Oscars: Can't They Take a Joke?

The Oscars thrive on pomp and circumstance. The red carpet. Tuxedos and gowns. Weeping winners. Films with stirring, brave, raw performances.

That’s all fine, but what about the laughs?

Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (search) leans toward somber films and serious performances — often at the expense of comedic actors and merry movies that get big box office returns but no golden statuettes.

“The Oscars’ snub of comedies is proof of what hypocrites Hollywood insiders are,” said Tom O’Neil, founder of movie awards site GoldDerby.com. “They say drama is tough and comedy is murder," yet they don’t reward comedies very often.

This year, the movies getting major Oscar buzz include a tragic love story (“Cold Mountain”), a heartbreaking story of a murdered teen (“Mystic River”), an uplifting David and Goliath tale (“Seabiscuit”), an epic sea adventure (“Master and Commander”) and the ultimate good versus evil saga ("Lord of the Rings: Return of the King").

Great movies, but not a lot of chuckles in that bunch.

Meanwhile, films that leave audiences smiling — and bring in megabucks — like “Finding Nemo,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and “School of Rock” are laughable long shots for Best Picture nods. And among all the actors in those films, only Diane Keaton in “Gotta Give” is considered a real Oscar contender.

“This year is a real test of the Oscar’s funny bone,” said O’Neil. “Johnny Depp ("Pirates") and Jack Black ("School of Rock") are both in superb comic turns.”

At the Golden Globes, Black and Depp will both compete for best actor in a comedy. But most Oscar watchers don’t expect Depp’s rollicking role in “Pirates” or Black’s rocking performance in “School” to be deemed Oscar-worthy.

Instead, look to the likes of Sean Penn, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley and Russell Crowe, all of whom played parts grizzled, dirty or miserable enough to get Hollywood's highest honor.

For some fans, the lack of laughs in the Oscar lineup is a turnoff.

“Every year you look at the best picture nominees and they are all dramas,” said Matt Kozlowski, a 32-year-old financial advisor from Houston, Texas. “This year I thought Will Ferrell was great in ‘Old School,’ but he’ll never get a nomination.”

In the comedy also starring Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn, Ferrell streaks naked through the streets, accidentally shoots himself with an animal tranquilizer gun and jumps through a hoop of fire while dressed as a mascot. Chances are, the role won't catch Oscar's eye.

Pop culture expert Robert Thompson said favoring drama over comedy has been ingrained in Western culture since the Greek tragedies were written, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

“Oscars cop a lot of attitude. They are the mother of all awards shows,” he said. “The sense is that Oscar has always demanded it be taken seriously, and tragedy has always been taken more seriously than comedy.”

In fact, Thompson said, good comedies are usually the exact opposite of what is considered an “Oscar Best Picture.”

“'When Harry Met Sally' was great for what it was, schmaltzy and saccharine,” he said. “When you’re that good at being schmaltzy, you’re not going to get an Oscar nomination.” (The film was nominated for Best Screenplay, but lost to "Dead Poets Society.")

But Kozlowski holds out hope that the Academy is lightening up.

“In every category, they have at least one shocker. Like in ‘My Cousin Vinny,' nobody expected Marisa Tomei to win. Most people didn’t even think she’d get nominated.”

Indeed, Mira Sorvino, Dianne Wiest and Diane Keaton are just some of the performers who have been rewarded for their comic turns.

This year’s wildcard nomination could easily be bestowed on Bill Murray (search), a comedian whose funny, yet touching performance in “Lost in Translation” has won him nominations from virtually every other awards show and critics group in the country.

“What might serve him well is that when a comic actor does a serious role, it’s like a dramatic actor doing a deaf mute,” said Jim Piazza co-author of "The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar."

Thompson said one of the best examples of how the Academy thinks is when "E.T" was competing with "Gandhi" for the best picture Oscar in 1983. Despite groundbreaking special effects, a heartwarming story and multiple comic moments, "E.T" didn't stand a chance against the true tale of Gandhi's life.

“'E.T' could have starred a real alien from a real other planet and it would have lost to 'Gandhi,'” he said.

In the end, Piazza said, the Academy Awards’ stuffiness and pageantry is exactly what viewers love about the year's most-watched awards show.

“That’s part of the fun of it. It’s pretentious. They are like your sourpuss old grandmother living on Park Avenue.”