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WGA list: Why are TV comedies embraced but movies dissed?

June 03, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in mid-90's comedy "Swingers"
Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in mid-90's comedy "Swingers"

If you’ve been on the Web or social media the past 24 hours, you no doubt have caught some of the arguments about the Writers Guild list of the 101 best TV shows of all time. “The Wire” should be higher! “Seinfeld” over “Sopranos"! And many such unresolvable issues.

One point was unambiguous, though: the number of comedies on the list. Half of the WGA’s top 10 are comedies. Sixteen of the top 25. And many more below it.

Which is as it should be. The writing on "The Simpsons," "Family Ties" and "Saturday Night Live" rivals that of "The West Wing," "Boardwalk Empire” and "The X-Files," whose position each of those comedies roughly equals in the poll.

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Yet it was a very different story when this same group of writers voted for the top 101 movies in 2006. "Casablanca" topped that list, followed by "The Godfather" and "Chinatown." If those movies all seem more or less similar in tone, they should. Only five comedies made the top 25, and that's if you're generous and count hybrids like "Network." (The highest was "Annie Hall" at  No. 6.)

If you run down the whole list of 101, you'll see “The Princess Bride” and "When Harry Met Sally" are on there, and a bunch of Woody Allen, but for the most part it's devoid of anything that makes you laugh. Here is just a small sampling of worthy comedies not on the list:

"Midnight Run," "A Fish Called Wanda," "Airplane," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Duck Soup," "Blazing Saddles," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," “Swingers,” "The Blues Brothers," "The Naked Gun," "The Hangover," "There's Something About Mary," "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life," and so on.

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Now, comedy is subjective, but surely when you're listing more than 100 great movies, one of the above titles deserves to make the cut.

Some of this TV-film split has to do with their respective evolutions. Television began in many ways as a comedic medium and became truly hospitable to serious drama only in the past several decades. Film, on the other hand, was dramatic from the start; the Marx Bros. and their ilk were more exception than rule. It’s why many of the film comedies mentioned above are from the last 30 or 40 years.

Still, the WGA members are voting in the 21st century. And the poll is about writing, which should theoretically be blind to genre. These film comedies were just as skillfully done as their dramatic counterparts, and brought just as much pleasure to those watching them, if not more.

This isn't a new story, of course. The Oscars have been slighting comedies for years. How many of your favorites have been nominated for a major Oscar, let alone won one?

But the Oscars are a very elite club, and if it’s down to “Lincoln” or “The Hangover,” as a voter you’re probably going to go with the former no matter how much you love Zach Galifianakis.

But it's interesting that on a list that is meant to honor the best writing, the split remains so, well, laughable. TV has no problem mixing "Seinfeld" with "Sopranos," "Cheers" with "Hill Street Blues." When it comes to film, though, even the people writing the scripts think comedy should remain in the ghetto.


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