Can Movie Comedies Age Well?
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Monday on Cracked Movie Club, we'll discuss Drop Dead Gorgeous which you literally can't watch anywhere unless you know a guy (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll hook you up). The episode releases Monday at 3PM EST.
Until then. A thought.
From Dave Chappelle's recent, controversial special to this interesting essay on the state of modern comedy audiences from the guy who wrote Airplane! (which immediately inspired headlines like “Airplane!’ Director David Zucker Decries Cancel Culture, Claims It’s Stifling Comedy” despite the term “cancel culture” appearing zero times in the essay), it's clear comedic evaluation is having something of a moment. Audiences are asking, “What is the purpose of comedy? Should we re-evaluate older comedic pieces through a modern lens or leave them alone as products of their time? Should creators be held accountable for older jokes that haven't aged well? What about current jokes that already feel outdated? Is cancel culture real? What even is cancel culture?”
These are all great and worthwhile questions that somebody much smarter than me should answer. Probably the folks writing for ComedyNerd. What's most interesting to me as an idiot who mostly just watches movies is how and why certain older, intentionally offensive movie comedies manage to stand the test of time. Cinematic history is littered with Long Duk Dongs and anythings played by Kevin Spacey just as likely to make you laugh as set your TV and self on fire. And on one level it makes sense, right? If a certain vein of comedy is all about pushing the boundaries of good taste — and the boundaries of good taste are constantly in flux — then inevitably most older comedies will age like fine wine that's been pissed in. As Seth Rogen claims, “Jokes are not things that necessarily are built to last.”
But then why do people keep obsessing over Drop Dead Gorgeous? When the film hit streaming in 2019 (only to become impossible to find a year or so later), dozens of opinion pieces popped up defending the film as one of the greatest, most underrated comedies of the past 20 years. This despite the movie being extremely offensive in ways that feel extremely dated. The entire film is set in and around a small Minnesota town, and that town is populated with some questionable stuff. There's a character with an intellectual disability who seemingly exists solely to perform pratfalls and be repeatedly referred to by the r-word. There's a Japanese family where the main joke appears to be “they have an accent.” There are seemingly misogynistic depictions of stock characters like the promiscuous cheerleader and the “trailer trash” mom. There's a girl suffering from an eating disorder.
And YET, there also seems to be something deeper at work. The villains co-opt religion and conservative values to cheat and get ahead. The Japanese family is off-putting not solely because they speak with an accent, but because they're so completely sold on this jingoistic John Wayne version of the American dream that they'd rather adopt a mediocre white girl who speaks perfect English than invest in their biological daughter who speaks Japanese. The cheerleader appears to be in a genuinely loving relationship with her boyfriend and the trailer trash mom not only really cares for her daughter but is emotionally stable enough to forge deep friend relationships. The girl with the eating disorder has been chewed up and spit-out by this small town's vision of what success should look like for a teenage girl. Pun not intended. The intellectually disabled character, uh, probably shouldn't be in the director's cut.
And I think that's what the important thing here is. We can't control how the nuts and bolts comedic execution will age — Cracked continued to drop hard r-words over a decade after this film released, for example — but we can control the target. Drop Dead Gorgeous isn't only mocking these women or this town, it's mocking beauty pageants and, more broadly, the societal pressures placed on young women to look and behave a certain way — maybe even the way it affects men who both perpetuate this pressure and are indirectly shaped by it (i.e. the movie's resident pedophile). Even the villain becomes so obsessed with winning the pageant she is literally driven to murder and eventually dies herself. Spoiler alert, this is all still a problem in 2021. People STILL murder each other at beauty pageants. It's true. Don't look it up.
And indeed, though Drop Dead Gorgeous was critically reviled upon its release, it has remained in the public consciousness largely because of its appeal to young women and/or queer viewers. It's featured in indie music videos, inspires drag shows, and is a mainstay at watch parties. The thing — unlike the contestants — just won't die. And I think it's because though the specific jokes may not feel as fresh as they did in 1999, the core message of the film is still something audiences today can recognize as valuable. They may also find a few laughs, even if they may need to squint through a few scenes.
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