The 1980s Were Apex Cringe Comedy (Without Knowing It)
We should probably prepare ourselves -- today’s hilarious comedy is going to look pretty cringey in 30 years. In fact, you can bet on it. The culture shifts, as it should, and some targets we’re poking in the eye now will inevitably veer into the off-limits zone. It’s not hard to imagine future finger-waggers coming after a Superbad, for example. We laughed at The Office? What were we thinking? We’ll probably even find some reason to get mad at Ted Lasso.
We know this because looking back at the 1980s, we just can’t believe the freaking cringe. And we promise you -- the filmmakers never saw the backlash coming. Here’s a look back at some insanely popular 80s comedies, the reasons we laughed then, and why we’re pretty embarrassed about it now.
Revenge of the Nerds
One of the surprise comedy hits of the decade, Revenge of the Nerds took a classic comedy archetype and spun in on its bespectacled head. The nerds, the geeks, the dweebs, the spazzes -- in previous movies, these guys were the butts of the joke. This time, the underdog antiheroes got the last laugh. Being smart and kind was better than being handsome and good at sports? Radical.
Why we laughed then: Hard to believe now, but there was a time when the notion of the computer nerd actually coming out on top was novel. Revenge spoke to a generation of social outcasts who were dying to get the last laugh. To be fair, the movie had it both ways -- it still made fun of Booger’s boogers, Lamar’s effeminate gestures, and Lewis’s geeky laugh. But the story radiated genuine affection for the guys who regularly got shoved inside a locker.
Why we cringe now: While Revenge of the Nerds stood up for the downtrodden, it ultimately showed that the geeks weren’t much better than the jocks, at least not when it came to women. You’d think Booger would understand what it’s like to be socially ostracized, but when he hears that the ladies of Omega Mu have been invited to a Tri-Lamb party, he practically spits with disgust. “Oh no, not the Mus! They’re a bunch of pigs!”
Booger and friends would likely be facing jail time for their “prank” installing cameras in Pi Delta Pi bedrooms and showers, not only sneaking peeks at stripping sorority sisters but actually printing and selling topless shots of their fellow students.
Then there’s the infamous scene when a masked Lewis does the nasty with campus dreamgirl Betty, who believes she’s actually being intimate with her boyfriend Stan. “At the time, it was considered sort of a switch,” says director Jeff Kanew. “She doesn't resist and scream and say ‘my God, get away from me!’ Her first line was, ‘You're that nerd, oh, that's wonderful.’ That excuses it. But in a way, it's not excusable. If it were my daughter, I probably wouldn't like it.”
Note to future comedy moviemakers: The “if it were my daughter” question is probably a good litmus test for future acceptability.
The John Hughes teen oeuvre
No comedy creator delivered in the 1980s like John Hughes. His teen comedies, from The Breakfast Club to Sixteen Candles to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, consistently ruled the box office and launched a generation of Brat Pack stars.
Why we laughed then: Hughes had an ear for funny yet realistic dialogue that’s rarely been matched in the history of comedy cinema. He took teens seriously at a time when the biggest films starring young people had titles like Screwballs, Losin’ It, and Porky's. Compared to those sleazy laughers, Hughes seemed like the Shakespeare of the sweet sixteen set. He also had a prodigious gift for staging physical comedy -- the Home Alone movies could have taught the Three Stooges a thing or two.
Why we cringe now: Hughes’ muse, Molly Ringwald, has reconsidered their collaboration and doesn’t like what she sees, calling those comedies “racist, misogynistic, and homophobic.”
Sigh. Yeah, there’s a lot going on between the sensitive looks at 80s teens trying to find their place in the world. The cartoonish antics of Long Duk Dong, the trade of a drunken girlfriend for another girl’s panties, Ally Sheedy needing to wash her face and put on a pretty dress so Emilio Estevez can desire her, the careless throwing around of f-slurs, and so on and so on.
Some argue that Hughes was merely reflecting teen life as it actually existed in the 1980s. Fair point? But maybe that wasn’t the part of kid culture that needed a big-screen signal boost.
Thanks to goofy sitcoms like Bosom Buddies and horndog movies like Bachelor Party, Tom Hanks was already an 80s comedy star. But his Oscar-nominated turn in Big elevated the actor to an entirely different level.
Why we laughed then: The movie’s premise is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser -- what kid wouldn’t jump at the chance to see what it was like to be Big? Hanks deserved his Oscar nom, hilariously inhabiting a grown man’s body with the personality of a bewildered 12-year-old boy. Fish-out-of-water stories are comedy slam dunks and Hanks does a behind-the-back 360 here.
Why we cringe now: This one is pretty straightforward: Josh has sex with his coworker, Susan Lawrence. The problem isn’t that he didn’t alert HR -- it’s that he’s actually 12 years old! Even accidental pedophilia isn’t a comedy bit that’s going to age well.
Before the part was cast, Debra Winger apparently tried to convince director Penny Marshall to change Josh to female--meaning some unwitting adult male would have hopped into bed with Winger as a 12-year-old girl. Doesn’t seem like that would have aged any better …
A white, nonexceptional college student has no chance of getting a scholarship to Harvard Law School. That is, until he decides to take tanning pills (seriously) and don a fright wig to qualify for a minority scholarship. He scores the money, only to fall in love with the Black woman who would have gotten the scholarship had he not pulled his ruse. Oops.
Why we laughed then: Out of all the movies mentioned here, Soul Man is the one that caused cringe in real time. The NAACP spoke out against the use of blackface for goofy laughs, and students at UCLA organized protests. And yet! Soul Man was a hit, grossing about eight times its small budget. We guess someone thought it was funny.
Why we cringe now: Come on, it’s Soul Man. Spike Lee went on the offensive, believing that the movie was an attack on, among other things, affirmative action programs. But the film’s stars, like Rae Dawn Chong, continue to defend Soul Man as “a classic rom-com.”
Her co-star, the savagely bronze C. Thomas Howell, agrees that people have misjudged the film. “It’s an innocent movie, it’s got innocent messages, and it’s got some very, very deep messages. And I think the people that haven’t seen it that judge it are horribly wrong. I think that’s more offensive than anything. Judging something you haven’t seen is the worst thing you can really do.”
Howell’s entitled to his opinion. But trust us -- there are worse things you could do than not seeing Soul Man.
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Top image: Gracie Films