The Greatest Comedy of All Time

Chuck Rothman

The greatest comedy of all time is Jacque Tati's Playtime.

I'm sure you'll disagree.  You've probably never seen it.  If you have, you probably weren't impressed.  And there's a reason for that.

But, of the thousands of films I've seen, it's the comedy that reaches a level of greatness that no one other than Chaplin and Keaston have approached.  (All right, I lied:  No one could name any comedy as the single greatest.  Certainly CityLights, The General, Duck Soup, Annie Hall, Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Airplaine! are legitimate claimants to the title.  If you can't take a little hyperbole, get out of the kitchen.)

But Playtime deserves to rank up there.  Unfortunately, there's a catch:

You can only see it in a theater.  A home theater might be OK, but probably not. 

Watching any film on a big screen is different from watching it at home. Size does matter.  Films were shot to be projected on a big screen.  There are details that are missed on anything smaller. 

For instance, there's a scene from Road to Morocco where Bob Hope is pretending to be a statue and there's a fly on his nose.  You can't see the fly on a TV screen all that well, so it loses impact.  And I'm sure you've seen The Wizard of Oz plenty of times on TV.  Did you ever notice the scarecrow has a gun?  It's obvious on a big screen, but not on a TV.  Same for the "Hanged Munchkin" urban legend; if you see it on a big screen, it's quite clear that it's just a bird moving around.

Tati -- one of the handful of great comedians -- deliberately shot Playtime for the big screen.  He shot it, as a matter of fact, in 70 mm, twice the normal size film.  He needed it to fit in all the jokes.

Tati was a throwback -- a comedian with a silent sensibility, but who made only sound films (sort of -- while they had sound, the dialog often wasn't even necessary).  He was one of the best ever at creating a visual gag.  They ranged from small to big, and he was a champ at taking one gag and making it into several.  If you listed all the laugh-out-loud French comedies (a fairly small list, I admit), Tati would be involved in every single one (except for The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, that is). 

He wasn't a prolific director.  He's best known for his M.Hulot's Holiday, and won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Mon Oncle.  At the time of his death, he was known in the US for just three other films:  Jour de Fete (his first), Traffic (his last), and Playtime.  (He evidently did a few more that stayed in France).  In all his films except Jour de Fete, he played the same character, M. Hulot, a vague man who seemed to cause chaos around him (Actually, other than M. Hulot's Holiday, the character was not identified by name, but it was the same guy).  Hulot walked around bemused by life, wearing a raincoat and umbrella and, by in innocent antics, shook up the lives of those around him in a positive way. 

Playtime is the story of . . . well, there is no story.  It's just a series of gags, shown in three major sections.  The early part takes place in some sort of trade show in Paris.  We know this because we see the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of a door, and nothing else.  The glass-and-steel architecture could be in any modern city -- which was one of Tati's points:  that the world is becoming the same. 

Monsieur HulotThe gags are memorable.  People race from train platform to platform in response to the garbled instructions on the PA system.  A presenter, in a huff, slams the door at the trade show -- only it's a silent door, so they're not sound.  Tati's umbrella gets into all sorts of predicaments.

There's also a short sequence in an apartment.  Two families are watching TV.  But we're looking at them from the outside and we can see the reactions to the broadcast as reactions to each other.

And then comes the final sequence.  It's set at the opening of a brand new modern nightclub/restaurant.  Everything goes wrong, but in a away that eventually makes everything go right.  It's filled with running gags. 

Warning:  I'm listing the elements all at once, but in the film, they happen 5-10 minutes apart.

For instance:

  1. The front door breaks.  Its made of safety glass and shatters into cubes.  People pick it up.  A patron asks if it's glass, so the maitre d' tells them, no it's . . . ice.  It eventually gets put into an ice bucket.  Someone with a headache picks up the ice and finds it surprisingly warm.  Meanwhile, the doorman, with no door to open and close to get a tip, picks up the door handle and holds it out, pretending to open it.  When a diner walks past him, he steps in front of him again to make sure he gets his tip..
  2. Someone orders the fish.  It's put on a tray and cooked right at the table.  As the evening wears on, waiters stop by, put some spices on it, and wander off.  New diners sit down.  Finally the fish is ready -- but the people who ordered it have moved to another table.  The waiter picks up the tray and searches.  For about 20 minutes, you get glimpses of the waiter, the giant fish on a tray, vainly searching for the people who ordered it.
  3. A waiter tears part of his clothing.  He can't go out like that, so he goes into the back.  As the evening wears on, other waiters tear things, or loose buttons, and show up to borrow it from the first waiter.

The gags are all visual, so any description does not do them justice.  But after the fourth or fifth time of spotting the guy with the fish, you laugh harder and harder.

The finale shows the people turning the disaster into something of a party.  It's clever and warm and acts as a counterpoint to the soulless buildings in the beginning. 

Now maybe you might want to see the film based on this description.  Don't do it.

You see, a small screen doesn't even begin to do justice to what's going on.  In some shots you can spot two or three of the running gags going on simultaneously.  You'll see the fish AND the ice AND the waiter AND some other running gag.  They're all there, waiting for you to discover them, and on a regular movie screen, you'll be laughing.  But on TV, it's all lost.  When you're running several gags at once, you just can't see any of them on all but the biggest TV screen.

Even worse is pan and scan.  The film was widescreen, and the original VCR tape was cut to the standard TV aspect ratio.  This means that many of the gags get cut off (they were on the edges of the screen).  Even worse, the second section (with the two families "watching" each other), is completely meaningless:  if you can only see one group, you can't see what's going on.

Letterboxing will help, but that will also make the picture smaller on the screen, so you're stuck with the first issue.

Perhaps a widescreen TV would be good if you sat close to the screen, but nothing can compete with seeing the film in a theater.

If you ever have the chance, do so.  It will be well worth your time.

8/7/05

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