Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Gag that Ate Hollywood


I am pleased to report that my book has an official title. My publisher justifiably rejected the snarky titles that I, myself, suggested. I never really expected them to call the book Lies that Buster Keaton Told Me. In the end, we settled on the title The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags. The book largely focuses on gags and routines that were introduced on stage in the Commedia dell'arte, the circus, British pantomime and vaudeville and developed to their fullest in silent films. I intend at times to make use of my blog to go off the printed page and expand the discussion into other areas. This is one way to make use of material that never made it into the book.

I became inundated with gags during my research. Some gags I liked better than others. Some I didn't like at all. But I had to catalog the gags and, even if a gag failed to make me laugh, I could at least approach it with a degree of a clinical interest. One gag was an exception. It was the one gag that went as far as rousing my ire. Look carefully at this scene from National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) and you will catch the introduction of the most overused gag of modern times.

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Yes, I am speaking of the accidental deployment of the airbag (although the airbag in this faltering first effort looked more like a garbage bag). The gag was expanded upon in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988).

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Presumably, no time's a bad time for an airbag gag. This one occurs only moments after a dramatic death scene in Beverly Hills Cop III (1994).

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Jim Carrey was no funnier than Murphy when, later that same year, he performed the identical gag in Dumb & Dumber (1994).

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This is an impersonal gag that does not allow a comedian to distinguish himself in a significant way. It is for this reason that a movie fan expecting characterization or novelty from a comedian can quickly come to find the repeated use of this gag tiresome.

Here are a few other films in which this gag appeared:

All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 (1996)
Good Burger (1997)
Taxi 2 (2000)
Exit Wounds (2001)
Freaky Friday (2003)
Sleepover (2004)
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Clerks II (2006)
Pineapple Express (2008)
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

Here is the Freaky Friday version of the gag:

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The airbag gag was an offshoot of a time-honored genre of inflatables humor. Overinflated balloons and tires were the cause of comic troubles at first. Later, inflatable rafts became a device for comedy. These images are from an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show ("The Curious Thing About Women," 1962).


Woody Allen was memorably silly trapped inside an inflatable suit in Sleeper (1973).

Writers are wrong to think that, by adding a prurient twist to this overused gag, they can suddenly make it fresh and edgy. Take, for example, this scene from Scary Movie 2 (2001).

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Or this scene from Family Guy:

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The Simpsons and Family Guy have done a number of airbag gags.

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I don't even know what to make of this American Dad clip.

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No one is ashamed to recycle this gag. Within just the last year, the gag was featured prominently in the trailers for Date Night (2010), Furry Vengeance (2010) and Take Me Home Tonight (2011).

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It also turned up in a recent commercial for the sitcom Traffic Light.

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I feel compelled to do something to finally put an end to this. Perhaps, a strongly worded letter to studio executives will make them stop. I can get them to sign a pledge, an armistice, or something. But who am I kidding? This gag has taken on a power all its own. It has grown into this massive, snarling beast that cannot be stopped. No one can stop it - not Sumner Redstone, not Judd Apatow, not Ben Stiller, not the entire Wayans family. It is times like these that I am glad that I keep a laminated copy of the Serenity Prayer in my wallet. I need to clutch that card in my trembling hands and recite the prayer again and again as the unholy beast bangs against my door demanding to get in. I also need to delete the Lovecraft books on my Kindle.

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