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WHEN YUKS BECAME YUCK

     

Tommy Chong, left, Cheech Marin, 'Up in Smoke' (1978)

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Jan. 10, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: I often ranted in the 1980s about raunchy comedies and the dearth of good, clean humor in modern movies. Little did I know that sleazy comedies would eventually dominate the genre (thank you, 'Hangover' and 'Bridesmaids'). These days you can count the number of non-sleazy comedies each year on one hand … sometimes on one finger. If that. Anyway, here’s one of those rants, maybe the first that I wrote, published in the Deseret News as a cover story headlined ‘Comedy — no laughing matter’ on Nov. 12, 1982. (Back when I was using ‘Christopher’ instead of ‘Chris’ as a byline.)

What’s so funny?

Not much in the movies lately — although there is an upswing in old-fashioned, gentle character comedy after the success last year of “Arthur.”

So far this year we’ve had “My Favorite Year,” “The Personals,” “The Missionary,” “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” and “Victor/Victoria” giving audiences a taste of genuine humor drawn out of people and situations with which we can identify.

But silver-screen comedy is still dominated by the likes of “National Lampoon’s Class Reunion,” “Waitress!,” “Jekyll & Hyde … Together Again,” “The Last American Virgin,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — and, of course, one of this year’s biggest moneymaking hits, “Porky’s” (which is second only to “E.T.” on the 1982 hit list).

The “slob” comedy represented by these films and many others this year is epitomized by Cheech & Chong. Though their early records indicated well thought-out material that was obviously rehearsed, their movies are just as obviously improvised. And all four of their pictures essentially repeat and rely on the same material: jokes about drug abuse, flatulence, sex, urine, etc.

This kind of tasteless humor was really cut loose by Mel Brooks when “Blazing Saddles escaped to theater screens in the early 1970s. Then “National Lampoon’s Animal House” took it one step further, which led to a plethora of clones that were each more gross than the previous one, and each was less funny. (“Animal House” itself was actually a “gross-out” send-up of “American Graffiti.”)

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Cheech & Chong do the same kinds of things, adding a heavy amount of head humor and some slapstick. Essentially, they are the Abbott & Costello of the counterculture.

Some of this can be forgiven if the film is truly funny, as was frequently the case in “Animal House,” and to a lesser degree in Cheech & Chong’s first film, “Up in Smoke.”

But few of the more recent films have anything at all that is remotely funny. Audiences often stare at movies like “Class Reunion” in stunned disbelief that they could possibly be so unfunny.

The problem has to do with working out a gag and knowing when to stop it. Timing is everything in comedy.

But when Cheech & Chong just set up the camera and do their unrehearsed shtick in front of it, they think they are much more clever than they are. This became especially apparent in their fifth film, “It Came from Hollywood,” when they were upstaged by the old B-movie clips they introduced. The clips were hilarious. Their introductions were merely crude and often offensive.

What’s really sad about this is the loss of potential. There is one sequence in “It Came from Hollywood” with Cheech & Chong doing a routine about people sitting in theater seats in front of them that strongly resembles Laurel & Hardy, with Tommy Chong doing a “dumb” bit in much the same way Stan Laurel did. It was their only really funny moment — and it was all too fleeting.

Discipline seems to be what’s lacking. Even a fine slapstick artist like Blake Edwards (one of a dying breed, it seems) lapses into tastelessness in such “family” fare as the “Pink Panther” films from time to time, throwing in nudity or flatulence or transvestites or other elements that are assumed to be funny in and of themselves. They are not.

But when you turn complete control over to undisciplined comics like Cheech & Chong, look out.

 

There’s something sad about comedians who think of themselves as so innately funny that anything they do will have an audience on the floor. Jerry Lewis is probably the classic example, but a lot of comic actors, when their total work (or work to date) is examined, can be seen to slip toward the end of their film careers into self-satisfied routines that belie their true talent and merely make their audiences uncomfortable.

In some cases, as with Laurel & Hardy, it’s because they lose control of their projects. But in others, as with Abbott & Costello, it’s because they demand control and then don’t know quite what to do with it.

But the creative gag, the setup and even the one-liner, such as Woody Allen has mastered, are almost a lost art. Blake Edwards’ “Victor/Victoria,” Richard Benjamin’s “My Favorite Year” and Woody Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” are the best examples so far this year. Each gag builds to the next in a calculated, carefully timed manner — and few of them fail. But those guys are rarities. There are no more Keatons or Chaplins or Lloyds, it seems.

At the end of his career many of Jerry Lewis’ movies were extremely embarrassing but he created some hilarious gags in his heyday. I’ve often felt that if he would let a dominating director control him he could be consistently hysterical. And if you clipped the two or three funniest moments from each of his films and spliced them together, you’d have one hilarious, albeit disjointed, feature. His new films show no signs of being any better than his old ones.

Mel Brooks is starting to slip that same way, with his most recent effort, “History of the World, Part I,” being an extremely self-indulgent, scatological picture that repeats many gags he has used before.

In fact, the sad truth is that for several years now we’ve had more unintentionally hilarious pictures than those that are intentionally funny. This year’s include “Inchon!,” “The Calling” and “Sorceress.” And while a bad drama can perhaps be forgiven if it makes you laugh, there is nothing more frustrating than a comedy that does not.

In the end, of course, the definition of comedy is your own. If it makes you laugh, it’s funny. And critics ultimately argue over the merits of comedies more than any other genre.