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"Ferns and Murder: A Love Story" by Jamé McCraw

Legendary improviser Elaine May is probably best known for her work with Mike Nichols. The duo were members of The Compass Players, active until 1958, alongside Del Close, who went on to perform and direct at The Second City in 1960. May and Nichols were both adept at character development and had an unmistakably sophisticated style and remarkable chemistry, achieving a great deal of acclaim in their years performing together. In many cases, the two would hone improvised scenes into outlines or routines that could be performed for live audiences more than once. They released three comedy albums on Mercury Records between 1959 and 1961. Nichols went on to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Few people are as aware of May’s contribution to film after the two went their separate ways.

Elaine May wrote, directed, and starred in A New Leaf, an adaptation of a short story by Jack Ritchie called "The Green Heart." Walter Matthau co-stars in the 1970 madcap black comedy, which May intended to be much darker than the final cut with a subplot where he is a murderer.

Matthau plays spoiled playboy Henry Graham whose lavish lifestyle has exhausted his inheritance leaving him penniless. He is defensive upon learning the news, but once he accepts it, he is left in a delirious stupor. A haunting piano number plays overlaid by the sound of birds chirping and whistling. The sound of the birds is very cartoonish and similar to what an animated character might hear in the aftermath of a blunt blow to the head. Henry drives through wealthy neighborhoods stumbling in and out of his regular haunts whispering “Goodbye” to luxury.

You get the impression he might be on the verge of ending his life until his personal valet suggests he makes an effort to marry for money if he wishes to carry on. Henry makes a time sensitive arrangement with his uncle to find a wife in exchange for a loan. He begins his search, horrified time and time again, hoping to find a partner of extreme wealth and no ties to the world. You see, it is his intention to knock-off his bride.

When he meets the incredibly wealthy and adorably clumsy botanist Henrietta (played by May) he makes every effort to win her over, and just in the nick of time of his uncle’s deadline. He considers his crumb-dusted bride-to-be barbaric to his gentlemen’s sensibilities. Yet, for someone we have only seen engage in dialogue during transactions and dull repetitive smalltalk about carbon on the valves of his Ferrari, Henry appears at ease during conversations with Henrietta that contain a little more depth.

It is difficult not to be menaced by the thought of his nefarious plan to murder her when she confesses that she wishes to achieve a sort of immortality by discovering a new species of fern. Every move she makes is so endearing, how could Henry possibly resist this woman?

May employs improvisation in scenes throughout the film, most notably during the honeymoon of Henry and Henrietta. Without Matthau’s knowledge, his director and co-star managed to sew herself into a nightgown to provoke an authentic reaction as he helps to situate her garment so that her arm is not stuck. May is relentlessly charming in this scene. The visual gag is hilarious, and his willingness to help her is one of the first moments we see a change in heart. Although it is still possible he will kill her. After all, he is reading and taking notes about household poisons.

A second moment or redemption for Henry is when he insists on taking over affairs of the estate once he discovers household employees who have been taking advantage of Henrietta’s financial ineptitude and trusting nature. Henry transitions from the caricature of a selfish person to someone with a spark of humanity. But is he capable of being a decent human being?

A New Leaf is well-written and well-acted. I will say that sound editing is a bit peculiar throughout, which heightens the chaos of many moments. I am so curious about what May’s true intentions were for this wonderful story, yet I am more than pleased with the film that was released.

Jamé McCraw is a current student at DCH and performs with Watermelon. She enjoys watching squirrels through the windows of her little old house while holding hands with her cat, Stanley.

"Freek Appeal" by Jamé McCraw

I was nearing my ninth birthday and preparing for the fourth grade during summer 1994. My best friend was away for the summer leaving me on my own to search for new ideas and sources of inspiration. I was overflowing with boundless energy fueled by Fruit-by-the-Foot, Gushers fruit snacks, and Welch’s fruit-flavored soda but never any actual fruit. My greatest joy came from staying up odd hours of the night alone and watching videotapes rented from Cox Video.

One night, while looking at the new release wall, something caught my eye. A slender VHS case with a canary yellow spine with the word “FREAKED” in funky, bright-pink letters. The cover was sky blue, featuring unusual characters along the border including a sock-puppet man, a cow man, Mr. T, and Michael Stoyanov who I recognized from his role as the brother in Blossom who doesn’t utter a dumb catchphrase. Freaked stars Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure alum Alex Winter. Winter co-wrote and co-directed this feature alongside Tim Burns and Tom Stern. Hideous Mutant Freekz, at its inception, was meant to be an offensive, crude, and violent horror film. After Fox provided the creators with a budget of $12 million, the film was toned down considerably, placing it in the comedy genre with a PG-13 rating and the title was altered to Freaked. It tested poorly and was not widely distributed. Luckily, it wound up on video shelves for unsuspecting weirdos like me to discover.

There are no trailers before Freaked, which opens to flashing strobing images and the most aggressive music my 8-year-old ears had ever heard. Henry Rollins’ guttural screams, fast drums, and jarring guitar riffs blast bombastically alongside an incredibly psychedelic and brightly patterned title sequence by artist David Daniels. Claymation depictions of freaky characters are smeared transitioning into new images. It’s harsh and unsettling, but I absolutely love it.

The story begins with an unusual news bulletin about a “flying gimp” that has been destroyed. It is now safe for people to return to their homes. This is never explained. Why did they have to leave their homes? Your home is supposed to be the safest place you can be. Yet, there is this threat that is exceptional - it can fly but also is hindered -it is a gimp. Crisis averted, so don’t worry about that. The scheduled program resumes, which is a talk show called "The Skye Daley Show." Brooke Shields as Skye Daley appears bubbly and bright in contrast to her guest Ricky Coogin (Alex Winter) sitting in shadows of a heinous silhouette.

Ricky is a has-been child star who becomes the spokesman for a company called E.E.S. (Everything Except Shoes) and is accompanied by his friend Ernie (Michael Stoyanov) to promote a hazardous chemical called Zygrot-24. The pair flies to Santa Flan, an island named after the patron saint of creamy desserts. They trick an eco-activist named Julie (Megan Ward from Encino Man) into traveling with them and fall prey to Freak Show proprietor Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid). This sun-scorched redneck transfigures the Gen X trio into hideous mutant freaks. The supporting cast features Mr. T as the bearded lady and Bobcat Goldthwaite as a hand-puppet freak called Sockhead. Keanu Reeves is uncredited as Ortiz the Dog Boy. He is covered in fur and sounds like Antonio Banderas. They are forced to perform hokey vaudeville acts for crowds, and chaos ensues. The freaks band together to emancipate themselves from the clutches of Skuggs. In one memorable scene, two walking, giant Rastafarian eyeballs attempt to thwart an escape effort with the entire gang disguised as old-fashioned milkmen. It is amazing.

Freaked
Freaked

Freaked triumphs in its enduring audacity. There are so many tropes and gags jammed into this story, but it never feels overwrought. The pacing is nimble, and the saga is truly unique. The production design, sets, and makeup are unlike anything. While it certainly has a late-1980s/early-1990s aesthetic, repeat viewings are never cloyingly reminiscent of that era. It feels timelessly original. In the midst of a cavalcade of grotesque visuals, there is an endearing sweetness to this passion project.

I have never seen a widescreen version of this movie and was delighted to find that the film is available in its entirety on YouTube with extra scenes. When Cox Video ultimately closed down five years after I first saw Freaked, I purchased the exact VHS copy of the film I had rented countless times. It remains one of my most valuable possessions.

Jamé McCraw is a current student at DCH and performs with Watermelon. She enjoys watching squirrels through the windows of her little old house while holding hands with her cat, Stanley.

The Improvised Horror Movie

The American horror movie. What cinematic legacy can claim special effects mastery, emotional poignancy, and raw camp in the same breath? Scary movies have done so much good for cinema that it’s sickening. And now that we’re in the season (oh goodness HALLOWEEN I’m excited are you excited I love Halloween like no lie it’s my favorite holiday and I’ve been planning my costume for MONTHS) – Ahem. Sorry about that. As I was saying, now that we’re in season – eeek – the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) has started a month-long series of holiday-appropriate shows. As is tradition, it opened the first weekend of October with a premier of the Improvised Horror Movie. Though the show stands as a tribute to the horror genre, it also exists in memorial to Del Close, creator of the format, and Jason Chin, former director at iO Chicago who perfected the show. DCH runs the Improvised Horror Movie through the month of October as a dedication to their work. Improvised Horror MovieJust like its parent genre, the Improvised Horror Movie takes a couple different forms – forms, mind you, not scripts, because then it wouldn’t be improv, duh. Each form spins off of a particular type of horror movie. The version I had the pleasure of viewing was based off of one of my favorites: the "Slasher," wherein innocent, dumb kids fall prey to a psycho killing machine. Now that’s what I call comedy! Hooray!

The way the shindig worked in practice seemed pretty simple: At the top of the show, the audience assigned each cast member a role, all inspired by classic horror tropes. There’s a jock, a nerd, a goth, a stoner, a popular chick, and the surviving girl who will, in the end, determine who the killer is. (Spoiler alert, most of the archetypical characters die in a spectacularly funny fashion.)

Even though the roles are pre-determined and assigned at the beginning of the show, this doesn’t make things easier for the players. If anything, this is crazy hard. “Here’s a point of view, now understand it, adopt it as your own, and think up stuff to say from that point of view on the fly in front of strangers. Oh, and by the end of the show most of you have to have died and you have to be funny in the meantime.” Like, what even!?! That’s hard enough for me to do on a good day.

“Emily, you’re dumb. Those roles are pretty much stereotypes, and aren’t those at the antithesis of what good character work should be?”

Um, first, how dare you, I’m hella smart. Second, no. Just because the role’s been given to you, there’s still tons of flexibility as to what constitutes that role. Sporty jocks don’t have to be bullies, and the brainiac doesn't have to be socially awkward. For instance, the stoner in the last show (played by David Allison) was far away from being dumb and slow – instead, he was an energetic conspiracy theorist who suspected who the murderer was the whole time. (He felt the perpetrator was George W. Bush, but whether he was right or not is hardly the point here.) The popular girl (played by Maggie Rieth Austin) was ditzy, peppy, and fun – not a sexualized antithesis to the surviving girl the character is usually reduced to. Thinking with that kind of originality takes skill and quick thinking that isn’t often matched.

“Well, OK, fine, so the characters are diverse despite being typified. You still can’t bridge the gap between cinema and stage acting!”

Au contraire! You forget that critical element of improv – scene painting! It’s a heavy and, in this case, a critical show component. We already know what will happen at the end of our “movie” – the audience sticks around for the journey to that conclusion. Performers primarily conduct scene painting through a series of different “camera angles,” wherein they call out cinematic direction you’d normally only read in a script. These camera angles double as edits and is what give the audience a cinematic effect, if an imaginary one. Cast members are given close-ups, split-screens, and even aerial shots that they have to make work and incorporate seamlessly into the ongoing scene. Half of the fun lies in players giving each other impossible views to pull off. (Have you ever seen a dead man fly in circles around two women standing horizontally? Well, I did! You might see it, too, if you buy a ticket). It’s a brain and body workout, to be sure, not to mention the lighting and sound tricks that the techs execute on the fly. (Props to Raye Maddox - you done good, kiddo.)

Boy. What a ride. In short, this show is a keeper. It’s one of those shows at DCH that’s a must see. You won’t get spooked, but you’ll certainly laugh, and any student or fan of improv will also get a great lesson by simply watching the cast. Oh, before I forget – that cast includes David Allison, Amanda Austin, Sallie Bowen, Noa Gavin, Jason Hackett, Tabitha Parker, Ben Pfeiffer, Maggie Rieth Austin, and Nick Scott. The whole shebang is tech'ed by Jua Holt (Raye Maddox was the technical director for the show I saw). They all deserve a big ol’ basket of treats minus tricks, allergens, and razors. For tickets, please visit www.dallascomedyhouse.com.

Emily Baudot is a DCH graduate and sketch student. When she isn’t at the theater, she’s drinking at one of the bars down the street and trying to justify ordering dessert for dinner.  Or, she’s on her computer pretending she’s a banished orc maiden, whichever one sounds healthier to you. If her crippling addiction to sugar and caffeine doesn’t kill her, she can be seen on stage with the soon to be world famous Wild Strawberry and the already-Internet famous Wiki-Tikki-Tabby (just kidding, they do go online a lot though). She’s also a Pisces because that means something.

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.