I was figuring out how to cut around that moment, when suddenly it occurred to me to leave it in because it was such a typical Sally moment. People still mention that moment to me all the time."

David Wilson, co-founder of the True/False documentary film festival, argues that nonfiction filmmakers should not feel that their ability to achieve a comedic tone is exclusive to the hilarity of their chosen subject matter. "Just because a subject is serious doesn't mean that film can't find the inherent humor within it," Wilson rationalizes. What's more, filmmakers who can keep it funny may find themselves especially welcome at True/False. "We love comedy," he enthuses. "We love films that take unconventional approaches to their subjects."

Filmmaker Grace Lee found a receptive audience for her documentary feature The Grace Lee Project at True/False in 2005 (and not simply because she happens to be a native of the festival's home in Columbia, Missouri). The movie is a dissection of the cultural prejudices surrounding women named "Grace Lee," a popular adopted Christian name among female "1.5 Generation" Asian-American immigrants. 

 "I was describing the ‘Grace Lee' stereotype to a classmate in film school--‘Grace Lees' are all really smart and super nice and over-achievers," Lee recounts. "My friend smiled and laughed and said, ‘Yeah, but that's how I see you!'"

During production of The Grace Lee Project, Lee decided to forego polemical hyperbole and strike a more delicate balance of wit, absurdity and oral history in delineating how a peculiar uniformity of the American immigrant experience colors the life stories of her subjects. "Although I did make an identity piece," Lee admits, "I'm not really interested in identity politics--or rather, I get tired of hearing about it, especially when people take on the victim role. I think humor plays a big role in the film. I find my ‘identity crisis' filled with contradiction and absurdity, even if there are serious issues at play--ethnic stereotypes, cultural isolation and so forth."

Of course, one of the most striking recent examples of a documentary filmmaker using humor to make a populist connection with an audience is Morgan Spurlock's Oscar-nominated feature Super Size Me, which documented Spurlock solely subsisting on McDonald's menu items for 30 days.

Spurlock explains how the production consciously employed a pervasive sense of humor in order to make a more lasting impression with his audience. "We always wanted to come back to the joke," he recounts. "Always come back to something that's going to make someone laugh." 

Spurlock also cites his own personal participation in his projects as one of the reasons that audiences respond so well to the situational comedy on display in his projects. "Self-deprecating humor is something that comedians have used for years," he observes. "If I can put myself out there and be willing to be the butt of a joke, people will be a little more open to the idea of what we're talking about. They won't look at me as being somewhat cynical."

But lastly, Spurlock also feels there is a very simple principle that enables comedic documentaries (especially ones with persuasive leanings) to deliver their messages to viewers with such efficiency and effectiveness. "When you start to laugh, your barriers come down," he explains. "When you let the walls down--the protective obstacles that we keep all around us--without even realizing it, we become receptive to information, or a way of thinking that we haven't had before."


Josh Slates is an independent producer and director. He is also the editor of Travels Through Elsewhere Cinema, a continuing journal of foreign and cult cinema that is distributed by Atomic Books.