Back when Woody Allen first decided that it was worthier to make audiences miserable than to entertain them, he gave an interview to Newsweek in which he declared that when you're doing comedy, you're not sitting at the grown-ups' table. It was easy enough to think of names that disproved him: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Swift. Far too easy. Trotting out a list of giants was playing the same game as Allen, assuming that "high" culture is automatically superior to anything else.
To take the true contrary position would mean insisting that it was ridiculous to imply that Chaplin, Keaton, the Marx Brothers, George S. Kaufman, Samson Raphaelson, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Chuck Jones and so many others were engaged in something an adult should be ashamed of. But the notion persists that comedy is a mug's game and perhaps nowhere is this idea more prevalent than among people who make comedy for a living.
If the initial reports of his upcoming film, Funny People, are accurate, Judd Apatow is the latest comic craftsman to be overcome by the belief that he needs to get serious. In the film, Adam Sandler plays a hugely successful stand-up comic who, after discovering he has terminal cancer, takes a struggling young comedian (the Apatow regular Seth Rogen) under his wing. How successful this move is remains to be seen, but one cannot make the argument that Apatow has never ventured into "serious" territory before. The scenes between Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in Knocked Up are piercingly accurate depictions of marital discord. But cancer is a much more tricky subject, especially when it comes to humour. Go gentle and you risk sentimentality; go dark and you risk making the ravages of the disease so potent that no one feels like laughing.
The perils of the comic artist who yearns to be taken seriously have been the subject of movies at least since King Vidor's 1928 Show People in which the actress Marion Davies stars as a young country girl named Peggy Pepper who first delights audiences then, when she switches to weepy tragedies under the name Patricia Pepoire, bores them silly. The movie's happy ending was not replicated in Davies' own career. William Randolph Hearst, with whom Davies enjoyed a relationship, thought comedy undignified and financed a series of lavish historical epics which showed none of her comic gifts and which audiences shunned.
And in 1941's Sullivan's Travels, Joel McCrea plays a successful comic director who poses as a hobo during the Great Depression as research for an epic movie entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title the Coen brothers restored to comedy). The movie doesn't work, primarily because the climax, in which McCrea sees how comedy soothes the cares of a downtrodden audience, wallows in the kind of Capraesque sentimentality that was anathema to Sturges, its director.
However, comic actors who have taken serious roles have traditionally fared far better than directors who specialise in comedy - perhaps because switching your mode of acting is less radical a move than altering your vision. Even then, though, it is risky. Audiences ignored Steve Martin's stunning performance in Pennies From Heaven - one of the greatest Hollywood musicals ever - and the reaction to Adam Sandler's amazing depiction of a man trying to overcome his own knotted inarticulateness in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love was summed up by a headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion: "Adam Sandler Fans Disappointed by Intelligent, Nuanced Performance."
And when audiences have paid attention, as they did to Jerry Lewis's performance in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, the praise was sometimes used to denigrate the (sometimes exhausting) brilliance of his comic work. Apatow risks a lot with Funny People because he is the dominant figure in American movie comedy at this moment. Since the success of Knocked Up in 2007, Apatow has been prolific.
Since Knocked Up, he has been involved as producer or writer in eight movies, including Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The Internet Movie Database lists him as having seven projects currently in development. And it's impossible to imagine recent comedies like I Love You, Man (starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, both of whom have worked for Apatow) or the current hit The Hangover, which apes Apatow's sweet and raunchy style, without him.
It is significant that both of Apatow's films as writer-director to date are about grown men trying to, finally, act as if they are grown men. Apatow has come along at a time when the juvenile rules in Hollywood. And while, in comedy, the impulse towards the juvenile has produced some blissfully liberating comedy - the best of the Farrelly brothers and South Park, some of wilder moments of Sandler's pictures and the Austin Powers franchise - it has also often left nothing so much as the conviction that you're watching infants trying to be funny.
Apatow, with his male characters who are still into action figures and fantasy baseball leagues, who love the women in their lives but have to lay childish things aside to be worthy of them, is trying to address both the pleasures and limitations of a culture pleased to remain in a state of arrested development. The films which have appeared under Apatow's aegis have sometimes fallen into just that juvenility. The two films he has written and directed, though, have, for all their obvious commerciality, felt personal, the work of someone who has spent time asking himself the question of how the male of the species graduates into adulthood without sinking into the deadly dullness of respectability.
This is just one of the reasons why the assumption that comedy and substance have always been strangers feels so simplistic. Not that purely silly comedy is somehow indefensible. Pleasure shouldn't have to be defended. We are not yet past the point of assuming that which gives us pleasure cannot be enriching or worthy or any of the other schoolmarmish adjectives that still affect our response to art. And it is why the prospect of Funny People feels both a natural progression and worrisome.
At some point, no matter how Funny People is, Apatow is going to have to branch out, to move beyond the subject of male maturity, give us male characters who are already equal to the women they love. That is the only way in which he may produce a romantic comedy, a genre which, despite all the cutesy poison wreaked on it by Kate Hudson and Sandra Bullock movies, requires lovers who stand toe to toe, slugging it out before making up.
The remarkable final shot of Knocked Up, the new couple and their baby, driving in the passing lane along the freeway to their new home in the gang-infested neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, was extraordinarily unresolved for a big-budget crowd-pleaser. That's the kind of uncertainty that needs to re-emerge in American comedy, the sense that, in the absence of guarantees about the future, the characters are mature enough to meet what lies ahead. It would be wonderful if Apatow proved he was the guy capable of bringing those grown-up laughs back.