Nikki Finke, the editor of Deadline.com, ruffled a few feathers when she protested Julie Bowen scoring an Emmy win for her comedy work on Modern Family. Finke cut straight to the point when she stated, "Beautiful actresses are not funny." Comedy, in her view, has to do with "emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you." I addressed this very subject in an essay called "Beauty and the Pratfall," which is included in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film" (now available on Amazon.com). My belief is that, while beauty does not make it impossible for an actor to be funny, it does make it less likely that an actor can be funny.
The pain and humiliation of the unfortunate have long been a big part of comedy. Max Linder delivered to the cinema, in exquisite form, the comedy of embarrassment. Take a look at this clip from Mon Pantalon Est Décousu (1908).
I have found myself returning to this simple old routine from Linder again and again. I wrote about it in "The Funny Parts." I wrote about it in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film." I wrote about it before on this very blog.
Elizabeth Banks, a pretty actress who does a lot of comedy, argued against Finke's remarks on her blog. She stated emphatically that she has never had a problem being entertained by a pretty woman performing comedy. She provided as an example Sophia Vergara, whose work she generally finds funny. She insisted that, whenever the actress is performing, she is never in the slightest bit distressed or distracted by her "gorgeous breasts." She added that it really made her laugh when, during the Emmy ceremony, Vergara split her dress. Yes, this really happened. Photographic evidence is provided below.
It was a real-life version of Linder's split seam routine. But being desirable means never having to say you're sorry. This is evident in Ms. Vergara's reaction to the mishap. Vergara was not pained. She was not humiliated. The bare cheeks of her backside were visible through the split seam and her response was to snap a picture of her backside and tweet it to the nation. This was the joyful message that accompanied the picture: "Jajajajja. I luv my life!!!!" This is far from the distress expressed by Linder.
Of course, it isn't only an issue of beauty. It is also a sign of the times. I made the point in "The Funny Parts" that shame is too often lacking in our modern culture and this has rendered this sort of comic business irrelevant.
Comedy trades in the shame that a person feels when, in one way or another, they prove to be less than adequate. Beauty, in all its perfection, does not present inadequacy to the world. This is Curly Howard in his underwear.
This is Elizabeth Banks in her underwear.
There is a difference. Can that really be denied? It is worth noting that, in the Banks scene, the filmmakers expected to get the biggest laugh from a less fit character's oversized belly.
I speak about this at length in "Eighteen Comedians." I examine the comic stylings of various pretty actresses, including Thelma Todd and Katherine Heigl. I compare Linder's split seam routine with a similar routine performed by Priscilla Lane in Four Wives (1939). Can beautiful women, or beautiful people in general, normally be funny? We report. You decide.