Sunday, May 04, 2008

Comedy: the best and worst

Yesterday I saw Clue somewhere between 2 and 3 times (I'm not sure exactly how many times I saw each ending). I didn't exactly sit down with that plan in mind, but hey - Clue has that effect on me. It just never gets old. And so it saddens me to read that it only did $14million or so at the box office. People just don't know what's funny.

Really, they don't. I guess no one ever sees 100% eye-to-eye with public taste - but I personally feel this effect with comedy more than any other genre. And so I thought I'd put up a list of the top five comedies that are, in my opinion, conspicuously over- and under-rated.

Let's start with the ones where people just don't know what they're missing.

  1. Clue - The number one all-time underrated comedy. This one is brilliance from beginning to end, and the second-surest sign (see number one in the most over-rated list for the surest sign) that the public doesn't have a goddamned clue what's funny is that this wasn't the top box-office hit of the 80s.

  2. Pee Wee's Big Adventure - OK, not for everyone, I admit. And yeah, with a budget of only $7 million but profits of $40million, and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm almost certainly cheating calling this "underrated." But honestly, how many people have you talked to lately who remember much about it?

  3. The 'Burbs - If I'm cheating on the last one, then definitely not on this one. RT shows a paltry 36% for this dark comedy gem. Roger Ebert, the critic I love to hate and hate to love turns out to be one of the bad guys. Which seriously damages my appreciation for his four-star review of Halloween, I have to say. C'mon, Rog, The 'Burbs is a classic. Misunderstood, granted, but brilliant in its way.

  4. So I Married an Axe Murderer - No, it's not just the Scottish dad, though I admit he's a lot of it. This one was witty, in a charmingly understated way, all the way through. Mike Myers is the very definition of "hit-or-miss." He has a keen eye for things that are ridiculous about pop culture, and so has a good foundation to build on. But the crucial ingredient in comedy is never apologizing for lampooning what you're lampooning (along with its corellary: only lampoon that which truly deserves it). Myers has a tendency to lose his nerve, and to overdo it on purpose just to make sure you know he's not serious. That's the kind of hedge I can't stand in a comedian (it KILLED SouthPark for me - see below), and it's unfortunately omnipresent with Myers. But in his early days he wasn't so skiddish, and he did some really great stuff. This is one of those. The critics hated it, and it underearned its budget, and so stands as proof that the public doesn't know funny when it sees it.

  5. Beavis and Butthead Do America - Sorry, but I had to. While this isn't the funniest comedy ever made, the whole Beavis and Butthead enterprise is a blueprint for others who want to get it right. I'm glad Mike Judge dropped the hatchet on this before it turned into a Simpsons or SouthPark. People talk approvingly of shows like SouthPark that are "equal-opportunity offenders." Piffle. "Equal-opportunity offender" is the LAST thing any self-respecting comedy should be named. Because to offend everyone equally, you pretty much have to force it at points. Real comedy is like Aikido. You find where your opponent has put all his strength and use that against him. Or, in comedic terms, you find things that take themselves too seriously and you use that pomposity against them. If you have to do it equally for everyone, you're doing it wrong. So hats off to this singular series which never once had a moment that felt forced. Everyone who took a black eye from Judge during his B&B days richly deserved it, and that's a badge few are fit to wear. I think Rob Gonsalves his this one on the head when he wrote "At the risk of losing my more refined readers, I must report the truth about 'Beavis and Butt-Head do America.' It's rude, it's twisted, it's hillarious. Unless you're uptight, over 40, or Michael Medved, the movie is funny almost nonstop. Nothing else matters." Right.

And now for the most over-rated.

  1. Twins - The fact that anyone at all - even a single person - found this funny is a sign that our civilization is teetering at the edge of the Abyss. And yet when it was released it was absolutely ubiquitous. Why? I'll never know. I DON'T WANT to know. I just want it to go away.

  2. Knocked Up - See above. And then see my review. There is simply no excuse for the popularity of this stale, formulaic, oh-so-careful feminist wet dream(nightmare) masquerading as "dude humor." The next person who tells me this prudish, mean-spirited morality play is funny loses teeth. Seriously. At least the next three items on this list contain actual jokes that actual people might feel moved to laugh at under the right circumstances. My bone to pick with them is that they're given more credit than they're due. My bone to pick with this one is that it's labeled a comedy at all. You can't call something a comedy if it contains only the feeblest, most cliched attempts at humor.

  3. Austin Powers (all but the first) - I say "all but the first," but even the first one wasn't that great. But at least it was excusable. It had one or two moments that count as "brilliant" enough to carry the weight of the rest of the miserable thing lumbering over the finish line. But the next two were ... just ... horrible. Look - over-the-top antics aren't funny if they're self-conscious. Look to Strange Brew for guidance here. It's funny when the main characters just do their immature moron thing for kicks. It's NOT funny when the movie starts wanting credit for being puerile. And boy does the Austin Powers series ever want credit. Every single scene screams "look at me, I'm being cute!" Worse than that, actually - it's "isn't it terribly ironic how self-consciously cute I'm being?" Sorry, chap, won't work. If you're gonna do comedy, then just do it already. Don't constantly remind us that's what you're doing. Willful suspension of disbelief isn't only for action/adventure.

  4. South Park: The Movie - I admit, I haven't seen it. I don't need to: I've seen the show, and along with The Simpsons it embodies everything that's wrong with modern comedy. Alright, fair enough, that's too harsh. Some episodes of South Park are truly hillarious. Especially in the first two seasons. The thing I've never liked about it is that I get the uneasy feeling that these guys lack balls. They're so careful to offend everyone involved in an issue equally (and in such exaggerated terms) that you can almost see them planning their episodes with a checklist. "Uninspired" is the word that often comes to mind. The thing that made me decide not to go see this one is that I heard all about the Canada thing. See - that's when you know something's just not gonna work - when it makes picking on Canada a central theme. Because there's really only one way that can work out - and that's the way where it comes back to bite you in the ass. There's plenty about Canada to make fun of, don't get me wrong, but the average American doesn't know what any of it is, and so if you're marketing one of these to the American audience you're doing it with a sly wink that says "we're really picking on YOU!" And the only person who goes to a film looking for jokes that come back to bite him is the kind who feels guilty laughing at others - and that's not who great comedy is for. If comedy is going to mock its audience and be good, it has two choices. Either it can be really sly about it - in which case it's really aimed at a small subset of the audience (who is laughing along with it at the majority), or it doesn't pull any punches and goes for the throat. What never works is the kind of thing that's self-consciously clever - you know, it hides it just enough to make everyone feel they're insiders, but not enough that anyone missed the point. There's a word for that: lame.

  5. Blazing Saddles - sorry, I just never got it. I like some of Mel Brooks' stuff (Young Frankenstein, Dracula: Dead and Loving it), but so much of it is like ... well, like this. See item (3) for what's wrong here. Good comedy takes talent, and talent means seeing things that others don't. Talent isn't picking on genres, like westerns, whose flaws are so obvious they practically satirize themselves, seizing on the already-ridiculous aspects and blowing them up larger-than-life. Any old hack can do that - and so in making this movie Mel Brooks comes off looking like just any old hack. I didn't need this movie to "get" what was wrong with westerns. So many westerns are capable of going straight from the reel to MST3K that there's really no need to bother. That he did bother shows he was running out of ideas. And that so many people think this is brilliant shows that they lack imagination.

I'd give a disclaimer, but why don't I not and not say I did. (Although I do SINCERELY APOLOGIZE for the entry on South Park, and for my opinions on South Park in general.) There you have it - my picks for the five most under- and over-rated comedies. Mostly because I wanted to blog about Clue but couldn't think of anything to say. It speaks for itself.


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