“The Best Comedy of the Year!” 1980’s
The first two posts of this series took us back through cinematic humor from today’s genre confusion and obsession with idiots and into the 1990’s which featured a greater proliferation of quality comedy writing and the unfortunate origins of some of today’s most disappointing trends. Now I step into Reagan era comedy with both anticipation and trepidation.
The years 1980-1989 contain both the end of my childhood and the entirety of my teenage years. This means that for more than half of the decade, I did not get to choose which films I got to see at the movie theater. Also, the 1980’s featured the explosion of home entertainment options, but this didn’t really get going for my family until about 1987. So while I saw each of my yearly selections from 1986-1989 on the big screen, the rest of these, I’ve had to catch up with on video or cable and only some of that happened during the 80’s.
My opinions of big screen comedy may be inexorably tied to my own development through this era as my expectations were first established and then subverted. Nobody experiences everything in exactly the same way. But I’m going to keep hold of some of my opinions here with all 32 teeth.
1980 – Airplane!
I remember my parents going out to see Airplane! based on my Dad’s enthusiasm. It might’ve been the first big screen comedy they’d seen together since Blazing Saddles, an experience my mother did not remember as fondly as he did. A western full of farting cowboys and racist old ladies did not appeal to her. Nowadays I mostly have to drag my parents to the movies at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but when my brother and I were kids they were apparently looking for excuses to get out of the house more often (hmmm…that’s odd…). When they returned from Airplane!, I got a glimpse of what the aftermath of that 1974 date to see Blazing Saddles must have been like. My dad was gleefully recounting some of the sillier moments in the Abrahams & Zucker genre spoof while my mom tried desperately to humor him and steer the conversation towards something else. My father agreed that the film was probably not appropriate for us youngsters. Not yet. But soon. Soon. Now this was tantalizing. And when I finally did get to experience Airplane! on video a few years later at a friend’s house it did not disappoint. I’m sure this was one of the scenes my parents split on.
Other 1980 comedies: My choice for second place in 1980 would be the wonderfully obscene Kurt Russell/Jack Warden flick Used Cars. Unfortunately, that movie eventually runs out of gas by its end (I know…sorry). It is worth mentioning that I consider two of 1980’s most beloved comedies to be very overrated. While both The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack have individual moments of comedy gold, large stretches of what are supposed to be wacky comedies bore me or just leave me cold. That’s the thing about comedy. If you don’t win your audience over you can really fall flat. And these fall flat for me in too many spots. Maybe their enthusiastic fans left me expecting too much.
1981 – Arthur
It wasn’t until sometime in the late 80’s when I caught up with Dudley Moore’s alcoholic millionaire Arthur on cable at my grandparents’ house. This was a time when drunkards were still considered funny in mainstream opinion, but who are we kidding? Most of us have been to college. Drunkards are hysterical. Few more so than Dudley Moore. He had been sharpening his comic chops since the early 60’s alongside Peter Cook in “Beyond the Fringe” and a series of television and film productions. Moore and Cook are consistently mentioned as top influences to modern British comics, most notably, the cast of Monty Python. While Cook’s work appeared to suffer because of his drinking, Moore was able to parlay feigned alcoholism into an Oscar nomination for his work in Arthur. Although Moore lost to Henry Fonda, his costar John Gielgud actually took home the golden statue for his work as Arthur’s terse-toungued valet. I would later embarrass myself in my college acting class when Arthur was my only association with Gielgud’s career. Apparently he’d done a little bit of work on the stage.
Other 1981 comedies: Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I has its moments, but has to be considered a shortfall in comparison to his classics. Stripes is another well-loved comedy of the era that I just don’t understand the fuss over. I promise I love Bill Murray, but his brand of smirky anti-authority in Stripes has not aged well and I find myself sympathizing with Warren Oates’ Sgt. Hulka. And that’s coming from a commie liberal.
1982 – Tootsie
One of the first movies I rushed out to rent after our family got a VCR was the Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie. Maybe some of the comedy went over my head at the time, because I remember being a little disappointed that a movie about a man in a dress wasn’t a lot wackier. Subsequent viewings have done nothing but improve my opinion of Tootsie, and I now consider it to be one of the modern masterpieces of American comic film. This is despite the treacly and fully embarrassing Dave Grusin song “It Might Be You” blazing a path of awful through proceedings. Aside from Hoffman, the cast also boasts an exemplary group of performers including Jessica Lange, Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, and Sydney Pollock, with a cameo by Geena Davis. There have been a great number of cross-dressing comedies over the years, from the wonderful (Some Like it Hot), to the horrendous (White Girls). It is a staple of humorous story-telling that was employed by great playwrights such as Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Tootsie finds itself among the greats of the sub-genre. If you’ve never seen Tootsie, you’ll want to skip the video below because it is a major spoiler, but if you want to experience it again, please enjoy!
Other 1982 comedies: Two recommendations are the Peter O’Toole vehicle My Favorite Year, which tips its hat to the golden age of live television and Cameron Crowe’s retelling of his venture as an underground high school student, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
1983 – A Christmas Story
Okay, so we’ve all seen A Christmas Story about a thousand times on cable television by now and it has become a part of our national vocabulary. Honestly, its status as a permanent fixture every holiday season almost worked against it. I’m sure plenty of you reacted to the picture here with some version of “Oh no! Not that again! Enough already!!” I sympathize. I really do. But if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s a reason Ralphie and company have overtaken It’s a Wonderful Life as the most beloved Christmas movie nationwide. A very good reason. It is very close to perfect. Based in part on the Jean Shepherd book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” this film was initially only a modest success, but gradually built up a reputation through repeated airings on HBO, TBS, and WGN. A Christmas Story manages to tell a fully-developed story of American sentimentality without sacrificing the inclusion of genuine holiday and family annoyances and with a nearly unprecedented series of odd, funny, and touching scenes. The thing is so tightly written that it is hard to come up with a scene which feels either unnecessary or lacking in strong entertainment value. I’m going to spare you a video on this one because, well, at this point do we really need it?
Other 1983 comedies: It is a testament to A Christmas Story‘s strength that it beat out the impressive list of comic films that 1983 produced. The one which will probably get the most love in the comments section is National Lampoon’s Vacation starring Chevy Chase, but the one I very nearly rated first is the Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro/Jerry Lewis dark satire The King of Comedy. It’s like Taxi Driver for funny men. Adding to 1983’s fantastic offering are Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom, Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains, and Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places.
1984 – This is Spinal Tap
This is Spinal Tap is another comedy whose continuous presence has gradually worn thin for some people. Comedy prospers in part because it surprises, and it doesn’t help that the cast has trotted out in its costumes every time one of them needed to pay some back taxes. In Spinal Tap‘s favor is that it pretty much invented a whole comedy genre for modern audiences. The “mock-umentary” (or, if you will, “rock-umentary”) was a clever premise which had been used before, but was particularly effective for director Rob Reiner and has been used time and again by other filmmakers since. The Office, on television, is a very good example of a comedy influenced by this element of the Spinal Tap production. But this would not have developed if the bits, jokes, and scenes had not been so brilliantly funny and prescient. Who among us didn’t laugh ruefully when U2 visited Elvis Presley’s grave in their overblown 1988 documentary Rattle and Hum just as Spinal Tap had four years earlier? Christopher Guest has since taken the ball and run with it in later improvised comedies like Waiting For Guffman and Best in Show, but This is Spinal Tap remains the crowning achievement for this kind of filmmaking.
Other 1984 comedies: All of Me (Steve Martin and Lilly Tomlin) and Top Secret! (Val Kilmer).
1985 – Lost In America
As has been mentioned on Le Blog by Lebeau, Albert Brooks is a hugely underrated treasure. I guess he just never really fit the image Americans were looking for in their comedians. I don’t ever remember him looking young. Even at his peak onscreen when he was in his mid 30’s, the impression he left was of someone nearly a decade older. Also, Brooks is an intellectual from a Jewish family. Comedy audiences through most of his film career got what they seemed to need of that from Woody Allen. That’s some competition. Probably Brooks’ most perfectly realized film is the “Yuppie Easy Rider” flick Lost In America. Brooks stars opposite Julie Hagerty (Airplane!, What About Bob?) as a couple who decide to drop out of their typical American suburban lives and travel the country in a Winnebago. They don’t get very far. Lost in America was a mild hit, but did not deliver the kind of success that would have vaulted Brooks into a different stratosphere in his career.
Other 1985 comedies: This was a very tough one. Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian film Brazil is in strong competition with 12 Angry Men as my favorite film of all time, but while it is very funny in spots, Lost in America is more clearly a comedy. John Cusack’s suicide teen comedy Better Off Dead does not measure up to either of these, but is definitely worth a mention. Check it out if you haven’t seen it yet.
1986 – Little Shop of Horrors
Another comedy film that sits near the top on my list of all-time favorites is the movie version of Menken and Ashman’s off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors about a killer plant, which was itself based on a low-budget Roger Corman film of the same name. Menken and Ashman would go on to pen the songs for Disney’s “comeback” animated musicals The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, revitalizing the art-form for several years after. Little Shop of Horrors, however, is a black-hearted satire of early 60s monster movies that seems like it could never have been sold to a movie studio if it hadn’t been such a hit on both off-Broadway and Broadway alike. As it turns out, studio cowardice scrapped the film’s original, darker ending and replaced it with a neutered version that excised the play’s show-closing anthem. Thankfully, DVD came along and made that original ending (which was practically finished before timid execs wussed-out) available for all to see. First it was released in black and white on a short-lived DVD version in the late 90s and has just recently become available on Blu-ray disc in a full color rendering that has additional musical accompaniment. This film version stars Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene (who reprises her Broadway role), the voice of Levi Stubbs, and Vincent Gardenia, and features cameos by John Candy, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Jim Belushi, and the incomparable Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello-D.D.S.
Other 1986 comedies: Back to School, Ruthless People, and ¡Three Amigos!, all fun comedies, but none are iconic.
1987 – Raising Arizona
When Joel and Ethan Coen paired to write and direct the crime thriller Blood Simple in 1984, audiences couldn’t have dreamed that the pair was capable of something with the hilarity of Raising Arizona. Twenty five years later, we all know what versatile filmmakers the Coen brothers have proven to be. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter star as a mismatched married couple. He is an ex-con with a penchant for holding up convenience stores who is trying to go straight now that he’s married and she is a member of the local police. Marital bliss is interrupted by the revelation that they can’t have children until a local businessman and his wife are blessed with quintuplets. Well the solution is clear, right? The ill-advised crime is kept light-hearted by the implication that no matter what position he is put in, the little fella they steal is never in real danger and is cared for by everyone who comes into contact with him. This includes not just Cage and Hunter’s characters, but a pair of old prison buddies played by John Goodman (Argo) and William Forsythe (Boardwalk Empire). The goofy and action-packed proceedings are presented with consistently idiosyncratic camera work and editing, adding to the off-kilter feeling of the whole.
Other 1987 comedies: Another really strong year, featuring The Princess Bride, which I’m sure will garner preference form some folks, and a couple of very good Steve Martin flicks, Roxanne, and Planes Trains and Automobiles.
1988 – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Steve Martin was on an absolute hot streak that made Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the ninth excellent comedy he’d appeared in over a ten year period. It is easy to forget what a big star Martin was through parts of three decades. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a rare case in which a remake of a previously released film actually surpassed the original both in quality and success. In 1964, Bedtime Story had starred Marlon Brando and David Niven, focusing more on the romantic elements of the story. With Michael Caine on board as Martin’s co-star, director Frank Oz’s version was decidedly more wicked and boasted many more laughs. This is made even more surprising considering that the remake was originally intended as a vehicle for Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Thank goodness we got the version we did. Martin’s more external comedic performance was predictably excellent, but Caine was something of a revelation for audiences who were more recently used to seeing him in romantic and action pictures and comedy performances which had generally cast him as a harried man in above his head. His Lawrence Jamieson is an oily suave con man whose malevolent nature roils deliciously under the surface and he proves a fantastic comic foil for Martin. One of the more famous bits came from Martin, pretending to be Caine’s “special” brother in order to chase away bilked heiresses.
Other 1988 comedies: 1988 has to be considered one of the greatest years in the history of film comedies, with huge laughs coming from Kevin Kline and John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in Bull Durham, Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, Tom Hanks in Big, Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun, and John Cusack and Tim Robbins in Tape Heads. Take a good look at that list. We have not seen anything like that in any year we have yet researched.
1989 – Heathers
As a nineteen year old whose high school experience had been a bit of a mixed bag, the teenaged revenge comedy of Heathers appealed greatly to me. The rebellious and underground tone of the film was only enhanced for me because its distributor found mainstream theaters unwilling to show it (the fact that it starred relative unknowns didn’t help). So I had to drive from suburban Virginia Beach into “the city” of Norfolk, Virginia to see Heathers at the Naro cinema, an old cinema with a balcony and big bright marquee which showed mostly art house fare and re-releases of film classics. Found in this manner, my friends and I felt like we were in on a secret that was meant expressly for us and people like us. The preppies and jocks lampooned in the movie were certainly not the types who would have been willing to eschew the mall for a seat at a sophisticated city art house theater. We were really self-important dicks. That said, Heathers is pretty funny, anyway.
Other 1989 comedies: Heathers managed to beat out the Woody Allen-aping When Harry Met Sally, the Jeff Goldblum/Emma Thompson comedy The Tall Guy, and Weird Al’s delightfully sophomoric UHF.
And there go the 80’s-
As the 1980’s passed I found more and more quality comedies crowding into individual years. I just can’t see any recent year having the sheer quantity and variety of either 1988 or 1983. I expect that some of my choices will meet with vociferous and well-reasoned disagreement. That is what happens when you’ve got so many yucks to choose from.
Posted on February 23, 2013, in Best Comedy of the Year, Movies, reviews, trailers and tagged Albert Brooks, Christopher Guest, Dudley Moore, Dustin Hoffman, Nicolas Cage, Steve Martin, Winona Ryder. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.