Prison is no laughing matter. Except in the movies. Some films have managed to make prison so comical that you almost regret never having been arrested without suspicion, searched without a warrant, jailed with bond, tried without due process and sentenced without evidence. Heck, some prison comedies even make life behind bars seem fun enough to actually have done the crime that earned you the time.
Is a POW camp in World War II considered the same thing as a prison? Maybe if your grandfather was a Nazi guard it isn't, but for the rest of the world the answer is an unqualified yes. What do you think the "P" stands for? "Stalag 17" is a mixture of comedy and drama that takes place a prison without that makes up for barbed wire and machine guns what it lacks in iron bars. "Stalag 17" is a brutal portrait of daily life in a prison camp in which every hour of every day is spent plotting how to escape, how to sneak across the way to the showers of the women's prison camp, how to put together escape plans, how to make fun of Hitler en masse and, finally, how to escape. The humor of Billy Wilder's World War II masterpiece is elegantly intertwined with the desperation of drama that makes the comedy a physical necessity for survival. "Stalag 17" proves that without a prison comedy cannot attain the height of humor without providing the foundation of tragic reality of a life stripped of basic rights and freedom.
I imagine when most people think of prison comedy, they think "Stir Crazy." Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder had actually already teamed up before, just in case you were thinking "Stir Crazy" was their debut as a comedy duo. The lesson to be gained from watching "Stir Crazy" if you are thinking of trying your hand at writing a prison comedy is to keep focus. The first half of this funny prison movie is concerned with establishing the friendship of Wilder and Pryor as decent people undone by system of authority more concerned with punishment than justice. The fact that "Stalag 17" and "Stir Crazy" are probably the most successful examples of the prison comedy genre indicates that when it comes to inmates, we prefer to laugh at the innocent unjustly incarcerated rather than laughing at characters we know are guilty.
The Longest Yard
There is an exception to this rule, of course, and it is one that bleeds over into the prison drama. Even when those guilty of serious crimes are the subject of the movie, the setting of a prison can still produce laughter, but only so long as the guards and prison officials are at least as bad as the inmates. "The Longest Yard" is not all that concerned with life on the outside and not even all that concerned with the standard convention that escape is foremost in the convicts' minds. "The Longest Yard" is not all comedy, but close enough to stand as counterpoint to the conventional approach.
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