Some of my friends accuse me of enjoying shitty movies just because they’re bad. I would like to set the record straight: I love truly awful movies that go above and beyond, that have a certain something special that transcends simply being a bad movie. I’ve already mentioned Flash Gordon and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (in the same post, no less!), which gives you an indication of just how far I’m willing to go to get my bad movie fix. But they’re more than schlocky scripts, bad dialogue, stilted acting (Hayden Christensen, I’m looking in your direction), or bizarre plots. There has to be something extra, something that just calls out to me and says, “this is a beautiful disaster”. I offer you some of my favorites here.
Howard the Duck (1986) – I’m not going to cry “spoiler alert” at this point, because if you haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy by now and bothered to watch the after-credits scene then shame on you (plus as I’ve already established, we’re well outside the “no spoilers” zone). So yeah, the point is I nearly wet myself when I saw that scene, because I LOVED the original Howard the Duck movie. It was such a train wreck, I couldn’t get enough. Really, what’s not to love? Starring a young Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins (yes, that Tim Robbins) and produced by George “I’ll never make another Star Wars… well, maybe just one more” Lucas, this movie is basically the story of a sarcastic, cigar smoking humanoid duck pulled to Earth from an alternate dimension by a laser beam who has to help fight off an intergalactic evil and save the universe with the help of a singer and a lab assistant. No, I am not making that up. I would try to say more, but really there’s nothing else to say. If that’s not enough to entice you, just wait for the remake (coming soon, I hope).
Popeye (1980) – I was as saddened as anyone by the passing of Robin Williams, and I do not intend to speak ill of the dead. Just getting that out there now, because the truth is I really do like this movie. I just have no idea why it ever got made. What makes this movie fascinating for me is the production value. This really is a great movie. The acting is superb, the make-up is fantastic, the sets are gorgeous. Williams absolutely nails his character, and Shelley Duvall is outstanding as Olive Oyl. Everything looks and feels like a fully realized real-life rendition of a Popeye comic strip. The only question is “why?” There are a few stand out things that make this movie such a beautiful disaster. First, I have no idea who was crying out in 1980 for a film adaptation of Popeye. Second, I have no idea who thought to themselves, “You know what the world really needs? A Popeye musical.” (You read that right.) Third, I have no idea how this movie ever managed to get made, considering how truly bizarre it is when you get down to it. The only answer I can seem to find to any of those questions seems to be director Robert Altman, who had the vision and skill to pull it all off. If you’re into quirky or surreal movies, you need to see this one.
License to Drive (1988) – Ah, the Coreys. Heartthrobs of the 80s, who peaked far too soon, and in my book forever known for their much better roles (a relative statement to be sure) in The Lost Boys. That having been said, this slightly off-beat teen rom-com is still enjoyable, if for no other reason than the shear slow-motion train wreck factor. It’s almost as if you can watch their careers coming to a screeching halt as the movie progresses. The chance to see a very young Heather Graham in her first big movie role (and a painfully awkward one at that) is a special bonus. Come for the flashback, stay for the travesty.
In case you missed it, Stephen Colbert got into a bit of trouble on Twitter this past week due to a tweet that went out over a Comedy Central controlled Twitter account for his show. Things got very ugly very quickly, including calls for his job and the hashtag #CancelCorbert.
Let me start by saying I am not here to defend the tweet. I think we can all agree it crossed a line, at least for Twitter (some argue it was acceptable in context during the show; having not seen it, I can’t take a stand either way). That having been said, I do think there is something to be said for a wider context that is being ignored, one that has value and validity beyond the scope of a single show: the nature of comedy itself.
I’ve been writing comedy in one medium or another for almost twenty years now, and I’ve always kept two rules in mind. The first is a joke that goes all the way back to vaudeville: “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Everyone thinks being funny is easy right up until they try it. Even telling a joke someone else came up with takes timing, skill, and panache; being original and funny is exponentially harder. The second rule is one I learned back in college: the more offensive the joke is, the funnier it needs to be. Let’s not kid ourselves, there’s hardly anything in this world that isn’t offensive that is laugh out loud funny. Hitting the balance between “bust a gut” and “bust you in the mouth” is difficult, and it’s easy to miss the mark.
There are other complicating factors as well. Comedy is a moving target for a lot of reasons. One of them is that societal mores are always in flux. What was hilarious ten years ago is kind of uncomfortable today and will be outright taboo next week. The same thing happens in reverse. What’s more, comedy often plays a role in that social change, pushing boundaries, creating safer spaces in which we can talk openly about things that are forbidden in “polite” conversation. The down side of that is that it becomes easy to step on toes, go too far, and yes, even cross a line.
Another complicating factor is that, like it or not, comedy IS contextual. If you read a transcript of almost any performance by Bill Cosby, you might chuckle, or you might just say “I don’t see what’s so funny.” But when you watch him in action, it’s a whole different story. Pitch, tone, pacing, facial expressions, everything he does goes into his comedy. My father used to say that Chevy Chase could make him laugh just by walking into a room. Truth is he can do the same thing for me, but that doesn’t translate to Twitter.
Finally, sometimes you’re just under the gun and a bad joke gets through. It’s easy to sit back and play armchair comedian, complaining how “he should never have said that.” We’ve all done it. But how easy is it to write a half-hour of humor five nights a week? Even with a writing team, it gets exhausting. I used to do 1,000 words of humor a week, and I only lasted a couple of years with breaks every few months. The Colbert Report has been running for almost ten years, with over 1,300 episodes. That’s almost 500 hours of jokes. Is it remotely possible that a bad one might slip through now and then?
Once again, I’m not saying that nobody should be offended. It was offensive, and deliberately so. It was inappropriate for the medium, and hopefully will not be repeated. But calls to fire Colbert or cancel the show are misguided at best and opportunistic grandstanding at worst. There are better things to rage against.
There are a lot of great comedies out there, well-known and deservedly so. Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, even Ghostbusters are all famous for making people laugh for decades. In the wake of the passing of comedy legend Harold Ramis, I’d like to take the opportunity to spotlight a few of my favorite comedies that aren’t so widely known, but deserve to be praised just the same.
Dr. Detroit (1983) – It only seems right to start with this 80’s gem that stars Ghostbusters co-star Dan Aykroyd as a college literature professor who gets suckered into “managing” four beautiful prostitutes in Chicago. (Once again, I am not making this up.) This movie is 80’s screwball comedy at its finest, with Dan Aykroyd turning in a stellar Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque performance, only in this case it’s all an act until the final reveal. Fans of 80’s beauties will be pleased to see Donna Dixon at her finest, and a young Fran Drescher takes a turn at the risqué long before her debut on The Nanny.
The Big Hit (1998) – Coming out in the same year as The Big Lewbowski, it seemed among my friends you could only love one of the “Bigs”, and personally I have never understood how anyone can even sit through The Big Lebowski. But I digress. The Big Hit is a throwback to that 80’s screwball style, with class, gender, and role-reversals abounding throughout the film. In particular the concept of the sympathetic, pushover hitman is innovative and fun, and played with remarkable skill by Mark Wahlberg, while Lou Diamond Phillips turns in a surprisingly funny yet loathsome villain. Fans of One Crazy Summer or Better Off Dead will find a lot to like here (especially the “Trace Buster Buster”).
PCU (1994) – I know I said this was all because of Harold Ramis, and truly it was inspired by Harold Ramis, but the world is not about Harold Ramis. I only say this because I do not now nor have I ever been able to grasp the obsession some people seem to have with Animal House. There are a few good lines, but that’s it. The movie does nothing for me. Sorry, but that’s just how I feel. Maybe it’s a generational thing. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep Animal House. This is my offensive college movie of choice. Jeremy Piven as Droz represents the modern character of the “big man on campus”, slightly rumpled, disheveled, and a few years past the prime of what a college student should be. The exaggeration of the oppressive PC culture on display is (sadly) even closer to the mark today than it was when the film was first released (although nobody is spared the barb, even the protagonists). Unabashedly rude, shamelessly corrupting, and magnificently over the top, I recommend this film to anyone who can laugh at themselves.
As I stare down the barrel of “the Big 4-0”, I’ve been giving some serious thought to my midlife crisis. This is the sort of thing you only get to do once, and I really don’t want to screw it up. There are so many options, and I want to be able to look back on it and say, “yes, I made the right choice”, instead of being one of those pathetic guys who is even more morose and unhappy after the fact.
So far, I’ve identified the following broad categories of Midlife Crisis:
THE CLASSICAL: Go out and buy an expensive car that you can’t afford, probably a Mercedes-Benz. Tool around town in it. Act like a tool. Pretend this makes up for all the failed and waste dreams of your youth.
THE NEO-CLASSICAL: Go out and buy an expensive sports car that you can’t afford, probably a Ferrari. Zoom around town in it. Act like a tool. Pretend this makes up for all the failed and waste dreams of your youth.
THE MODERN: Get a mistress, preferably one who is much younger than you. Lavish her with money, gifts, and promises that you will divorce your wife. Pray that nobody ever catches you.
THE POST-MODERN: Get a trophy wife, preferably one who is much younger than you. Lavish her with money, gifts, and promises that you will never divorce her. Pray that nobody ever catches you.
THE NOUVEUAU: Quit your job and do something “that would make the 15-year-old me happy”. Wait for your wife to divorce you.
THE ART-NOUVEUAU: Quit your job and take a swing at whatever unrealistic artistic endeavor you abandoned sometime in your late teens or early twenties when you decided it was “time to get serious about life”.
THE HOBBYIST: Devote all of your time and energy to some sort of meaningless and quite possibly insanely dangerous hobby, such as skydiving, bear-baiting, or gardening (REAL gardeners know what I mean).
THE EXTREMIST: AKA The Sampler. Quit your job, divorce your trophy wife, and let your mistress drive your brand new Ferrari over a cliff while you both go skydiving out the open top.
While I’m more than a little tempted to go for The Neo-Classical, I somehow doubt My Not So Humble Wife would approve. Plus I can’t drive stick, so a Ferrari is kind of out of the question. Besides, I want to do something truly exceptional, something that will set me apart from all the other men who have gone before me and had midlife crises of quiet desperation.
And so I have set out a plan. A most audacious, stunning, some might say awful, plan. It is epic in scope, awe-inspiring in its execution, and if successful, will enshrine me in the annals of history:
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And then, as I spike the head right there on live television, I’ll look straight into the camera an say with a smile, “I’m going to Disney World!” because, you know, sponsors.
So that’s my plan. Is it bold? Certainly. Is it insane? Probably. Is it illegal? In every country and jurisdiction on Earth, with the exception of two. But it will guarantee me immortality.
And isn’t that what it’s really about?
Admit it, you missed me.
Well, I have to say it’s nice to be back. I didn’t miss much, did I?
Okay, gonna regret missing that one. Lots of fodder for commentary there, but really, I’ve had my fun with Obamacare. It’s not like somebody died, amirite?
Oh, come on. That’s just not fair. Well, there’s not really much I could have added to the chorus of voices around the world. What else you got?
Meh. Rob Ford was God’s way of mocking late night comedians. A walking slow pitch like that is the divine equivalent of saying “you suck at your job”. I’ll pass. It’s not like he was some sort of bizarre fusion of my two darkest obsessions.
What. The. Hell. The Guardian knew about this ever since Snowden dumped ALL the documents on them at once. They couldn’t break this story a few months earlier? Maybe a little later? I take this personally.
10. Russet potatoes feel left out
9. “Wounded Knee” should refer to historic battle, not Robert Griffin III
8. “Pox Ridden Blanket” Theme Night not a big success
7. Other minorities don’t have major league sports teams named after their favorite ethnic slurs
6. Can’t be called the home team because “we were here first”
5. Team owner Dan Snyder insists on referring to season tickets as “reservations”
4. Stadium concessions stands refuse to accept beads and animal skins as currency
3. Tribes can’t scalp… tickets
2. D.C. allows casinos, but won’t put one in the stadium
1. Polls show Native Americans don’t want to be associated with the Federal government
Recently I was listening to the radio (okay, I was in the car and I happened to have the radio on) and I heard an interview with director Randy Moore about his new satire Escape from Tomorrow. It was the first I had heard of the film, which is not terribly surprising since I’ve never really been a film festival kind of guy, but I think I may end up seeing this one. It’s not that I have anything personal against the Big Mouse, it’s just that I think he made an important point in this article:
“Branding is so much a part of our culture, and it’s everywhere. And (Disney) is everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, you can’t get away from them even if you tried… To not be able to comment or critique or parody that (ubiquity), I just think it’s morally unacceptable.”
However, in the interview I heard he also made another point that, while I think it’s important, makes me feel he missed the mark somewhat by targeting Disney specifically. He said (and I can’t seem to find the interview online, so forgive me for paraphrasing) that the theme of the film is that you can’t be happy all the time. I think that’s an excellent point, especially in an age and culture where we have lost sight of the idea of contentment and we are constantly being sold happiness in its stead. I believe Dennis Leary put it best in his stand-up routine No Cure for Cancer:
“Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of fucking list!”
So yeah. While there’s something to be said for taking a few shots at (as Moore describes them) a “ubiquitous” company that specializes in selling happiness, I think there’s something he loses sight of: Disney is only selling what we’re buying. Yes, Disney Theme Parks™ are the Happiest Place On Earth™ (made so, I have been told by a former employee, by sucking all the happiness out of their employees, powdering it, and then sprinkling it over the park; that’s your “fairy dust”), but they don’t force anyone to go there and then whistle Zippy-Doo-Da out of their assholes a-la Clark Griswald. I think there may be more to be found in making a movie that critically examines a culture fixated on perpetual bliss, rather than the companies that strive to provide it.
Which is not to say those companies deserve to be completely let off the hook; they are a part of the culture, they help make and drive that culture, and they deserve a certain amount of grilling in the space of exploring that culture. But to single out one company for catering to the desires of people to have happiness is akin to blaming one company for Americans being obese.