Note: This post was written for my summer reading challenge — the second of six classic film-related book reviews I’ll be posting this summer! For more information, visit my TBR list for the challenge.
First published in 1992, Ted Sennett’s Laughing in the Dark promises to track the history and conventions of the movie comedy “from Groucho to Woody.” Broken up into roughly chronological sections by decade, the chapter divisions are as follows:
PREFACE: Silent comedy
CHAPTER 1: Late 1920s/early 1930s and the transition to sound
CHAPTERS 2 – 5: 1930s
CHAPTERS 6 – 11: 1940s
CHAPTERS 12 – 14: 1950s
CHAPTERS 15 – 18: 1960s
CHAPTERS 19 – 22: 1970s
CHAPTERS 23 – 26: 1980s
With the exception of two chapters on Woody Allen’s films in the 1970s and 1980s, there is no chapter devoted to a single film, filmmaker, or year. The chapters are broad and often subgenre-based. For example: martial comedy in the 1940s, or satire in the 1970s.
In its text, Laughing in the Dark touches on changes in society and the impact of major events like the Depression and World War II on film comedy, while focusing on particular films and actors as examples of Hollywood comedy trends throughout the years.
I enjoyed reading this book and while not all of its information was necessarily new to me, I think it serves as a good overview of the genre of comedy and its transformations as decades passed. For me, the later chapters on the 1960s through 1980s were particularly interesting and informative, since I’m generally much less familiar with the films of these decades. My “To Be Watched” list grew!
I did notice a few areas in which I thought the book’s content could have been expanded. I would have liked to see more on silent comedy, though that could be a book all its own! Sennett gives only the prologue to silent comedy, whereas later eras get several chapters devoted to them, and in-depth discussion of subgenres.
I also thought that in the later chapters, a bit too much focus was given to Woody Allen. He’s the only filmmaker in all of movie comedy history to get a full chapter dedicated to his work — and he actually gets two! No question, he has made several significant films, but giving so much attention to his work seems unfair to the equally (or, in some cases, more) influential filmmakers who came before him.
If you’re looking to learn more about film comedy or have seen a variety of comedies throughout the years and would like to pick up some historical context, Laughing in the Dark is a good read. Its broad focus offers a nice primer to more thorough studies of the genre of laughs.
Thanks for your review! It’s interesting how comedy ties in so closely to the time and place it comes from. I’d be very intrigued to pick this book up. Is it still in print?
It’s out of print, but used copies are pretty easy to find! I found a hardcover (complete with dust jacket!) at a library book sale but of course, it’s even easier to find online.