Sunday, June 11, 2000

Ranking comedies is funny business


In a laughable exercise, American Film Institute tries to pick 100 best

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        Animals don't laugh, and they don't make lists. Only human beings would be diabolical enough to assign a hierarchy to an experience as intimate, subjective and purely human as laughing till we plotz.

        We're talking about selecting 100 movies for the American Film Institute poll on the best comedies of the century; 100 Years, 100 Laughs, they call it. The results will be broadcast on CBS Tuesday night.

        Unlike, say, rocket science, there is no mathematical model for organizing comedy into rank order. It violates the laws of emotional physics — and comedy is nothing if not emotional.

ON THE AIR
  • What: AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Laughs
  • When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
•   Where: Channels 9, 2
ON THE WEB
  The original list of 500 titles is available on AFI's Web site at www.afionline.org/100laughs/list.html. The top vote-getters will be posted there as well.
HOW WINNERS WERE CHOSEN
  American Film Institute experts compiled a list of 500 outstanding, historic and/or popular comedies dating back to 1914. The list was sent to 1,800 moviemakers, executives, scholars and critics, who were asked to vote for 100 and given the option to add as many as five write-ins.
  These are the criteria voters were asked to consider:
  • Format — narrative films of more than 60 minutes.
  • Origin — English language, American production.
  • Quality — Funny, or in AFI's terms, “the total comedic impact of a film's elements that creates an experience greater than the sum of its smiles.”
  • Legacy — Lasting influence, regardless of box-office success.
        We laugh, psychologists tell us, at things we fear, and by laughing vanquish them. No kidding, they've done studies about this, ever since writer Norman Cousins recovered from a degenerative disease by locking himself in a room with a collection of Marx Brothers movies. Laughing cures disease, elevates endorphins, slays inner demons. Science confirms what our bellies tell us: No human capacity is better at scratching an itch in your brain than a gut-busting laugh.

        That involuntary convulsion was the gold standard I used to cull 100 titles from the AFI ballot of 500. I rebelled against the absurdity of the exercise only in refusing to assign ranks; instead I grouped them into categories of my own making.

        Even so, leaving movies out was even more arbitrary and painful than either of the previous AFI list-making exercises, of best films and greatest stars. Call it obsessive, but I know if I had to choose a handful of films to watch for the rest of my life, most of them would be comedies.

        It's not just me. In December, we asked Enquirer readers to pick the top five comedies. You couldn't do it; you voted so many ties that nine movies shared “top five” honors — Blazing Saddles, Some Like It Hot, Animal House, Young Frankenstein, Airplane!, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Arsenic and Old Lace, Caddyshack and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Not a bad desert-island collection right there.

        In compiling my votes, I didn't consider the final tally. For instance, I left out a certain number of classics too venerable for mere polls — such as The Front Page, Modern Times, My Little Chickadee, She Done Him Wrong or Sons of the Desert.

        The final results may also include some great films that are only part-way comedies. Much as I love American Graffiti, The Apartment, Cooley High, Diner, Forrest Gump, The Graduate, Pulp Fiction, Stalag 17 and Terms of Endearment, they tip more toward the drama side of the scale.

        I also backed away from some recent movies that made me laugh, but are still too new to know if they will stand the test of time — Wayne's World, Clerks, Clueless, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and There's Something About Mary.

        Actually, I'm lying. Those are just rationalizations for making a longer list. The way I figure, the limit should not be a number as meaningless as “100.” AFI should list movies that are so funny that merely reading the title makes you laugh. That's my system, and I'm sticking to it.

        Margaret A. McGurk is Enquirer film critic. Contact her by mail, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202; fax, (513) 768-8330; or e-mail, mmcgurk@enquirer.com.

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