Comedy and the Pet Detective
Bergson and what it means to laugh
Henri Bergson dissects the reasons why comedy works and what it means to be funny in his “classic statement of the principles of humor” (Kelly, Young). Bergson’s view of humor comes from his understanding of life, which he saw as a “vital impulse, not to be understood by reason alone” (Kelly, Young). In his work entitled Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Bergson stresses the important point that laughter and comedy are what separate man from the animals. Animals do not have the ability to laugh at themselves or at others. Humans do. Therefore, comedy is something that is “strictly human” (Bergson 3). Laughter, Bergson states, is always at root human, even if one is laughing at a hat. What is funny is the fact that someone has given that particular shape to that particular hat. That is what is funny.
So, laughter and comedy are human. Yet, strangely, comedy requires that its audience maintain an “absence of feeling” (Bergson 4). How can one be human yet have no feelings? This is a strange and curious contradiction. But what Bergson means is that laughter and “emotion” are incompatible. For example, one might feel great pity for someone who falls down, or one might laugh at the person because falling down is funny. One cannot do both. If he feels pity, he will sympathize and rush to the person’s aid. If he finds the incident to be humorous, he will laugh; then he might regain himself and tend to the person who has fallen. Laughter and emotion (empathy, pity, sympathy, fear, sorrow, etc.) are exclusive. Laughter is the produce of an “unruffled” soul (Bergson 4). A soul that is affected by pity at the sight of someone falling over is not an “unruffled” soul. Laughter requires a degree of “indifference” in the audience.
Yet, still stranger is Bergson’s contention that laughter is social: “To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one” (Bergson 8-9). This idea would fit in with the idea that comedy is human. What is human should bind us to our fellow man. But what of the indifference? If one is indifferent to another’s pain and would sooner laugh at it than feel pity, does comedy necessarily serve a social function? It does when one thinks of it as Bergson does. He uses the example of the runner who falls. His fall is involuntary. It disrupts the automatism of the runner’s movements, his legs moving up and down, keeping balance. The involuntary nature of the fall is what produces the laughter — not the man’s pain. Our response may be two-fold, in the sense that, first, we laugh and then we offer assistance. Our laughter is due to the fact that the man has lost control of himself: he is not so self-possessed as he seemed. The fall reminds us a little of how fragile we are. It is a pleasant reminder to those who appreciate a certain perspective: man is not so high and mighty; he is capable of great things, yes, but he must not forget that in the big picture he is still a puny creature.
The runner who falls, however, may also produce in us some pity: this comes perhaps upon reflection. We have had our laugh and now we remember that our fellow men has just realized what we have: that while he may be capable of great balance, he is not immune to error. If our better instincts prevail, we help him up. He has inadvertently reminded us of our “fallen” human nature (something once identified by the medieval world, less so by the modern world, which tends to follow the naturalistic philosophy of men like Rousseau who see human nature as pure, not fallen; but if it is so, why do we fall? Comedy may be a direct assault on naturalism).
This notion applies not only to physical humor but to all kinds of comedy. At root, comedy is about blundering, making mistakes, being blind or “slipping up” when it should be painfully obvious that what is needed to get through life is caution, prudence, care, etc. Deborah Griggs writes that Bergson’s notion of comedy applies not only to slapstick or physical humor, but [to] intellectual or emotional rigidity or momentum [as well]: a character who is so fixed on a goal that he blinded to oncoming disaster or is merely unable to stop his momentum in time to avoid the crash; or a character who is so preoccupied with an idea that she does not see that which is obvious to everyone else. (Griggs)
One’s laughter at another’s misfortune does not mean that one is making a judgment upon that person, but that he is recognizing certain defects, as a caricaturist will highlight certain elements of a person’s face or features or actions or method of thinking. Bergson notes that humor is reinforced by repetition, mechanical repetition, that is. Something that is considered and thought out is not funny: something that is spontaneous because it is ingrained, automatic and cannot be stopped is funny. Man acting like a runaway train is humorous, whether he is doing so physically or intellectually: “In low comedy, we may see a merely physical inelasticity, while in high comedy, we may see a rigidity of intellect, as well as one of body” (Griggs).
Ace Ventura: High Comedy or Low Comedy?
When Ace Ventura debuted in 1994, there was a novelty and a freshness to it: Jim Carrey’s pet detective was ridiculously cocky and absurd. He spoofed the detective genre played nearly to death by the Don Johnson Miami Vice television types. But nearly twenty years later, is the film as funny? It certainly does not produce as many laughs in me even though I can watch it with a certain joy. Anyone who has followed Carrey’s career will be all too familiar with his “brand” (it has become a “brand” — with Ace it was still novel) of comedy. What does that say about comedy? That it must be original. Ace Ventura spoofed the detective genre in a fresh and funny way. It also did so in a human way. Carrey’s Ace has a heart which shines through in his dedication to the animals (and the woman) he loves. He will do whatever he has to, including risking bodily injury, to get to the bottom of the case. Because of all this, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective may called a spoof — low comedy, with some sprinkles of high comedy (comedy that appeals to the intellect in some subtle ways).
Let us examine the subtlety with which Ace Ventura sprinkles high comedy in with the low comedy slapstick. Carrey’s face, behavior, antics and the way he carries himself is goofy enough to cause us (if not to laugh) at least to smile. A teenage boy unused to seeing such flagrant rebellion (Carrey does not abide to any social code but disregards them all with great aplomb) will applaud Ace and his over-the-top shenanigans. An adult, who has seen such things enough times to have become used to them, will smile fondly, recalling perhaps his childhood innocence. The comedy obviously appeals to a younger generation, a younger audience — an audience craving some sort of social disruption in the overall stiff machine of school assemblies, classroom lectures, parental power, etc.
Where then does the high comedy come into play? The high comedy may be seen in the fact that Carrey is playing a type: he is the detective who will do whatever it takes to solve the case. We have seen the type in hundreds of older films before: in the Maltese Falcon or the Big Sleep, both starring Bogart and both serious representations of a serious genre, the crime thriller. Carrey’s comedy appeals in a way to one’s high brow instincts because it plays upon a high brow appreciation of genre forms; it does not reject them, but satirizes them with reckless abandon. Carrey’s Ace is aware of genre conventions but, as he does with everything conventional, he is out to shatter it.
Is the film a spoof or is Carrey simply spoofing a genre? It seems to me to be the latter. For example, if the entire film is a spoof, no one else in the film seems to be in on the joke. This indicates that Ace is spoofing other detective films all by himself. True, at times, when Ace is the only character on screen, the film joins in with Ace on the fun. For example, when he is at the swanky party to look for Snowflake, non-diagetic music is heard: the theme to Mission: Impossible, as Ace hams it up onscreen: he makes a big deal about jumping over a railing and “scaling” the surface of a wall, reaching to open a handle and swinging himself in through the doorway. All the while he is never in any danger because there is no risk of falling: he is simply playing at spoofing. But this is not Airplane — a classic spoof comedy where every character, setting, and action in the film is designed to spoof airport genre thrillers popular at the time.
Ace is not exactly a derelict but he is outside the conventional social order: he is an outcast as far as the police are concerned. They are the ones with “real” authority — yet, Ace does their job better than they do. He is under the suspicion of his landlord, who thinks he is housing animals in his apartment (he is). His wardrobe and hair are clownish representations of the Don Johnson Miami Vice type detective: coolness taken to a bizarre and exaggerated extreme (for example, the Hawaiian shirt, unbuttoned coupled with combat boots, clown pants and an exaggerated wave in the hair). Ace stands outside the social order. Yet, his boyishness, his never-fading smile, and his sureness make him seem justified in being outside the social order. He almost seems to be making the case that it is not he who is somehow inhuman but rather everyone else who is inhuman. This is apparent in the person of Sgt. Aguado, whose sole purpose in life seems to be to try to ridicule Ace. Of course, Ace always gets the upper hand and makes Aguado look like the stupid one, but that doesn’t keep Aguado from trying every chance he gets. Is Aguado merely there to show how Ace is really cleverer than he looks? Possibly. But part of the detective genre is that the detective and the cops be on opposing sides, and this tradition is respected in the film.
What is perceived as comedy in modern days in this particular movie is the absolute rejection of Ace of any sort of social convention (he drives with his head out the window because he cannot afford to fix his windshield; he wears clothing that might get anyone else committed; he walks with a strut that seems to be on steroids; he talks out of his butt at some moments; he defies authority and does so with great tenacity, showing off his superior intellect). In short, Ace is an ace, just not one in 1994 would be used to seeing: he is brought to life by Carrey’s slapstick ability and perfect charm and confidence. He delivers the one-liners with skill (“Ventura!” grumbles the landlord. Ace responds without looking, “Yes, Satan!” turns, sees the landlord and says, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else!” all the while maintaining a face of playfulness: he is having as much fun as the audience). That said, it should be noted that Ace and the average teenaged-boy in 1994 would have shared an alliance: both Carrey and his audience are in on the joke. They revel together in the overturning of human respect.
Ebert suggested (and was right) in his 1994 review of the film that Ace will appeal to a certain culture — the adolescent culture. But does this mean only adolescents will find the film funny? Not at all. Every adult was once an adolescent and the film may happily return the adult to that carefree, innocent stage of life, when goofiness was funny because it was so different from the automatic, strait-laced way of life that adulthood foretold. Ebert fails to appreciate the joke and admits it: one wonders why his soul is so ruffled. Can he not appreciate goofiness? Does he lack the serenity that one requires to laugh? He states:
“The movie basically has one joke, which is Ace Ventura’s weird nerdy strangeness. If you laugh at this joke, chances are you laugh at Jerry Lewis, too, and I can sympathize with you even if I can’t understand you. I found the movie a long, unfunny slog through an impenetrable plot. Kids might like it. Real little kids” (Ebert).
The irony is that Ebert is exactly the kind of figure being ridiculed by Ace: the stuffy, pretentious sort who does not know how to be like a kid again. Ebert certainly has his good points just as Ron the millionaire has in the film, but neither has a sense of humor or knows how to be a child after Carrey’s extraordinary fashion. Courtney Cox’s character appreciates Ace’s antics in spite of herself: she sees that he is well-meaning, able, witty and charming after all.
The film does find humor in making fun of stereotypes, particularly homosexuals and transsexuals. At one point, Ace is trying to find the culprit by locating the AFC championship ring missing a stone. He must inspect the rings of all players of the Miami team, an effort which brings him to a public restroom. Leaning across the urinal to see the ring hand of the football player beside him, he gives the impression that he is leering at the man’s penis. One expects Ace to be beaten up by the football player. Instead, the football player grins and daintily chases after Ace.
or there is the problem of Lt. Einhorn (one horn — a euphemism that suggests the penis she has tucked between her legs). She is played by Sean Young; the twist is that she is not a woman but rather the deranged Ray Finkle. Finkle has had a pseudo-sex change and is masquerading as a woman. This twist is hardly logical or at all very pleasant. It will be appreciated only by boys who will enjoy seeing Ace tear open Sean Young’s blouse in order to expose the fact that she has no breasts (she does).
The jokes that come at the expense of this transsexual, however, are plentiful. Earlier in the film, Einhorn attempts to seduce Ace in order to throw him off the track. Ace repels her but not before escaping with a kiss. When Ace realizes that Einhorn is Finkle and not a woman, he descends into a montage of funny scenes: he burns his clothes, empties a bottle of toothpaste into his mouth, uses a plunger on his face in order to get himself to vomit, sheds his clothes and showers, collapsing in the stall like one who has been victimized. He is clearly getting laughs from the idea that he has been kissed by a man. The gay stereotype is mocked.
Today, few Hollywood movies so openly mock homosexuality. In Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby and the Frenchman openly kiss with tongue on the race course in order to show that they are friends. It is a weird display of affection since Ricky Bobby is not homosexual and, in fact, has expressed his dislike of homosexuals. This demonstration is his way of burying the hatchet, so to speak, and getting over his prejudice. This sort of kissing, however, is exactly what Ace is mocking. Ace finds such display revolting — and so too is an audience in 1994. However, twenty years of cultural conditioning has helped to convince audiences that the mocking of stereotypes of this sort is unacceptable. Laughing at homosexuality is taboo today. One wonders if Ace, were it released today, would be as popular with audiences as it was then: probably not.
The question of emotion never becomes important in the comedy equation of this movie. Carrey never stops spoofing and therefore never gives the audience a chance to become overly-involved in the plight of the animals or the characters. The action gallops to a giddy finale. Pity is out of the question. (for a moment, it is true, one may feel sorry for Roger who has been thrown from his high-rise balcony, but Carrey’s solving of the case brings us instantly back to laughter: our hero is able to set emotions aside and encourages us to do the same, just as Bergson recommends). The intent and purpose of the shtick, of course, is to get the audience to loosen up. Ace is not breaking boundaries. He is only playing up types and getting us to laugh at pretensions. He is playing up the uber-masculine detective type, the hyper-active child type, the socially-rejected outcast type, and the heart of gold, lover of all things good type. The fact that he does it all with the grace and finesse of a Jerry Lewis is what makes it successful. Carrey is a natural comic with an ability to make us laugh by the sheer fact that he is at once both good looking, charming, goofy, straight, and capable of morphing into random personalities at will.
Is it fair, however, to say that Jim Carrey is deadly serious? Not in this film. He is having too much fun and the film itself is not a deadly serious one — not in the way a satire would be. Ace is not a satire, just a vehicle for Carrey’s ability to spoof an age-old genre type. Still, Carrey’s comedy is seriously funny when one recognizes the humor.
As Bergson suggests, disguise creates laughter and this is never truer than in Ace Ventura when Ace disguises himself as a mentally disordered ex-football player in order to get into the records of the mental clinic that once housed Ray Finkle. Carrey’s hair is wildly disarrayed; he wears a tutu with black knee socks and combat boots, and pretends to be playing football non-stop. He does a hilarious impersonation of a slow-motion catch and then impersonates the catch being rewinded for a second viewing; he “says” the dialogue in reverse; how anyone can keep from laughing at this awesome display of comedic chops is beyond me. It is Carrey at his best. Bergson is right: disguise truly does create laughter.
In conclusion, Bergson’s theory of comedy applies to Ace Ventura because Ace meets all the requirements of comedy according to Bergson’s theory. Ace is human, more human in fact than others: he is capable of erring and succeeding; he is made up of passions and reason; he is, most importantly, able to tap into his inner child. Ace is also indifferent and encourages indifference (of the right sort, of course). He does not care for social conventions which are restrictive. He wants us to laugh at ourselves, at him, and at others. Ace’s comedy is also social: it brings people together; it gives them something to talk about. (When the film debuted, it was all the younger people could speak of, quoting it endlessly). It prompts us, those of us with an unruffled soul, to drop our pretensions, to reconsider ourselves and embrace the childlike spirit which he possesses. He asks us to forget ourselves for a moment and to laugh at that which makes us human, which makes all of us alive. As Bergson suggests, comedy is that which lets us know that we are alive. Those who fail to find Ace funny may also, sad to say, be partly dead.
Bergson, Henri. Laughter. NY: Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1914. Print.
Ebert, Roger. “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” 1994. Rogerebert.com. 14 May 2013.
Griggs, Deborah. “Coming to Terms with Comedy.” UMUC. 14 May 2013. Web.
Kelly, Richard; Young, Lindsay. “Through Bergson’s Looking-Glass.”
Victorianweb.org. 14 May 2013. Web.