films

Warning for Graphic Violence, Grisly Images, and Mild Panic Attacks

Movie Anxiety It’s embarrassing to say that movie-watching anxiety happens to me quite a bit. Especially in our current culture where intense action sequences and reality based character moments are the norm. I mean, how often have you cringed when an awkward scene from The Office or Louie occurred? Did you feel like you had to leave the room? Increase that experience by 10 or more, and you have my common reaction to movies like Argo and No Country for Old Men. Great movies, but I do like having control of my heart rate and breathing. Therefore, probably never seeing those movies again.

Of course, this would be a great excuse if it were just related to modern movies.

“Okay, I can’t do this anymore,” I said to my husband once.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Can we just pause the movie? I can’t handle this right now…”

He tilted his head. “Um… sure, but I need you to tell me what’s wrong.”

“My favorite character I like is going to die, I know it! I feel like I can’t breathe! Just pause the movie!”

“It’s The Great Escape, honey. It’s just like Chicken Run--”

“THIS MOVIE IS NOTHING LIKE CHICKEN RUN!

I’ve been thinking about this a bit since Sunday after seeing Deadpool during a brunch showing at the Alamo Drafthouse. My anxiety is often amped up by graphic violence and high threats of danger, which I was expecting going in. However, I shielded my eyes once or maybe twice throughout the entire movie while feeling no stress. My breathing remained even, my body did not shrink into my seat like an accordion, my eyes were not tearing from fear that my favorite would die. Why was this?

The obvious answer might be the fact that it was a comedy. Come to think of it, one of my top 10 favorite movies is Shaun of the Dead and my favorite TV show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I avoid horror movies and war/gangster/violent-lifestyle dramas at all costs, so it takes a lot of convincing, bribery, and alcohol to get me to watch them. The straight horror and violent drama films always have the same reaction from me, where I have to split the movie over several days. Yet despite the fight it took to get there, the films that are grounded with comedy win my heart. It takes me back to when I first saw Aladdin and the Genie first shot out of the lamp. I was terrified by that immediate impression but in the next second it turned on its head when I heard Robin Williams’s voice say, “Oy! Ten thousand years can give you such a crick in the neck.” That was a telling moment, I think. Even though people could get decapitated left and right or a stare-down could go too long to the point of discomfort, I find that in most cases comedy provides not only humanity but escapism from what I fear.

And not all hardcore violent movies give me anxiety.

My husband’s latest fascination is a series of Internet videos called “Everything Wrong with [insert movie title here].” After watching one on Mad Max: Fury Road, he told me that the shots were set up to reflect Max’s point of view during one of the chase sequences. Rapid cut to’s and shaky cam and what not.

“That explains why my anxiety ramped up during that scene,” he said afterward.

“Wait, what? You had a near anxiety attack?” I asked.

“Yeah. You didn’t?”

“No, I wanted to put warpaint on my face and start a fire! Then I could dance wildly about the flames as the Doof Warrior plucks and pulls notes that would make my enemy captives wail in pain from the sheer amount of awesomeness happening around them! FOR VALHALLA!”

“... huh.”

Different strokes.

KC Ryan is currently a Level 4 student at DCH. An office worker by day, she spends her nights writing, improvising, recording podcasts, and having existential crises. She’s a co-host of Parsec Award-nominated podcast Anomaly Supplemental about general sci-fi and fantasy topics. Her greatest achievement so far is convincing her husband to watch Project Runway.

The Comedy That was a Drama That was a Comedy

Dr. Strangelove This is a continuation of a series in which I count down my Top 5 Favorite Comedy Films

No. 1: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

And, here we are at No. 1. Finally. And, what better movie for a sense of finality than one that ends in the nuclear decimation of the entire planet!

If you’re wondering how a movie about nuclear annihilation can be a comedy, you’ve got some pretty good company. As in, absolutely everyone…except for Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick has been dead now for almost 17 years, and he wasn’t all that productive during his lifetime. Thus, younger audiences are sadly not as aware of him as a filmmaker as they should be, or even know they are.

He only directed 13 feature length films. But, those films are almost all classics that you definitely have at least heard of.

Greatest Hits: Spartacus, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and of course, Dr. Strangelove.  

Some people will be upset at the few omissions. Surely, The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Barry Lyndon deserve mention.

And, younger people might actually know his under-appreciated final directorial effort Eyes Wide Shut, starring pre-divorce Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and most famous for the masked orgy scene that has been aped in many movies since.

Anyway, to say Kubrick was prolific wouldn’t be accurate, but a genius, unquestionably.

And, nowhere is that genius put more on display than in Dr. Strangelove.

The basic plot is that a rogue general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), has decided to take Cold War matters into his own hands by calling in a nuclear bombing run to the fleet of bombers constantly patrolling the skies between the USA and USSR.

Once Washington and Moscow see the bombers moving toward the USSR on radar, they get together to try and figure out what happened and stop it before one of the planes successfully drops its payload on Soviet soil.

This is particularly important because, as it turns out, the Soviets have just installed an automatic response mechanism that will launch all missiles as soon as it senses a detection on Soviet soil.

Added level of difficulty: the planes are now supposed to disregard all incoming messages that are not accompanied with the proper code, which only the general has.

Nuclear war seems inevitable.

So, how in the world is this a comedy?

Well, it’s not. Or, at least, it didn’t start out as a comedy.

Based on the exactly as serious and dire as it should be book Red Alert by Peter George, Kubrick initially approached to project as a drama.

But, he soon had a change of heart. You see, to him, the whole thing was so comically absurd that he had no choice but to turn it into a pitch-black, satirical comedy.

So, he brought in the satirist Terry Southern to collaborate and set about turning the Cold War into comedy.

The first piece was the most important. Casting the title character. If you haven’t seen it, Dr. Strangelove is a real person in the film, and as his name might suggest, he’s on the peculiar, possibly maniacal, side. And yet, a genius figure revered by many. So, complex. He couldn’t be too clownish or too serious. He had to inhabit this “strange” in between. Kubrick had the perfect person, a brilliant comic actor he’d just worked with in a similarly complex role. Peter Sellers.

Most people know Sellers from the Pink Panther films, but he also starred in Lolita for Kubrick. So, he was signed on to play the odd former Nazi doctor (a definite commentary on Project Paperclip).

But, they didn’t stop there. Before it was all over, Sellers was set to play four characters in the film, though it was eventually whittled down to just three. Just, as if it’s that easy.

He makes it look easy, though. And people that don’t know to look for it, in my experience, never know which characters he plays. Strangelove is wheelchair bound with wild blonde hair, sunglasses, and one gloved hand. Lionel Mandrake, that character the most looks like Sellers in real life, is the RAF Group Captain stationed at the base with General Ripper. And, the U.S. President Merkin Muffley is a slight man with a horseshoe bald spot.

The key to writing satire - well, one of the keys - is to write as if you’re serious. The comedy doesn’t come in spoken jokes (usually). It’s all based in absurdity. So, the characters should generally take their dialogue seriously. Which is why it was a near stroke of genius to fill most of the rest of the cast with veteran dramatic actors such as Hayden and George C. Scott. Especially, Scott.

Known most for playing General Patton in Patton, Scott was a smart man and wise to Kubrick’s plans. But, taking himself seriously as an actor, he refused to engage in any shenanigans when it came to the delivery of his lines.

You see, the words themselves may not be particularly funny in a satire, so the humor can often reside in the delivery. If you’re saying something crazy, say it with a straight face while simultaneously swinging from the rafters.

Scott’s role was General Buck Turgidson, the trigger-happy military adviser to the president. And, he intended to take it seriously. But, Kubrick had a plan.

Something that is actually a good tool to use for measuring emotion, Kubrick would always have Scott do at least one silly, over the top take, saying that it was to help Scott find his range. Kubrick promised not to use any of the takes…then used all of them. And, the result is one of the greatest performances of Scott’s career.

As far as the bombers go, we focus on one in particular led by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens).

Pickens was also in the No. 3 movie on this list, Blazing Saddles. He was a great comic actor…later in his career. But, like a lot of people at the time, he started out doing serious stuff. Obviously, mostly Westerns. He was also way down the list on choices to play the part. This was Sellers original fourth part, but he was injured and cut his roles down to three. Then, they tried to get John Wayne, who turned it down. More people were offered the role before Kubrick finally thought of Pickens, who he’d worked with on Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks. And, the rest is history. Now, the most iconic image from this movie is him riding the nuclear bomb down onto Soviet soil.

Fun note: This was also James Earl Jones’ first movie. He’s part of Kong’s flight crew.

Another iconic image, that is often copied, is the War Room, where many pivotal scenes take place. As Turgidson, Muffley, and Peter Bull as the Soviet Ambassador argue and scuffle, bureaucracy is played to maximum effect and gives us great lines like, “You can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”

This movie’s influence is nearly immeasurable. From the copied images and characters like Strangelove, the War Room, and riding the bomb to pitch-perfect comedic stabs, like a master fencer jutting his slight blade between the ribs of a heavy drama.

A lot of this is due to Sellers’ performance. General Ripper would be unbearable as he groans on about fluoride in the water if not for Lionel Mandrake nervously interjecting just long enough to tell Ripper he sounds crazy. So, it’s a lot like you having dinner with your Glenn Beck-loving uncle in that way. Only funny.

Then, there’s Pickens’ breakout moment.

Then, there’s the screwball insanity of the War Room, led by Scott playing it as big as he ever could.

Then, there’s the peculiar Strangelove who is both off-putting and funny.

This is a movie best enjoyed with friends. Due to it being one of the most perfect satires ever committed to celluloid, laughs are better in groups. It can be easy to take it seriously sometimes.

The 1960s were a tense time. This move reflects that, but it also calls our leaders to the mat for putting us through such unnecessary insanity like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Obviously, it took another 25 years to end the Cold War. But, I like to think that, coming out in early 1964 this movie, at least, made a slight impact in reminding people how crazy and unnecessary this all was.

And, now that it’s been 25-plus years since the end of the Cold War, it’s a lot easier to laugh at. Mostly. One doesn’t have to look too hard to see parallels between the characters in the movie and some of our leaders now.

Ripper keeps going off about how the fluoride has made us impotent. He’s blaming his impotence on the Soviets, essentially. And doesn’t that sound an awful lot like some of our leaders now?

It’s in the past, but it’s timeless. It’s perfect satire in that it’s actually a drama. It gets some of the best performances for some all-time greats in their careers. It’s infinitely quotable. Its influence is still felt today. And, it was written and directed by one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

For all these reasons and more, this is why it’s my No. 1 comedy film of all time. I hope you agree. But, if you don’t, that’s cool too. The great thing about comedy is that it’s got something for everyone. It’s not so easy to categorize like drama. Comedy is complex, and it rewards those who love it and seek out the best in it.

Dr. Strangelove has exactly one comedic actor and one satirical writer among a bunch of otherwise serious film people. And yet, the comedy was there. They recognized it and gave it life. And, we’re all better off for it.

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus on comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

A Movie That Really Ties the Room Together

Big Lebowski This is a continuation of a series in which I count down my Top 5 Favorite Comedy Films

No. 2: The Big Lebowski

Pretty much no one likes The Big Lebowski the first time they see it. Not in my experience, anyway. Your friends may all be savants when it comes to sussing out under-appreciated greatness, but my band of nerds are no slouches and we all reacted to it—separately and at different times—in the same way.

“Uh…what was that?”

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a bit of a film nerd. And what’s worse, I consider myself a film nerd without the title being bestowed on me by some envious cadre of admirers. The truth is, I pride myself on it. I prominently display my 100+ Criterion movie collection, secretly hoping that no one asks about one of the more-than-there-should-be movies I still haven’t gotten around to actually watching. On that note, I buy obscure movies purely on spec sometimes. And, I eventually watch them.

I’m persnickety, admittedly. I have to be in the right mood for a certain movie. So, maybe it was just a bad day when I went with some friends to see The Big Lebowski at the theater in 1998. I’d seen a preview and was entranced by the surrealistic visuals of Lebowski’s trip/dream sequences.

But, I wasn’t ready. And, it would take probably longer than it should have before I gave it another chance and it changed my world.

The plot, somewhat briefly.

It’s complex. Intentionally complex. That’s because it’s specifically meant to be an homage of sorts to the famous noir writer Raymond Chandler. His plots were complex. Most known for The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, Chandler was the quintessential noir writer. Convoluted plotting that often involved normal people trying to solve a great mystery. It was generally intense stuff and I highly recommend the 1946 Howard Hawks directed, William Faulkner(!), and Leigh Brackett written film version of The Big Sleep starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart as the constant Chandler private eye protagonist, Philip Marlowe.  

I also recommend the 1973 Robert Altman film version of The Long Goodbye starring Elliot Gould as Marlowe. In fact, I wrote a whole academic paper once connecting these three movies as a representation of the deconstruction of the noir genre. Because, Altman and Gould also play Chandler for comedy, though differently than the Coen brothers. They place it in modern times (1970s), but leave Marlowe as this anachronistic throwback to the 1940s. By doing this, they show how much the world has changed and that noir wasn’t so much of a genre as maybe an era. Really excellent. I love this movie.

The Coen brothers, writers and directors of Lebowski, and other classic comedies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, can’t just make an honest adaptation. I mean, look at their remake of True Grit. Zing!

But for real, the Coens just ooze complexity. It’d be really annoying and pretentious if they weren’t so damn good at it. And, effortless. They use words we all missed on the SAT like they’re no big deal. Like, “Oh that thing. I didn’t even realize I wrote it.” Shut up, Joel. You know damn well what you’re doing!

So, Lebowski isn’t just a love letter to Chandler (like O Brother is a love letter to Preston Sturges). It’s a complex deconstruction of the noir genre through the eyes of a stoner slacker Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and his best friend, larval tea party member Walter Sobchak (John Goodman).

The Dude drifts kind of aimlessly through life, but it’s OK because everyone generally likes him. That is until he comes home one day to find some tough guys waiting for him, asking where the money is.

Turns out, we have a small matter of a mistaken identity. These ruffians are actually looking for a different Jeff Lebowski, an old, cantankerous, wheelchair bound one-percenter, whose very young Anna Nicole knockoff of a wife has gone missing. Presumed kidnapped.

Aw, serendipity. The older Lebowski hires the younger Lebowski to make the ransom drop. And, as you can imagine, things just kind of unravel from there.

Along the way, we’re treated to the infamous trip/dream sequences of the Dude, bowling, the Jesus, strange storytelling type interludes by Sam Elliot, a toe, performance art, and Tara Reid before Hollywood realized she wasn’t actually a good actor.

There are plots on top of plots within plots. Some get dropped, some have satisfying conclusions, and some are just kind of left unresolved.

So, this is where I tell you that a movie that, as I’ve laid out, breaks a lot of rules…

  • It tries to be heady and poignant while still being a comedy
  • It’s a spoof of a pre-existing genre
  • It’s intentionally complicated
  • It only barely follows any sort of traditional plot structure

…is still one of the best movies ever made. And, here’s why.

We’ve talked about embracing the bit, getting to something serious through silliness, and casting yourself as the dope in service of covering a serious subject.

Now, we’re to the just-damn-good-writing part of our lessons. The Coens, Ethan especially, are incredibly smart guys. I wasn’t kidding earlier. They really are just wicked smart. That said, here’s what I think makes Lebowski work.

Deceptively good writing.

Look, most of us know that the Coens are kind of the gods of great film right now. They’ve made more great films than anyone in their generation. But, what’s interesting about their comedies is that they don’t seem like expertly crafted, perfectly executed stories. But, they are.

If you ever have occasion to read a Coen script, I wasn’t kidding about the big words. The script is exacting and detail heavy. They are hyper-precise. And that’s the key.

This blog is for a comedy club that specializes in improv, so pre-loading is something you try to avoid, right? Well, in improv, yes. But, how many times have you come off from a sketch and thought, “Dammit, I should’ve had the bird fly into my face. That would’ve been way funnier!”

Great comedy can be achieved in improv. Just look at TJ & Dave. But, the Marx Brothers never just winged it. Especially not in their movies.

By the time the Marx Brothers shot a movie, they’d rehearsed every bit a thousand times in front of an audience. They road tested everything on stage before putting it in the movies. That’s why they made some of the greatest comedies of all time (Duck Soup would be No. 6 on my list).

Same goes for the Coens. The Big Lebowski, at times, looks silly. There are silly bits. Goodman yelling, “Over the line!,” John Turturro (as Jesus) licking the ball and then doing his little dance, Steve Buscemi always being just outside of the periphery of conversations. There are a million bits and a million quotable lines. “We are nihilists! We believe in nothing!” (said in German accent, of course).

And, at times, there is some very real intrigue and danger. There are tense moments, like in a real noir movie.

And, there are times when the whole thing feels disjointed and surreal. Like a semi-coherent David Lynch movie.

But, that’s only if you think the movie is about solving a mystery.

Hint: It’s not.

The events of the plot matter only in so much as they aid the Dude along on a spiritual journey, of sorts. It’s OK if the plot doesn’t always make sense, some of the characters are ridiculous, and there are just some random bonkers dream sequences. This is a film about the Dude, told from his perspective. And, that’s about how much sense it might make to him.

And if you need any more proof, just watch that last scene again. Everything is calm, generally back to normal, but not. Things aren’t ridiculous anymore, but the Dude is different. He’s changed.

That’s it right there. It’s about the Dude. If you make him your baseline, suddenly it all makes sense. But, the whole time, the movie is pulling you in so many different directions that you’re just trying to keep up.

Exactly, Dude. Or, Duderino. If you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Just crank up the CCR, make a caucasian, and sit back and enjoy it like you’re flying through the air naked splatter painting on a wall-sized canvas.

Just no Eagles.

Next week, No. 1. The darkest comedy of them all.

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus on comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports is A-goin' on Here?

Blazing Saddles This is a continuation of a series in which I count down my Top 5 Favorite Comedy Films

No. 3: Blazing Saddles

Ranked No. 6 on the AFI "100 Years…100 Laughs" list, our next entry in my top 5 comedies takes what we’ve seen from the first two and takes the next evolutionary step.

So, with No. 5, The Three Amigos, we saw a movie that went out of its way not to take itself seriously by embracing the absurdly goofy humor of the the string of comedy bits that essentially make up its plot.

With No. 4, Sullivan’s Travels, we saw a movie that found comedy in taking itself too seriously by making its very serious characters look ridiculous for being foolish enough to think they could truly capture the horrors of the Great Depression.

And now, we move on to the next step. The movie that takes on a serious issue, racism, with a distinctly comic eye. It’s basically like a marriage of the techniques from the first two films on the list. Here’s what I mean…

Blazing Saddles (1974) is a satire of the Western films and TV shows that were so popular throughout the middle part of the 20th century. They even (somehow) got real life Western theme song singer Frankie Laine to record the movie’s theme song. He didn’t know it was a raucous comedy. But, beyond just spoofing Westerns, Blazing Saddles tackles the issue of racism in a pretty big way.

With a story by the great Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Bergman, and a couple of other guys wrote the script in one big collaborative effort.

Obviously, the two big, recognizable names here are Brooks and Pryor.

For the younger crowd that may not be as familiar with Brooks, he’s simply one of the greatest comedy writers and directors to ever live. That is not an exaggeration.

And, Pryor is on the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy.

This was an A-Team of comedy writing if there ever was one.

The plot is, simply, a black man is made sheriff of a small, white town in 1874. The reason for this is a dastardly plan set in place by state-level politicians who want to build a railroad through the town. They figure if they send a black sheriff in the townsfolk will abandon the place because pretty much everyone was super hella racist back then. Good thing that’s all changed….(remembers Donald Trump is leading the Republican primary and cries).

It’s a pretty straightforward “fish-out-of-water” story, except that it’s a fish-out-of-water story written by Brooks, Pryor, et al.

So, there are a lot of comedy bits. People who have seen the movie know there are far too many to list. And everyone tends to have different favorites.

“The sheriff is a n—"

“Mongo just pawn in game of life.”

“It’s Hedley.”

“Give the Governor a harrumph!”

“What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin' on here?”

And, so on and so forth…

Like with The Three Amigos, this is a movie written by comedians and comedy writers for a cast full of great comic characters (Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, and David Huddleston who will make a prominent appearance in next week’s movie), so there are a lot of bits and throwaway one-liners that have little-to-nothing to do with the plot. And, that’s OK, because the subject they’re dealing with is absurd. Or at least, it should be.

Blazing Saddles confronts racism with a full head of steam. It doesn’t shy away from dropping just a ton of n-bombs, the white people openly treat all minorities like crap, and they often do it in this very unnerving matter-of-fact kinda way.

So, when Bart (Cleavon Little) comes to town to be the new sheriff of Rock Ridge, the large welcoming party that had been prepared for his arrival is literally rolled up as the town people turn their guns on him. Obviously, he gets out of it. And, hilariously so, as he uses an absurd action to show just how ignorant the townspeople are.

Luckily, he soon gains an ally in the form of the guy currently occupying the jail cell in his office, The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder). Together, they slowly work to turn the town in Bart’s favor, just in time to fend off the greedy politicians and their band of thugs.

And just for good measure, the whole thing culminated into a straight up meta, fourth-wall breaking scene that hammers home the point that the problems of the movie are not as in the past as we may sometimes like to tell ourselves.

So, it’s got silly comedy bits that are just there for the sake of comedy (making it one of the most quotable movies in history), but it also manages to tackle a pretty big issue (racism) from a comedic perspective. And, a fairly light-hearted one at that. As we’ll see with the No. 1 movie on this list, great comedy can also be achieved from pure drama that goes even further than No. 4, Sullivan’s Travels.

In fact, the more I write about this, the more I see a theme in what attracts me to a comedy.

If you haven’t seen Blazing Saddles, do so. I’ve only just scratched the surface. There is literally too many great parts to go over. I could write my dissertation on this movie. No kidding.

“It’s twue! It’s twue!”

Preview for next week: A movie that really ties the room together…

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus on comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

The Zany Poignancy of "Sullivan’s Travels"

Sullivan's Travels This is a continuation of a series in which I count down my Top 5 Favorite Comedy Films.

No. 4: Sullivan’s Travels

This is likely a deep cut for many. Despite ranking No. 39 on the AFI "100 Years…100 Laughs" list and No. 61 on their overall top 100 movies, I have found that not many people are even aware of the 1942 movie starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. If you are familiar with it, great. If not, here is your short primer.

Set against the Great Depression, John Sullivan (McCrea) is a famed Hollywood director most known for making lowest common denominator type comedies. Think Brett Ratner. Predictable, safe, and mainstream almost to a fault. But, like so many artists he yearns for something more. Specifically, he has a dour and depressing project in mind that is set in the terrible Depression ravaging the country. This project is called O Brother, Where Art Thou? Sound familiar? Yes, the Coen Brothers' movie takes its name from this reference.

But, in John Sullivan’s world, instead of a Depression-era-set satire loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey, the movie he imagines is a bleak cinema verité meant to shake the ranks of the rich and powerful by depicting the plight of the millions of unemployed Americans of the time.

Predictably, Sullivan’s bosses think this is a terrible idea, especially considering that Sullivan is not only a big, famous, and rich director, but he comes from money, and therefore, could never dream of connecting to the average person. This sparks an idea. Sullivan declares that we will become one of them by dressing like he’s poor and then living among the poor for awhile. If he can do that, he argues, he can convince people to let him make the movie.

Hey, do you know what happens every time a celebrity does something “charitable” or “selfless”? Yeah, there are a thousand cameras in their faces documenting every touching moment. And, the 1930s were apparently no different as he is essentially tailed by an entourage of people trying to document his social experiment…which naturally makes it not work.

And, that’s where it gets really fun. He struggles mightily to break away from who he is but keeps finding himself back at square one. It’s a really great portrayal of just how intractable the lines between class can be, in both directions. And along this journey he hooks up with a young woman trying to be an actress (Lake) - she’s only credited as The Girl - who is intrigued by his stunt and joins him.

With a premise like this, it’d be super easy to come off as disingenuous. After all, this movie was being made by actual rich Hollywood types, directed by actual rich and famous Hollywood director Preston Sturges, and starring actual big Hollywood stars in McCrea and Lake. What right do they have to even pretend like they could do this in a fictional world?

But, they pull it off perfectly. And, I’ll tell you how without spoiling a really great ending. First, the Hollywood types are played largely as fools. Early on, this otherwise straightforward comedy adopts a bit of zany physicality specifically in an effort to make the Hollywood types look silly. And, it works. For example, Sullivan’s first attempt to escape his entourage involves him hopping a ride with some little kid driving a DIY roadster type car. It’s very fast, and when the bus following Sullivan (he’d been walking) tries to keep up, several shots from inside the bus show the cast falling all over each other in the most large, comical way possible. Food flies, people flip over furniture, people fall into each other in the most inappropriate of ways. It’s a laugh out loud moment in a movie that up to that point seemed to have been setting up a fairly serious premise. And, there are a lot of great moments like that, all in the service of putting the rich and powerful types in their place.

Did you ever see that episode of 30 Rock where Tracy was going to a woman's shelter to show his extremely depressing Oscar drama and at the last minute decides that these people would much rather watch one of his silly Eddie Murphy-esque comedies? Yeah, they got that from this movie.

Sullivan’s Travels is a movie that makes a solid argument for why comedies are important. That’s why I love it. That, and it’s just really fun to watch. I’m not sure if I can do it any more justice without writing an academic length article. So, that’s the point I’ll end on. I’ve written some about, and will write more about, just why comedy is important as not only an art form but as an integral part of our lives. And, Sullivan’s Travels is the perfect example of that in film form. It’s everything it tells us comedy should be by the third act. And yet, it’s handled so deftly that you don’t realize they’re doing it until they’ve done it. Super smart, super fun, meta-commentary, a defense of comedy. It really is pretty perfect.

In fact, I’ve almost talked myself into ranking it higher. But, we’ll stay with the current list for now.

And, if you’re not convinced yet, watch the current previews for the Coen brothers movie Hail, Caesar! Without a writer/director like Preston Sturges, and without his movie Sullivan’s Travels, most Coen Brothers comedies probably don’t exist. They get their formula from this. That’s why they used the title of Sullivan’s movie for one of theirs…and made it a comedy. 

No. 3 is just a few days away…or should I say, "the sheriff is a n—."

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

The Three Amigos

The Three Amigos It’s time. I’ve been writing this column long enough to do this now, right?

It’s time to share my Top 5 Comedy Movies.

Obviously, this is a potentially fluid list. Though, these Top 5 have been in their spots for years without any signs of being shaken. So, I’d say we’re safe looking at them.

Naturally, as if to build some sort of tension, I’ll go in reverse order. That means we start with  No. 5 and work our way up to No. 1 over the next several weeks. So, without any further ado…

No. 5: The Three Amigos (1986)

Well first, a disclaimer. I love movies, like, a lot. I own hundreds. I have 100 Criterions alone. I am a full-on film nerd. So, choosing a Top 5 is not easy. It’s possible that I love a movie that I have also completely forgotten. But, I’m also a believer in “first thought, best thought” and anytime people ask me my top comedies, these are the ones that come to mind. They’re also movies that I still like regularly.

However, I’ll still do a small runner-up list at the end of this series. There are a few movies that I feel terrible for leaving off. But, art is subjective. Your Top 5 is almost certainly different than mine, and that’s what makes the world go round.

So, on with it…

I’ll just assume you’ve seen The Three Amigos because it’s a great movie and this is a comedy blog. If you’re the kind of person that would read this blog, you’re the kind who has seen this movie.

It’s great. Though you wouldn’t know it by the initial reactions. Ebert gave it one star. Other critics were slightly nicer, but not much. And, it’s not like they had no reason for concern.

The movie was written by Steve Martin (who also starred), Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live Producer) and - of all people - Randy Newman (songwriter). It was directed by John Landis, which is where some of the controversy comes from. He was on trial for the unfortunate events of the Twilight Zone movie where a helicopter crashed and killed three people. So, a lot of the editing was taken out of his hands and done by the studio. And, in case you’re unaware, despite what they think, the people who run the studios are almost never artists. They’re lawyers and businessmen who only care about bottom line.

However, I don’t agree with a lot of critics who think they screwed it up. Neither does history as the movie has garnered cult status at this point.

Plot: Three silent film actors, Lucky Day (Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short), are fired from the studio they work for. It is the dawn of talkies and they’re yesterday’s news. However, good fortune graces them in the form of a telegram from a woman in Mexico named Carmen (Patrice Martinez).

After stumbling into a ramshackle movie house, she sees one of the Amigos’ films and mistakes it for reality. This is the main comic thrust of the movie. The Amigos show up in Mexico thinking they’re doing an acting gig when in fact they are meant to protect the small town of Santa Poco from the evil El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his band of marauders.

And, it’s a comedy, so I’ll let you guess how it ends.

In the beginning, the three men are all spoiled movie stars. And, they’ve been in the movies for so long that they view everything as some sort of performance. Their complete obliviousness to their situation makes for great comic moments like leading an entire bar full of rough dudes in the song “My Little Buttercup.”

But, this gets at one of the things that I really love about this movie. They know it’s ridiculous. We’re talking about three guys that wear stylized mariachi outfits and have a synchronized slogan/salute type thing. It’s silly. So, Martin, Michaels, and Newman crank that weirdness up to 11.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in the film’s villain, El Guapo.

“Jefe, would you say I have a plethora of piñatas?”

Yes, he’s the villain, but he is also insecure about turning 40 and doesn’t tolerate sycophantic behavior from his men. He’s also a total sociopath, which makes his silliness work. But, the silliness dominates. Arau steals every scene he’s in. The movie is worth a watch for his performance alone because there is a lot of comedy in his lines, but his performance takes it to another level.

I’m not kidding. Even people playing serious villains should watch this performance for tips. He gets so much complexity and depth out of a hilarious role. It’s super impressive.

As for the stars, there are always the what-if stories. At different times, actors such as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Robin Williams were attached to the roles. Martin was always going to star since he’s the co-writer and whatnot.

In fact, I’d say it’s slightly surprising that Chase was hired because by then he had a well-worn reputation for being really hard to work with. And no one was more aware of that than Lorne Michaels.

Martin was perfect because his stand-up persona, or at least part of it, was of the wealthy, aloof superstar. But, this role also gave him a good turn toward decency that he would steer hard into over the next 20 years as he took on more romantic and dad roles.

Short’s unbridled enthusiasm is always a welcome presence in a film. In this movie, he plays a former child star, which gives him an added layer of comedy as he constantly references his old films. Particularly in how he might be able to do extraordinary things like fly a plane because he did it in a movie once.

Chase plays Chase. He’s never been a very good actor, in my opinion. Of course, being very naturally funny and a good actor are two different things. And, he’s hilarious. But, no matter the role, he always has a tinge of contempt in his voice. It’s why he was so well cast playing rich jackasses over the years. He actually is one, so it’s easy casting.

Finally, again going from the assertion that they just cranked the silliness as far up as possible, there is the trip to El Guapo’s hideout. A singing bush, singing animals, and an invisible horseman embraces the unrealistic nature of the film and makes it a joke everyone can enjoy. Some people were confused by this sequence, but I think it’s the key to what makes the whole film work.

I’ve written before about the “Age of Cynicism” we live in. Irony and satire reign as the eye roll has become the new national salute. And, our comedy reflects that to a certain extent. SO much comedy today is done tongue in cheek with a wink to the camera as if to acknowledge that we all know it’s silly so it’s OK to laugh.

I often lament how we have to be told it’s OK to laugh these days. Everyone is always so above it all. But really, sometimes it’s OK to just laugh at something funny. The same as it’s OK to like Taylor Swift or Taco Bell. We all like a good steak, or whatever vegans eat, but sometimes we like junk food. And that’s the key to good comedy. Letting yourself enjoy it. Expectancy.

Alas, though, The Three Amigos is not the genesis of this inside-joke laughing. That’s not what I’m getting at. My point is that The Three Amigos comes by it honestly.

When you watch that movie one thing is glaringly obvious. They wanted to make a comedy, not necessarily a movie. So, when they crank the silly factor up, it’s not to mock the absurd story. It’s to say, “The only story that would allow us to stretch our comedic muscles is so absurd it’s silly. Isn’t that fun?!”

The Three Amigos loves what it is. It revels in itself. It milks every single moment for comedy gold. And, here’s the thing…it succeeds. The film may not have the greatest story or cinematography, or whatever. It’s not supposed to. No matter who they cast, this was all about making a funny movie.

And actually, I wish more modern comedies were like that. Good comedy and good stories don’t often blend well, in my opinion. So, why not just go as weird and crazy as possible in story so that the comedy can take center stage?

It’s something to think about for you writers out there. Embrace the silly. Feature the comedy. Play up the bits. And, if it makes your movie unrealistic and/or unbelievable. Good.

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.