Cult Comedy Cinema and the Cultic, Comic Mode

Authored by: Seth Soulstein

The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138950276
eBook ISBN: 9781315668819
Adobe ISBN:


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“Cult films,” note the editors of Cinéaste’s special issue on cult film, “make us feel less alone in the dark” (Lucia and Porton 2008: 6). Consistently, attempts to distinguish cult films from any other film emphasize the “phenomenal” and “collective” (Mathijs and Sexton 2011: 17–19) nature of the cult film viewer’s experience. There is a similar powerful force that binds audiences together, generating an embodied, collective experience of community that cuts through darkness: laughter. It would follow, then, that the quintessential genre for cult film enthusiasts, the niche within the niche, would be comedy. Indeed, in his 1932 essay “Film Cults,” often considered to be the starting point of the scholarly and critical analysis of cult cinema, Harry Alan Potamkin locates the beginning of cult film spectatorship in the French fascination with American slapstick comedy, stating early on, for example, that “[Charlie] Chaplin was the key cult” (Potamkin 2008: 26). Yet, setting aside the wide array of film genres that don’t seem to consistently generate cult followings – Westerns, romances, bio-pics, and so on – comedy is often the most overlooked genre in studies of cult cinema and in the inevitable “Top __ Cult Films” lists. Two notable lists, separated by three decades, Danny Peary’s Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, and Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik’s list in 100 Cult Films, for example, each boast less than ten comedies in their hundred-film lists (five and six, respectively, by my count, though this is somewhat difficult to discern – a phenomenon we will discuss further on). Furthermore, academic monographs and anthologies devoted to cult film, such as Cult Cinema: an introduction (Mathijs and Sexton) or Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics (Sconce), have chapters devoted to specific genres, such as horror and sci-fi – but never to comedy. Why is it so difficult to find comedies represented in such cultographies? Does something about the genre itself subvert or otherwise defy categorization as cult? Are cinephiles unable to form the same level of attachment or religious devotion to simply funny flicks? Comedies are often overlooked in academic and critical approaches to not only film, but television, theatre, literature, etc.; is comedy too low an art form for even the cultists – supposed celebrants of the “cheap,” the “bad,” or the “low” – to respect? Or, conversely, is it not low enough? To attempt to answer these questions, it will be helpful to go back to the origins of Western cult behavior and examine the comic stamp within it.

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