Sickboy Syndrome: Five Great Comedians Who've Lost It
There's a scene in 1996's Trainspotting where Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller) sit on a grassy knoll shooting BBs at a dog's rectum and discussing the slow decline in quality of the James Bond films. By way of explanation, Sickboy offers the following platitude:
Sick Boy: It's certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life.
Renton: What do you mean?
Sick Boy: Well, at one time, you've got it... and then you lose it... and it's gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed...
Renton: Some of his solo stuff's not bad.
Sick Boy: No, it's not bad, but it's not great either. And in your heart you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it's actually just... shite.
Renton: So who else?
Sick Boy: Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley...
Renton: OK, OK, so what's the point you're trying to make?
Sick Boy: All I'm trying to do is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Renton: What about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don't rate that at all.
Renton: Despite the Academy Award?
Sick Boy: That means fuck all. It's a sympathy vote.
Renton: Right. So we all get old and then we can't hack it anymore. Is that it?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
Renton: That's your theory?
Sick Boy: Yeah. Beautifully fucking illustrated.
Well, actually, it was more like "Sowae allgit old an' cannoe hackitaymoe," thanks to the pair's impenetrable Scottish brogues. And sure, the philosophy's been expressed elsewhere-probably by philosophers, I can't be bothered to check; and most definitely by Neil Young ("It's better to burn out than to fade away"). But I can't think of anyone who's put it as succinctly or as cruelly:
You get older. You can't hack it anymore.
In the pages that follow, we've put forward five comedians who, at one point in their otherwise stellar careers, started to age, as tends to happen. There was a time when their names were spoken in hushed, revered tones. Then, at some point, they became That Old Guy Who Voices The Groundhog in That Shitty Kid's Movie.
Tragically, it's doomed to happen to us all, at some point (getting older, not voicing cartoon groundhogs). Read on to find out when it happened to them.
Way back when, in what surely seems a lifetime ago, Steve Martin was a comedy god. Ã'Ã His guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show propelled him into the national consciousness. Even if you didn't grow up during that era, SNL repeats have made King Tut (a song Martin wrote and performed himself) a part of comedy history. How many other comedians can say that they were responsible for lines that became national catchphrases-like, "Excuuuuuse me!" or Ã'Ã "We're just two wild and crazy guys" (in a heavy Czech accent)? Ã'Ã
The list of films from Martin's personal golden era include such comedy gems like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dead Man Don't Wear Plaid, The Three Amigos, Planes, Trains & Automobiles and, of course, the classic smart-dumb comedy The Jerk.
The guy who plays straight man to the comedy stylings of Queen Latifah. That's like getting them both to collaborate on a rap album, and having her hold the mic while Martin freestyles about money and bitches. Besides late-term abortions like Bringing Down the House, there's also Looney Tunes: Back in Action and this year's Pink Panther to consider, where Martin once again dropped a rung on the comedy ladder, this time playing straight man to Beyonce, of all people. The fact that the studio held Panther back for over a year should tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that the comedy stylings of Martin/Beyonce weren't on par with the classic dry wit of the Martin/Latifah years.
And of course, there's the family fare like Father of the Bride (1 and 2) and Cheaper by the Dozen (both 1 and 2, the second one featuring the similarly fallen-from-grace Eugene Levy). Taking those kinds of standard studio roles allows Martin the financial freedom to do pet projects such as Shopgirl, based on his novella of the same name. Interestingly, both Shopgirl and The Pink Panther have one thing in common: since nobody has ever stayed awake through them, nobody knows how either actually ends.
Martin's turning point probably came when he decided to write and star in movies of personal importance to him, beginning with 1987's Roxanne, Martin's take on Cyrano de Bergerac. Since then, he's also starred in some dramas as well, including David Mamet's excellent film The Spanish Prisoner (absolutely worth renting). Ã'Ã
But when a talented avant-guarde comedian goes dramatic on us, or starts starring alongside a cartoon or in formula movies that studio suits come up with (Sgt. Bilko, anyone?) it usually means that he's stopped caring about getting laughs altogether, and is either aiming for some credibility or a paycheck. And as we all know, there's nothing funnier than a credible, rich comedian.
Come back to us, Steve. Follow the white light.
Martin needs to stop thinking he can write and act. While he's a gifted writer, his writing is more dry and philosophical than it is comedic. Martin's gifts lie in his comedic timing and dead-pan delivery. Ã'Ã Salvation can come in the form of some choice, off-beat indie comedies-a path forged by Bill Murray. Ã'Ã Martin would be well-advised to follow suit.
One of the most versatile members of SNL in an era when that genuinely meant something. Mike Myers held his own alongside stars like Chris Farley and Phil Hartman, winning fans over with his ability to play just about any character you threw at him. Sure, some of them were, well... fucking annoying ("Hey, did you guys hear? The Coffee Talk Lady likes Barbara Streisand!"); but the Wayne's World sketches had their moments, and its big screen adaptation remains one of the finest SNL films to date (not saying much, sure, but still).
Myers was always at his best when he wasn't putting on some crazy get up and doing wacky accents. Like Will Ferrell after him, he was a likable team player who gave 100% even in bit parts, turning one-joke premises into memorable classics.
An actor mincing around in a cat costume terrifying children. And while the last half of that sentence is an admirable career goal, one could argue that you hardly need to embarrass yourself with a cat costume when a loaded gun could achieve the same result.
If you took all of Myers's most annoying characters from his days on SNL, put them in a blender, poured the resulting acidic stomach bile into an ice cube tray, stuffed the resulting ice cubes into a sock and beat your mother to death with it until the sock was soft and dripping, you'd have no real idea what Myers's career has become, but you would probably be wanted by the police.
Evidently, Myers has a clause in his contract stating that he will not appear in front of the camera unless outfitted with at least 30 pounds of prosthetics and makeup. The last time he appeared in a comedy without a zany get-up plastered across his face? 1993.
Many would point to Myers playing the Cat in the Hat, his attempt at a dramatic turn in Studio 54 or even his romantic comedy So I Married an Axe Murderer as the pivotal shark-jumping point in Myers's career. But no. The first real danger sign was apparent as early as Wayne's World 2, when Myers first exhibited his willingness to blatantly retread jokes as many times as someone'd be willing to pay him to.
Wayne's World 2, the first of many unnecessary sequels from Myers, was essentially Wayne's World 1 but without the... no, actually, let me rephrase that. It was Wayne's World 1. They might have used the Search and Replace function in Microsoft Word to change around a few nouns, but otherwise, you could probably watch both movies back to back while stoned to get a "Dark Side of the Moon syncs up with The Wizard of Oz" effect going.
But Wayne's World 2 ended up being a mere prelude to Myers's whoring of his other opus, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. A genuinely charming and funny film in its own right, Powers ended up spawning two bloated big-budget sequels, each of them making ten powzillion times as much money as the original without coming up with one original new gag in their collected four hour running time.
Strangely enough, Myers's awkward squirm following Kanye West's declaration that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" reminded us of how great he once was. Years before, in one of his finest sketches on SNL, he played a pasta maker salesman trying to hide from the infomercial camera as Heather Locklear denied the Holocaust and called Mexican people lazy. As Myers squirmed on stage next to Kanye West last year, we came to the sickening realization that this was by far the funniest thing that he had done in six years.
The best we can hope for now is that that the unintentional hilarity of that awkward moment awakened in Myers some long dormant memory of where true comedy comes from, and spurs a career revival.
Our generation's Jerry Lewis, only not as cringe-inducing or overtly misogynistic. First appearing on TV in 1993, the rubber-faced Canadian established himself as one of the nation's top comedians on the sketch show In Living Color (not an easy task for anyone, let alone a lanky, malnourished white dude).
But it wasn't until 1994's Ace Ventura Pet Detective-in which he played a pet detective named, wait for it, Ace Ventura-that Carrey placed himself in Steve Martin territory. Shortly afterwards, he starred in one of the best (and most hilariously over-quoted) comedies of all time, Dumb & Dumber, securing his status as a comedy icon and going on to star in classics like The Cable Guy and Liar, Liar.
When a casting agent says to himself, "For this poorly-written drama, I'd like a former comedian who used to act all crazy and coked-out on stage, but now stars in a shitty, wannabe tear-jerker every 15 months for a big payday, but isn't as old and dumb as Robin Williams," Carrey is there to answer.
There have been exceptions, like shitty, wannabe comedies (Bruce Almighty, Fun With Dick and Jane) and non-shitty, wannabe Oscar-winners (Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Man on The Moon), but no one has cry-laughed at a Jim Carrey movie since 2000, when his role in the Farrelly brothers's Me, Myself & Irene narrowly accomplished that feat.
In 1998, with his brilliant performance in the vastly underrated sci-fi-romantic-comedy-surreal-fable-drama-adventure-satire, The Truman Show. After that film's success, Carrey (or at least his handlers) was convinced that he should continue to tackle drama, and he started taking on particularly unfunny roles.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas? The Majestic? Lemony Snicket's A Series of PG Crap? What the hell? Jim Carrey's foray into the non-comedic is disturbingly similar to Michael Jordan's foray into baseball-why would someone so talented abandon their art?
Because they're selfish, fan-hating pricks, that's why. (Okay-maybe not. We just hope Carrey follows Jordan's lead and comes back to his real calling.)
After last year's revolting "comedy," Dick and Jane, Carrey took some time off to regroup and enjoy all the piles of money he made from going dramatic. He'll return this February, in Joel Schumacher's thriller, The Number 23, as a man who's consumed by a novel telling the story of his life and ending with-dun, dun, dun-a murder! (23's plot sounds astoundingly similar to that of Will Ferrell's next film, December's Stranger Than Fiction).
With this project, it's pretty clear that Carrey's given up on being funny. But if he can return to Truman Show form (or even Eternal Sunshine form), he'll do what Robin Williams hasn't: establish himself a consistently good dramatic actor.
The Funniest Man in America. When Murphy caught fire in the early 80', he single-handedly resuscitated the almost-cancelled SNL with signature characters like Mr. Robinson, James Brown and Buckwheat. Murphy catapulted to instant stardom, churning out comedy classic after classic, including 48 Hrs, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, all while selling out arenas with his stand-up act. Murphy's explosion cemented him as one of the most important and relevant comedic talents to ever hit it big.
In the early 80's, Eddie Murphy could literally do no wrong. Even when he sucked, he was hilarious. The Dudley Moore comedy Best Defense, in which he had a cameo role, ended up being a complete bomb, a financial disaster and a target of movie critics everywhere. Rather than champion the film, Murphy-who'd received a then-unheard of $3 million to appear in it-obliterated Defense on the air during an SNL monologue, calling it "the worst movie in the history of everything." Murphy added, "If they paid you to do Best Defense what they paid me to do Best Defense, y'all would have done Best Defense too." He walked away from the box office disaster more popular than ever.
What Dave Chappelle stays up at night being terrified of becoming. Murphy's resume from the last decade reads like a comprehensive list of shit no right-thinking man would want to star in, including Dr. Doolittle, Holy Man, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Daddy Day Care, I Spy and The Haunted Mansion. I mean, with all due respect, Jesus.
Murphy's mid-90's career slump forced him to completely make over his image from expletive-hurling bad-ass to family-friendly teddy bear. Considering that this is the same guy who released two stand-up shows on video that could have been called Eddie Murphy Thoroughly Hates Gay People Parts 1 & 2, you've got to hand it to him.
The problem with being hailed for half a decade as the best thing to ever happen to entertainment is that it might, sorta, kinda give you a bit of a big head about it. The first indication that Murphy might have been a bit too wrapped up in his own press appeared during his stand-up video Raw, with his decision to appear in a faux-leather, body-hugging purple jumpsuit ("for the ladies," presumably).
But it was Murphy's attempt to segue his comedy fame into rock stardom in the late 80's, foisting two alarmingly terrible albums on an unsuspecting populace-as well as the singles "Whatzupwitu" and "Put Your Mouth on Me"-that said to the world, "Hello, my name is Eddie Murphy, and I take myself far, far too seriously."
If it isn't a general rule that a comedian should never release media to the public that frankly, and in all seriousness, demands it put its mouth on him, trust me on this-there should be.
Well, he's put in some decently funny turns as Donkey in Shrek and...
and then there was also...
...oh, who are we kidding, it's over. Watch for Eddie Murphy to continue making G-rated pablum before sliding gradually into obscure fatso porn titled Klumpfuckers: The Nutty Professor's Sexy Pigroast.
A ball of manic, inventive coked-up energy. Williams gained a cult following that gradually blossomed into stardom for his high-energy, largely improvised stand-up, which turned him into the must-see comedy act of the time. Williams parlayed this word of mouth into a high-profile starring role on the hit sitcom Mork & Mindy, where he once again made headlines for the irreverant improvisational tangents he'd take off on during the show (a rarity even then for a medium known best for its canned laughter and heavy scripting.)
Williams wouldn't stay on the small screen long, and soon after began a highly successful film career, sporadically leaving comedy behind to pursue increasingly dramatic roles.
What "Trying Too Hard" looks like when its flopping. With every passing year, Williams gets that much more manic delivering his comedy in an attempt to look dangerous and hip. He mostly just ends up looking like your dad trying to impress your friends with his three tired impressions.
Williams has been acting in dramas for the entirety of his film career, from The World According to Garp (1982) to Dead Poet's Society (1989), making it difficult to argue that he was ever a comedian in the first place.
If you had to point to the first film where Williams was clearly trying to be funny, but sort of thrashing around in a failed attempt to do so, it'd most likely be Good Morning, Vietnam, wherein Williams interprets "Hilarious radio DJ" as someone who impersonates an Angry Black Man, Gay Hairdresser and Southern Preacher in an endless, irritating soundloop. It's the movie equivelant of getting locked in a room with a Paul Reiser robot that's stuck on "Joke About Airline Peanuts" mode.
If you're not able to make people laugh anymore, at least make it look like you're not trying on purpose. Williams's attempts at Serious Actordom and recent Oscar gold at least make the case that his departure from comedy was a choice, and not a room full of loved ones intervening, sitting him down and saying, "Listen, about these 'jokes' you keep telling..."
Plus, even if his comedic output these days consists of runny post-KFC stool like RV, hilarious cameos as himself in movies like The Aristocrats show he can still work blue when he's not making movies the whole family can despise.