Jeff Cohen defies you to find him a comic figure in the movies today who you’d be proud to share with your young son.
In 1974, a comic writer/producer/director known for pushing the envelope of good taste past the breaking point produced not one, but two of the best comedies ever made, according to the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Laughs” list.
Those films by Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, featured scenes of flatulence around a campfire, puns about women’s breasts, a monster with “an enormous schwanzshtucker,” a comic rape scene, a woman whose name translates into “Lili From Fuck,” countless utterings of what is now “the ‘N’ word” and various other outrages.
They also focus on a black man successfully facing down racism with intelligence and humor, and a scientist striving to rival the power of God. While making you fall off your seat laughing.
In 2012, Adam Sandler followed up his enormous flop Jack and Jill (in which he played a shlub and the shlub’s vulgar sister) with That’s My Boy, in which he played a guy who fathered a child with his teacher (who went to jail—hilarity!) while in his teens and now does all he can to mess up the adult son’s impending wedding.
Where are the heroic figures in comedy these days? The guys you can point at when you’re with your son and say, “See? Funny guys can be just as cool as Spider-man.” Where’d they go?
Comedy is not offering boys and young men the kind of diversity and strength of character it did in years past. I don’t think that’s just an old (full disclosure: I’m 54) man’s perspective. I defy you to find me a comic figure in the movies now who you’d be proud to show your young son.
Where once there were con men (usually Bill Murray) forced to do the right thing, or a schlemiel (almost always Woody Allen) trying to find love and meaning, or an ordinary guy (Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Dudley Moore, others) thrust in over his head and finding a way to prevail, there is now the stoned slacker whose ambition is to live in his parents’ basement forever, preferably playing video games.
It’s clear that a lot of young men these days are finding it difficult to grow up, and to a large extent, it’s not even their fault. Recent college graduates are entering the worst job market since Herbert Hoover graduated Stanford. A large percentage of them are going home to live with the folks. That’s an economic fact of life in 2012.
The difference between the Mel Brooks comedies and movies by Sandler, (often) Judd Apatow, and Will Ferrell is that the current comedies celebrate characters who are usually imposing on others and feel a sense of entitlement about it. Yeah, sometimes they are “civilized” (usually by women) and “see the light” near the end of the movie, the way Seth Rogen does in Knocked Up, and that’s supposed to justify the previous behavior, but it’s a lie and the audience can tell.
The scene most people remember from Blazing Saddles is the campfire scene, in which the cowboy movie cliché of sitting around at night eating beans gets the send-up it deserves. Young Frankenstein offers us a scene in which a blind hermit (Gene Hackman) tries to befriend the stitched-together creature (Peter Boyle) and sets his thumb on fire because … he’s blind! (A takeoff on this scene from “Bride of Frankenstein”.)
Those scenes are hilarious, and ignore any idea of good taste or political correctness. But the movies that surround them offer comedic heroes, not obnoxious characters who would hit you up for a loan and then crash on your couch for, say, a couple of years if you were unfortunate enough to know them.
Bart (Cleavon Little) in Blazing Saddles saves the lives of the people in the town to which he’s been appointed sheriff, despite the fact that almost all of them hate him because he’s African-American. Freddie Frankenstein (Gene Wilder, and it’s “Fronk-en-steen”!) puts his own life on the line to save the creature he’s given life.
What’s the best thing you can say about the guys in The Hangover? That after they came close to dying and ruining not only their lives but those of many others, they came back in the sequel and did it all again?
The fact is, if you want to find a decent, fleshed-out, actual good man in comedy, you need to watch television.
Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock is a self-absorbed, ruthless, knee-jerk conservative businessman. But he values his friends and he will put himself on the line for them. He dotes on his daughter and has tried, with some difficulty, to be a good dad. You might not agree with him (or maybe you do), but he’s trying to do the right thing. And he’s lucky that he has Tina Fey and other great comedy writers behind him, because he does all that and is a riot at the same time.
How about Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) on Modern Family? A little materialistic? Sure. Trophy wife? The trophy-est, but they actually love each other. Overbearing with his children? For a good cause. By the same token, Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) is the anti-Jay, trying to be a great dad and husband, and often screwing up (to be honest, he sets my teeth on edge as the most cartoonish character on an otherwise fairly realistic show). And the gay couple Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and did anybody else get that they’re Cameron Mitchell?) care so much that they compete at out-dad-ing each other. They’re funny, and they have heart. I can point to them and say, “They’re good dads, and they’re good men.”
There are more. But the fact is that the movies need to grow up, or just broaden their base a little to include more comedic heroes, while television continues to have the big screen beat.
But that’s only because Mel Brooks hasn’t made a movie since 1995.
For more on how comedy and social issues, read Joanna Schroeder’s Louis CK and the Brilliantly-Crafted Feminism vs Comedy Joke.
—Still image from Blazing Saddles used under fair use agreement