Friday, November 17, 2006

TRAGEDY TOMORROW, COMEDY TONIGHT

Jim Emerson has had a virtual comedy symposium going on over at Scanners for a couple of weeks, sparked perhaps by Borat, but also by some general musings about why some movies or comedy bits or actors make us laugh and some don’t make us laugh, perhaps as mysterious a subject as there is in a consideration of the movies. Sometimes laughter seems inexplicable; something will strike you funny, and perhaps your reaction to it might seem oversized, given the amount of energy to get the laugh in the first place—I think of just about any expression that comes across the face of bulldog character actor Eugene Pallette and am likely to split a seam laughing, though you’ll never catch Pallette working too hard for that result. But even when you think you don’t really “know” why some bit or a line hits you just right, if you think about it (and it doesn’t diminish the comedy if you do), you could probably figure it out.

Or as Jim put it, “There are those who say... that to analyze comedy is anti-comedic. I could not disagree more strongly. I say if you don't understand why you're laughing, when you're laughing, then you don't appreciate the comedy and you may as well not be laughing at all, since any old reaction is probably comparably appropriate for you. You could be crying or sneezing and it's probably the same thing." I generally agree with this premise. But I also think that when you’re in the presence of greatness, as you usually are when you’re watching Catherine O’Hara do just about anything, but particularly when she inhabits her wobbly chanteuse Lola Heatherton on the old SCTV series, sometimes it is enough to just be in the presence and let the laughs wash over you like a wave, or prick you like a flowery cactus. Really great character comedy of the caliber that O’Hara achieved with this particular creation isn’t comprised of jokes, it’s comprised of observation, of slightly exaggerated reality, of recognizable human foibles—vanity, overreaching ambition, foolishness—woven into a fabric that only has to be touched to give up some of the treasures it has to offer.

One of the things going on at Jim’s site is his open request for titles of movies (the more obscure or underrated the better) that make you weep with laughter, and as you might expect, such a request has already been met with a boatload of enthusiastic responses. Jim offered his own, setting a restriction of five films, which he then broke by citing six:

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

The President's Analyst (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967)

Taking Off (Milos Forman, 1971)

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Bruce Robinson, 1989)

Coldblooded (Wallace Wolodarsky, 1995)

Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (Kelly Makin, 1996)

When I responded to his request, I took it a step further and cited seven, and that after ruthlessly hacking my original list down from 19, which itself is still leaving off about 583 other qualified candidates. What follows is my response to Jim’s request for a personal list of real laughers, augmented by the 12 other picks that I left off in an attempt to at least appear to be playing by Jim’s rules. As the wise guy once said, dying is easy, comedy is hard… and whittling down a list of comedy favorites to five choices may be even harder. Here’s my list, in alphabetical order:

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The Big Lebowski (1998; Joel and Ethan Coen) It got some of the most indifferent reviews of the Coen Brothers’ career, coming directly after Fargo, but this is actually one of their most intricately written, robustly performed movies and certainly their funniest. One gasping-for-breath highlight is Walter’s observation regarding one of his cultural heroes—

Walter: Have you ever heard of a little show called Branded, dude? “All but one man died there at bitter creek”?

Dude: Yeah, I know the fucking show, Walter. So what?

Walter: Fucking Arthur Digby Sellers wrote 156 episodes, Dude.”

Dude: Uh-huh.

Walter: The bulk of the series.

Dude: Uh-huh.

Walter: Not exactly a lightweight.

Dude: No.

Walter (slight pause): Yet his son is a fucking dunce. Go figure.


Blazing Saddles (1974; Mel Brooks) There were a couple of Woody Allen comedies I saw (Bananas, Sleeper) before I was exposed to Blazing Saddles, but Brooks’ western send-up was the first movie that made me howl and gasp and clutch my sides for almost a full 90 minutes. Several people in my high school approached me the day after I saw it at the hometown movie house and said, “Hey, I heard you at the movies last night!” So of course I had to see it again that very evening. I’d did it for Randolph Scott, but most of all I did it because it felt so good. Mongo punching the horse, the “Rock Ridge” musical montage that introduces us to the town, and, of course, the campfire scene are all classics, but the line that made me laugh the hardest when I saw it last year was Sheriff Bart’s plea to the townspeople to stick by him and recognize that evil Hedley Lamarr’s imminent assault on their town might just be a signal that the villain is at the end of his rope:

Bart: Folks, can’t you see that this is the last act of a desperate man?

Howard Johnson: We don’t care if it’s the first act of Henry V. We’re leaving!


Now, that’s comedy!

Buffet Froid (1979; Bertrand Blier) Blier’s surreal urban landscape of alienation, in which Gerard Depardieu finds himself involved in an escalating series of senseless murders, just gets odder and odder as it goes along. But each gasp of horror expelled by Depardieu’s Alphonse Tram finds its opposite in my equally perplexed fits of giggles, until the film finally sucks both Tram and the audience down the rabbit hole altogether.

Cold Turkey (1970; Bud Yorkin) Speaking of escalating madness, how about the poor, nicotine-addicted citizens of Eagle Rock, Iowa, who become the focus of a Big Tobacco publicity stunt—if they can quit smoking for one month, they’ll win $25 million. The comedy is rooted in sharp, mean character observation and packed with hilarious moments courtesy of a who’s-who comedy cast that includes Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Bob and Ray, Jean Stapleton, Graham Jarvis and a host of others.

Dumb and Dumber (1994; Peter and Bobby Farrelly) “That John Denver was full of shit!”






Horsefeathers (1933; Norman Z. Macleod) My introduction to Groucho, Chico, Harpo and, yes, Zeppo, came on a rainy Saturday afternoon airing of this classic on TV. For some reason I decided to tape the audio on my cassette recorder, so to this day there is somewhere in a box in my closet a recording of me howling like a maniac when Harpo, driving Professor Wagstaff around the first of many bends, proves he can burn the candle at both ends...

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949; Robert Hamer) The term “black comedy” gets tossed around a lot to describe various gross-outs and over-the-top assault exercises these days. But this Ealing Studios effort, as purposefully genteel in appearance as the smooth surfaces of British codes of behavior that often serve to hide the most ghastly attitudes, is as pitch-black as any ever made. We’re seduced into sympathizing with the film’s narrator (Dennis Price), a murderer who commits his crimes out of a sense of thwarted entitlement, and when the movie delivers its final twist, it’s bone-chilling and hilarious.

The Lady Eve (1941; Preston Sturges) There aren’t many movies, comedies or otherwise, I might be tempted to describe as perfect, but this would be one of them. Perhaps Preston Sturges’ finest hour, this is an essential example of the screwball comedy. Barbara Stanwyck would never be sexier, and who knew Henry Fonda could take a fall like that?

Local Hero (1983; Bill Forsyth) As has been asked more than once on this blog, what ever happened to Bill Forsyth? The man has virtually dropped off the map, and yet he practically redefined “whimsical” and made the whole idea of whimsy palatable again in a very non-whimsical time (the ‘80s) through a series of delightful, off-kilter, minor-key comedies. And Local Hero is the best of them. No other movie I can think of has made me laugh so hard, made a remote place on Earth (the Scottish coast) seem more beautiful than is possible, and then broken my heart with wistful longing so thoroughly. (See also Comfort and Joy.)

The Man With Two Brains (1983; Carl Reiner) For some, it's The Jerk ("It's him! It's him! What's him doing here?!"). But for me the apex of Steve Martin's career in comedy cinema came with this giddy marvel ("Clamp... Metzenbaum scissors... Somebody get that cat outta here...") in which, among other things, the eternal mystery of Merv Griffin is finally solved.




Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983; Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) The Circus's most caustic movie. More laughs per minute in this one than any of their other comedies, by my jolly estimation, and worth mentioning if only for the cut to Terry Jones (in drag) washing dishes in a dreary Yorkshire kitchen as another in a seemingly endless series of newborn babies drops unceremoniously, and barely acknowledged, from under her dress and onto the floor… leading, of course, into “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978; John Landis) Aside from its uncanny ability to populate its well-observed locations with unusually authentic and riotously funny “atmospheric background casting,” this movie is the rare beast that actually seems to get funnier with each passing year. Personal highlights: Dean Wormer trying to unravel a phone cord from his deliriously drunken wife’s thigh; and the title card “Greg Marmalard ‘63, Nixon White House Aide, Raped in Prison ‘74." The last true blooming of the uncut Lampoon spirit before it gave way to the Griswold family, grisly sentimentality, and an unfortunately resilient reputation for bad movie comedy.

A New Leaf (1971; Elaine May) Cut from the same cloth as Kind Hearts and Coronets (but, unlike that film, not quite able to see the grimmest strand of its storyline through to the bitter end, courtesy of studio interference), this nearly forgotten comedy is an oddball treasure. A spoiled trust-fund ne’er-do-well (Walter Matthau) is staring down the possibility of his money teat drying up, so he convinces a clumsy, ugly-duckling botanist (May), who happens to be super-wealthy, that he loves her, all the while planning to kill her and steal her fortune. The movie is anything but smooth sailing, narratively speaking (It was taken away from May and recut before release), but it’s still a marvel to behold these two great comedic performances wringing laughs out of humiliation, horror and maybe even true love. (I doubt we’ll ever see the movie May wanted to show us, but I still hope there’s a future on DVD for this one, even just the theatrical version.)

1941 (1979; Steven Spielberg) One of the great symbols of wretched excess in film history is actually a gargantuan comedy that still has room for the occasional light touch-- John Williams’ orchestral pixie dust that accompanies the puffs of smoke emanating from John Belushi’s stogie, for example. 1941 is the most unruly movie Spielberg, who directed from a script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, has ever made, and given that unruliness, it has some of the most amazing comic set pieces ever staged—the U.S.O. dance, the attack on Hollywood Boulevard, the systematic destruction of Ned Beatty’s impossibly located seaside home. And it’s so crammed with terrific actors doing hilarious things—Belushi, Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, John Candy, et al, that I can barely think of it without at least smiling. The big laughs come when I watch it, as I anticipate doing again and again. (For another great Zemeckis/Gale contribution to pitch-black comedy, see Used Cars.)

One Two Three (1961; Billy Wilder) "Those East Germans’ll be on you like the hot breath of the Cossacks!" So will this movie. Cagney’s breathless blowhard, a Coca-Cola magnate who straddles the Berlin Wall in an attempt to keep his boss's daughter from dallying on the Communist side with a handsome Bolshevik, sets the pace for what may be the most ruthlessly rapid-fire comedy ever made.

Richard Pryor Live In Concert (1979; Jeff Margolis) I’m not sure what I was expecting when I wandered into this movie during my sophomore year in college, but what I nearly got was cardiac arrest from laughing, the real fear of which was intensified by Pryor’s agonizingly funny re-creation of his own heart attack (His pained whimpering gets this response from his angry organ as it applies yet another horrendous squeeze: “Shoulda thought about that when you was eatin’ all that pork!”) A brilliant performance. I honestly fear for my own life whenever I watch this movie.

Rock-A-Bye Bear (1952; Tex Avery) More laughs per square inch and second of running time (seven minutes) than any movie I’ve ever seen. This Tex Avery MGM cartoon features Spike the bulldog getting a job guarding the winter home of the world’s most noise-sensitive hibernating bear. Heart-stopping, liver-collapsing, lung-shattering, eyeball-exploding laughter ensues. You may not make it out the other end alive. I didn’t.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999; Trey Parker) The movie that’s bold enough to ask: “What the fuck is wrong with German people?” Screamingly hilarious satire that leaves no sacred cow unbutchered. Leatherface had nothing on the slash-and-burn tactics of this movie. David Edelstein accurately described it as this generation’s Duck Soup.

Tanner ‘88 (1988; Robert Altman) Altman fans and political junkies know how hilarious this movie is, and there’s hardly a “joke” in it. But this is a hilarious movie. What seemed daring and mind-boggling in 1988 still seems daring and mind-boggling, but looking at the movie from the perspective of six years of the Bush administration, and a through-the-wrong-end-of-the looking-glass view of America before 9/11, the laughs tend to stick in the throat a little more than they did before. Even so, this is perhaps the greatest instance of Altman’s wizardly ability (helped along considerably by Garry Trudeau’s writing) to tease consistent laughter not out of situations, but out of the simple (and incredibly complex) way humans—politicos or no—communicate and interact and bludgeon each other with propaganda and disinformation. And have Pamela Reed or Michael Murphy ever been this good?

So, what movie comedies would make your list?

12 comments:

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Excellent list, Dennis. I'll see you those and raise you:

His Girl Friday
To Be or Not To Be (the original one)
Take The Money and Run
The Dinner Game.
Duck Soup.
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
Office Space
The Producers (the original one).
Bad Santa
Wag The Dog
Liar, Liar
The Circus
One Week
Ninotchka
Stripes
A Christmas Story
Trial and Error
Beavis and Butthead Do America

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

And STRANGELOVE. How could I leave that off?'

And A FISH CALLED WANDA!

Ken Rasak said...

I am glad you noted "A New Leaf" and "The Lady Eve." Those are two that would've definitely made my list. I would also have included Peter Sellers in Blake Edwards' "A Shot in the Dark," which contains a hilarious billards scene with the droll George Sanders.

Brian said...

My favorite Marx Brothers comedy is HORSE FEATHERS and my favorite Python film THE MEANING OF LIFE. THE LADY EVE is some kind of perfection, but for Sturges I actually slightly prefer his perhaps more ragged stuff like CHRISTMAS IN JULY and SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

This seems as good a time as any for me to plug a new religion a friend of mine just started (well, maybe he didn't really start anything, but I think he's the first to formalize it in a website):

http://www.dudeism.com/

Joseph B. said...

The Big Lebowski probably tops my list... I've watched that movie more in the last 8 years than I think any other movie... plus I'd rank "Dr Strangelove", "Bob Roberts", "Bull Durham" (we've got a new nickname for him... pokey), "Supertroopers", and of course "Blazing Saddles"

Cruzbomb said...

Animal House?

I damn well know why you love this one, you self-appreciating bastard. Though I do like to appreciate you too every now and again.

Robert said...

Thank you, Dennis, for mentioning COLD TURKEY... it's criminal that it's not out on disc yet.

Some of my favorites:

Pee Wee's Big Adventure (the 'Large Marge' sequence had me laughing for 5 minutes nonstop)

Caddyshack

Scotland, PA

Dill Scallion (the SPINAL TAP of Country Music)

The Magic Christian (but only for misanthropes)

The American Astronaut

Delon said...

Been doing this d.i.c. list with friends for weeks now, and THANK you for mentioning 1941...hadn't come up yet, and frigging great.

Otherwise, not mentioned that I would add:
Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
The Producers
Bananas
Blues Brothers
S.O.B.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
Bachelor Party
Trading Places
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Pootie Tang

and how bout some love for John Landis: Animal House, Kentucky Fried Movie, Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Coming To America, Spies LIke Us, Three Amigos...he had a great stretch.

and then, of course, Mystery Science Theater belongs in a class all its own...

Alex said...

I'll take your One, Two, Three and top it with a Kiss Me, Stupid.

Lord Love a Duck
Heaven Can Wait
Son of Paleface
The Nutty Professor
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
(yes, I'm a Tash fan)
The Story of a Cheat

Dr. Criddle said...

I'm definatley with you on The Producers, Dr. Strangelove, The Big Lebowski, Local Hero, and all things Marx Brothers, Monty Python, and Woody Allen. Also:

Harold and Maude
Bedazzled (1967)
Sullivan's Travels
American Movie
It's A Gift
The Rutles: All You Need is Cash
Tampopo
A Night at the Opera

Dustin DeWind said...

I know you were trying to be concise, but that isn't the plot of 1,2,3. Cagney is trying to keep the daughter of his boss, the President of Coke, from marrying a Bolshy from East Berlin. Failing that, making the Bolshy into a baron.

I second Kiss Me, Stupid. Looks like a typical sex farce, but with a difference. Makes me gasp when I realize, yes, they are really going to do that...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

DDW: You're absolutely right. Consider that rather big gaffe fixed!