Genres That Die

by wjw on November 17, 2008

I was watching Operation Petticoat last night in TCM, and I realized two things: first, this is a movie in which the two male leads are made up and lit to be prettier than any of the women; and second, that the film belongs to a dead genre, that of the service comedy.

Once it was common to view the humorous side of war and/or the armed services. There was another Cary Grant vehicle, Father Goose, and yet another, I Was a Male War Bride. There was The Wackiest Ship in the Army, there was Sgt Bilko, there were those James Cagney/Pat O’Brian vehicles of the ’30s like Devil Dogs of the Air and Here Comes the Navy. There was No Time for Sergeants and McHale’s Navy and Gomer Pyle. Hogan’s Heroes even attempted to find the funny side of German POW camps.

It wasn’t that these movies didn’t recognize that war and the military were serious endeavors. Actual tragedy happened in some of these films— more often in those where a hot war was going on, but even in the peacetime services people die. Characters like Hogan and McHale were actually heroic, and McHale actually killed people, whole submarine crews sometimes. But these movies realized a highly structured environment such as the military contrasts extremely well with chaos and absurdity, and that strong contrasts are what comedy is all about.

Now the service comedy is a genre as dead as that of the lost-race novel. Attempts to revive it, as with the McHale’s Navy and Sgt. Bilko movies, flopped hideously.

The lost-race novel, begun with King Solomon’s Mines, died either when all the blank spots on the map got filled in, or when Edgar Rice Burroughs kicked the bucket, your choice.

But what killed the service comedy? Herewith a list of suspects:

Gomer Pyle. A series so egregiously awful that the very thought of it, or anything resembling it, made intelligent or creative people retch. This was a series about the Marine Corps that ran coterminously with the war in Vietnam, but never mentioned that, in real life, Gomer and his buddies would have been sent to Khe Sanh to be blown to shreds and eaten by rats!

We’d like this thesis to be true, but in fact the service comedy survived Gomer just fine.

The Sudden Discovery that War is, well, Bad. (For children and other living things.) Boomers tend to award themselves all sorts of original insights, as for instance the notion that they discovered sex and drugs. They also tend to think of themselves as the first generation to observe that war kills people, and perhaps therefore honored themsleves with the corollary that the military couldn’t possibly be funny.

This doesn’t quite explain why the World War II generation, who lived (and died) through all sorts of hell in the biggest war in human history, nevertheless lined up to watch the likes of Operation Petticoat and Sgt Bilko.

If the observation that “war is bad” killed the service comedy, you couldn’t prove it by them.

Nevertheless, it does seem true that our wars don’t seem as funny as they used to. The embedded reporters, with their closeups of the action, have shifted the focus quite a bit.

The End of the Draft. Now here’s an idea. Up to a certain point in American history, the military was a touchstone for tens of millions of people, mostly male. When the military draft ended in the early Seventies, and the services were staffed entirely with volunteers, the vast majority of the movie-going public no longer had a first-hand experience with the military and its absurdities. Watching a service comedy would have been like watching a comedy about aliens.

(Wait a minute . . . Third Rock and ALF were big hits, weren’t they? Nevermind . . . )

M*A*S*H. Now here is a thesis worth examining. M*A*S*H, the film and the TV series, may have done the service comedy so brilliantly that it left the genre with no place to go. M*A*S*H was funny, it was tragic, it was well-written, it was gory, it was absurd, it was ironic, it was hip. (And if there was one thing the service comedy had never been, it was hip.) It was more about the Seventies than the Fifties, and more about Vietnam than Korea, but that didn’t matter. The TV series lasted for ten seasons, and it examined war and war humor from every conceivable angle.

After M*A*S*H, what was left? After M*A*S*H, of course, which lasted only a single season.

That genre was dead, dudes. Nothing to do but zip it in a body bag and bury it.

Jeremy Lassen November 18, 2008 at 4:09 am

1999’s “Three King’s,” starring modern cinema’s Carey Grant (George Clooney) seems to have been an attempt at this genre.

Though its sharp dramatic turn in the third act, and it being the only thing remotely similar to a service comedy in the last 20 years seems to bear out your thesis that the genre is as dead as Carey Grant.

Ian McDowell November 18, 2008 at 5:22 am

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a service comedy, GENERATION KILL actually has some elements of the genre, even though it actually happened. It’s grotesque and tragic and often horrific, but like THE WIRE (also from David Simon and Ed Burns), it’s frequently quite funny. Since it keeps to the POV of the embedded reporter who wrote the book, and since almost all the guys he wrote about came back from Iraq physically okay (despite a strategy that sent the elite Recon troops racing towards Baghdad in open humvees, often in a deliberate attempt to draw fire), it can’t be as overtly tragic as THE WIRE — it acknowledges how bad things are for the Iraqis at the end and how they’re going to quickly get much, much worse, but none of them are viewpoint characters.

And Ray the motormouthed Humvee driver and the dharma-quoting metrosexual Rodolpho “Fruity Rudy” Reyes sometimes seem like characters in a particularly foul-mouthed and profane service comedy (except maybe when the otherwise gentle and softspoken Rudy temporarily snaps and uses his MMA skills to beat the shit out of poor Ray during a football game).

I wonder if TROPIC THUNDER would qualify? Nah, probably not, since it’s a black comedy about Hollywood, using the trope of actors who think they’re making a war movie ending up in combat.

Pat Mathews November 18, 2008 at 7:58 pm

I’d like to change your title to “Genres that die periodically.” Because I remember when the Western was considered a dead genre. I have also seen people pronouncing the end of science fiction in favor of fantasy, the end of fantasy in favor of science fiction, etc.

I think the service comedy will come back after the next major war when the wounds from it have healed.

Anonymous November 19, 2008 at 6:41 pm

How about Buffalo Soldiers(2001)? It’s very grim, black humor. It is a service comedy/drama similar to MASH but without the war (or the heart.)

dubjay November 19, 2008 at 9:28 pm

None of the productions mentioned were exactly big hits, so it looks like the genre’s still on life support.

Are they still doing service comedies in other countries? Does “‘Allo ‘Allo” count?

Dave Bishop November 20, 2008 at 9:52 am

Back in the 70s the BBC produced a very popular TV series called ‘Dad’s Army’. It was about the Home Guard in the 2nd World War. These were a corps of, mainly elderly, men who manned the Home Front. This series was, to a British audience at least, very funny. The writing was superb and the acting brilliant.
In 2008 most of the cast of this series are dead but the Beeb re-runs it endlessly and it is, if anything, more popular now than it was in the 70s! I think that the leading character, the pompous Captain Mainwaring, played by Arthur Low, is one of the great comic creations of all time.

Ty November 20, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Generation Kill, Buffalo Soldiers, and I would argue Clooney’s Three Kings are the new service comedies, it’s just that the comedy has become ironic, not slapstick.

We now view war with detached irony.

dubjay November 21, 2008 at 7:46 am

I haven’t seen the others, but I tend to think of “Three Kings” as a black humor remake of “Kelly’s Heroes” rather than service comedy, which “Kelly’s Heroes” nevertheless was.

Consistency is not exactly my strong point, I guess, but I think there’s an aesthetic difference. “Three Kings” has more in common with “The Loved One” than with “I Was a Male War Bride.”

Ken Houghton November 21, 2008 at 10:51 pm

dubjay – I haven’t seen the others, but I tend to think of “Three Kings” as a black humor remake of “Kelly’s Heroes” rather than service comedy, which “Kelly’s Heroes” nevertheless was.

Spot on, that, though if you’ve seen David O. Russell’s Soldier’s Pay (which was originally supposed to be released with the 3Kings DVD in time for the 2004 election), you’ll have a more difficult time thinking of 3Kings as an attempt at comedy.

I’m down with the “End of the Draft” argument (a.k.a., What hath Milton Friedman wrought, collateral damage edition). You don’t have people who will want to fondly remember their time in the service, and “service comedies” as comedies need a baseline against which their audience can judge realism.

InsightStraight December 1, 2008 at 1:40 am

Another reason for the demise of the service comedy is the steady loss of the WWII service guys. Mud-slogging, ass-freezing, and jungle-rotting aside, for the majority of the guys I spoke with their WWII service was the best experience of their lives in terms of camaraderie and feelings of worth. It was a grand commonality they all shared, and there were a lot of them. So as they disappeared the genre waned.

The loving nostalgia of the service comedies, aftermath of “the last good war”, gave way to acerbic social commentary. I find it hard to conjecture that a warm-fuzzy show/movie will ever come out of Iraq or Afghanistan. Besides, those troops don’t have to wait for Hollywood to refer to their wars, they are covering the action themselves with cellphone footage and blogs.

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