Monday, April 20, 2009

Pretty Clown, Ugly Clown

In the last thirty years, studio bosses have had the idea that a comedy film can only bring in maximum profits if it has a good-looking leading man. This idea probably started with the Chevy Chase comedy Foul Play (1978). Chase was seen as combining the klutziness of Jerry Lewis and the sex appeal of Cary Grant. Men, who found Chase to be goofy, came for the slapstick while women, who found him to be sexy, came for the romance. I, myself, was happy to stay home.
The poster for Foul Play said it all. Goldie Hawn cannot keep her hands off Chase, who is responding to Hawn's caresses by firing off a gun in the pocket of his trenchcoat. That serves to extend the sexual innuendo of Mae West's "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" The gun barrel, poking through a gaping bullethole, is no doubt meant to symbolize Chase's sexual potency. Do I got that right, Sigmund?

"You are correct, my boy!"

I get satisfaction from the fact that the movie Foul Play has largely been forgotten while The Bad News Bears (1976), a comedy starring the homely Walter Matthau, stands as a beloved classic of that same era.

Yet, while memory of Foul Play faded, the pretty comedy star rule persisted. This trend continued in 1980s and 1990s with Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey. John Belushi tried unsuccessfully to shed his "Bluto" Animal House image by slimming down and starring in the romantic comedy Continental Divide (1981). Eddie Murphy worked hard to cultivate a sex symbol image. He actually thought he looked sexy in that tight red leather outfit he wore in Delirious. Producers acted as if less than glamorous comedians like the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges had never existed. Let's go back seventy years. Then, we had Jimmy Durante. Now, we have Vince Vaughn. Then, we had W. C. Fields. Now, we have Owen Wilson.

In 2007, critics were shocked when Judd Apatow cast Seth Rogen as the lead in the romantic comedy Knocked Up. Apatow failed to see why a comedy needed conventionally good-looking leads. Since his early days as a producer, he had asked casting directors to find him actors who were very much unconventional. He told them to keep in mind Jack Klugman. The term "Jack Klugman" eventually became a code used by Apatow's casting people. Columnist Jefferey Wells, in a highly uncomplimentary article, described Apatow's leading men as "doughy-bodied dorks." Critic Jim Emerson referred to this particular brand of leading man as "the Apatow schlub." Apatow responded that it wasn't the difference between ugly and handsome but the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish.

The question remains if Rogen, whether he looks Jewish or not, was meant by Apatow to look funnier, though not necessarily uglier, than the usual comedy star. Mike Nichols faced a Jewish versus non-Jewish casting choice when he had to decide between Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman for the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967). In the end, Nichols rejected Redford in favor of Hoffman because he thought that Hoffman, a short Jewish actor with a large nose, would be more credible and comical as the sexually awkward Braddock. I cannot imagine anyone who would disagree with Nichol's decision.

Personally, I am more likely to laugh at a homely comedian than a handsome comedian, but I generally find funny to be funny regardless to how the comedian looks. I have to add, though, that I see great beauty in Laurel & Hardy, who were no alluring specimens of masculinity. I see beauty in Harpo Marx. I even see beauty in Ben Turpin. Funny can be beautiful. Of course, Oliver Hardy never flaunted unsightly back hair as Rogen has and Stan Laurel never went around shaking man-boobs at the camera like Segel has. Rogen and Segel are purposely going out of their way to gross out audiences.

I wonder what current-day producers would do with Shemp Howard, inarguably the ugliest comedian in the history of motion pictures. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should establish a special award for ugly comedians called the Shemp Howard Uglitarian Award. Shemp makes Jack Klugman look like George Clooney. No offense, Shemp, I love you.

It's time to let go of the guilt. I want the visitors to this blog to know that they are in an environment of acceptance. It is perfectly alright to enjoy the comedy stylings of Shemp.

Shemp steals the show in Sony's new DVD release The Three Stooges Collection, Vol. 5: 1946-1948. The earlier volumes showcased Moe, Larry and Curly as the slapstick Stooges but Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, at which time Shemp was brought in as a replacement.

Shemp had become a familiar personality while starring in short subjects for Vitaphone and Columbia and performing supporting roles in features starring W. C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and Olsen & Johnson. The Shemp to which audiences had become accustomed is evident in the opening scene of the Stooges' All Gummed Up (1947), where the actor is attempting to sell a man a fishing pole. Shemp is crusty and cocky as he touts the quality of the fishing rod. Then, he casts out the line and gets it hooked on a woman's dress, which is torn off as he reels the line back in. He laughs rudely as the woman screams and runs off. Curly would have been frightened and embarrassed in the same situation. He would have smacked his face and sputtered, groaned or squealed. The problem with Shemp being crusty, rude and cocky was that the Stooges already had Moe, who was crusty, rude and cocky, and it upset the chemistry of the team to have two Stooges who were so much alike.

Shemp, as it turned out, was encouraged to be more like Curly. He was even made to recreate a number of Curly's old jokes and routines. Moe asks Shemp what his watch says and he replies "Tick. Tick. Tick." Curly, who was charming and childlike, could be funny with a silly joke like that. The joke, though, doesn't work so well with Shemp.

In the end, Shemp worked hard to find a balance between copying Curly and bringing his own established personality to the team. Shemp put every muscle into being funny. He had a seemingly endless supply of funny walks and funny faces. He worked with his face, his arms, his legs, his shoulders and just about everything else he had to get a laugh. He could even get his hair to do funny things. Moe would slap him and his hair would fly around wildly. It was pretty funny to see this. Further, I challenge you to show me a comedian who could do a better spit-take than Shemp. And, of course, Shemp's trademark "eeb-bee-bee" cry is classic comedy. Shemp likely came up with this vocal expression to satisfy fans who had been fond of Curly's "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" and "woo-woo-woo." The only modern performer who shares Curly and Shemp's creativity making sounds is Hilary Duff, who can squeak, gasp, squeal and hiccup the word "Oh!" to express surprise, delight, anger, disappointment, or any number of feelings. Too bad this range of sound effects is the extent of Duff's acting ability.

I want to describe my favorite Shemp scenes from the DVD collection.

Shemp was given center stage for his debut in the series. This premier showcase for Shemp, Fright Night, opens with the Stooges in a gym training a dimwitted boxer. The trio, who had previously worked together between 1925 and 1932, had no trouble operating as a team in this film. Shemp fell back into the act as if he had never been away. Within the first few minutes, Shemp shows off some funny dance steps while taking jabs at a boxing dummy. Four months later, Shemp was to display even funnier and more elaborate footwork while boxing with a crooked investment broker in Hold that Lion. Unfortunately, the broker responds to all of Shemp's fancy moves by giving him one hard punch, which knocks him flat.

For years, I remembered a scene from Sing a Song of Six Pants where Shemp gets hung up on a dry cleaner's carousel by a surly gangster and gets swung in circles as a gangster punches him. I have no idea why this particular scene stayed in my head but I was definitely pleased to see it turn up in this collection.

Out West finds the Stooges pitted against outlaws in the old west. Shemp joins the outlaws in a poker game, sitting between chief villain Doc Barker (Jack Norman) and Barker henchman Quirt (George Chesebro). Shemp removes his boots as his feet are bothering him. When he crosses his legs, he reveals his toes sticking through a hole in his sock. Quirt reaches under the table to hand Barker an ace, but he ends up sticking the card between Shemp's toes instead. Shemp removes the card from his toes and adds it to his hand. Quirt continues to reach under the table and insert cards between Shemp's toes until Shemp ends up with four aces in his hand.

In Squareheads of the Round Table, Shemp is enlisted by Cedric the blacksmith to help him to elope with the princess. Shemp, intending to fetch the princess for Cedric, climbs into the wrong window in the palace and ends up in the king's bedroom. He sees that someone is asleep in bed. The camera, which is positioned on the opposite side of the bed, reveals the king awake under the covers and none too happy about having an intruder in his room. Shemp, assuming that it is the princess in bed, nudges the king and explains that he has come to bring her to Cedric. "The king ain't gonna push us around, no sir," says Shemp. "Say, how come a nice kid like you has such an old sourpuss for a pappy? He sure is a mean old galoot. He has a puss like a snapping turtle. Yeah, like a snapping turtle with a bellyache." He is so amused by what he has just said that he lets out a cackle and slaps the king on the back. The king lunges after him and, through the ensuing tussle, the bed gets turned upside down.

Fiddlers Three features the Stooges as fiddlers in charge of entertaining Old King Cole. An evil magician abducts the princess intending to force her to marry him. Shemp gets a surge of bravery when he hears of the princess' abduction. "Let me at 'em," he cries, "I'll tear them limb from limb! Let me at 'em!" "What's stopping you?" asks Moe. "Me," Shemp meekly replies.

Later, Shemp gets caught in the magician's box and has to avoid sword blades being thrust into the box by the magician. Afterwards, Shemp tells the princess that the blades never touched him, but he then takes a drink of water and a long stream of water spurts out of his chest. "Get a plumber," he cries, "I think I sprung a leak!"

Larry usually acted scared with Moe and irritated with Curly, but he seemed to be happy working with Shemp. In I'm a Monkey's Uncle, Shemp sets out to make butter for breakfast. He starts out by pouring milk into a pouch. Then, he has Larry tickle him to get him to laugh, which makes him shake hard enough to churn the milk into a perfect stick of butter. Larry seems to be having a better time tickling Shemp than Shemp is having being tickled.

Shemp is always funny when it comes to eating or drinking things that a person probably shouldn't be eating or drinking. A shot of whiskey from a bottle labeled "Old Homicide" sends him into convulsions. In Shivering Sherlocks, he gets a shock drinking paint that Larry has put into a coffee cup. In All Gummed Up, he is forced to guzzle down an inky youth elixir that Moe has mixed up in an old hip boot. In this instance, the camera comes in tight to show Shemp displaying a series of facial tics. In the same film, Shemp goes to get a box of marshmallows to use as a topping for a cake but he mistakenly grabs a box of bubble gum instead. The bubble gum makes the cake so difficult to chew that Shemp has to grab his nose and jaw and pump them up and down to help grind down the pieces. He starts blowing bubbles while chewing the cake and, at the end, a large bubble inflates out of either ear.

In this collection, the best showcase for Shemp is Crime on their Hands. In the opening scene, a newspaper editor agrees to let the Stooges investigate a diamond robbery. Shemp is excited to become a reporter. "Tear out the front page!" he shouts. "Stand by for a scoop! Stop the presses! Copy boy, copy boy, stop the presses!!!!" Moe presses his face between two brass bookends. "Stop the presses," pleads Shemp. Later, at a gangsters hideout, Shemp unknowingly grabs a stolen diamond out of a mint bowl, pops it into his mouth, and gulps it down. Moe shoves ice tongs downs Shemp's throat to retrieve the diamond. He hooks onto something, which he believes to be Shemp's tonsils, and tugs hard thinking he can extract this thing and get it out of his way. When Moe's efforts fail, gangsters make use of a mallet and knife in their effort to rip the diamond out of Shemp's stomach. Shemp can be extremely funny when it comes to expressing pain and panic, which is a useful skill for a member of a group as battered and beleaguered as the Stooges.

Shivering Sherlocks climaxes with a ghoulish hunchback chasing Shemp with a meat cleaver. The hunchback swings the meat cleaver at Shemp's head but he misses Shemp and chops off the head of a dummy instead. Shemp sees the fake head drop to the floor and becomes hysterical thinking that this is his own head. Shemp seemed to have a phobia about losing his head. In Brideless Groom, he has a shaving mirror hanging up while he shaves himself with a straight razor. When the mirror gets turned around and he can no longer see his reflection, he panics thinking that the razor has slipped and sliced his head off. I am relieved that I have a fog-free suction shower mirror and can avoid horrible misunderstandings like that.

Wait, I can't hear that Talking Heads CD I put into my disc drive! I'M DEAF!!! I'M DEAF!!! Oh, gee, I just forgot to plug in the headphones. Sorry.

I now adjourn this meeting of the Shemp Appreciation Society.

The Ha-ha Behind the Wee-Wee

Unlike the similarly themed Paul Blart, Seth Rogen's new comedy Observe and Report forgoes family-friendly slapstick for something dark and discomforting. Lisa Schawarzbaum found Observe and Report to be a more risky, more deep and more clammy than the "squarely comforting" Blart. Jody Hill, who wrote and directed the film, is clearly out to do some taboo-smashing.

The humor in the film is not meant to come from jokes or gags but, rather, from characters being outrageously dumb, outrageously mean or outrageously pathetic. Humor also comes from the unexpected, off-center way that the actors play scenes. Anna Faris is committed to making her character as unlikable as she can. She is skanky, goofy and caustic all at the same time. Michael Peña elicits laughs using a silly wig and an even sillier lisp. One of the funniest characters is Aziz Ansari's lotion salesman Saddamn. Saddamn complains that Barnhardt is a racist who has been harassing him because of his Middle Eastern ancestry. He explains that Barnhardt once accused him of having a plot to blow up the Chick-fil-A. "Why the fuck would I want to blow up Chick-fil-A," he says, "it's fucking delicious." He says the word "delicious" with pure love, which is a feeling very much misplaced in the context of fast-food chicken you buy in a mall.

Paul Blart was sweet and bumbling. Ronnie Barnhardt, the main character of Observe and Report, is ominous and crazy. The story leads up to the bipolar Barnhardt running amok after going off his meds. Unlike Blart, who will reach for his hip to trick a malefactor into thinking he has a gun, Barnhardt viciously attacks people with a Taser gun and batters them with his flashlight. This film, a graphically violent psychological study, has been compared by critics more to Taxi Driver than to Blart.

Joe Leyson, critic for Variety, wrote, "Rogen makes no effort to claim audience sympathy." This type of self-absorbed character is nasty because he has no time to bother with the interests and feelings of others and he is too deluded to see the flaws in himself that are so obvious to everyone else. This makes his character, all in all, creepy.

Hill barely seems concerned about getting laughs in the last half hour of the film. It left me wondering if this was really supposed to be a comedy after all. The AMC series Breaking Bad is much more effective than Observe and Report in blending violence, dark psychological drama and comedy.

I do not have problem with filmmakers mixing together disparate genres, but they cannot simply throw all the elements randomly into a pot and expect it all to blend well together. I am looking forward to Judd Apatow's next film, Funny People, which combines raunchy comedy with sensitive drama. "It's a hard movie to describe," says Apatow. "It's kind of a lot of different movies in one." But it will be difficult for Apatow to pull this together and I can only hope that he is able to get it right. I am less optimistic about filmmakers who combine multiple genres in an effort to create an enormous hybrid that appeals to everyone. I do not know what to expect from the upcoming Night at the Museum sequel, which is being promoted as a family-fantasy-romantic-comedy-adventure.

Paul Blart ended with the good guy getting the pretty gal and the crooks getting arrested. That ending was happy and orderly. Observe and Report has a grim and twisted ending. Betsy Sharkey, L. A. Times critic, wrote, "It heaps piles of bad, crazy stuff at our feet then walks away. There is no moral to this story, and there's not much comedy either."

Observe and Report features a very naked Randy Gambill stalking mall patrons as a serial flasher. We're talking full-frontal nudity with Gambill, in the words of film critic Lisa Schawarzbaum, "exposing his junk." Rogen gets into a foot race with Gambill, who has penis swinging in the wind. So that no one misses this, director Jody Hill sustains shots on the Gambill's chubby bare body. It is surprising that the director didn't throw in slow-motion or close-up shots to really burn this image into viewers' minds. This, in the end, is only funny because it is shocking.

Tension and surprise are involved in making us laugh. The shocking and the funny stimulate the same nerve center in the brain. That part of the brain is called the left superior frontal gyrus. See, it's like I tell my mother, doing comedy criticism takes the same knowledge as it takes to do brain surgery. The point is that slapstick is full of tension and surprise. A man strides out of a tailor's shop in a fine new suit and approaches a massive puddle at the corner. Tension. The man makes it around the puddle. But, suddenly, a large truck comes barreling through the puddle and splashes him. Surprise. That is certainly enough to get a person's gyrus operating.

I have to wonder, though, if film comedy has entered the Age of the Shocking Penis. The person responsible for this is, again, Judd Apatow, who says that he wants to "shake Americans from their squeamishness about male anatomy in movies." It is an odd thing that, as comedy stars become less attractive, we are made to see so much more of them.

Ben Stiller got his penis stuck in his zipper in There's Something About Mary (1998). Jason Biggs got caught with his penis in an apple pie in American Pie (1999). Jason Biggs glued his hand to his penis in American Pie 2 (1999). But neither Stiller nor Biggs showed their actual anatomy in these scenes. There's Something About Mary shocked audiences and got big laughs with a close-up of a prop penis and balls ludicrously tangled up in a zipper. In Borat (2006), Sacha Baron Cohen had a naked wrestling scene with co-star Ken Davitian. A black dot kept Cohen's penis covered the whole time.

More recently, though, Jason Segel did unadulterated full-frontal nudity in the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Segel greets his girlfriend wearing nothing but a towel. He whips off the towel planning to have sex but his girlfriend stops him and tells him that she's breaking up with him. Segel is devastated. The actor, standing there naked, couldn't look more vulnerable and pathetic. Segel, who wrote the scene, said that this was something that had happened to him in real life.

In the last few years, a succession of comedy stars have bared themselves on screen. Seth Rogen got naked in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Will Ferrell got naked in Old School. In the end, though, this has been a lot of bare butts, bare chests, and bare backs. Until Observe and Report, it has only been Apatow who has been willing to show the male member in his films. No one actually showed their penis in Superbad, but the closing credits featured an extended montage of penis illustrations. A lingering shot of a man's penis appears in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. John C. Reilly, in the aftermath of an orgy, is sitting on the floor of his hotel suite surrounded by naked men and women. He gets a phone call from his wife and struggles to have a conversation while people around him are having sex and taking drugs. At one point, a nude man comes up beside Reilly to ask him if he wants coffee. The man's penis is inches away from Reilly's face. The humor is meant to come from the fact that this nude man, who practically has his junk shoved in Reilly's face, is being so nonchalant. His voice is monotone. His penis is hanging limply. The preview audience was not, however, nonchalant. Reportedly, 20 audience members stormed out of the screening in disgust.

The penis is just about to enter the frame from the right.

Comedy films have always gotten into trouble for pushing the envelope. Early slapstick comedies were criticized by church groups for being vulgar. In The New Janitor, Chaplin is not paying attention to what he is doing while working a feather duster around the office and accidentally dusts the well-rounded derriere of a secretary bending over. If a person was to bend over near Chaplin, Chaplin would lean towards them to use their ass as an armrest or he might pull out a match and scratch it against their ass to get a light. Working in a theatre, he tries to stick a prop sword into its holder but misses and sticks an actress in the ass. Just as Apatow thinks that the penis is funny, Chaplin thought that asses were funny.

Still, Keaton did not need to streak naked through the storm in Steamboat Bill, Jr. to surprise and amuse audiences. Harold Lloyd did need to expose his penis to seem vulnerable in The Freshman. Ben Turpin did not need to have sex with a custard pie to be outrageously silly in The Shriek of Araby.

A comedian can only shock an audience with his penis once. This is the reason that this trend shouldn't last much longer. This fifteen minutes of fame for the shockingly funny penis is almost over.

This is not to say that comedians will not find new ways to be shocking. Comedians now seem to think that stunned silence is better than laughter and getting a person's jaw to drop is better than getting a person to smile.

A high-profile film on the current release schedule is Sacha Baron Cohen's Bruno. In March, the Motion Picture Association of America assigned an NC-17 rating to Bruno based on the inclusion of a number of sex scenes. This includes a bondage scene, a scene where Bruno appears to be having anal sex with another man, and a scene where Bruno encounters a dominatrix at a swingers' party. In addition, the trailer features Bruno battering a self-defense instructor with a pair of dildos.

I do not see much in the way of decent classic comedy on the release schedule. The upcoming release The Hangover brings the big cat back to big screen comedy.

The Ugly Truth pairs Gerald Butler and Katherine Heigl in an old-fashioned "battle of the sexes" romantic comedy, although I would rather stay home and watch Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth.

I am afraid, the day of the humble, demure comedian is past.