"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." No-one is quite sure whose final words these were -- the most usual suspect is Sir Donald Wolfit -- but the fact that the line has endured for so long is surely proof of its hitting a nerve. Now, as we enter the film awards season, two of Hollywood's most successful comedy film-makers have echoed it, complaining that comedy rarely receives its critical due.
At last month's Britannia Awards, a glitzy annual gala held by BAFTA's LA branch, Ben Stiller was honoured with the Charlie Chaplin Award for Excellence in Comedy. In an interview before the show he told the Hollywood Reporter that, "in terms of the Oscars, it's just too bad that comedies don't get recognised...It just seems like there's this huge hole there where there's no recognition for people who over the years--and this is for years and years, you know--have been doing such great work."
In the same month Judd Apatow, writer-director of Knocked Up, producer of Bridesmaids and the most powerful comedy film-maker in Hollywood today, argued that the Oscars should bring back -- as they originally had, and the Golden Globes still do -- a separate category for comedy. "Since comedies are rarely up for Oscars, it does make sense to have a comedy category," he tweeted. "It's been like five times in a zillion years that [a comedy has] won Best Picture."
Are things really that bad? When Denise Hicks and I set up LoCo, a not-for-profit foundation that champions comedy film-making, one of the first things we looked into was comedy's place in the Academy Awards. After all, if comedy was already getting its due, what need was there for us? But the facts back up Stiller and Apatow's view.
Which of these actors won an Oscar for a comic leading role? Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers, Richard Pryor, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Dan Ackroyd or Bill Murray? None of them. Not even Meryl Streep has won for comedy. And she's won everything.
And Apatow is right about Best Picture. There have been 83 Academy Awards ceremonies, and just five comedies have won: It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It With You (1938), The Apartment (1960), Annie Hall (1977) and Shakespeare In Love (1998). That's fewer than one every decade, despite the fact that comedies, more than any other genre, help define the time that they were made: what movies sum up their period better than Juno, Shampoo, Sullivan's Travels, The Ladykillers, Playtime, Modern Times or Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask?
Freud thought that comedy helped us to face up to our fears. Comedy films help us face up to them together. From The Great Dictator to Doctor Strangelove, In The Loop to Life of Brian, comedy film-makers have led the way in addressing taboos and terrors head-on. They provoke the powerful, defend the weak and endlessly challenge the status quo. The best creative treatment of this summer's city riots is not in any status-seeking drama but in Joe Cornish's witty, ambitious Attack the Block, which was released before the riots but feels ever more prescient since. And no single drama about terror has had the impact of Chris Morris's Four Lions.
LoCo (London Comedy Film Festival) celebrates the craft of comedy film-making through screenings, education and funding. Our mission is to help kick-start the careers of Britain's new generation of film-makers, as they follow in the daunting footsteps of Chaplin, Laurel, Ealing, Carry On, the Python team, Bruce Robinson, Ben Wheatley and Edgar Wright.
In January we're hosting the first ever London Comedy Film Festival at BFI Southbank, in partnership with the BFI. Over four days we are covering an extraordinary range of films from shorts to silents, studio films to independents, premieres to retrospectives: we're launching with a preview of The Muppets and closing with a premiere of a lost Tony Hancock script. Edgar Wright will also be introducing a double bill of his own Shaun of the Dead with Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet. But what all these films have in common is remarkable artistry, consummate craft and above all the unerring ability to unite an audience in laughter. It's a rare and wonderful skill, and we should all celebrate it more. So if you'd like to join us and champion comedy films, please visit www.locofilmfestival.com and sign up.
Follow Jonathan Wakeham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jonathanwakeham