Interestingly enough, it is much harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry.
Comedies—with a tough row to hoe given that opening fact—have been mainstays of filmmaking from the earliest hand-cranked camera days, however.
What passed back then for comic moments on film comprised relatively unsophisticated slapstick vignettes of now-tired visual clichés: the “comic” chase scene; slipping on a banana peel; a pie in the face; an innocent bystander’s taking an accidental konk on the head from an oblivious worker shouldering a lengthy two-by-four.
The comedic shorts of Mack Sennett’s “Keystone Kops”, almost all of Charlie Chaplin’s movies, and the cliff-hanging antics of physical-comedian wunderkind Harold Lloyd all relied on pratfalls as the basis for their humor.
Most of these early efforts, while funny within the context of their time, have not aged well though many are still amusing and are considered pioneering efforts in filmmaking (Sennett’s camera techniques, Chaplin’s “storytelling” and character development, Lloyd’s derring-do in his stunt work).
When silent films, and their broad physical comedy, gave way to sound motion pictures audiences came to appreciate the more cerebral humor offered by on-screen verbal jesting/jousting. A keystone of good comedy is timing of shtick: sound made possible capturing that intangible variable. And none had better timing with a wry or sardonic take on a situation than the incomparable Groucho Marx. The films made by his brothers and him rank as classics, not only in the comedy genre but in motion picture history overall as well.
Like run-of-the-mill dramas and big-budget action/adventure films, there are many popular comedies made yearly, with some years being much worse than others (such as 2008: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and Pineapple Express, all totally unfunny, though lucrative).
Bad comedies probably comprise the worst films of any time frame: the coming-of-age, got-to-go-to-the-big-party “teen” movie (filled with lame sex, supposedly funny drug references, and other shenanigans some idiot filmmaker thinks is clever); the “buddy” film (as in The Hangover franchise); or the crummy ensemble, barely there, concept of all the Police Academy movies.
Good comedies—such as the rom-com When Harry Met Sally (1989), the sincerely disjointedly goofy Caddyshack (1980), or the funny horror of Ghostbusters (1984)—are clever, well-written, and well-acted. Good comedies stand out among the dreck, and there are many.
Great comedies, on the other hand, are rare. They can be easily differentiated from their lesser brethren; the tell, mostly, is in the writing. Are the one-liners and comedic set-ups truly funny or merely pandering (as in making flavor-of-the-minute jokes or sex jokes for no reason when such humor may not further the film’s premise nor add depth or pathos to a character)?
The ones that manage to overcome that lowest-common-denominator appeal and reach a desirable level of quality dwell in the collective psyche well after their initial runs. These films are durable because of their acting, excellent joke writing and set-ups, and their character development. Many of their best gags and wordplay are quoted as meaningful and of-the-moment, even finding ways into common parlance.
The following chronological ordering isn’t a ranking of favorite comedies (which is why Happy Gilmore—funny, but not great—or Stripes—mildly amusing, but also not great—aren’t here). This is a batch of truly great, fall-down-funny comedies of the modern era. They are smart, made by sharp people who know a good joke and who clearly understand humor.
Here you’ll meet a black sheriff in the American Old West; Arthur, King of the Britons; a naive simpleton; a rockin’ band with problems; a white trash Odysseus; a team of anti-terrorist mercenaries; a middle-aged man who can’t make it with the ladies; and a babe-in-the-woods foreign tourist.
If your “favorite” isn’t here, go watch another Porky’s or American Pie movie—what follows is brilliance, not tripe!
“No, gol’ dang it, dang blum it! The new sheriff is a ni—”
In the early 1970s, race issues and racism were hot-button topics in America. On the small screen the subject of racism was handled (or mishandled) by actor Carroll O’Connor’s working class slob, Archie Bunker, in the classic American sitcom, All in the Family.
The big screen, though, barely touched on the subject (unless you want to count blaxploitation films like Shaft or Scream, Blacula, Scream as vanguards of race sensitivity.)
It took a Jewish comedian to really bring racism into the light of day for what it was: a silly, malicious waste of time. That guy was Mel Brooks. And his take on racism (with some writing help from stand-up comic, Richard Pryor) was immortalized in a Western comedy, Blazing Saddles.
The film starred Cleavon Little (d: 1992) as Bart, a black railroad worker in post-Civil War American West. It is discovered that, thanks to an unavoidable quicksand patch, the rail line on which Bart is working must be diverted to go right through Rock Ridge, a small, typical, late-19th Century Western town filled with WASP-y people. A corrupt state politician wants the Rock Ridge land for cheap so he can make a fortune selling it for right-of-way to the approaching railroad. To do that, he needs to rid the town of its citizens.
He first tries using thugs and criminal types to drive them off. This doesn’t work. Then, Bart, the ex-railroad worker (just as he is about to be hanged for striking a white man) is appointed as the new sheriff of Rock Ridge. The idea here is that the “good” people of Rock Ridge will be so incensed about the new black sheriff’s presence they will abandon the town, leaving it wide open for the politician to move in and grab up the land. Either that or they will kill him, thus creating a civil strife issue wherein a move can be made on the town.
The town’s denizens are all named Johnson (there’s even a Howard Johnson; in the cantankerous prospector role is a grubby townsman named “Gabby” Johnson). When Sheriff Bart hits town, the “good” folk there are taken aback by this black man in their midst.
This movie’s jokes are sharp, and over its course hilarious anachronisms abound. For example, a pair of Klansmen can be seen wearing the iconic yellow-and-black “Have a Nice Day” happy face on the backs of their late-19th Century white robes. References to other movies are put in the dialog for fun.
And there are musical numbers, too. The townspeople croon a little lament early in the film about how the town is going down the drain thanks to the hired thugs sent in to torment them. Madeline Kahn (in her role as a Bavarian songstress, Lili von Shtupp (!), billed as “The Teutonic Titwillow”) sings a song about being tired of men.
Most notable, though, is the great Frankie Laine’s take on the film’s theme song, “Blazing Saddles”. In an anniversary edition of the DVD Mel Brooks noted in the bonus features that Laine was approached to do the song without being told what the movie was about. [He only knew it was a Western, that’s about it.] Since Western movie songs were part of his body of work (“High Noon”, among others) he readily agreed to do it.
He gave his all on that recording, and the sincerity is clear in his voice. He also did it live, giving very emotionally charged performances. Until he finally saw the movie: then, he distanced himself from the song.
The movie breaks the fourth wall in a few places, most notably in its final scenes in a non-sequitured, surreal finale that, among other things, features a gay chorus line singing a tune called “The French Mistake”.
In the end, Sheriff Bart saves the town of Rock Ridge, and the people all come to (mostly) realize that racism is wrong.
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In the realm of totally lunatic comedies none transcends the sheer silliness combined with screwball non-sequiturs better than the granddaddy of all parodies, 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. [For the fetus-y reader, “Monty Python” was the name of a mid- to late-20th Century British comedy troupe and was not the name of any one person. The group had a classic, groundbreaking British TV show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran from 1969 to 1974.]
This movie was made in the wake of their first one, And Now for Something Completely Different (which was really nothing more than a series of comedic sketches performed by the Python guys). [It was financed by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy juggernaut; it did fairly well in the UK for very little cash outlay. Its intent, though, was to help bring the Python brand to the attention of Americans—the movie was not successful in the US.]
For their next outing the Python fellers wanted something more epic with a narrative, a complete story with a beginning, middle, and an end. They chose a retelling of the Arthurian legend with their particular twist on events.
Its opening scene sets the silly tone for the whole film. King Arthur (played by Graham Chapman of the Python group) emerges from a mist on the heath accompanied by the sound of hoof beats. Immediately you notice he is pantomiming riding a horse, with his hand raised as if holding reins, and “galloping” with his legs as a child does when using a stick horse.
The hoof beats? The sound is made by his squire, Patsy, who “rides” behind Arthur clacking a pair of coconut shells together. This old Foley artist sound trick is hilarious! It is also the basis for a few plot developments. [And use of the clacking coconut shells, instead of real horses, was a cost-cutting measure. The film’s budget was very low, only $400,000 (around $3 million today). They simply couldn’t afford the care and maintenance of animals, going so far as to borrow a white rabbit from a local woman for the “killer rabbit” scene.]
Scene after scene pushes the envelope of comedy further than ever before presented on-screen. Arthur’s hilarious battle with The Black Knight (which includes much smack talk), a knight’s encounter in Castle Anthrax (occupied only by young, “virginal” women), and the crusaders’ comically terrifying encounter with The Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ (a syllable whose utterance causes severe distress to those who hear it) among many others can stand alone as “episodes” within the film.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail contains musical numbers, great visual and verbal gags, running jokes, and a true surprise of an ending.
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“You mean I’m gonna stay this color?”
Steve Martin had already established himself as America’s, and perhaps the world’s, main celebrity stand-up comic by the late 1970s. He had carved a niche for himself with great one-liners, small stories with funny endings, and theater-of-the-absurd type bits (such as doing a comedy routine for a small audience consisting of dogs). He was a favored talk show guest and host of Saturday Night Live. He’d even written a book, Cruel Shoes, which consisted of several, mostly one- to two-page, comedic musings.
He was a household name, and some of his catchphrases from his stand-up (“Excuuuuuuse meeeeee!”, “Because I am a wild and crazy guy!”) passed into everyday usage.
Perhaps wanting to stretch he took on acting with 1979’s comedy-gold classic, The Jerk. The title alone is funny. In a late-night, talk-show interview Steve said the title came from simply thinking about what kind of person the central character in the movie was, and claimed that he thought it was something that even the Judeo-Christian god might use as an appellation for such a person: “What a jerk!”
This film opens with a grubby, slow-speaking Navin R. Johnson (the character Steve Martin portrays) obviously living, homeless, on the street talking to the camera. He is engaged in a one-sided conversation with an unseen party: “I’m not a bum; I’m a jerk . . . my story? . . . I was born a poor black child . . .” The movie is then told mostly in flashback form.
We see a younger Navin, very Caucasian, living in a ramshackle Mississippi sharecropper’s hovel with a large African-American family. He calls the adults “Mom” and “Dad”, and he has several brothers and sisters. He knows this is his family; yet, something is wrong (and the crocodile tears streaming down his face clearly register his angst):
His adventures along the way are uproarious. He gets a job first at a gas station, then at a carnival. His first experience with the opposite sex is with a tough-acting carny, a female daredevil motorcyclist. He then meets a “nice” girl, Marie (played adorably by Bernadette Peters with whom Martin had a romantic relationship at the time).
During his brief employment at the gas station Navin met a customer, a businessman who was having trouble keeping his eyeglasses from sliding off his face. The man holds out his glasses and rhetorically states, “Damn these glasses, son!” Navin, pointing a rebuking finger at the glasses, says, “Yes, sir! ‘I damn thee’!” He then takes the man’s glasses into the station’s automotive service bay and returns a bit later having affixed a handle to the bridge of the glasses that anchors the frame securely to the nose while giving the wearer something to hold when putting on or taking them off.
While Navin later struggles to find his place in the world with Marie the businessman takes Navin’s eyeglasses gizmo and manufactures it to great success. Called the “Opti-Grab”, it makes Navin (who was given 50% of the revenue generated from sales for the device) into a millionaire overnight.
He and Marie subsequently embark on the most mirthful white-trash spending spree ever filmed. Their nouveau riche tastes are questionable as is their attempts to fit in with a more cultured society. In an upscale restaurant, for example, Navin is incensed when he sees a plate delivered to Marie (who had ordered escargots) with snails on it!
Many big comedic moments are here as well as some throwaway jokes (such as this gem):
Navin: You know, you have beautiful skin . . . Amazing. Are you a model?
Marie: No. I’m a cosmetologist.
Navin: Really? A cosmetologist? That’s unbelievable! That’s impressive! It must be tough to handle weightlessness!
The Opti-Grab, however, proves to be a loser for Navin—its users (most notably film director, Carl Reiner, appearing as himself) are all becoming cross-eyed. The placement of the Opti-Grab on any pair of glasses, it seems, is a visual magnet, hypnotically forcing people to gaze inward at their noses, rendering them permanently cock-eyed. A class-action suit against Navin finds him having to issue refunds to all buyers.
Broke, Navin is forced to leave his new palatial home, taking only those things he thinks he needs (a paddle-ball game, an ashtray, a remote control unit, a thermos, etc.). He ends up a street person.
But all is not lost. As he had been sending money home to his family in Mississippi from the time of his first job, his dad invested the funds and now his formerly poor black family is rich. They even built a bigger house (and in one of the movie’s funniest visual gags we see the new house is literally that: a scaled-up version of the exact same shack!)
This rags-to-riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches comedy ranks highly in any published “top” or “funniest” list of all time. The film was written by Martin (with two co-writers) and directed by Carl Reiner—both produced terrific moments of genius in this hilariously absurd Everyman’s story.
“These go to eleven!”
The subject is a hard-rock band in its latter years struggling to stay relevant and to keep rockin’. 1984’s This is Spinal Tap (when properly printed it is missing the dot over the letter “i” and has a heavy-metal looking umlaut over the “n” in “spinal”, which I couldn’t make stick in MS Word here) is the funniest movie about a fake band ever made.
Michael McKean (formerly “Lenny” from American TV’s mid 1970s’ sitcom, Laverne & Shirley) is Spinal Tap’s lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter, David St. Hubbins. [We learn in the film that the little-known saint, Hubbins, was the patron saint of quality footwear.]
Christopher Guest (now Lord Christopher Guest, thank you very much), a British actor, featured on Saturday Night Live (one year, 1984-85). He is the lead guitarist, songwriter, and resident dimbulb, Nigel Tufnel.
Rounding out the main force is actor Harry Shearer, best known for his voice on Fox TV’s long running animated sitcom, The Simpsons (he gives vocal life to Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, and many others). Harry is the bassist, Derek Smalls.
The movie is done up in documentary style, which director and narrator Rob Reiner describes as a “rockumentary”, about the band. The jokes are subtle and many. Straightaway, Reiner talks about Tap as not only the loudest band in music but also the most punctual.
The film revolves around the band’s US Tour (a sort of comeback, though in their minds they never really went away) to promote their new album, Smell the Glove. After the group’s management received complaints about what would have been a very sexist album cover (and the parody here about any metal-band album cover of the early Eighties is obvious) someone makes the decision to release the record with a plain black cover with no graphics. [Metallica would steal the Tap idea for their eponymous 1991 album, now known informally as “The Black Album”.]
In discussing the look of their new disc the band created a meme: a casual remark by Nigel Tufnel about how black the cover is came out as “None more black.” This phrase became part of pop culture as did many others from the film, particularly this one about the band’s modified amps (so they can be “one louder”):
This mockumentary follows Tap as they suffer a meltdown. Nigel quits as their tour dates keep getting canceled, and they’re forced to play downscale venues. In the wake of his departure the rest of the band forge ahead as a re-imagined jazz-rock fusion called Spinal Tap Mach II.
Tap can’t keep drummers—all have succumbed to accidental deaths. In one exchange, it was noted one drummer choked on vomit, though it was never actually established that it was his vomit. Another drummer died in what was called a “bizarre gardening accident”. [At the film’s closing credits on-screen you see their latest drummer spontaneously explode in a puff of smoke onstage.]
In the end, Nigel Tufnel comes back and the band reunites to find they are having huge success—in Japan!—with a “sophisticated” take on love called “Sex Farm”.
The actors who portray Tap can all play instruments and sing. Their performances are genuine. They have even cut some discs (This is Spinal Tap, 1984; Break Like the Wind, 1992; and Back From the Dead, 2009). These are real, full-length sets you can buy (I own the first two myself) and the songs are funny: “Big Bottom”; “Hell Hole”, “Bitch School”, they can all make you chuckle.
For anyone who’s ever toured with a band Tap’s road issues are not only amusing but probably strike very close to home. Again, I say, this is the best movie ever, comedy or otherwise, about a fake band. [Much better than Spice World, 1997’s not-so-funny movie about another fake group.]
“Yer my sister!”
Yeah, you don’t want to hear it, but listen up: 2001’s Joe Dirt, starring David Spade in the title anti-heroic role, is comedy platinum!
This film is a millennial version of The Jerk. It follows the adventures of a sad-sack, white trash Everyman named Joe Dirt as he searches for his birth parents to find out why they abandoned him as a child at the Grand Canyon while on vacation.
Oh, and Joe Dirt has another problem: when he was born, his skull was unformed and his mother plunked a longish, blond, woman’s wig on his head to cover it. Over time his skull and scalp fused into the wig material and it’s now stuck on his head. In the intervening years, Dirt cut his wig into a mullet, and that is how we see him when he first appears in the movie, driving a beater car, with razored longish sideburns and that horrific, dated mullet. [“Business in the front; party in the back!”]
Dirt has a janitorial job at a radio station and one day he gets corralled by a radio talk show host (played snarkily by Dennis Miller). He is having a slow day on-air and he talks Joe Dirt into giving his life story for broadcast. Dirt does, and the movie takes off from there in a series of flashbacks interlaced with the present.
David Spade plays Joe Dirt to the white trashiest hilt, but you can’t help but like the guy. He’s pathetic in many ways but is loyal and carries his own personal code of honor. He is a horrible braggart which gets him into trouble, and he also carries a false sense of bravado.
He finds a great town in which to live and meets a wonderful girl, but a local muscle-car drivin’ bully, played smarmily enough by Kid Rock, interferes with Dirt’s plans time and again.
Because he is a wannabe gearhead, Joe Dirt’s ultimate goal is to own a specific sweet ride and he finds such a car only to lose out on it when he is suddenly carried away in a hot air balloon. Afterward, he meets up with an ex-Mob guy in witness protection (played for terrific laughs by Christopher Walken, who almost seems to be doing a parody of himself). He finds some other friends: an Indian who wants to sell fireworks; a woman who runs an alligator farm; another girl whom Joe Dirt—after having sex with her—thinks might be his sister (!). [Spoiler alert: she’s not.]
The juvenile exchanges between Dirt and Kid Rock’s punk-ass white trash thug are funny. Rock, tormenting Dirt, asks him if he’s going to cry: “You want me to call you a wahhhh-mbulance?” and “You want some French cries with your wahhhh-mburger?”
Dirt’s travels finally lead him to his parents; he finds that they are complete white trash losers with whom he wants no part. He ends up with the girl he was crazy about, gets his classic car back, and shows up Kid Rock. He also has his wig hair done up in dreads (to keep up with the times).
David Spade and comedian Fred Wolf (a writer for Saturday Night Live for several years as well as a performer there) crafted a brilliantly funny and, yet, sympathetic character in Joe Dirt. The one-liners are excellent, and the take on Christopher Walken’s character is hysterical. There is also a howlingly funny reference to Silence of the Lambs:
“It puts the Joe Dirt in the hole!”—it don’t git no better’n that!
You may not think much of it, but this small movie is great comedy, and its greatness will be better appreciated in the upcoming years, especially if Joe Dirt 2, which will almost certainly suck out loud, gets made.
[Note: Joe Dirt 2:Beautiful Loser was released by Sony Pictures on its Sony-owned website, Crackle, on July 16, 2015. The film was direct-to-digital, the equivalent of direct-to-VHS status back in the day. The plot involves Joe Dirt’s traveling back in time; as predicted by Yours Truly in the original text above it sucked out loud!]
“Remember, there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team America’”
The “administration” of presidential pretender, 43rd US President, George W. Bush—who stole his first “election” thanks to election-fraud cronyism in Florida—was the worst of times for America.
In the wake of the 9/11 attack (September 11, 2001, on W’s first watch) on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City, and on the Pentagon outside Washington, DC., terrorism was suddenly front page news. Never mind such activities had been with us from shore-to-shore—in the form of domestic terrorists—and elsewhere in the world for decades. It was this nuevo “foreign” terrorism that, we were told, was our main concern.
Because W should never have been president, but somehow was (and even got “re-elected” in, that one instance, a fair election), we ended up in a very stupid and expensive “war” in Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 attacks from which only the subsequent—and more intelligent and competent—president, Barack Hussein Obama, extricated us. [Oh, and while W might have “got” Iraq’s evil dictator, Saddam Hussein, President Barack Obama “got” the king daddy of all evil doers, Osama bin Laden—responsible for 9/11—which makes Obama mas macho than W and his dad—who failed to “get” Saddam Hussein the first time around during the artificially constructed first Iraq “war”—combined.]
During W’s administration it seemed terrorists lurked everywhere. Under his revisionary McCarthyism it was our job, as Americans, to not only ferret out terrorists but to ensure that other countries, who had been doing fine without our intervention, somehow benefited from our wisdom (or at least W’s take on what he thought might be construed as “wisdom”).
Thankfully, we have the creators of the animated Comedy Central series South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Bringing home the stoopidity of W’s “War on Terror” to the sheeple who voted for him, this pair gave us Team America: World Police in 2004. This film absolutely and splendidly skewers everything that was brain damaged about the junior Bush’s administration (which was pretty much everything). And in this movie the writers recognized that the real threat to world peace wasn’t Iraq, it was North Korea (which the entire international intelligence community has known and tried to make clear to the world for decades).
The “War on Terror” (which meant creating the evil that is the United States’ Homeland Security, an organization that, like the IRS, has absolute right of search and seizure, can arrest you and detain you without cause or due process, and can ruin your life while doing its dirty work) is exposed in parody and satire in this movie for what it is—an expansionist joke that costs billions of dollars and much more in terms of human life while destroying those things that might be good in other cultures. [And the United States has no expansionist policy, that’s the real irony here. We don’t colonize: we only go in and force our will on people, then leave! Kinda just like real police, only we’re the world’s police, get it?]
Oh, the fun part I forgot to mention: while pimp-slapping America’s Bush-driven idiocy this movie uses puppets—specifically marionettes—to get its comedic job done.
And do that job well it does indeed. The puppeteers’ work was initially so good, with the action so smooth and human-like, that the marionettes’ operators had to be told to “rough it up” to make it funnier. This means, for example, you see a scene in which a female puppet pokes a male puppet in his eye while talking about how he may feel “in here” (referring to his heart).
Team America is a covert group of mercenary types, operating under the aegis of the US Government. They have a lair behind the faces of Mt. Rushmore and a lot of expensive, James Bondian toys (aircraft, special ground vehicles, high-powered weaponry). Team America globe trots, ferreting out terrorists wherever they may be and eliminating them even though a given country’s cultural artifacts may become collateral damage in the process.
They pretty much blow up and shoot everything in sight. For example, they destroy Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Louvre. Team America lays waste to Egypt’s Great Pyramids. But, the terrorists have been thwarted!
The late North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, is featured as the film’s baddy, and his caricature is side-splitting. He apparently has access to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). [Which Iraq never had, and thus we had no reason to be “at war” with Iraq in the first place. Thanks, W, for the nearly trillion dollars of war expense and debt we never needed!] And, feeling lonely, Kim sings a song about how “ronery” he is (the song almost makes you feel sorry for him, it’s so sadly pathetic).
Another amusing, ongoing riff in the movie is a swipe at Hollywood. These days, actors and actresses, thanks to their celebrity, seem to think they are experts on things outside the realm of acting. This is no more true than with that waste of protoplasm, Jenny McCarthy (who is not an actress, but merely a former TV “personality” and one-time Playboy model). She gave birth to a kid with autism but rather than face the fact that it is likely her defective genes or that of her baby daddy that caused the defect she went on a crusade to blame childhood vaccines (based on a wildly insane, and discredited, hypothesis).
The Hollywoodites noted in the film—portrayed in gross caricature by marionettes and with purposely bad voice imitations—are infamous for their pseudo-activism. The movie trounces them maliciously and deservedly.
The humor and dialogue is fairly raunchy as can be expected from the South Park team, but there are some sublime moments like when stage actor/Team America potential recruit, Gary Johnston, encounters Team America’s handler, Spottswoode, for the first time and takes a ride in a flying limousine:
Gary Johnston: Okay, a limousine that can fly. Now I have seen everything.
Spottswoode: Really? Have you seen a man eat his own head?
Gary Johnston: No.
Spottswoode: So, then, you haven’t seen everything . . .
There is a sex scene (riotous) between two of the puppets. And the movie also includes several very funny songs, not the least of which is the theme, “America [expletive deleted] Yeah!” [It describes our foreign policy to a tee: “. . . Comin’ in to save the mutha[blank]in’ day, yeah!”] Also featured is “Freedom Isn’t Free”, perhaps the most entertaining because it slams the bejesus out of those knee-jerk Country artists who made all those crappy bald-eagle-and-apple-pie songs in the wake of 9/11. [Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood, suck it!]
As an indictment against Hollywood’s pretentious activism by its celebrities, America’s stupidity when it comes to dealing with foreign cultures, and the rampant and absurd extreme right-wing conservatism prevalent today this movie nails it all to the wall.
Cartoony, frantic, and truly great.
“I’m a virgin. I always have been.”
Okay, some comedies must rely on sex jokes to get their point across particularly if the main plot device involves sex.
Or, in this case, the lack of it.
Steve Carell (formerly of Comedy Central’s Daily Show and NBC TV’s adaptation of the killer Ricky Gervais British comedy, The Office) really broke out as a true star in his first big-screen role, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005).
The movie centers on a socially inept man played by Carell. He lives alone, collects Star Wars® action figures and other geeky memorabilia, works in an electronics’ store and is a total doofus when it comes to women. He tries dating, but can’t seem to connect enough to get to the sexually intimate level.
The film also uses the “buddy” system for laughs—his friends at the store where he works all deride him about his virgin status while also trying to help him out. He goes to a speed dating session. [This is where women sit around and men wanting to meet women have about two or three minutes’ time to have a face-to-face with a woman before an alarm signals them to move on to the next woman. Ideally, the short interchange is enough to pique a woman’s curiosity and she will agree to see the man later for a real date.] Carell’s “babe-in-the-woods” acting in this scene is hilarious as are the women he meets in the session (with great one-liners and quirky character flaws).
Some of the movie’s funniest bits are toss-offs by Carell’s co-workers. And one particular scene where the actors Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd sit around playing a video game while ranking on each other with the theme “You Know How I Know You’re Gay?” is a highlight (or lowlight, dependent upon you feel about such humor, but dammit, it’s funny!)
Over the course of the movie Carell’s EveryVirgin finally gets to meet an interesting, caring and compliant woman. He marries her and finally has sex!
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Probably one of the strangest and funniest movies of the past 40 years, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, boldly goes where no Borat has gone before.
This 2006 film was shot in mockumentary style by its lead character, Borat Sagdiyev (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, a British comedian, on one of the most inventive film roles ever created). Borat hails from the very real country of Kazakhstan (in Asia, just south of Russia). Because he wants to help his country gain cachet on the global front he sets out (with limited funding and blessings from his government) on a public relations tour of America to help bring recognition to his little-known land.
The movie comprises little in the way of a plot, though one develops as he becomes fixated on TV actress, Pamela Anderson (of television’s Baywatch fame) and treks across country to find her in hopes of marrying her.
Cohen (a notorious prankster who tends to stay in character when making a film both on- and off-set) made the Borat character look and act like a foreign tourist, complete with cultural naïveté and broken and mangled English. Borat has little understanding of vernacular and uses it inappropriately throughout the film. His other quirk is wanting to “high five” people for the least little thing, often at inappropriate times (as in one outtake scene where police are harassing him—he tries to “high five” one of the cops who is having none of it).
The movie is made up of vignettes where he interacts with Americans—the people he meets are not aware the whole act is a put-on; they think he is really from another country, and they treat him as their personalities might tend to treat any foreigner on US soil (patronizing, or with the patience of someone talking with a mentally challenged child, or with outright hostility).
Borat travels with a male companion who is there to ensure Kazakhstan’s best interests are being met with Borat’s filmed odyssey. This man is a great, fat, hairy slob of the type that homosexual men refer to as “bears”. In the movie’s grossest scene (but one of its funniest nonetheless) Borat is angry with his aide-de-camp—both men happen to be naked and they begin fighting. The man-on-man nude wrestling romp that follows is truly riotous.
In the end, Borat meets a bunch of Americans from all walks of life and generally makes them look silly on camera. Cohen, as a real person, in fact got into some legal trouble when some of his subjects realized how ridiculous they came off onscreen (racist, homophobic, etc.) and wanted to sue him.
The movie, for those with very thin skins, could be considered majorly offensive, but that’s the whole point. Its racist and ethnic humor, its mild homophobia, jingoism, and any other topic that the average “sensitive” person holds dear get soundly corkscrewed by Borat’s “foreign innocent” barbs. Strangely, the film was banned in all Arab countries except Lebanon (go figure), and the Russian government threw its two rubles’ worth in by asking cinema owners not to run it.
Not for the faint of heart, this film is one of the funniest to emerge in the new millennium; someone will have to go a very long way to beat it for sheer audacity and laughs.
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More Stuff to Consider
The movies presented here represent the finest and most durable of comedies; they do not grow tiresome from repeated viewings (and I’ve watched Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail more times than I care to admit).
There are, of course, many other, very funny films not included here. Objectively analyzing comedy is tough—one person may go into a laughter induced apoplectic seizure from hearing a joke based on flatulent sounds (we call them “fart jokes”) while another (obviously more intelligent) person may not even smirk.
However, when looking at any comedy and its potential for greatness even a shlub who laughs at the basest humor should be able to recognize the difference in quality between crummy movies like Bachelor Party (1984), the truly rancid Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), or Ride Along (2014) and far better efforts like Back to the Future (1985) and Office Space (1999).
It’s in the writing, the acting, the gag set-ups, and the execution that makes a great comedy great. And worthwhile.
Honorable Mention: Airplane! (1980). This is a typical plane-in-trouble movie, albeit a comedic one.
It is in-your-face-funny with some fantastic and clever word play: “A hospital? What is it?” “It’s a big building with patients. But that’s not important right now.” And the scene where Beave’s mom, June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley), speaks “jive” to a pair of African-American passengers no one on board can otherwise understand is classic.
The film is a straight-up parody of the horribly formulaic, craptacular Airport movies (the original in 1970, with sequels in 1975, 1977, and 1979) which no one growing up today has probably seen.
Airplane!’s gags are all good, but some of the pop cultural reference (allusions to certain TV commercials that were common then, a scene that recreates a Saturday Night Fever-style disco dance, et al) haven’t aged well.
It is still very funny nonetheless. In one scene where a roughly 10-year-old boy offers a cup of coffee to a similarly aged girl, in response to her being asked if she wants cream in her coffee, she says, “I take it black, like my men”. Many of its other jokes are quotable today. And there are a few other references to classic movie tropes that work well, too.
The ground crew, with Lloyd Bridges and a flamboyantly gay and histrionic air-traffic control worker, provides other killer laughs. And Leslie Neilson, playing a doctor on board the plane, deadpans his way through this “epic”. Good acting from a diverse cast (that included basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!) and great writing made what could have been a run-of-the-mill parody film far funnier than it had a right to be.