One of the trickiest aspects of writing my book was figuring out how to structure it. After tinkering with a variety of approaches, I settled on 30 chapters, each dedicated to a single filmmaker or performer whose body of work I considered to be significant to the history of American film comedy. These 30 selections were joined by about 100 additional short entries on comic figures significant enough to deserve a mention, if not quite meritorious enough to earn a chapter of their own. 130 directors and actors seems like a lot, and I got to include most of the people I wanted, but as I expected from the outset, readers and reviewers have often been most interested in discussing the exclusions. (That is, after all, a significant part of the pleasure of assembling a list, and what is a book about film other than a bulked-up list of movie suggestions?) I’ve enjoyed the discussions, kept them in mind, and pondered who else might deserve inclusion. (Second edition, anyone?)
Here, then, are a handful of performers and directors who just missed the cut.
The time between completion of a book and publication makes for strange gaps, including the exclusion of Steve Carell. With the one-two-three punch of Dinner for Schmucks, Date Night, and animated hit Despicable Me, 2010 was the year that confirmed Carell as one of the most successful comedians of the moment. I excluded him first time around because I felt that, even taking into account the brilliant 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine, Carell had too short a film resume to warrant inclusion (his vaunted television run as The Office’s Michael Scott notwithstanding). 2010’s parade of hits has meant that Carell must be acknowledged as a consistently funny performer. Carell can be a wizardly comedian, but the roles he has taken on have not always adequately reflected his mastery of a certain brand of goofy lassitude.
Superstar, or flash in the pan? I wasn’t entirely convinced by The Hangover, but this past season of Bored to Death, HBO’s sublimely stoned comedy series about New York neurotics (what up, Brooklyn!), gives me hope for Galifianakis’ future. Audiences felt that It’s Kind of a Funny Story wasn’t, but Galifianakis’ puppy-dog indie charm may be enough to propel him to a more lasting stardom nonetheless.
One of the funniest comedians of the 1950s not named Jerry Lewis, Kaye built his career on such light-hearted burlesques as A Song Is Born and The Court Jester, where he played a carnie posing as a court jester to take on an imposter king. Kaye made a career out of his bug-eyed expressions of panic and confusion. If Gary Cooper was the absent-minded professor to a T in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, Kaye was a more-than-suitable replacement in “A Song Is Born,” Hawks’ musical update of the same material. Like Lewis, and other writers and performers of roughly the same era, like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, Kaye was a product of the Catskills—a Borscht Belt comedian trained by the tough audiences of middle-class Jews on vacation, convinced they were being swindled out of their hard-earned dollars. After that, entertaining America was a breeze.
I included the ZAZ team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker, the brilliantly sophomoric trio responsible for Airplane! and The Naked Gun trilogy. ZAZ were masters of laugh-out-loud idiocy, and one of their most dazzling strokes of genius was understanding the untapped comic potential of stolid 1950s leading men like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and more than anyone else, the recently deceased Leslie Nielsen. Nielsen had been a mostly undistinguished distinguished gentleman in forgettable fare, best known for the sci-fi gem Forbidden Planet, before the ZAZ boys cast him in “Airplane!” Voila—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum about there being no second acts in American life was instantly voided, with Nielsen finding renewed vigor as a ludicrous leading man, leading an off-key rendition of the national anthem, or disrupting a courtroom by forgetting to unclip his microphone before heading to the bathroom.
Saul Austerlitz, author of the recently published Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog all week.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Authors Blog.
In writing my book Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, I spent a lot of time concentrating on the greatest films in the history of American comedy: your City Lights, your Shop Around the Corners, your Annie Halls. But often, the most pleasurable films I watched over the course of researching my book were the ones that were surprisingly decent. The mediocre films that turned out to be pretty funny; the supposedly terrible movies that I found myself, to my surprise, enjoying.
In their honor, I’d like to single out five pleasant surprises from among the ranks of American comedies. These might not be movies you’d want at the top of your Netflix queue, but you might find yourself pleasantly surprised if you happened to come across them, anyway.
5. Teacher’s Pet
Instead of being partnered with second-tier stars like Gordon MacRae, or Reagan, by the late 1950s Doris Day was starring opposite Clark Gable in 1958’s Teacher’s Pet. Directed by George Seaton, Teacher’s Pet establishes the template for the Rock Hudson films to come. Day is a professor of journalism attempting to recruit crusty newspaperman Gable to guest-lecture to her class, not knowing he is already enrolled as a student. Gable is a bit elderly for the role—you can see his hands shake when he thrusts a newspaper at Day—but the two work up a nice comic routine, with Day idealistic and sunny, and her foil cantankerous and vinegary, loving women without respecting them: “You mean to tell me that now they’ve got dames teaching unsuspecting suckers?”
Gable is most believable at his most crabbed; when he melts for Doris, the moment is hardly in keeping with the role, or with Gable himself, who never met a dame he didn’t want to push around. Day, meanwhile, struggles to maintain the appropriate distance from her student, but physical contact, like the kiss Gable snatches in her office, leaves her a little woozy, and gasping for breath. We know Doris has sex on the brain because she spurns the advances of Nobel Prize-winning scientist and author Gig Young (this film’s Tony Randall equivalent), preferring something in a more dashing cut.
4. Hardly Working
“JERRY LEWIS IS HARDLY WORKING,” reads the title card to Hardly Working (1980), and the announcement is a suppressed howl of outrage at his career setbacks—how could I not be working? —and a capsule summary of the film. His character—an unemployed clown with a familiarly Lewis-esque proclivity for courting disaster—is ushered into a series of ill-fitting jobs (gas-station attendant, bartender, Japanese chef), each of which ends calamitously. The dialogue was risible, only rarely rising above the insipid, but something—perhaps the time away—had made the old Lewis routines charming once more.
Lewis was scripting his own triumphant return, on his own terms. “I’m not a clown,” his Bo Hooper tells a friend. “Not anymore.” Lewis wants it both ways; he is the clown no longer, but Hardly Working’s triumphant conclusion has him donning the white makeup once more, delivering the mail to an adoring crowd. Never the subtlest of artists, Lewis was having his midlife crisis onscreen, and scripting his own happy ending.
3. ¡Three Amigos!
Steve Martin co-wrote ¡Three Amigos! (1986) with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels and singer-songwriter Randy Newman, and starred alongside Chevy Chase and Martin Short. The threesome are silent-era stars, pampered, sissified actors given to playing swashbuckling Spanish noblemen in their films. Fired by their studio, they are summoned to the Mexican village of Santo Poco to take on the evil El Guapo and his henchman Jefe. The actors are convinced they have been hired to put on a show, in which they symbolically overcome the local tyrants. Instead, they have been hired to fight, in entirely non-symbolic fashion.
What ¡Three Amigos! lacks in focus, it makes up for with the enormously gratifying chemistry between its three stars, and a script that, whatever its narrative faults, is overstuffed with delirious wordplay. There are some trademark Steve Martin moments, plumbing the depths of his feeble-mindedness. “Not so fast, El Guapo, or I’ll fill you so full of lead you’ll be using your dick for a pencil!” he announces, putting on his most officious white-man voice. “What do you mean?” El Guapo asks puzzledly. Martin pauses, and admits the truth without sacrificing an iota of his empty-headed intensity: “I don’t know.” ¡Three Amigos! has a giddy, rollicking silliness that is catching. Neither a great movie, nor a particularly good one, ¡Three Amigos! is a transcendent, endlessly rewatchable mediocrity.
2. Blades of Glory
The bad-boy outlaw fallen on hard times was Will Ferrell’s bread and butter, with Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby followed in short order by Chazz Michael Michaels, whose reign atop the world of competitive figure skating is brought to an unfortunate conclusion by a brawl on the medal platform at the Olympics. Banned for life from men’s figure skating, he is matched with nemesis Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder), forming the first-ever all-male pairs team. Ferrell is the star here, but the rhythms are mostly Heder’s; much of the dialogue sounds as if it had been excised at the last minute from Napoleon Dynamite.
In case the men’s figure skating angle had not alerted you, Blades of Glory (2007) is unendingly amused by the homoerotic possibilities of its plot. The skating sequences manage to squeeze references to every possible permutation of gay sex into their brief routines. Ladies, don’t be alarmed; Chazz is no queer, but rather a sex addict with a raging libido. “Are you an official here?” he asks Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan (practically the only American skater who doesn’t cameo in Blades of Glory is Tonya Harding). “Because you’ve officially given me a boner.”
Norbit (2007) was both proof of Eddie Murphy’s diminishment, and a reminder of his still-formidable comic gifts. For his multiple roles in the film, directed by Brian Robbins, Murphy garnished a record haul of awards, taking home prizes for actor, supporting actor, and supporting actress. Pity, then, that his were courtesy of the Razzies, dedicated to honoring the worst performances of the year. Revisiting what by now had come to be a familiar trope, Murphy is both the nebbishy, unhappily married, Jiff-like Norbit, and his demon-bride, Rasputia. Murphy was in an abusive relationship with himself, dominated by his overweight, tyrannical, undyingly crass wife. With its relentless barrage of racial and gender stereotypes, wielded with all the deftness of a polo mallet to the skull, Norbit single-handedly sets the cause of civil rights—nay, the cause of combating stupidity—back by two decades.
Rasputia in particular is a noxious creation, the anti-Sherman Klump. She is, as we first see her, an overgrown child, intent on having her way in all matters: shooting at terminal velocity down a water-park slide, leaping hungrily onto Norbit in a deftly rendered series of bedroom encounters. Her corpulence is taken as symbolic proof of her nefariousness, each undulating ribbon of fat coming in for its own individual ribbing. And yet, accepting its blatantly obvious flaws, Norbit is, at times, a surprisingly funny film. Murphy may not be working with his most vividly rendered material, but with Rasputia (“How you doin’!”), he is at the height of his powers of Nutty Professor-esque inventiveness. She is an untamed rapscallion, and Murphy (who co-wrote the film’s story with his brother Charlie) loves her unquestioningly, political correctness be damned.
Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy is now in stores. Check back all week for Saul Austerlitz’s blog posts, and read his articles on MyJewishLearning.com.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Jewish Authors Blog.
Being on tour for a book is simultaneously an exhilarating and a terrifying experience. Exhilarating because, after toiling so lengthily in the mines of authorial solitude, it is a pleasure of no small import to emerge to the surface, book in hand, and talk about it with friends, family, and total strangers. Terrifying because, as all authors who have ever done a book tour can attest to, the midnight panic that occasionally bubbles up, convinced you’ll give a reading and no one—literally not a single person—will show up.
Thankfully, that did not happen to me during my tour for my new book Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I occasionally broke out into a cold sweat at the prospect of.
Some writers are also good talkers, but many writers — myself included — would prefer to gather their thoughts in front of a computer, with unlimited time to gather my ideas and refine them before releasing them to the world at large. Speaking in public offers no such assurances. Like an actor, you must deliver on the spot. Acting is actually a fairly good comparison to giving a reading; there were times where I felt like an actor of whom a performance was required, and like an actor, there were times when I felt like I was playing a role, playing “the author.” But I ended up surprising myself at times with my capacity to perform. Shakespeare, here I come!
The thing about a book tour is that each stop is completely different from the previous one, even if the talk you give is the same every time. Some of my readings, like those in my hometown, Los Angeles, and New York, where I live, were filled with friends and family, while others were composed entirely of people I didn’t know. (Weirdly, I felt more confident in front of the strangers.)
The best part of the tour, hands down, was the people I met along the way. In San Diego, I got to hang out before the reading with the shop’s owner and some of his friends, who
were devotees of 1940s comedy, and had some terrific recommendations for films I hadn’t even heard of. In Philadelphia, I had a long talk after the reading with a guy planning a blog devoted to the television shows his wife watched. In Raleigh, I got quizzed thoroughly by the wonderful students at North Carolina State University, who wanted to talk about Tyler Perry and whether I thought The Hangover was any good (I loved it, in case you’re wondering). Best of all, in New Haven, I got to share the stage with one of my favorite teachers from college, whose class on comedy had helped to inspire Another Fine Mess.
Touring for Another Fine Mess was a wonderful opportunity for me to engage with comedy fans of all stripes — everyone from college professors teaching courses on Charlie Chaplin to casual fans of Will Ferrell, and all points in between. I surprised myself by especially enjoyed the question-and-answer sessions after my readings, when I faced a virtual firing squad of rapid-fire questions on everything from the importance of Preston Sturges to the comedic canon to the charms of Bill Murray.
I had expected to find the barrage intimidating, and tongue-tying, and was pleasantly surprised to find the air of nervous expectation (what will they ask next?) deeply enjoyable. Even the guy in North Carolina who asked me, apropos of nothing, about my feelings about Schindler’s List (and later revealed himself to be a Jew for Jesus), managed not to throw me entirely off my game. Bring on the questions!
Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy is now in stores. Check back all week for Saul Austerlitz‘s blog posts, and read his articles on MyJewishLearning.com.