2017 Film Essays

The Joke Is on Us: Rick Alverson’s ‘The Comedy’


There’s a term that gets bandied around within my group of friends to describe of subset of people: “shitlord” — one who lives for the irony, outrage and the absurd; an internet troll glossed up and made of flesh. Like children, these are the type of people who say and do outlandish things, who desecrate the sacred not for the sake of laughter, but for a reaction. It’s the last flicker of their dwindling humanity that they’re trying to reignite through crassness. Rick Alverson’s The Comedy takes this type of person, with all of their privilege, vapidity, evil and, yes, humanity to explode their universe onto the screen.

The Comedy follows Swanson, played by Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric fame) who gives one of the most complex and captivating performances of the past decade, as he “deals” with the impending death of his father and a life that simply does not seem worth living. His character reminds of schoolyard conversations, where kids in Linkin Park t-shirts would imagine their eventual blaze of glory death in an action movie, echoing both the Columbine High School Massacre and The Matrix all the same. The Comedy, which I must echo is not funny by any traditional convention, completely refutes the three-act structure in favor of a series of vignettes that allow Alverson and Heidecker’s Swanson to completely defile race, religion, human decency and every sort of thing that society holds sacred.

Alverson posits irony and sarcasm not as the natural additions to comedy, but as the preternatural enemy to empathy. Scott Tobias, of the A.V. Club, described The Comedy as a film that depicts “the limits of irony as a force field against the world” — while this is true, the way irony is characterized goes much deeper than a force field. Swanson, and Alverson by extension, use irony as a weapon, as a cattle prod against anyone who he wants to see squirm and scream. There’s a certain thrill-seeking to Swanson’s sociopathic anthropology that echoes the sort of wild west era of the internet, where gore and shock videos were as easy to stumble across as anything else. When the world and the people who inhabit it become boring, basic human decency is forgone and they become like ants under the microscope for those who have the ability to debase themselves to that level.

Swanson is one of the most morally repugnant characters to grace the silver screen, and his worst act is making the audience become voyeurs to countless situations that scream for an intervention, divine or otherwise. It’s funny, too, as one of the most exhilarating aspects of watching The Comedy is how it structures itself in sort of a set-up — a payoff structure of sorts — as a traditional joke would entail. For example, there’s a scene where Swanson takes a woman back to his boat (with the prospect of sleeping with her), and as they’re talking and flirting, she has a seizure. Swanson watches the seizure and doesn’t intervene in the slightest. It can make one scream, as viewers are so conditioned to expect the typical romantic turnout of an escapade like this. And so, Swanson does what he is wont to do. His reaction shouldn’t be surprising, as he proves himself to be morally bankrupt throughout the film, losing all sense of good taste in relation to his father, friends and peers. But, Alverson assumes that viewers have a human heart and uses that knowledge to his advantage. It’s a dizzying display of subversion, and it’s something that permeates throughout the film.

It’d be easy to dismiss The Comedy as an experiment in torturing the audience with hipster trite, mirroring how Swanson tortures his own. Refuting this simplistic dismissal, above all, The Comedy is an empathetic film about the dangers of losing empathy. Each scene featuring Swanson’s antics isn’t played for the pure sake of shock. Instead, the camera acts as a loose veneer turning the film into a sort of stage performance the audience is meant to heckle. The film invites an empathetic castigation of Swanson, it’s why there are so many scenes of The Graduate-esque lingering; they are all inherently screaming “stop.”

The Comedy’s finale is one of the most powerful sequences in the last decade of film, enforcing everything prior and providing a final punch line, a scene of redemption for Swanson.

Swanson leaves his friend’s house emotionally corroded; they spent the afternoon splicing together childhood pictures with hardcore pornography. After the cheap laugh this gets, there isn’t much else left as the emotionless drone of the linger sets in. Riding his bike viciously and to the point of exhaustion, Swanson ends up at the beach and begins to play in the water with a toddler. Because of the prior 87 minutes, viewers may become so accustomed to Swanson’s horrible actions that one may brace for the worst when he is paired with a child. But again, this feeling is subverted. They play together — two children, interacting, laughing and splashing each other with water. It’s the first genuine emotion communicated on the screen, showing that even someone like Swanson can feel and that he’s worthy of redemption. It’s a brief moment of joy lasting until the credits roll and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops fades back in.

This interaction between Swanson and the toddler is so pure, so real, that it depicts Swanson in an entirely different light. He’s a scared child that lost his father in a world that he’s already drowned in, and has turned his temper tantrums into weaponized irony, which he brandishes with ease due to his money and privilege. Ultimately, the scariest thing about Swanson is that there’s people like him, those who play-punch a little too hard or tell the racist joke without a hint of laughter. The most daring decision made by Alverson is to show that there’s still a person there after all of the corrosion, and not a husk. Audiences aren’t meant to hate Swanson, but to understand him and people like him, along with ourselves. In the end, the joke is on us.

Justin Micallef (@justinrmicallef) is a critic who loves nothing ironically. Find his work at The Outhousers, Loser City, Detroit Music Magazine and your nearest bathroom stall.