Research Paper: Ace Ventura Pet Detective

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Ace Ventura

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"… [END OF PREVIEW]

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