Monday, September 20, 2010

My Top Ten Comedies.

Here's a list for you. I think you will enjoy it, even though it has nothing to do with New York City or stand-up comedy. But at least I went with the top ten comedies, and not something totally unrelated, like top 10 moments in Jurassic Park or whatever. (Which will undoubtably come next time I am at a loss for blog ideas.)


And please note: these are my personal favorite. I have not seen every comedy ever made and I do not consider myself in any way a movie expert. So don't be offended at a particular omission (note to the GF: I haven't seen all of Caddyshack, big fight coming) or at my lack of taste. These are just ten comedies I happen to enjoy very much. 

10. The Naked Gun Trilogy.

Ok, I realize this might be cheating, since these are technically three different movies. But just about every publication listed the Lord of the Rings trilogy as one singular movie when they bestowed upon it best-movie-of-the-decade status. And since LOTR is cinematic gruel when compared to Leslie Nielson’s magnum opus, I feel warranted grouping The Naked Gun movies together.

How to even pick a best of the three anyway?  All three of them feature many instances of slapstick, saturation humor at its zenith. Do you fancy Leslie Nielson’s Lt. Frank Drebin impersonating a famed opera singer at a Dodger’s game and butchering an impromptu Star Spangled Banner: “and the ramparts we watched uh…dada da da daaaa, and the rockets red glare... buncha bombs in the air.”?   Or do you prefer a just-about-to-murder-his-wife OJ Simpson trying to spike a baby in a madcap parody of The Untouchables (while Lt. Drebin reads a newspaper that proclaims: Dyslexia for Cure Found?) Or maybe you’re like me and you love an exchange like this one from The Naked Gun 2 1/2, which is quintessential Leslie Nielson:

Drebin: Well, What did he look like?
Jane: He was Caucasian, mustache, about 6 foot 3.
Drebin: That’s an awfully big mustache.                        


9. Team America: World Police.

I wanted to seem cool and not include this movie, which really did not age well, but every time I see that one puppet poop on the other puppet in the greatest puppet-sex scene ever, or hear the lyrics to the wonderfully irreverent and factual Pearl Harbor Sucked and I Miss You, I realize that I would be lying to not include Team America. Mookish though it may be, it’s still hilarious.

8. Kingpin.

I love this movie. I can’t help it. Of the Farrelly Brothers’ first three (and by far, best) movies, Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin is the one that remains the funniest in repeat viewing.  Like Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary,  Kingpin featured the Farrely’ Brother’s typical gross-out humor while it was still original; unlike Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary,  Kingpin featured Bill Murray improvising virtually every line of his dialog.

Woody Harrelson plays beyond washed-up bowler Roy Munson to hilarious extreme, (I love the opening scene of Munson 17-years later, when he beats the morning alarm clock senseless with his hook-hand, then immediately chugs a bottle of Jack Daniels) and Randy Quaid doesn’t ruin the movie.  But it’s Bill Murray as Harrelson’s rival bowler, Ernie McCracken, who predictably steals the movie.  Every scene is ass-hole Murray at his best, whether he's turning Roy’s surname into cliché for failure (“These kids…they nearly got Munsoned.”) or refuting reporters’ inquiry into his pending paternity suit (“Please… I pulled outta her way early.)

7. Spaceballs.

I see your Schwartz is as big as mine. 

Here’s the thing: I knew I would seem much more academic and serious and somehow cool if I selected one of Mel Brooks’s more famous and celebrated films like Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, but I couldn’t lie to you dear blog readers. Brooks’ spirited Star Wars parody, Spaceballs is still my favorite. Why?  I dunno.  Probably the fact that Rick Moranis plays a Dearth Vader wannabe named Pith Helmet. Maybe it was Brooks getting beamed to the room next door only to find his head is on backwards. (“How come no one told me my ass was so big?”)  Maybe it was the room full of Mr. Ass Holes, or the Schwartz battle (“I see your Schwartz is as big as mine. Now let’s see how well you handle it.” ) Or maybe it was Pith Helmet playing with his dolls again.

I dunno.  

I just love it the most. OK? Back the fuck up.

6. Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day comes dangerously close to being one of those movies that may not actually be a comedy,  a dreaded dramedy that may rely too heavily on drama to still classify it as a comedy. But the first half of this movie is so funny it makes up for the second half, which is mostly sweet, light drama.   

I almost never watch Groundhog Day without feeling intense pangs of jealousy. Jealous of Harold Ramis, because I know I will never write anything so effortlessly clever and virile for comedy, and jealous of Bill Murray, because I will never be that good.  I like that the plot is absurd and contrived, and the script mines that for comedic inspiration. My favorite sequences are towards the beginning, when Murray’s weatherman is learning how to use his “curse” to his advantage to seduce a random woman at a diner, and then his boss. Watching these scenes for the first time, and slowly realizing what Murray is up to, is watching the perfect union between script and performer.

5 Airplane.

This and the next movie make up what I call the “Classics” portion of my list. You can’t have a best movies list without The Godfather and you can’t have a best comedies list without Airplane. 

Offended that I just compared Airplane to The Godfather? Consider this:

A. The movie all-but-invented two types of movie comedy: dead pan comedy and saturation humor. Dead pan is the pretense of seriousness, in comedy it means basically acting straight while saying ludicrous things. Peter Graves, Leslie Nielson, and Robert Graves put on an absolute clinic in dead pan humor in Airplane. How do they say it these days...? They totally pwned that shit. And saturation humor is basically stuffing so many jokes into a movie, in the foreground and background, that it doesn’t matter if only 30% of jokes work, because that equals roughly 1200 funny jokes.  Remember when the passengers panicked as the situation became dire and a topless woman walked in the aisle and jiggled her breasts for no reason?  That’s saturation-humor at its best, folks.

B. Video: I Speak Jive. 

Automatic co-pilot and stewardess, post-coital. 

4. Animal House.

The movie that would have been number one if 14-year old Gregory made this list, Animal House has nonetheless endured long enough to remain among my favorite funny films.   It’s no surprise that I connected to it more as a 14 year old then I do now because A. I had not yet been to college and fully expected it to be exactly like the Delta House and B. I always felt like I was breaking the rules watching Animal House, and that made it cooler.

My father loved Animal House and used to sneak my brother and I downstairs to watch, and my mother never approved. (Something about that scene where a Freshmen consults with the devil on whether or not to continue having sex with a passed-out 13 year-old girl with one breast.)  

The film is justifiably considered a classic. There are a myriad of reasons why it has been so loved for so long. For me, I love the combination of gross/out humor and underdog ramshackle ambivalence.  I love how the preppy fraternity is the bad guys, and all their leaders limp. I love how John Belushi chugs whisky and throws the bottle against the wall and then becomes senator. I could go on and on really.

It's a mathematic certainty that Kevin Bacon will end up in every movie. 

3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is essentially The Odd Couple Hits the Road, but the film rises above its familiar plot contrivances because of the talent of its leads, Steve Martin and John Candy. Steve Martin, playing against type (if you assume that his type by the mid-eighties was the bumbling buffoon of The Jerk or SNL’s “King Tut”) as a conservative, uptight business square, is pitch-perfect high-strung. Martin’s Neal Page is pure 80’s quiet desperation until John Candy’s exhaustingly affable (and annoying) Del Griffith sends him on a number of hilarious and poetically profane outbursts, the highlight of them being this:

But the real treat of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the unexpected dramatic talent of John Candy.  There were always sad undertones to the lovable-oaf character John Candy played to almost iconic status during his career. (I think it was by virtue of his weight. We tend to equate obesity to sadness, to our assumption that an overweight man is burdened to a life alone because no girl ever loves the fat guy. Candy’s standard good-natured performances underscored this, since they always seemed to be masking a deep loneliness.)   This subtext was hinted at in films like Uncle Buck or Only the Lonely, but in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Candy brings his loneliness to the forefront. It’s so effective that it reveals an entirely different level to a movie that features Steve Martin being lifted from the curb by his genitals.   In one scene in a Wichita motel, Martin finally lashes out and berates Candy. As the camera hangs on Candy’s face, such a legitimate pathos is generated that it pervades the entirety of the movie. This would make Planes, Trains and Automobiles seem gloomy, but it really just makes everything funnier because you unwittingly become so invested in the characters. A wonderful movie.

See what I mean?! Every movie!

2.  Hot Fuzz.

The follow-up to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s hilarious and surprisingly violent Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz cemented the duo as the preeminent purveyors of parody. If Britain’s idea of parody is Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and America’s idea is Scary Movie, Disaster Movie, Epic Movie and the rest of that putrid shit, then perhaps Britain should reclaim rule over its former subordinate.

I prefer Hot Fuzz out of the two, and if I were making my top ten favorite movies in any genre, it’s quite likely Hot Fuzz would make that list as well. I love how Pegg and Frost lampoon: with reverence.  They clearly love the material they are parodying, and it is evident in Hot Fuzz. The film’s setup is genius. The protagonist, played - as in Shaun of the Dead -by Simon Pegg, spends the first half of the movie deriding and discrediting any number of action-movie clichés, then realizes that employing those clichés is the only way to achieve justice in his cozy little English-hamlet, Sanford. The catalyst for this – when Pegg is about to flee town before seeing Point Break and Bad Boys 2 at a gas station – is parody genius.

1. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

I think this is the number one. There wasn’t going to be a resounding winner here; this wasn’t an easy list like say… a list of my top ten pizza toppings or my top two parents – this one took thought.  The difference in the amount of “funny” between number 10 and number 1 is indistinguishable, and if I were to tally the number of laughs each of the previous films elicited, there’s a good chance they would rank ahead of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. But DRS has hands-down the funniest sequence of any movie on the list, and therefore probably the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. If you’ve seen the movie, you know which scene I’m talking about, and if you haven’t seen it, you’ll know as soon as you do.

In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Michael Caine plays the debonair British con-artist to Steve Martin’s foul-mouthed, sleazy American counterpart in a hilarious game of one-upmanship. The pairing is genius, the script is excessively clever and the plots twists are genuinely surprising. The movie is proof that a comedy is best served with an intelligent script.

But it is Steve Martin’s six minutes as the imbecile, man-child Rupricht that represent the film’s high point.  Hyperbole be damned, this is probably the funniest six minutes I’ve ever seen in a movie. I can’t watch it with out tear-streaming laughter.  What makes this sequence so great is that while it is laden with sight gags and toilet humor, it really only works in the context of the movie – it’s infinitely funnier in the framework of the plot then if I just showed you the clip on Youtube.   And please don’t get the impression that Michael Caine has no hand in this comedy paradise, to the contrary. It’s the way Caine plays off Martin’s Rupricht that elevates it to the sublime. Witness the way Caine scolds Rupricht, they way he eggs Rupricht along in order to scare away his wealthy marks. In a testament to the cleverness of the script, it’s the reason why Michael Caine is employing Steve Martin in this role that makes it funnier. 

The rest of the movie is no slouch.  The sparring between the two leads is a constant delight.  It may not be the funniest funny movie I have ever seen. But every time I watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I get the distinct impression it’s the best. 

Comedy Genius. 

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