Five Steps to a Horrible Comedy

Nothing beats a great comedy in a packed movie theater. As the fun starts, a simple diversion for one becomes a shared pleasure for all; kind of like group sex, except everyone's facing forward and it’s less gross when the floor gets sticky. But when it’s a bad comedy, everyone shuffles out both angry at those responsible and ashamed to admit they were there. Actually, that’s sort of like group sex, too. Whatever. The point is, we’ve dug up five overused comedy techniques that—even if they worked brilliantly once—have now become clear-cut signs of outright hackery. These five steps are to be avoided at all costs so that everyone’s cinematic comedy experiences might be a bit more (or less) like group sex. You know what we mean.


#1: The Foul-Mouthed Old Lady

Sheriff Bart: "Mornin', ma'am. And isn't it a lovely mornin'?"

Elderly Woman: "Up Yours, Nigger!"

So quoth the late, great Jessamine Milner (1894-1983), responding to the polite greeting of Rock Ridge' first black sheriff in the classic Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles. That line, just a small part of a brilliantly funny screenplay, (co-written by Brooks and Richard Pryor, among others) encapsulated one of the most daring premises in comedy history: What if the small town of the Hollywood western, the seed of the tree of modern America, was filled with such unredeemable bigotry that to save it from destruction was a waste of everyone' time? To have a sweet old lady deliver a line that harsh summed this up brilliantly, and was funny as hell.

Since then, an old lady cursing has become an easy laugh, a dose of vulgarity from an unexpected source. We've seen foul mouthed old ladies plaguing films from Police Academy to Road Trip, Happy Gilmore to Wedding Crashers - cursing, rapping, doing bong hits, wearing bondage gear, making out with each other and flipping the bird. Sure, it was kind of fun to hear an old lady talk dirty... the first 15 times. But you know what' also kind of fun? Letting an actress who lived through the Great Depression wrap up her career with a shred of her motherfucking dignity. And yes, Adam Sandler, I'm talking to you.



#2: The American Pie Epidemic

On February 12th, 1999, the Senate acquitted President William Jefferson Clinton of two articles of impeachment, marking the end of the most sexually graphic era in the history of mass media. It was a time when the Congressional record featured cigars in vaginas, the New York Times told tales of semen-stained dresses, and even wrinkled old gasbag Dan Rather grew enough of a pair to say "fellatio" on the evening news. If the action was this hot in the morning newspaper, the teen sex comedy was going to need a serious overhaul. Three months later, it got one.

If mom and apple pie were enduring symbols of America, American Pie would shove a fat cock into both of them, with a flute in a pussy for good measure, because it was the 90's after all, and we were sensitive to women' needs. Yes, America was different now - a nation that would literally fuck anything.

American Pie might not have been a masterpiece, but it was the right film at the right time, making more than ten times its money back by October. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, credited... the acting. Soon, the teenage cast started appearing above the titles of some of the largest cinematic abortions in film comedy history - an incomplete list that includes Loser, Saving Silverman, Anything Else, Jersey Girl, Say It Isn't So, Just Friends, Tomcats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Van Wilder, My Boss's Daughter, Freddy Got Fingered, Evolution and many, many more. There were a few exceptions along the way (Alyson Hannigan in Buffy, Sean William Scott in Dude, Where' my Car?), but it takes exceptions to prove a rule. It' time to stop the insanity, or at the very least get Jason Biggs back where he belongs - behind the greeter' desk of a T.G.I. Fridays.


#3: Skinny Guys, Fat Suits

Since the dawn of film comedy, there have been funny fat guys. They may not represent high art, but from Fatty Arbuckle to John Candy, Curly Howard to John Belushi, fat dudes make us laugh.

Until recently, that is. In 1996, Universal Pictures and Imagine entertainment released The Nutty Professor, a film with the following strikes against it:

1.) It starred Eddie Murphy, whose five previous films (Vampire in Brooklyn, Beverly Hills Cop III, The Distinguished Gentleman, Boomerang and Another 48 Hours) were so awful that if he kept it up, continuing to cast the funniest man of the 1980’s would have been this article’s 6th step.

2.) It was a remake of a Jerry Lewis movie, a performer disliked by everyone except victims of Muscular Dystrophy and the French.

3.) It featured not one, but TWO foul mouthed old ladies (see Step One) BOTH of which were played by Eddie Murphy (see Strike One).

And then, a miracle happened. It was funny. The great Eddie Murphy, with his back against the wall, showed not only flashes of the old dirty charm, but passed the torch of great black comedy to a young Dave Chappelle, who stole a scene with his amazing portrayal of a hack comedian destroyed by the slick comebacks of Murphy' Buddy Love.

Yet Hollywood, who couldn't seem to see that it' not the fat suit that' funny, it' who' funny in the fat suit, went on to produce flop after foam rubber-filled flop, putting Gwyneth Paltrow in the suit for Shallow Hal, Julia Roberts under the rubber in America' Sweethearts, Martin Lawrence in not one but two Big Mama' House movies, and more recently, Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends, Kenan Thompson in Fat Albert and Alyson Hannigan in the suicide-inducingly unfunny Date Movie (See Step Two).

John Candy' dead now, and comedy is the poorer for it, but this is America, and you can't tell me that that a real fat person is difficult to find. So c'mon Hollywood! In the name of Lou Costello, give a real fat comic a job! You know they're out there, you know they're funny, and let' be honest, we don't want them going hungry.



#4: Race-Switching

Dewey 'Ox' Oxberger: "He said... black guys... help the white guys.'

In the 1981 comedy Stripes, during a scene in which the platoon has to stay up all night learning how to do their drills, a brief racial conflict breaks out after John Candy' character gets offended for no good reason at all. And as anyone who knows good comedy knows, if it happened in the first half of Stripes, it' worth paying attention to. (The second half of Stripes is all a silly chase scene that only holds your attention because the music rules.)

But the lesson here is that racial sensitivity is an odd thing, with shifting values and hard to define rules, and Stripes hit it on the head; the only way to get past black and white is to find common ground, or Bill Murray' case, shifting the debate entirely into a discussion of Old Yeller.

The fact is, race is a tough issue. Over the years, we have seen images of African Americans removed from children' cartoons, Aunt Jemima' doo-rag expunged from our syrup bottles, and had it irrevocably drilled into our heads that the blackface antics of the minstrel show performers Al Jolson or Amos and Andy were not only not funny, but untrue, offensive and hurtful. So why in God' name can't we do anything about Jamie Kennedy? And why is it that the Wayans brothers get no shit for setting the civil rights movement back 60 years with 2004' White Chicks, yet Peter Seller' brilliant comedic performance as bumbling Indian national Hrundi V. Bakshi would never be replicated today for fear of being labeled too offensive?

Race in this country is always going to be unsteady ground, and the best comics will boldly address it. But rather than pick sides and point out when having a character of one race comically acting like another race was done well, and when it wasn't, here' a rule. Don't do it all. Sure we might miss out on a funny performance or two, but we also wouldn't have the images of the old, pimped-out Steve Martin and Warren Beatty burned into our retinas from the terminally embarrassing movies Bringing Down the House and Bulworth. Here' an easy tip. White guys play the white guys, black guys play the black guys. Everybody' funny. Can't we all just get along?

#5: Faded Star Plays Against Type

Bob Barker, playing himself in 1996' Happy Gilmore: "Now you've had enough... bitch."

Okay - so I know I railed against Adam Sandler in Step One. And if you only know Bobcat Goldthwait from his screeching standup character that appeared over and over again in the Police Academy movies, I have something to tell you about both of those guys. They are very, very funny men who deserve the success they've received.

If you don't believe me, turn off your computer right now and go rent the 1992 comic masterpiece Shakes the Clown. This cult classic, featuring both Goldthwait and Sandler in a supporting role, received one of the best capsule reviews in the history of film comedy: "The Citizen Kane of Alcoholic Clown Movies. And the comparison is an apt one. Just as Orson Welles did in Kane, Goldthwait wrote, directed and played the title role in a film that would start new trends and inspire filmmakers for years to come. What Orson Welles did for deep focus and low-angle cinematography, Goldthwait did for portraying clowns as drunks, mimes as annoying and yes, cameo appearances of beloved TV stars playing against type.

When a film begins with a disoriented clown waking up from a blackout drunk to find himself in bed with TV' Florence Henderson, trashily smeared with clown makeup and with a large hickey on her breast, you know that this would be a different kind of comedy. Sandler, to his credit, successfully repeated the idea with Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, and then the floodgates broke. From the Brady Bunch movie to William Shatner singing Priceline ads, to the cringeworthy embarrassment of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (featuring everyone from Dustin Diamond to Dick Van Patten), this gag - while brilliant once - has outlived its usefulness.

Put simply, there would be no Surreal Life without Shakes the Clown. And while it might be hard to say that' a bad thing, you have to give it up for the innovators. Which is the point of this whole thing. Comedy is great when innovators, not imitators, are at work. So let' retire these five steps, and let the new gags develop. A world of new banana peels awaits.

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