Peter O’Toole said it best in My Favorite Year: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Truer words were never spoken. Comedy is never an exact science. What works in one story may not work so well in others. Are the jokes funny on the page? If so, will they work on stage or screen? Do we have the right performer to present them? The problem with many of the comedies the Hollywood machine churns out is that they are never fleshed out beyond the premise. The studios think that putting standard characters into ridiculous situations will grow the humor.
Though great comedy is often organic, sometimes it is also necessary to map the story and the characters out to the fullest and let the humor blossom from there. If the characters and the situations are too broad, the story becomes too obnoxious to enjoy, and after a few minutes you want to leave. For your edification, here are some more comedies to add to your “To watch, and laugh” list.
Celebrated film director Peter Bogdanovich rallies a top-notch ensemble cast in this screen adaptation of the greatest stage farce on Broadway. Noises Off is an farcical jewel written by the legendary playwright Michael Frayn. The film revolves around Lloyd (an always perfect Michael Caine), a seasoned stage director who is stressed and under the gun as he struggles to put together a sex farce in a few weeks. We meet Lloyd and the cast in the final dress (and in some cases undress) rehearsal. The cast are very gung ho, but once things come together things start going completely wrong. Almost immediately miscommunications, sexual deviations, and bad habits start taking hold backstage. In time, the cast are practically at each other throats, leaving Lloyd dreading the cast’s Broadway bow. Director Bogdanovich’s only deviations from the play version lie in setting the film on the American theater circuit and adding an upbeat epilogue. The change in setting aids the humor by having American actors playing British characters. It also helps that the cast of the show are played with manic aplomb by Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, Marilu Henner, Nicolette Sheridan, and Denholm Elliott. The relentless door slamming and sardine flinging are just appetizers to the proceedings. Backstage, the cast attack each other with axes, cacti, and bottles of whiskey, while trying a performance on stage. Is it possible?
Bridging the gap between the biting satire of Office Space and the neurotic brilliance of Woody Allen lies Haiku Tunnel. One Man Show performer Josh Kornbluth, in collaboration with his brother Jacob, adapt Josh’s one-man show to the screen in all its glory. Where the aforementioned Office Space was a satire on a more realistic level, Haiku Tunnel takes a bit more of an absurdist approach in mocking the idiocies of office life. The film revolves a temp named Josh Kornbluth, who in no way resembles the actual Josh Kornbluth. Josh is a temp from Uniforce who works in a variety of law firms in downtown San Francisco. Josh leads of life of total contentment as he blissfully drifts from one temp assignment to another until he opts to go perm at tax law firm Schuyler & Mitchell, accepting the duties of secretary for a powerful corporate attorney. Shortly after going perm, Josh’s world is thrown into upheaval. He finds himself unable to perform even the simplest of tasks to the point where mailing seventeen high priority letters becomes a Herculean labor. Josh breaks the fourth wall as he takes you through the perilous journey into the realm of permanence. Through his irreverent narration he humorously elucidates the inherent ridiculousness of the corporate environment with humor that is subtle and hits close to home for anyone who has ever had to run dogs for the head honchos.
Eight Legged Freaks
Before the film version of Shelob proved that giant spiders could indeed be frightening, the giant bug genre had become one of immense ridicule. Where many cheaply made horror films attempted to disprove this, one film dared to embrace it. That film was Eight Legged Freaks. Freaks is a highly affectionate tribute to classic giant bug movies of the past, and because of its spirit of fun and its ability to never take itself seriously, Eight Legged Freaks can indeed be compared to, and even placed on the same level as, Gremlins, Tremors, and Arachnophobia. Ironically, the spiders in this film have more in common with the Mogwai offspring than they do with their B Movie forefathers. Director Ellory Elkayem opted to make the spiders in this film emote to a point where they all have personalities. There is much fun to be had in this film when you can hear spiders laughing maniacally, or screaming “Ow, Ow, Ow!” as they are being dragged behind a cop car, or voicing disgust as they realize that they just tried to eat a stuffed moose head. This is one of those horror comedies that fits in perfectly with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd. The film revels in the joys of those silly horror films we love to mock, and it lets us in on the joke.
Reefer Madness: The Musical
“When danger’s near / Exploit their fear,” sings the sinister lecturer (played by Alan Cumming). Reefer Madness: The Musical is of course a musical version of the classic cautionary film made in the 1930’s. The original Reefer Madness was an absurd film produced by a church group in order to warn parents about the horrors of marijuana. The film has since become a cult classic amongst the stoner crowd as they heckle the blatant exaggerations of the mentality of the common pot smoker. At the end of the 90’s, writers Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy wrote a stage musical based on the film. The musical tells the story of a government official who comes to a small town school to show the PTA a film about young Jimmy Harper (Christan Campbell), a stand up lad who gets in deep when he is seduced by a den of reefer fiends and ditches his love Mary Lane (Kristen Bell) for his new love Mary Jane. The film is jam packed with satirical overtones told through song, dance, and dialogue. Where the original film was a movie made by ultra conservatives to warn children about their perception of marijuana, Reefer Madness: The Musical points the spotlight on the paranoia inducing media who induce fear in the population through exaggeration. I am by no means a pot smoker, nor am I an advocate of it, but I’m sure that stoners never turn to cannibalism when they get crazed on the munchies.
Dr. Strangelove: Or How To Learn To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Stanley Kubrick’s sole foray into the comedy genre also happens to be one of the greatest satires committed to film. The irony of this film was evident from the writing process when Kubrick was trying to write a straight nuclear war thriller. As the script evolved, he realized that the material became more humorous. Who better to bring that humor out than one of the greatest comedy talents of all times, Peter Sellers? Sellers is a triple threat in this film, as he plays the timid British Officer Mandrake who attempts to convince the insane General Ripper to give him the code to avert a nuclear assault. Sellers also plays the ultra-liberal President Merkin Muffley, who attempts to avert the possibility of nuclear apocalypse while maintaining good relations with the Russians. Then there’s title character, the subconscious Nazi / nuclear physicist Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick proved himself to be a director of exceptional daring by producing and releasing a comedy about potential nuclear Armageddon right when the world was in the throes of paranoia about that very thing. The gamble paid off because people immediately embraced this wicked attack at the bomb and the morons who have their fingers a bit too close to the button.
NEXT MONTH: Weird Al goes primetime, Stephen Chow does the Hustle, and Steve Guttenburg brushes with the true definition of necrophilia.