For months, Pete Docter and his team hustled toward a hard deadline. The Oscar-winning director of “Inside Out” and “Up” was supposed to be debuting his latest Pixar movie June 19. Now, he’s awfully glad he is not.
“If ‘Soul’ were opening in a month, I think I would be worrying a lot, and maybe weeping,” says Docter of his next release, now postponed to November, in which Jamie Foxx voices a man transported to a curious new realm. “I’m not sure people are ready to go back to theaters just yet. Hopefully soon.”
Until the nation’s pandemic-shuttered movie theaters do reopen, though, Docter is among the Hollywood filmmakers and performers who are highly aware of how much we are missing a vital entertainment ingredient: the uplift of communal laughter with a live audience.
This is no supreme sacrifice during a pandemic, to be sure. And many Americans sheltering in place are finding comedy where they can — whether on streaming services or social media, or by tuning in to late-night talk shows, suddenly lacking in live laughs.
Yet what we’ve lost is most of our in-person social bonding over humor as audience members in multiplexes, comedy clubs and theaters. And studies have shown that laughter can boost a sense of connection and that humor provides healthful benefits such as improving the immune system.
Laughter “really is best shared,” says Tom McCarthy, the Oscar-winning filmmaker whose work includes not only heart-wrenching drama (“Spotlight” and “The Visitor”) but also the new Disney+ live-action comedy “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” based on the Stephan Pastis kids’ book series.
“We are all looking for a catharsis,” McCarthy says while self-quarantining on Long Island.
Patton Oswalt, who is sheltering in Los Angeles, misses performing comedy, as well as sitting in the dark with strangers as an audience member. “Each crowd is its own separate sentient living thing,” he says, and without that experience, “you lose a check-in with humanity. You lose a reminder that: ‘OK, I’m connected to the planet — I’m connected to the present.’”
Then there’s the transformative effect on the art itself. “The work is different when you don’t hear a collective laugh,” says James L. Brooks, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News” and co-creator of “The Simpsons.”
While self-isolating in his Los Angeles home, Brooks says his entertainment diet has included classic comedies. One he cherishes is the 1941 Preston Sturges satire “Sullivan’s Travels,” in which chain-gang prisoners suddenly laugh uproariously at the Mickey Mouse animated short “Playful Pluto.” The slapstick cartoon is funny, but it is the collective guffaws of the inmates that lift the spirits of the title character — a director who ultimately decides to help the downtrodden by making comedic films.
“That is the greatest ending for a comedy ever,” Brooks says, because of a lasting truth: Humor can be therapeutic.
Docter, the chief creative officer of Pixar, says that early filmmakers, in both animation and live-action, understood how their movies were made to be seen with an audience.
Because such laughter is communal, Docter says, it becomes “a signal to each other of our own emotional state. If no one is there to receive the signal, why do it?” And though “we do laugh when alone,” he notes, “even then, I still feel I am connecting with a comic, an author or a memory.”
And because collective laughter collapses the psychological distance between people, it is especially missed in a time of social distancing.
Mike Farah, the chief executive officer of Funny or Die and producer of such films as “Between Two Ferns: The Movie,” says reverberating laughter can spark a unique form of psychological response. “The release and the energy — that’s what I miss most,” he says. “Sure, it can happen without other people. But you don’t feel it as deeply.”
McCarthy witnessed the power of therapeutic laughter while on the Broadway stage, for a 2001 production of Michael Frayn’s fun and farcical “Noises Off.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred on the second day of rehearsal. “They almost shut down the production,” McCarthy says, “because of what we were in — the trauma, the shock and disbelief.”
But the show went on, from rehearsal to opening several weeks later — the actors enticing the theatergoers to get lost in the contagious laughter. After each performance, fans at the stage door thanked the entertainers for the comedic relief.
On the level of personal tragedy, Oswalt says that after his first wife, Michelle McNamara, died in 2016, the healing comedy he gravitated toward was “the most absurd, nonsensical stuff” — such as “The Eric Andre Show” and the comedy duo Tim and Eric.
“I didn’t want narrative. I wanted silliness,” says the comedian, whose Netflix stand-up special “Patton Oswalt: I Love Everything” — which he calls “a respite from this insane grind that we’re stuck in” is streaming now.
Meanwhile, Docter has worked to deliver laughter as he adapts to California’s shelter-in-place orders. The Pixar building has been closed for 10 weeks, so production on “Soul” had to be wrapped at home — or rather, at hundreds of homes — as workers reviewed everything from effects to lighting. Creatively, Docter says, it felt “like a shift towards a meditation rather than a conversation.”
Docter says the sound mix for “Soul” should soon be completed with people meeting in person, after the state’s movement restrictions lift. And come November, “Soul” will be ready to lift spirits.
“I do know I’ve never laughed as much as I have when with friends or in a theater full of people,” Docter says, “and that even for we introverts, there is something therapeutic and filling about laughing together.”