Sundance's Lighter Side: Looking For Laughs Amid Indie Earnestness & Heartache
by Andrew Johnston
Whenever Sundance programming director John Cooper takes part in a panel discussion, there's one question he dreads more than any other. "There's always a filmmaker who stands up and says 'You don't ever take comedies, do you?'" said Cooper. "Here we are again, fighting the perception."
Indeed, though Sundance has a reputation for earnestness, comedies have been an essential component of the festival since its earliest days. They also account for some of the biggest commercial successes to emerge from the festival: before "The Blair Witch Project," the highest-grossing movie to emerge from the dramatic competition was the 1990 Kid and Play yukfest "House Party." But comedies that knock 'em dead in Park City and land fat distribution deals -- "Happy, Texas" and "Tadpole," for example -- have often failed at the box office. "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Garden State" may be harvesting big laughs at Sundance this year, but history shows that their commercial prospects are by no means guaranteed (both films picked up distribution deals this weekend).
The reason that comedies count among the most notorious Sundance flops is the prominence they gain from the festival's tradition of giving comedies and serious fare equal footing in the dramatic competition. "The easy thing to do if you're a lazy programmer is to put them in a section by themselves," said Cooper. "Because of the excellence of the filmmaking, something like 'Garden State' deserves to be in the competition next to the dramatic films. 'Napoleon Dynamite' is very quirky, very low budget and it deserves to be there."
Of course, the factors that make a comedy succeed in Park City are open to debate. The ultraviolent Matt Dillon/Steve Zahn comedy "Employee Of The Month" drew raucous laughs at its Eccles premiere, and cowriter Jay Leggett never considered the possibility that its extremity might not work at Sundance. "We knew that if we got in, we'd find an audience who said, 'We know what you guys are doing,'" he said. On the other hand, noted veteran publicist Steve Beeman of Falco Ink says, "A really out-there comedy might not play at Sundance like you'd want it to. A couple of our screenings of "Girls Will Be Girls" last year just died. When people are seeing 10 movies a day, it's kind of hard to shock them."
Still, Beeman notes, the sophistication of the Sundance crowd makes the festival perfect for comedy-tinged documentaries like "American Movie" and this year's "Yes Men." "They're cut like comedies, and they're paced very much like comedies," he said. "And they just kill."
The palpable instant feedback that laughter provides can be a boon to publicists and buyers, and it's something that other genres just can't provide. "It's easier to get away with a drama that doesn't work at Sundance than with a comedy," said Beeman. "You can't slip one by anybody if it's not funny." Even so, promoting a comedy is not without its obstacles. "The weirdest thing is that any movie in competition that's up for sale has tremendous tension surrounding it, and you've got to somehow keep it light the whole time you're working on it, "said Beeman, citing his experience with the 2000 Sundance entry "The Tao of Steve."
Balance and perspective are important on the programming end as well. While Cooper feels comedies fulfill an essential function by keeping the Sundance slate well-rounded, he maintains that the festival would never consider accepting a subpar one in order to fulfill a quota. "That wouldn't be our style," he said. "What would be our style is going back to the drawing board and making sure we weren't being too hard on anything. After the whole thing's programmed, we look at the program pretty closely for diversity of style. That's where, if there wasn't one in the whole festival, we'd go, 'Are we sure? Let's go back and make sure we weren't wrong about anything.'"
A notable example of one such second-chance Sundance comedy was "Wet Hot American Summer," an audience favorite at the 2001 festival. "We got a letter saying, 'We're sorry, you're not gonna get in, you've been rejected,'" remembered director David Wain. "Then right afterwards we got a phone call saying 'Oh no, that's not true, you're in.' It was a rollercoaster ride right from the start." Though Wain's film got into the festival by the skin of its teeth, it ultimately made the cut because it possessed what Cooper considers the most essential quality for a Sundance comedy. "Any genre film -- horror and thrillers, too -- has to have this little extra uniqueness for us, and that one did," he said. "The scene where they go to town for an hour and become drug addicts, that I'd never seen. That was something out of a more warped independent mind."