Boogie Nights at 25: Still A Comedy Masterpiece
Paul Thomas Anderson has long been one of our foremost screenwriters and directors, but are we sure he didn’t want to be a comedy writer all along?
He tagged along when then-gal pal Fiona Apple was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live back in 2000. While he was there, he figured why not write and direct a comedy short for host Ben Affleck? The video, based on a short-lived MTV show called FANatic, imagined an orthodontically challenged Affleck as Anna Nicole Smith’s most ardent admirer.
He got along great with the SNL cast, apparently -- the show is where he met Adam Sandler, the guy with whom he’d team up to make his next movie, Punch-Drunk Love. And he must have cracked up when he met Maya Rudolph -- the couple is still together twenty-plus years later.
But Saturday Night Live wasn’t the start of Anderson’s comedy career. Just a couple of years earlier, at the tender age of 27, he created one of the great comedy masterpieces of the past 25 years, the hilarious and horrific Boogie Nights.
You’ve Got The Touch
Boogie Nights wasn’t Anderson’s first feature -- that would be another John C. Reilly vehicle, the gambling thriller Hard Eight. But then again, Dirk Diggler’s epic sort of was Anderson’s first. Wait, what? Bear with us here.
Growing up, Anderson was fascinated with the porn industry that was making sex movies in the Valley, the very same Valley where he was attending high school. Still a student, and influenced by a legendary comedy movie, PTA made his first short film, The Dirk Diggler Story.
“I was so influenced by Spinal Tap that it was in my brain, so it was like, ‘Let’s play it as a documentary,’” remembers Anderson. “I’d seen this piece on A Current Affair on (porn star) Shauna Grant, which was the clichéd-but-true story of a girl from Iowa who comes to Hollywood on the bus, looking for her dreams.”
From the beginning, PTA recognized the inherent humor in naughty adult films, albeit mixed with other emotions as well: “I felt (The Dirk Diggler Story) should maybe resemble my personal experience of watching a porno film: incredibly funny one second, turns me on the next, then incredibly depressing and so on, up and down.”
“The comedy came from Dirk so badly wanting to be on top of everything and having no idea how oblivious he was,” says PTA pal Michael Stein, who played Dirk Diggler in the teen’s film.
A lot changed from the time Anderson shot his first short to his classic feature. But the source of the comedy remains the same -- the oblivious certainty of its main character.
But that’s just the start of the laughs. Here are our favorite funny scenes and characters from Boogie Nights, in something more or less resembling their order of appearance in the film.
Dirk, Meet Reed Rothchild
Jack Horner believes he has found a new star in Eddie (not yet Dirk) Adams, and he seduces the wide-eyed star-to-be with a glam pool party at his house in the Valley. Jack introduces Eddie around, eventually hooking him up with Reed Rothchild for a rock-and-roll margarita. With John C. Reilly channeling his inner Dale Doback, it’s practically a scene from Stepbrothers. On the count of three … did we just become best friends?
You Sexy Thang
The secret behind Scotty J.’s too-tight tank top was Paul Thomas Anderson telling his costume crew that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character should dress like a 14-year-old boy. As the film begins, the immature Scotty J. hasn’t admitted his homosexuality yet -- maybe not even to himself. That’s about to change once he gets a load of Eddie Adams. Try not to laugh as the camera irises in on Walhberg to the disco strains of You Sexy Thing.
A Name That Could Cut Glass
The Colonel, producer of Jack Horner’s adult films, takes to Eddie right away, but there’s one thing the wannabe star will have to change to make it in the business -- his name. While Horner has some ideas on the subject, Eddie clearly has been giving it a lot of thought. The name he conjures up with is one that Anderson himself jotted down on a notecard when he was just 17 years old, based on his belief that a good porn name should include two Gs and one K.
Jack Horner isn’t naive. He knows why people go to adult movie theaters. You need the big … body parts to bring ‘em in. But how do you keep them in their seats? As Jon Lovitz himself might have exclaimed: Acting! It’s Horner’s dream to one day make a film with acting so powerful that the audience is mesmerized. Even after the sex parts.
Oh, I Think You Need All That Bass
Buck is an adult film star by night, stereo equipment salesman by day. His patter is smooth, spitting out audio jargon with such confidence that it’s almost as if he knows what the words mean. Buck almost has his customer reeled all the way in before he gives the high-fidelity equipment a test drive -- with a banjo-picking sh*tkicker that drives the customer away. (The prospective hi-fi buyer seemed more like a Mott the Hoople kind of guy.)
Angels Live In My Town
It’s Dirk Diggler in the role he was born to play -- karate-kicking supercop Brock Landers. He fights alongside Reed Rothchild as the out-of-breath but still ass-kicking Chest Rockwell. They fight crime when they aren’t having sex. Lots of sex. It’s Dirk Diggler as you’ve never seen him before in Brock Landers: Angels Live In My Town.
I Was Born Ready, Nick
Maybe the funniest scene in Boogie Nights is Dirk laying down the lead vocal tracks for mindblowing power ballad You’ve Got The Touch. No wonder Reilly’s Reed Rothchild can’t resist inventing the Running Man once the wailing guitar kicks in.
It’s deceptively difficult to sing this badly -- Wahlberg is just slightly off key, his emphatic Yeah! is just a half-beat too late. But the real explanation for the terrible vocals, at least according to Dirk and Reed? The bass is too high.
The recording session eventually leads to a confrontation with the studio’s owner, played with deadpan weariness by Robert Downey Sr. The exchange almost reaches Abbot and Costello levels of comic misunderstanding.
Dirk: Look, man, all we need is the tapes, all right?
Record Producer: No, you don't get the tapes until you've paid.
Dirk: In our situation, that doesn't make any f***ing sense.
Reed Rothchild: Look, we can not pay for the tapes, unless we take the tapes to the record company, and get paid.
Dirk: Hello? Exactly.
Record Producer: That's not an MP, that's a YP, your problem. Come up with the money, or forget it.
Reed Rothchild: Okay, now you're talking above my head. I don't know all of this industry jargon, YP, MP. All I know is that I can't get a record contract, we cannot get a record contract unless we take those tapes to the record company. And granted, the tapes themselves are … you own them, all right, but the magic that is on those tapes. That f***ing heart and soul that we put onto those tapes, that is ours and you don't own that. Now I need to take that magic and get it over the record company. And they're waiting for us, we were supposed to be there a half hour ago. We look like a**holes, man.
Dirk: Let me explain to him in simple arithmetic. One, two three! Because you don't f***in' get it, Burt! You give us the tapes. We get the record contract. We come back and give you your f***in' money. Have you heard the tapes? Have you even heard them? We're guaranteed a record deal. Our stuff is that good!
Record Producer: Now I get it. Now I understand. You want it to happen... but it's not going to happen. Because it's a Catch-22.
Dirk: What the f*** does that mean? What is a Catch-22, Burt?
Record Producer: Catch-22, gentleman. Think about it.
Dirk: You know what I'm thinking about, man? I'm thinking about kicking some f***in' ass!
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We’ll Go Down the Sugar Tree
That takes us about halfway through the film. The funny scenes keep coming, but the humor gets blacker the further we go. Because make no mistake: While Boogie Nights is undeniably a comedy, it’s equal parts tragedy.
As the film progresses, the humor serves as a counterpoint to horror. It’s undeniably funny when Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl kicks in, Alfred Molina’s loopy drug dealer mangling the lyrics, indoor firecrackers banging like gun shots. When the real bullets start flying, the music becomes a surreal backdrop to a bloodbath.
Comedy is PTA’s secret weapon. The laughs made us love Dirk and his dopey friends -- sunny Rollergirl, nurturing Amber Waves, overconfident Latin lover Maurice, pathetic Little Bill. When tragedy strikes, the film hits even harder because of the comedy that stoked our affection for the characters.
Anderson admits that, unlike in most movies, the characters in Boogie Nights do not progress through a recognizable arc -- they’re pretty much the same people at the beginning as they are at the end. Their circumstances change, but they’ve learned nothing. That’s why there could never be a sequel, as PTA believes most of the characters would be dead.
But what a legacy they would leave behind. The movies. The music. Even the poetry, courtesy of Reilly’s Reed Rothchild:
“Want to hear a poem I wrote?
I love you, you love me. Going down the sugar tree. We'll go down the sugar tree, and see lots of bees: playing, playing. But the bees won't sting, because you love me.
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Top image: New Line Cinema