The first film review I reviewed was It: Chapter Two (2019) because I’d been let down by that film so profoundly. On reflection, I understand why: clowns don’t scare me, but they’re dark and fascinating. I’m fascinated by their connection to human psychology, the mystical, the underworld, the occult.

Humor is dark when honest. It’s connected to fear, mortality, absurdity, chance, fortune (and misfortune), unfairness, whims of the Gods or lack thereof.

It informs us how stupid it is to live in contradictory societies (and every society’s contradictory).

It’s fitting that humor reminds us reality is difficult for all but the fortunate, wealthy, and powerful. It’s boring, capricious, and insipid at best. It’s miserable, chaotic, and brutal at worst. We’re sometimes capable of improvement, but usually, we’re content to leave the unlivable mess as it is, or we’re incapable of meaningful action. So, laugh, Arthur.

Yeah, I know, I made a Joker (2019) reference.

I’m diagnosed with chronic depression, the garden variety of mood disorders. It’s true; I don’t laugh as often as some. Nevertheless, I’m a lifelong fan of gallows humor, self-deprecation, black-hearted comedy, wordplay and wit, absurdism, satire, political cartoons, and lampoons. I’ll even occasionally chuckle at profanity if it has good rhythm (for example, I laugh, for no apparent reason, at George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television). I chuckle at anything mocking religion, politics, the wealthy, the powerful, celebrities, industry icons, overrated artists, consumer culture, anything or anyone who ought be knocked down a peg. Bigots, criminals, and zealots are low-hanging fruit, but PC culture is a close second.

(Yes, this queer recognizes the Tumblr crew backstrokes into insanity often as QAnon does. Cancel culture isn’t as frightening as it’s frivolous. We can hold wrongdoers accountable, but I haven’t enough mental energy to be offended by every slight. If it’s not a fight worth fighting, I ignore bait.)

I’ve discovered an interesting phenomenon: when comedy dumbs down, when it grows juvenile, shallow, and graphically scatological, I notice familiar symptoms creeping in. For years, I wondered why. I’ve got an answer.

Escapist humor films (and most are that) exist in worlds where characters cannot suffer consequences. The character’s goals are reduced to gag reels of antics, insults, grotesqueries, prat falls and mania. They’re Looney Tunes shorts stitched together, where Wile E. Coyote can continually plummet off the same cliff since he’s resurrected in the next sequence.

(Why? Do directors assume audiences have shortening attention spans?)

Ultimately, these escapist humor films divorce themselves from darker, profound roots of humor that explore paradoxes of human experience, to the point where escapist comedy films exist in alternate realities.

Escapist humor discounts suffering. It makes me (and others) compare the strife and consequences of our mundane lives to fictional, carefree lives. We wonder if we’re the problem.

This escapist approach to comedy appears early in film history. Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin became famous for their childlike charm and acrobatic rhythm, which other comedians would attempt to emulate. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy excelled in acrobatic slapstick, but their shorts lacked social commentary characteristic of Chaplin and Keaton films. Laurel often plays a childlike man with next to no skills, Hardy often plays as mean spirited, arrogant, and uptight, but equally hapless. Laurel is physically abused, but rarely injured, and Hardy’s weight is constantly referenced. Because Laurel was rarely injured, sound effects indicated impacts to audiences. Both Laurel and Hardy characters experienced frequent poverty, but by end of each short, fortune would have been made, lost, and by the next short, lost or made again. The shorts exist in a realm where poverty is a comic device, not a consequence of the world. I cannot help but think these shorts were trying to poke non-harmful fun at post-Depression strife, but a vague hurt remains.

When Marx Brothers got away with scathingly naughty wordplay, profound surrealism, and quick witted (sometimes mean spirited) comebacks, other comedy teams would attempt to emulate them. Their counterpart would be more overtly shallow. The Three Stooges focused almost exclusively on physical humor. The exception is You Nazty Spy! (1940), in which the trio lampooned the Third Reich. The Stooges display overt aggression, but injury is never injury; it’s only pain.

Obviously, the Stooges are living cartoons, but do we wish we could abuse others and suffer no assault charges, and cause no injuries, only pain, to enemies? Maybe we do.

This isn’t to say early slapstick comedy couldn’t have a message. The Keystone Cops’ bumbling antics and mass pileups show the incompetence of authority. Law enforcement is often armed, but rarely dangerous to anyone but themselves.

However, when comedy lacks any social criticism, it can drift into plots focusing on a single joke. Characters are one-dimensional, but sometimes, the simplicity of their realities can be oddly alluring.

When I think of this problem, I think specifically of Dumb and Dumber (1994). A woman unwittingly leaves ransom money for her killers, hired by her own husband, in a suitcase in a limousine driver’s car. The limousine driver and his roommate, a pair of well-meaning buffoons, set out for Aspen to return it to her, not knowing that too equally witless killers are in pursuit. They succeed in foiling them, don’t get the girl; they have mishaps, misadventures, and decidedly toilet humor-style accidents. In the end, Lloyd and Harry have no money, no jobs, and walk back to Rhode Island playing tag in the road, two big adult kids.

What consequences could occur in their reality? What’s wrong with my life that I can’t play tag with my bestie in the middle of the road after losing my job?

But the movie doesn’t have to be crass to be carefree to the point of denying reality.

Legally Blonde (2001) has one joke: blonde valley girls are stupid, rich, and divorced from reality. Even after succeeding at law school and winning a case, Elle’s the same. She’s still dimwitted, rude, frivolous. Do I wish I could achieve new goals and gain new skills without investing in my personal development? Well, not entirely, but it wouldn’t be the worst.

Paul Blart Mall Cop (2005) has one joke: a bumbling mall cop wanted to be a cop, finds himself privy to a real heist, and sallies off to catch crooks himself despite the fact he’s obtuse and incapable. Do we secretly wish our mundane lives would suddenly be action-packed and dangerous? It’s crossed my mind.

Meet the Parents (2000) has one joke: her family is threatening, brutish, strange, psychopathic, they’ll do anything to ruin her potential marriage, but eventually her parents renege and make everything right. Do I wish some family members would change bad behavior because it was ruining my life? Must you ask?

Escapist comedy doesn’t always lack emotional resonance. Romantic comedies are the worst offenders.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is about a failing author named Paul who wastes time and energy on Holly Golightly, an actress who’s manipulative, delusional, and mentally ill. Holly will do anything to keep her fantasies alive. She changes accounts of her past and identity multiple times. When Paul confronts Holly, her unknown mental illness vanishes immediately. Paul, Holly, and Holly’s cat embrace in the rain.

Holly isn’t playful and delightful. Holly abused Paul whether she meant to or not. If I could have cured a lover’s mental illness by confronting them, I’d be a miracle healer. In Holly and Paul’s reality, such healing’s possible. Why not in my reality?

Similarly, in The Apartment (1960), Bud sucks up to managers by allowing them to use his uptown apartment as a convenient love pad to bring mistresses. He’s prepared to end that arrangement when he meets Fran, the elevator girl from work. Trouble is, Fran’s loves Sheldrake, his manager, who won’t divorce his wife. Fran attempts suicide in the apartment. She botches the attempt, and throws off the love pad schedule. Bud apparently once attempted suicide, too. By the end, Bud’s work life is in shambles, but he loves Fran. The pair celebrate with a game of Gin Rummy.

Fran attempted suicide over an affair. Her mental illness won’t go away. What happens when Bud and Fran have their first argument? Will she attempt again? Will he? I don’t see their love working, but it makes me wonder: some of my relationships ended because of untreated mental health issues like these; did I fail to believe in love’s healing?

An American in Paris (1951) is about a struggling American painter, Jerry, who meets a lonely heiress, Milo, who wants to support his work. Jerry dislikes Milo, but she’s buying art and helping him network. He’s interested in Lise, whom he approaches in front of Milo, but Lise’s going to marry his friend Henri because he kept her safe during the war. During a romantic meeting on the Seine, she admits she loves Jerry, but she’s marrying Henri. Jerry makes a pass at Milo instead. Then Lise comes back to Jerry, happily ever after. Gene Kelly dances and sings a lot in this film, does that make anything better? No.

Jerry kisses Milo because he wants a comeback romance, though he doesn’t like Milo. That will hurt Milo. But Jerry doesn’t consider the consequences. Jerry can’t conceive Milo can hurt. Despite her good intentions, Lise is toying with Henri: what’ll happen when he realizes Lise only loved him because he protected her during the war? All of this is so ugly, and its never resolved. Despite this, it makes me wish I could sing or dance my crush into my arms.

This isn’t to say romantic comedies can’t contain transgressive elements or social commentary. Some Like it Hot (1959) took many risks portraying its two protagonists, Jerry and Joe, wearing drag. Hot portrays two openly curious male characters in Daphne/Jerry and Osgood. Jerry enjoyed being spoiled while dressing like Daphne. After learning Daphne is Jerry, Osgood says “nobody’s perfect.” Maybe Osgood will have a fling with Daphne/Jerry. But this line plays as a final laugh. Osgood won’t make much of Jerry’s love. Will Joe and Sugar take one another’s love serious? Sugar seems too innocent to understand much, despite the fact she’s Marilyn Monroe: her whole character is her innocence and sexuality. I don’t think Sugar should love anyone. Everyone onboard the yacht will be single again shortly, if they’re not all caught, tortured, and massacred by the Little Bonaparte’s henchmen first.

Maybe many of us wish to love ‘em and leave ‘em with reckless abandon, to never consider tomorrow.

Many romantic comedies never consider tomorrow. The future can’t exist.

Will Blane love Andie at the end of Pretty in Pink (1986)? Duckie doesn’t get a chance with Andie, despite the fact he’s shown more interest in her and supporter her life goals. Conveniently, a pretty girl flirts with Duckie, so he relinquishes Andie to Blane. Will Blane ignore the criticism of rich friends tomorrow? Anyon realize Andie’s mom didn’t abandon them, she’s dead, and Andie’s dad is suffering PTSD-level denial? Nothing matters past Andie and Blane’s parking lot kiss.

Some films pretend that consequences exist, but ultimately don’t matter.

Will Sally and Harry really stay together after When Harry Met Sally… (1989)? They’ve spent more than twelve years consciously undermining the chance of a romance between them, there’s been such deception, now they decide to love? There’s no reason to think Harry and Sally will love each other if they’ve spent so long preventing that love.

Will Robbie and Julia stay married in The Wedding Singer (1998)? Robbie’s so depressed after having faced such rejection and recognizes no value in himself. He also never learned to deal with the loss of a romance maturely. Will he pursue his dreams of being a rock star, will he be content with his path in life, will he decide how he feels about love? I don’t feel confident for them.

Other comedies in this genre can be reduced to a single joke.

What’s Bridesmaids (2011) about? Women become jealous when faced with competition. In this case, it’s the competition to serve as a maid of honor at a wedding. That ruins everything, but women forgive, so everything’s fine. Such emotional sabotage isn’t likely to be resolved by a tearful heart to heart between bridesmaid and bride. But we wish it could.

What’s Ten Things I Hate About You (1999) about? Well, we needed another teen drama comedy romance version of a Shakespeare play, but not as good as Romeo + Juliet (1996). Do some of us want to feel classy and cultured, but not want to put in the mental energy to watch a four-hour Shakespeare play? I’m betting so.

What’s There’s Something About Mary (1998) about? A man given to sexual mishaps pursues the girl he would have taken to prom and finds out that every red-blooded man alive also wants her to comedic affect, but he gets her, because you know, true love wins. Apparently, sperm used as hair gel is hilarious. A corpse is played off for laughs. Obsession and stalking are, too. Mary’s not nervous that her prom date from 13 years previous tracked her down. Somehow, in the pursuit of an orthopedic surgeon’s degree, she’s never learnt to deduct reasonably. She’s the same girl Ted almost took to prom. Do many wish they could find former crushes, especially professionally successful ones, and rekindle the same nostalgic love of the past? It’s a common fantasy.

What’s American Pie (1999) about? Well, we all have to lose our virginity or gain experience with someone or something. Sure, we don’t want it to be at the expense of a dessert, but most teenagers want to lose or gain sooner than later.

What’s You’ve Got Mail (1998) about? A man with a big business crushing the income out of a woman with a small competing business, but they exchange flirty emails online, so love happens. Let’s not address the fact that it’s basically about bad business practices and the premise is also impossible. Do we wish we could find that perfect someone on the web? Ask the people in tens of millions of active dating profiles.

What is Zak and Miri Make a Porno (2008) about? Well, it’s the title. Yes, Zak and Miri fall in love while acting in their porno. Do we wish a single sexual act could magically create romantic commitment? Some do. Others are horrified by the idea.

What bothers me about these films is they are about issues that matter. They could address these issues with more nuance, more depth, and more introspection. Instead, the real-world concerns are just setups for the laughs, never more. It’s as though these scripts were written hastily, without taking advantage of opportunities to offer meaningful commentary. There’s an assumption that audiences would find introspection too highbrow and contemporary audiences wouldn’t laugh, but I don’t believe this.

Amelie (2001) is a delightful foreign French romantic comedy, which would be light fare except for how its whimsy and wit can seamlessly incorporate the strange, bizarre, sad, and even morbid realities of life. It’s the world seen through the eyes and mind of an autistic, altruistic café waitress, and it doesn’t have to dumb down to shine.

Juno (2007) says something about the realities of teen pregnancy and didn’t sacrifice its sense of humor. The teenagers, Juno and Paulie, consider abortion, keeping their child, and finally choose to put their child up for adoption. Their teenage awkwardness still provokes laughs.

Thank You for Smoking (2005) didn’t sacrifice itself and still managed to raise some dark realities about the tobacco industry, but still reminded us of our rights to choose what we consume and to practice self-control.

Liar Liar (1997) actually observes how white lies, fibs, suppressions, and exaggerations are necessary to get through a single day in anyone’s mundane life, particularly a day in the life of a defense lawyer. Ultimately, it’s about how too much blunt, direct honesty (and most call ourselves honest) would get any of us in hot water.

Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) managed to lampoon a plethora of topics from religion to race and flawlessly bounce from the bizarre to sincere and back again with dizzying grace.

Being John Malkovich (1999) might be one of the most darkly surreal comedies made, but Brazil (1985) gives it a run for its money. There’s nothing quite like the last look on Sam Lowery’s lobotomized face.

And just when I was about to pan all romantic comedy, I watch Moonstruck (1987) and realize all the little family dysfunction jokes that could’ve been played off become nuanced.

And take this from someone who worked at a gas station during grad school: Clerks (1994) says something significant about the realities of working in sub-minimum wage occupations. I can’t remember how many days I was there when I wasn’t supposed to be.

We don’t always lose spirit by facing life’s ugliness; we can also find it.

A common misconception about people diagnosed with depression is we have no sense of humor, never laugh, or can’t laugh at ourselves. This isn’t true: one of the most critical breakthroughs I made concerning treatment was learning I’m great at laughing at myself. I have a sense of humor, and I can laugh. I laugh at all the harsh, ugly realities of life. Actually, it’s how I cope with most problems.

But escapist comedy, which is divorced from these realities, makes me feel—briefly, vaguely—unhappy with myself. Escapist comedy subconsciously tells us suffering isn’t real, is negligible, or we’re weak for experiencing it or letting it affect us. That’s dangerous.

During times of great global turmoil (like now), the last thing we should be do is deny life’s ugliness to play a game of tag in the road. An 18-wheeler doesn’t care about Lloyd and Harry’s fun.