Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

What’s so funny?

As threatened last time (and inspired by the American Film Institute’s recent list of the 100 funniest films), I am hereby foisting upon an unsuspecting world (in alphabetical order)…

My Personal List of the Funniest Movies of the Past Half-decade or So

  • Denise Calls Up: I don’t think this 1995 flick about the technological disconnect in modern/urban/professional interpersonal relations ever got a theatrical release, but it seems to show up on cable TV from time to time. When I caught a film festival showing, I was convulsed the whole time I was watching. Like all truly good humor, it speaks the truth and is preposterous, all at the same time.

  • Fierce Creatures: I’m sorry, but there is just no way I can envision, let alone see on a movie screen, John Cleese in a hotel room with a sheep and not go into stitches. Like most good comedies, much of the humor derives from character, much of it comes from knowing (or thinking we know) what silly thing is going to happen next, but a lot of it is simply owed to Kevin Klein’s antics and Cleese’s patented, priceless outraged reactions.

  • Flirting with Disaster: As with Denise Calls Up, the laughs here stem from the shock of recognition. In the case of this loopy road trip flick, the recognition is of ourselves, as our heroes chart not only America but also the strange, twisted institution that is the American family. Besides, how can you not guffaw at a movie in which Mary Tyler Moore has her clothes off? .

  • Forbidden City Cop: The formula is essentially the old one of the reluctant hero, who is so incompetent that he actually becomes effective. This territory has been trod by every comedian from the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello to Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau. But since this gem is from Hong Kong, everything is exaggerated to the breaking point with (and this is another important element for humor) no time to catch your breath and analyze what you are watching.

  • Galaxy Quest: I’m not sure if the comedic charge of this affectionate/unmerciful Star Trek spoof extends to people not familiar with TV scifi, but who cares? Those people have about as much fun out of life as Vulcans anyway. In any event, virtually everyone I know who has seen this has thoroughly enjoyed it. If I ever need a good chuckle, all I have to do is just think about the bit involving Gilligan’s Island.

  • Louis 19 King of the Airwaves: A 1994 French language Canadian film about the insidious effect of media on our lives and culture, this just kept me going by its sheer cleverness. A cautionary tale about the down side of fame, it has become only more à propos since. Perhaps inevitably, it was re-made by Hollywood (directed by Ron Howard as EDtv), but that version wasn’t nearly as funny, probably because it was made with more or less the same mentality that the original was mocking.

  • Love and Death on Long Island: Laughs sometimes come from pure incongruity. Like when grumpy, seemingly asexual scholar/author John Hurt falls totally in love with young, pretty, vacuous Jason Priestly. The humor derives from a clash of cultures but also from the magnificent Hurt’s performance. A favorite scene: when a sign in a taxi is pointed out to him, he replies drily: “It says, ‘Thank you for not smoking.’ As I am smoking, I don’t expect to be thanked.” But the funniest bit for me is the very idea of this crusty English curmudgeon thinking that he is going to see a film based on E.M. Forster and instead walking into something called Hotpants College II by mistake.

  • Maybe… Maybe Not: I suppose it’s just me, but the idea of people wandering into the wrong movie auditorium and seeing something diametrically opposed to what they intended is just pretty darn funny (see above). In this 1994 German film, it is a trio of rough types planning to see a Stallone flick, who mistakenly wander into a screening of Luchino Visconti’s exquisite meditation on beauty and longing, Death in Venice (which coincidentally is the obvious basis for the Love and Death on Long Island above). But this is just a throwaway gag. This film (called Der Bewegte Mann in German and Pretty Baby in an early English language version) is your basic bedroom farce which, as has become the fashion in recent years, involves mistaken sexual orientation.

  • Next Year… We’ll Go to Bed by Ten: This 1995 Italian romp about a disastrous New Year’s Eve has two things going for it: the early scenes give no indication of the wild turns it takes later on, and there is real violence and suspense. As everyone from Abbott and Costello to Wes Craven has known well, there is often a very fine line between what is scary and what is funny. Hence the term “nervous laughter.” Here, the laughter is both nervous and raucous.

  • There’s Something About Mary: Okay, I am ashamed to admit how much I laughed throughout this big hit for Farrelly brothers. But the Missus laughed too, so I don’t think it’s just a guy thing. This is a good example of “bad taste” humor, in which much of the laughter comes from things that we know we shouldn’t be laughing at. But its chief contribution to our cultural heritage is probably the fact that no one who has seen it will ever again think of hair gel in quite the same way.

    -S.L., 29 June 2000

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