The topic of this blog post will be to look at a few movies that fall into the “police comedy” genre and to ask the question “How is humor used in police comedies, and what, if anything, does this say about police officers in real life?” I watched three movies in order to answer this question: Super Troopers, Starksy & Hutch, and Police Academy. All three movies fall into the “police comedy” genre and were very popular when they came out.
Super Troopers–released in 2001–was written by Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, et al. and directed by Chandrasekhar (“Super Troopers”). It takes place in Vermont and focuses on the interaction between the local cops and the highway troopers in the wake of news that the troopers department could be cut due to budget constraints. The highway troopers are the focus of the movie. The movie is packed full of jokes, which makes it perfect for this project.
The next movie, Starksy & Hutch stars Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Vince Vaughn. It was written by William Blinn, Stevie Long, et al. and directed by Todd Phillips (“Starksy & Hutch”). It was released in 2004. The movie focuses on the pairing of David Starsky, played by Ben Stiller, and Ken Hutchinson, played by Owen Wilson. The two have very different styles of policing. Notably, Hutch uses an informant, Huggy Bear, who is involved in a lot of illegal activity. The movies revolves around Starksy and Hutch trying to take down Reese Feldman, played by Vince Vaughn, who the partners believe is planning the largest drug deal in Bay City history. This movie is also packed with humor, and provided a good source of analysis for this project.
Finally, the last movie is Police Academy. This is the oldest of the movies. It was released in 1984, and is very similar in style to Animal House and Porky’s. It is the work of writers Neal Israel, Pat Proft, et al. and director Hugh Wilson (“Police Academy”). The movie takes place in a city that suffers from a shortage of police officers. In order to cope with this, the mayor passed a law that no longer restricts applicants from enrolling in local police academy based on any criteria. In other words, anyone can become a police officer. The movie focuses on a group of recruits that is not the stereotypical class of police officers. There are plenty of jokes to document and analyze, so the movie is a good choice for this project.
The importance of my research is that through my analysis I will be able to see how “police comedies” represent police officers. After watching the movies and researching scholarly articles, I am able to ignite the argument about the representation of police officers in “police comedies.” These three movies use disparagement and incongruity to create humor, and this has the effect of reinforcing the dominant ideology of police officers with respect to one another as well as with the citizens. In addition, the use of incongruity can display how a difference in ideas or personalities can be beneficial. Overall, these three movies misrepresent police officers as buffoons with badges, who play pranks on each other and do not take their jobs seriously.
Context and Method.
I researched three articles to provide background information that I could then use to benefit my analysis. Two of the three articles provided me with different styles of humor and how these methods create humor: such as disparagement, puns, malapropism, incongruity, et cetera. This provided me with a toolbox of styles to document the jokes in the movies. The third article is full of information about how police officers use humor to reduce stress. It said that police often do this to vent and understand a situation. I watched the movies looking for instances of this to see if it was properly represented.
My method for this project was pretty standard. I watched each movie a couple times and documented every joke I saw. From my list of jokes, I would create groups based on the method of humor used, and then look for the most common methods. I looked for one or two main overarching methods in each movie to see if there was a central style. I also looked for connections between all three movies based on the styles of humor used. The results of my research and analysis are below.
In Super Troopers, there were a lot of jokes centered around incongruity. According to Jian Zhong, incongruity is a popular form of comedy in America because it “inspires humor” (128). Incongruity is the pairing of two opposite things which creates humor through the stark contrast. The times when incongruity is most noticeable is when the troopers interact with drivers at traffic stops. It was very common to see the troopers play games on the drivers they would pull over. At these stops, the games would involve confusing the drivers through different methods that employed incongruity. These methods ranged anywhere from malapropism to repetition, whatever seemed most fitting at the time to confuse the drivers. Malapropism is characterized by the misuse of words with similar pronunciations but opposite meanings. (Zhong 127) The troopers would employ malapropism when playing one of their more popular games, the “meow” game. In this game, they rely on the fact that the word “meow” sounds strikingly like “now.” They then use this to confuse the driver by seeing how many times they can say “meow” in place of “now” at a traffic stop. This causes confusion among both the driver who has been stopped and the viewer watching the movie because “now” is a word that holds a very powerful meaning especially when said by a police officer, but “meow” is what a cat says. Cats are often associated with cuddling and being pets, not authority. This incongruity creates the humor. This game can be seen in action in the following clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yXZRdeGHEo.
Disparagement can also be seen in Super Troopers. Disparaging humor is characterized by jokes that are intended to degrade or belittle someone (Zolten 347). One of the troopers, Farva, is often the butt of both the state and the local officers’ jokes. A great example of this is when Farva is arrested by the local police and they “de-louse” him by covering him in powdered sugar and spraying him with water. The interaction between Farva and the local police chief can be seen in the following clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ38PGV_3wg. This degrades Farva because he has been stripped naked and embarrassed in front of the local police officers. Instances of disparagement towards Farva occur often throughout the movie.
One aspect that stood out about Super Troopers was that it lacks a strong plot and instead focuses on generating laugh after laugh by filling itself to the brim with jokes. It did not take long for one joke to end before the next began; in fact, when documenting the jokes from the movie, the majority of the jokes came in clusters with no two jokes occurring more than seven minutes apart. The question had to be asked if this style was consistent with the rest of the “police comedy” genre or if it was a separate sub genre of its own. A definitive answer could not be given until the other movies were fully analyzed.
The next movie I analyzed was Starsky & Hutch. The common method of humor in the movie came in the form of disparagement. The person being degraded was always David Starsky–one of the central characters. As soon as the movie starts, Starsky is seen chasing a criminal but he faces certain humorous complications. He knocks the wind out of himself while trying to leap from one building to the next, and then later in the chase falls through the roof of a car after jumping from a fire escape. We see Starsky continually embarrass himself or fail at whatever he is trying to do which is humorous because of how serious he takes his police work. This is embarassing to Starsky and consequently disparaging to his character; therefore it is funny to the audience because we laugh at the expense of Starsky. In the following clip, Starsky can be seen trying to jump his car into Reese Feldman’s yacht in order to stop Feldman’s escape, but he overshoots the jump and his car flies into the water. Starsky and Hutch are both left treading water as Feldman drifts away laughing at the Starky’s mistake. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=uBX2b-zback#t=101s.
Besides disparagement, the movie also creates humor through the incongruity. The pairing of David Starsky and Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson is incongruous because of their opposite personalities. Starksy is the serious, try-hard, type-A personality; while Hutch is the laid back, care-free type. Their personalities clash throughout the movie. One example is when towards the end of the movie, Hutch tries to patch things over with Starsky by hugging each other but Starsky is clearly uncomfortable with this. Starsky says that he is not the hugging type while Hutch consoles him by saying it’s alright. The awkward exchange between the two is funny because their personalities are so opposite. It is also common for one of the two to suggest a course of action and the other be surprised by the suggestion because it is not their style. A good example of this was the first time Starsky suggested using his makeup guy to go undercover as bikers in Big Earl’s bar. Hutch seems shocked that Starksy would have a makeup guy while Starksy is surprised that Hutch does not have one. This is just one of many examples where Starky and Hutch’s policing styles differ.
Similar to Starsky & Hutch, Police Academy also uses disparagement to create humor. In the case of this movie however, it is Lieutenant Harris degrading the cadets that is disparaging more so than any one cadet doing it to themselves. We see Harris screaming at the cadets and chastising them. We laugh at their expense because we are thankful that we are not in their position. Early in the movie, Harris approaches Cadet Hooks, a shy woman, and asks her why she enrolled in the academy; when she responds quietly, he yells at her which just makes her quieter. The situation gets uncomfortable and the humor lies in the fact that we are not in her situation. Harris is constantly is seen yelling at the cadets for numerous reasons. It is his goal to get as many of them to drop out as he can because he feels they are unfit for police duty. This is humorous to the viewer because Harris is often frustrated with the cadets, whichs causes him to degrade the cadets even more. As well, Harris feels degraded by the quality of cadets in the class as they are not up to his standards. He feels as though he is better than them and their presence disparages his ego.
Police Academy also employs the technique of Incongruous Juxtaposition. The word incongruous implies that there is a failure to harmonize among a group, in this case the group is the class of cadets. All of the cadets have very different personalities, and when put together in juxtaposition with one another the result is incongruous. This is humorous to the viewer because of the lack of harmony and ensuing conflict. A good example is the personality of Mahoney against the personality of his roommate, Tackleberry. Mahoney is very laid back and easy going, while Tackleberry is very high strung–he brought his own weapons with him to the academy. It is humorous to see them as roommates because Mahoney appears uneasy when he sees Tackleberry unload gun after gun from his luggage. The pairing of Mahoney and Tackleberry is very incongruous.
Overall, Police Academy is very similar to Super Troopers in that the purpose of the movie seems to revolve around the jokes. Just as in Super Troopers, not much time passes between jokes. The same question needs to be asked of Police Academy concerning whether or not it is a sub genre of the “police comedy” genre.
After analyzing each film, I looked at the three as a group to find any common threads as well as anything that made them stand out. What I found was that there were two common methods of humor used: disparagement and incongruity. I believe these methods are common because of the nature of how they create humor. Disparagement is effective for a police comedy because it relies on one person being degraded either against him or or herself, or amongst a group. Regardless of who is being degraded, in a line of work that relies on dominance and power, it seems natural to use that power in a way that may degrade someone–in the case of the movies it is degrading for the sake of humor. Even in the case of David Starsky, it is when he tries to assert his power or dominance that we see him embarrass himself. As for incongruity, the contrast it creates is effective across a large range of genres but can be used more pragmatically in “police comedy” because of the police officer-citizen interaction. This is most evident in Super Troopers where the incongruity is most noticeable when the troopers interact with the drivers at traffic stops. The incongruity can also be effective in explaining the officer-officer relationship, where partners such as Starksy and Hutch may have different personalities or policing styles. Since each partner will have a idea on how to solve the crime, the different styles are effective as they manage to catch the bad guy and serve justice by the conclusion of the movie–with the help of Hutch’s informant, Huggy Bear.
As well, two of the movies stood out from the third based on their style. Police Academy and Super Troopers were very similar in their overall style compared to Starsky & Hutch as noted earlier. Super Troopers and Police Academy appeared to be made on a cheaper budget; they were less refined in their cinematography. These two movies were more focused on the humor, and putting together a string of jokes compared to Starsky & Hutch. Super Troopers and Police Academy should be a considered a sub genre of “police comedies” because of their abundance of gags and reliance on raunchier jokes–often involving debauchery.
Through these three movies, you can get a grasp of the perceived interactions between police and other police as well as citizens, and the forms of humor used display this. The use of disparagement evidences the sense of power and dominance that police hold. As well, incongruity and confusion show how police can belittle citizens at times, by playing games to confuse them. Incongruity can also explain how a difference in personalities among partners–police are often on patrol with a partner–can create both conflict, and help to solve a crime in the case of Starsky & Hutch. As for incongruous juxtaposition, it does not say anything substantial about policing or police comedies. The incongruous juxtaposition in Police Academy can best be explained by a screenwriter trying to create a humor through an oddball collection of people. However, the type of people that the writer chose does make a statement as to the stereotypes surrounding police officers, and why these cadets are considered to be bad candidates for officers because of their personality types–either too laid back, too violent, too quiet, or too serious.
In conclusion, these three movies represent police officers in interesting ways. Super Troopers & Police Academy vastly misrepresent police officers as immature jokers who are not very focused on their work. On the other hand, Starksy & Hutch does represent police as effective at enforcing the law. However, Starsky and Hutch are shown a couple times in the movie breaking the law to serve justice, and this is not a good representation of police officers. In all three movies, the police are almost never seen using humor to bring “clarity to a situation” or to gain perspective on a situation, which according to Horan, Bochantin, and Booth-Butterfield are very common uses of humor by police officers (557). These misrepresentations can damage the image and affect the stereotypes that society holds of police officers, in a negative way.
IV. Works Cited
Horan, S. M., Bochantin, J., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2012). Humor in High-Stress Relationships: Understanding Communication in Police Officers’ Romantic Relationships. Communication Studies, 63(5), 554-573. doi: 10.1080/10510974.2011.633297
Jian, Z. (2012). On Appreciation of American Humor. English Language & Literature Studies, 2(2), 125-129. doi:10.5539/ells.v2n2p125
“Police Academy.” IMDB. Amazaon, Inc., n.d. Web. December 8, 2012.
“Starsky & Hutch.” IMDB. Amazaon, Inc., n.d. Web. December 8, 2012.
“Starsky & Hutch (5/5) Movie Clip–Too Much Car (2004) HD.” YouTube. Web. May 26, 2011.
“Super Troopers.” IMDB. Amazaon, Inc., n.d. Web. December 8, 2012.
“Super Troopers–Delicious Farva.” YouTube. Web. February 5, 2011.
“Super Troopers meow.” YouTube. Web. May 30, 2010.
Zolten, J. (1988). Joking in The Face Of Tragedy. ETC: A Review Of General Semantics, 45(4), 345-350.