VOTD: “Adam McKay’s Smart Dumb Comedy”

In the world of American feature comedies, the past 10-15 years have been dominated by two distinct talents – Judd Apatow and Adam McKay.

Apatow’s influence is obvious. He’s every bit as slavish an adherent to “As Good As It Gets” and “Terms of Endearment” director James L. Brooks as Brian de Palma is to Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks laid the foundation of films that blended great actors and whip-smart character comedy with relationship-focused drama that carried genuine pathos and weight.

Apatow has tried to copy that with the likes of “Knocked Up” and “Funny People” but his efforts are like a student cover band – Brooks’ often incisive, efficient and well-grounded scripting is replaced with twee sentiment, tedious improv gags that equate vulgarity with cleverness, and bloated runtimes that run jokes into the ground.

McKay, on the other hand, goes in a very different direction – his films like “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman” are often absurd and arch. However, he is meticulous in his structure, plotting and formality. Each of his films could work as a fairly basic drama, it’s just that within scenes McKay chooses to often take things in the strangest and invariably funniest direction he thinks they can go.

It doesn’t always work, but there’s a real consistency on offer – especially of characters who are always delightfully obtuse. McKay isn’t trying for pathos like Apatow is, for him the comedy comes first. Yet in his more fantastical and seemingly anarchic approach, when those emotional moments do hit they tend to be more subtle and carry more weight.

Recently, Youtube user Patrick H Williams – the guy whose video essays on Marvel movie color palettes and DC movie character problems have been something of a viral sensation – has come up with a new video essay about McKay’s directorial style. Check it out below.