If anyone summarized Rick Alverson’s bleak character study The Comedy succinctly, it was supporting actor Gregg “Neil Hamburger” Turkington, who attempted to turn down his role.
“I sent him the script and he read it and said, ‘These are the most deplorable people I could ever imagine,’” Alverson recalls. “He thought it could be a really important movie but he couldn’t have any part in it. I pursued him relentlessly after that because that’s exactly the kind of person I wanted on board.”
The Comedy tells the story of Swanson, a smarmy prick whose entitlement is worsened by the ironic detachment with which he approaches the world. His interactions, whether with tragedy, romance or everyday life, are skewed by his inability to communicate. Instead, he offers up shockingly sexual and/or racist jokes that are both tragically unfunny and gratingly uncomfortable. With Swanson and his friends, every day is meant to be a party but no one is ever having any fun.
Swanson couldn’t exist without an unflinching performance from awkward-raking expert Tim Heidecker. Alverson approached the cult comedy star via email, and he was soon on board alongside his Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! co-star Eric Wareheim.
From there, the effort was entirely collaborative. “As with any of my projects I work on, there was no scripted dialogue,” Alverson explains. “There’s usually about an 18-page treatment, I still call it a script without dialogue. It dictates the narrative environment, the characters, the mood, the tone and the situation.
“Then I cast for people’s voices. I thought about not just trying to cast somebody and mould them into a preconceived notion, but cast them for their specific voice and temperament, and then augment it a bit to achieve the fiction of the thing. Tim, Eric and Gregg were incredibly gracious about it, and sort of trusted me to incorporate them into a fiction.”
That technique of filmmaking adds a layer of bleak realism to The Comedy. After all, there’s a term thrown around for the cooler-than-thou, fake Ray Ban-sporting Brooklynites like these. But where most critiques of the elusive hipster subculture fall flat due to exaggeration and a misunderstanding of its various quirks, Alverson’s version of Williamsburg is entirely believable.
“I’m essentially interested in naturalism, and that’s my angle,” he says. “I like films that are muddy and uncertain and contradictory, they’ve left the biggest impression on me.... You go to a place like Williamsburg, and the idea of hipsterism is kind of a fallacy: it’s always some other group. Ultimately, there are certain indicators, but I was interested in that being an environmental factor. I think I’m interested in the thing being a bit confused, just like we experience in life.”
Heidecker’s demeanour as an indifferent asshole does result in some borderline funny moments, but the situational discomfort is always amplified by Alverson’s claustrophobically tight shots.
“That was something that brought me and Heidecker and Wareheim and Turkington together — we all have a fascination and an interest in discomfort,” he says. “I think so much entertainment is traditionally built around safety and comfort, and it’s become a lopsided, grotesque kind of thing. So the claustrophobia interested me. I also get irritated about a kind of audience entitlement we’ve been conditioned to, to expect to be told everything about an environment. Our imaginations are literally destroyed. They’re a muscle that we don’t utilize anymore.”
Similarly, Alverson does not want The Comedy to give off a preachy message. “I think it would be a failure for the film if it could be easily read as proselytizing a political or moral viewpoint,” he admits, adding, “I have very strong opinions about things that I know are writ in there somewhere, but I tried to kind of obfuscate them at any opportunity I had.”
Still, he is willing to offer up his own take on the film. “It’s an exploration of cultural malaise and numbness. At some point the human animal is incapable of flourishing in an environment where it has unlimited options. I think it’s just patently obvious that unlimited wealth doesn’t breed happiness. I think we need functional interaction with our environments and meaningful work, and I think that the movie definitely explores that.”