In the February 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Olga Khazan, in her article, “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian,” explores the idea of successful comedy being “a little bit wrong and a little bit right.” Another way to put it is that the best comedy illuminates a kernel of truth: the audience can relate.
This is true of the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which turns 10-years-old this week. As the movie opens, Peter (Jason Segel) pours a bowl of fruit loops and sits down to watch TV. It’s clear that Segel and his girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell), have an obsessive relationship where everything is intertwined. Photos of them are everywhere. A 365 Days of Sarah calendar hangs on the wall. A mug on the table has a photo with both of their faces on it. This is funny because it’s over the top (this continues throughout the film), but it’s also true. Maybe the audience doesn’t have a calendar or a mug, but we can all relate to that relationship that becomes our life.
Psychologist Peter McGraw says that “Tickling, the basic form of humor that even non-verbal primates use, is a perfect example [of great comedy]: ‘There’s a threat there, but it’s safe,’ McGraw said. ‘It’s not too aggressive and it’s done by someone you trust.’”
For the audience, we find ourselves laughing at the absurdity of Peter’s unraveling life. He can’t work, shower, clean, or leave the house, drinks too much and is unbearable to be around. He’s a disaster. And, of course, we can relate. There is, somewhere inside of the viewer (at least for me there is), a fear that this can happen to us, likely because it has. We also laugh as Peter learns to get over the breakup. There is solace here: he takes a trip, finds another beautiful woman, and eventually finds his way; promising us personal growth along the journey.
Aldous Snow’s music (Russell Brand) fills the soundtrack of the Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It mimicks how Peter, no matter where he goes – Sarah and Aldous end up at the same resort in Hawaii that Peter heads to – can’t get away from Snow. The singer has ruined Peter’s life. Yet, no matter how badly he simply wants him to disappear, there is Aldous: at the resort, on the TV, on the radio, even out surfing. The harder he tries to avoid the realization that Sarah has been unfaithful, and that she’s sleeping with the man who she cheated on him with, the more in his face the entire relationship becomes.
Peter’s debauchery in Hawaii—the adventures, the conversations, and the people he meets—are all geared primarily toward hilarity. But Forgetting Sarah Marshall also gets at the foundational truth about relationships that’s easy to forget: they require constant care, dedication, and trust. And no one really knows how to have a successful one.
Hawaii’s backdrop offers lots of clichés for growth and moving on from a relationship. For example, there’s a scene where Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), a resort employee who Peter falls for, convinces Peter to jump from a cliff and into the ocean (a leap of faith, if you will). The scene is, once again, handled with comedy and a sprinkle of fear as Peter doesn’t quite jump as far as he should and ends up dangling dangerously from a cliff-side shrub. He survives the jump, plunging awkwardly into the ocean. But the awkwardness doesn’t matter. What matters is that he did it. That he gave it a shot. And there’s a simple lesson to learn from that.
A surf instructor named Chuck (Paul Rudd) shows Peter how to surf. Peter just isn’t getting it. “Do less,” he says. “Remember, don’t do anything…We’re going to figure it out out there,” he says.
Maybe there’s more to comedy than simply having relatability, teasing conventional lines of morality, and getting at an undercurrent of truth. Great comedy is timeless, too. Sure, it’s only been a decade since the film’s release, and who knows whether an audience fifty years from now will have a night in on the couch with popcorn and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But its relevance 10 years later hasn’t changed a bit.
As the spacey Paul Rudd suggests about figuring out surfing – “don’t do anything…we’re going to figure it out out there” – we’re still trying to figure out relationships. And that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.