Earlier this year, comedian Louis C.K produced, wrote and starred in Horace & Pete, an exposed to the bones 10 part web series that walked an exceedingly thin line between black comedy and raw drama. Quite unlike anything else in contemporary comedy, Horace & Pete took cues from improvisational theatre in the vein of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party (1977) as much as it did C.K's own stand-up routines, and was essentially presented to us as a minimalist take on filmed theatre. The series hybridized cinematic influences and C.K's work in television, with both traditional and abstract theatre techniques, resulting in an often uncomfortable style of comedy that feels both at once classical and postmodern.

It definitely is comedy, just not as we know it. Each scene plays out in real time, eschewing the chaos of the hyperkinetic sitcom format for something much more patient and rewarding. Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture noted that the series "Was more comfortable with silence than any TV show made during my lifetime" - a quote that got me thinking about how unconventional humour and alternative forms of comedy are depicted on screen, and, as C.K achieves in Horace and Pete, how certain filmmakers and scriptwriters can make us laugh without necessarily ever telling any jokes.

Perhaps C.K looked to the films of Jim Jarmusch for some kind of inspiration, with H&P exploring the same vein of unconventional humour that was prevalent throughout the director's early comedic phase. There are certainly observable parallels between the two, with Jarmusch's films being highly stylised in both their sparseness and the manner in which they make us laugh. The now iconic independent director of the rebellious Mystery Train (1989), the primitive Down By Law (1986) and today's focus film, the absurdist Stranger Than Paradise (1984) has, since the beginning of his career, demonstrated a keen sense of subversive humour, and at his unorthodox best is capable of making an audience howl with laughter without ever really knowing why.

Fig i: Stranger Than Paradise (1984): Dir - Jim Jarmusch

However, before delving into the murky waters of alternative and subversive comedy, how does one define 'conventional' filmed comedy? Though it may well be the lowest of the low hanging fruit, the much derided The Big Bang Theory provides us with the Yang to Jarmusch and C.K's Yin. The populist, simple, and easily digestible format comedy present in TBBT is about as conventional as it gets, though whether you actually find it funny or not would be the subject of an entirely different article. Each scene unfolds with a predetermined endpoint, usually a joke at the expense of a nerdy pastime, or the explanation of a social faux-pas to the clueless Sheldon, and if you struggle to identify the intended joke straight away, then the invasive canned laughter is there to handily let you know what is funny and what is not.

At the other end of the spectrum then, we would have a style of comedy wherein the jokes are ambiguous, the humour found in unlikely or unintended sources, and, as Seitz notes, the element of silence in abundance. Enter Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, a relatively quiet, slow-burning and disjointed tale of three people sat around not doing much at all, talking about nothing in particular, and never really doing anything that would make you laugh if you were to see it unfold in reality.

Despite this Stranger than Paradise is hilarious, you never really know why a character mixing up 'Hungary' and 'Hungry' draws a laugh, or why two men sat on a bed drinking beer in silence happens to be funny, but you'll laugh nonetheless. And herein lies the genius of Jarmusch's early comedic work. One scene that best encapsulates this idea sees self-identifying 'hipster' Willie (Jon Lurie) attempting to tell a joke to his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint). Willie repeatedly fumbles the set-up, mincing his words and forgetting key components, before abandoning it altogether but insisting it's a good joke regardless. We never find out the punchline, and Eva simply rolls her eyes and smokes a cigarette.

Fig ii: One of the many instances of Willie and Eddie sitting around doing absolutely nothing.

Here we are privy to the basic premise of Jarmusch's sense of humour as he finds a solid laugh in the literal complete opposition to joke based comedy. On top of this, the style in which the director presents this deconstruction adds a further layer of subversive fun. Dragging out the scene far longer than most would, Jarmusch cuts to black long after Willie's failure to tell the joke, and we watch as the pair sit in silence for what seems like an age.

Jarmusch rarely tells us when to laugh, if at all, and rather than drawing laughs from set-up and punchline based humour, he finds it in the erraticism of the form, and the exploitation of what we perceive 'comedy' to be. He utilises the cinematic form, editing and established preconceptions and takes the scenic route to an eventual laugh. As unfamiliar and oblique as this style of comedy is, it is nonetheless comedy, and even the characters themselves find the scenario somewhat humorous. Though perhaps funniest of all, is just how pointless the whole thing is.

Fig iii

Fig iv: The film beginning and ending in a near identical manner, establishing the cycle of absurdity that defines it.

Absurdism is the philosophical perspective that addresses the conflict between humanity's attempts to find meaning in life, and the quite funny idea that we never actually will. As sentient, creative, expressive beings we will always seek to find inherent value in absolutely everything, but the absurd pertains to the fact that some things just aren't inherently meaningful, and our exhaustive search for meaning is simply that, exhaustive.

Stranger than Paradise is an absurdist comedy in the sense that, above all else, it is massively and unashamedly pointless. The characters sit around not talking about anything of importance and the unconventional humour of the film lies in its messed up jokes, simple wordplay, extended silence and strange edits. But perhaps more than anything, the joke is on the viewer.

Did I spend this week watching Stranger than Paradise four times in an attempt to deconstruct its style of humour? Yes I did. Did I spend a few days writing a thousand words on the value of the film's abstract approach to comedy? Yes I did. And did I eventually come to the decision that, though it may be an experimental and highly unorthodox comedic formula, the funniest element of the film is actually its inherent pointlessness? Absolutely.

For all its subversive stylistic elements, its renegade approach to humour, and its nonconformist, alternative comedic format, Stranger than Paradise is ultimately a film about the inherent pointlessness in the search for meaning. When the film ends near exactly how it begins (figs iii & iv), the cycle starts all over again, and we are thrust back into Jarmusch's world of the remarkably unremarkable. If by some chance he were to ever read this, he may laugh himself at the utter absurdity of me trying to dissect his sense of humour and find meaning and value in a film that considers the search for meaning and value ridiculous. So where Willie fumbled his joke, Jarmusch absolutely nails his. Stranger than Paradise is the joke, one big hour-and-a-half long set up, with articles like this being the long-running Jim Jarmusch serving punchline.