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The Hangover: Part One Too Many

May 25, 2011

With its theatrical release merely merely away, The Hangover Part II is currently hovering around a rating of 34% “freshness” on rottentomatoes.com.  This may come as a surprise to the 96% of the audience polled that “wants to see” the movie the studio executives betting on the sequel to one of the biggest comedies of all time (highest-grossing comedy and sixth highest movie of 2009, let alone the DVD purchases).  But it’s no surprise to me.

For someone who follows alternative comedy, it’s not particularly difficult to understand why The Hangover is such a funny.  Its magic lies in the way the movie served as a perfect vehicle for a mainstream audience to enjoy a fairly typical Zach Galifianakis character in all of his misanthropic/socially awkward/developmentally challenged/autistic glory.  If you liked The Hangover, you would love Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion or his Funny or Die series Between Two Ferns.  Which is not to say that Zach Galifianakis is capable of such reduction to a type: he’s not always just the jolly prankster masquerading as an unknowing outcast, but a lot of the times he is.

So, the problem comes from the combination of two facets of Zach’s humor: (1) he is usually most humorous when playing a character (as opposed to when there is inherent comedy in the lines), and (2) it becomes a problem when everyone’s expectations are all hypersensitive and aware of the possibility of zaniness that might come out of Zach’s mouth.  It can really ruin a dynastic property like The Hangover is that Zach’s comedy comes from subtly subverting propriety and expectations in a very unpredictable, eerily real, Andy Kaufman-esque way because the joke can very rarely be repeated to true comedic effect.

Think about how annoying it was to hear people do their best Austin Powers impression or their Borat (a reflexive habit that is the bane of my own diction).  Now think about all the people who say “Tigers hate pepper.  They love cinnamon.”  There’s very little (if any) comedic value inherent in any of those lines; they’re meant to be said in the context of a character, so when they are brought up outside of that context (e.g., amongst a bunch of bros–yours truly included, regrettably often), the quotes lose their value and the hungry audience becomes desensitized to the tricks Zach has up his sleeve.  With a career built on creating unique characters who say ridiculous things that are meant to edge the audience into processing just why it is they’re laughing, it’s no wonder that Zach might hate his fans for making them humdrum, commonplace, and essentially thoughtless.

“It’s not good for comedy to be like, Thanks for liking me,” Galifianakis says. “Being popular is poison. My mom and dad are like, ‘You’re not enjoying any of this.’ I say, ‘It’s your fault for not raising me to be superficial.'”

The problem is partially that Hollywood is purely superficial.  It’s a business obsessed with knowing that the joke will be well received because it’s “supposed” to be funny (and sometimes, serendipitously, it is).  Hollywood a business; it attempts to deal with known quantities.  That’s why Due Date‘s producers hired Zach on, I’m sure.  But when Hollywood tries to turn something into a commodity (i.e., package it into a property that is worthy of investment and sale), it often turns a blind eye to precisely what made the commodity valuable in the first place; it’s uniqueness.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure The Hangover Part II will have its share of good jokes and comedy, but the shock value of Zach’s expert alternative comedy character is what made The Hangover (I) the atmospheric success it is.  And, as the movie(s) implicitly suggest, it’s tough to recover from a crazy ride like that without a little residual pain.

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