Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Defense of Year One

I have been extremely busy lately, but I was able to find the time to finally check in.

I recently spent time working on a spoof Final Destination 3 trailer that combined clips from Final Destination 3 with clips of various slapstick comedy mishaps. But, frankly, it came out looking like a mess. I have decided to do the web community a good deed and stop wasting people’s time with my choppily edited clip compilations. I simply do not have the right software at my disposal.

I am glad to say that, in the last few months, I have seen a number of new comedies that were original, clever and, most of all, funny.

I want to start off by recommending World's Greatest Dad, a social satire with depth and meaning. I have never seen Robin Williams give a better performance.

The Hangover is a unique comedy. Unlike most comedies, it is not dominated by a single star performance. It is, instead, a story-driven comedy. The story is a mystery and, as any good mystery story, it is stocked with riddles, clues, suspense, danger and revealing flashbacks. Three men who have come to Las Vegas to throw their friend a bachelor party wake up in their trashed hotel suite with no memory of the previous night. A tiger is the bathroom, a baby is in the closet, and the groom is nowhere to be found. The audience is left to wonder what these guys did the night before and what happened to their friend, who is due to be married the next day. The characters launch an investigation to find answers. The narrative is propulsive in that it makes the audience anxious about the men finding the groom and making it to the wedding on time. This is similar to The Out of Towners, where Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis are also visitors to a notorious city. They become trapped in a nightmarish world and need to find their way out in time for Lemmon to make a crucial job interview. It may or may not be a coincidence that, in either film, one of the out of towners ends up missing a tooth. In the end, Lemmon turns down a lucrative new job as he does not want to relocate to New York. Lemmon and Dennis are relieved to be leaving New York and never want to visit this terrible place again. The Hangover crew has a different reaction to their unnerving experiences. When it's all over, they act like a group of boys getting off a terrifying roller coaster ride - they want to get back on and do it again.

Funny People, described by Lisa Schwarzbaum as "furiously anguished. . . tragicomedy about a sad showbiz clown," was widely criticized for its lack of structure. Betsy Sharkey, critic with Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Sandler and Rogen and the rest are left to wander aimlessly. . .” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon critic, wrote, “Funny People is an ambitious, misshapen picture that feels like two, maybe even three, separate movies uncomfortably jammed into one.” Keith Phipps of The Onion wrote, “It's refreshingly unformulaic, but a rambling mess. It's also tremendously funny.” Village Voice critic Scott Foundas wrote, “There's so much that's so disarmingly good and sharp about Funny People that you wish the whole movie weren't so much of a shambles.” Cliff Doerksen, critic with the Chicago Reader, wrote, “Messy but engaging comedy.”

Personally, I enjoyed the film and did not get hung up on the lack of story structure. I was particularly impressed by the fact that the film was able to blend comedy and drama by simply putting wisecracking professional comedians into a health crisis situation. The film, in the end, mocks dying, or at least the idea that there's an art to dying. The supposed ideal is that, when death approaches, a person should focus on what's important in life, gain greater depth in their thinking, and seek out spiritual peace. The film suggests that that is a false ideal. Sandler's character looks for truth and meaning beyond the fame and groupies, but his search leads him in the wrong direction and puts him into an undignified situation. An undignified situation can feel, at the time, even worse than death.

I visited a lot of museums with my son while I was up in New York recently. This is a picture from our trip. It is a special moment where I was able to prove to my son that I possess classic features.

In the end, I was struck by the lack of comedy in these museum exhibits. As hard as I tried, I could not find a humorous character in a single museum piece. It disappointed me that I didn't at least come across a dribble goblet. History is grave business. It is my guess that the classic painters did not see a funny idea or offbeat observation as being suitable for historical preservation. A sculptor was not going to spend months chipping away at a hunk of marble to create the image of a man leaving a public latrine with toilet paper stuck to his sandal.

These serious artist types did not see comic incidents as having value for future generations. Weird as I might be, I am interested in knowing what tickled the funny bone of a person in the Tang Dynasty. But the historical record suggests that these people were preoccupied with cartography, structural engineering and pharmacology, which are not known to be fertile areas for comedy. The woodblock printing of the Diamond Sutra does not, to my knowledge, include a single joke. I have not read a single surviving gushi that ends with a well-turned punch line.

The Vikings loved Tug of War. As they sat around the campfire, they derived great satisfaction telling stories about heroic champions who demonstrated their strength and endurance in Tug of War contests. But the Vikings never told a story about the anemic, weak-kneed fool who got yanked into the mud. The best that I can make out is that civilizations prefer to be remembered for their triumphs and accomplishments rather than their foolishness and failures.

This brings me to Year One, which was released on DVD this month. The makers of Year One looked to find humor in history. Whether they found humor is another question.

Mick LaSalle, critic with the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote, "Dawn-of-time music thunders portentously from the soundtrack as a band of primitive hunters track down a wild boar. For about 30 seconds of Year One, we could be watching a drama. . . And then one of the hunters screws up, badly, and we meet Jack Black as Zed, an overly confident, loudmouth caveman who somehow can't find his place in prehistoric culture."

Black's character, Zed, throws a spear at the boar but his aim is off and the spear gets stuck in the shoulder of a fellow hunter.

Later, Black is banished from the village after he eats forbidden fruit off the Tree of Knowledge. Black convinces his best friend, Oh (Michael Cera), to join him and the two outcasts embark on a journey through the ancient world. They meet a number of Biblical characters, first brothers Cain and Abel and then Abraham and Isaac. It isn't long before the pair end up in Sodom.

Critics did not respond well to this comic adventure. Michael O'Sullivan, critic with Washington Post, described Year One as a "knuckle-dragging comedy. . . unevolved, unapologetic and mostly unfunny." Joe Neumaier, critic with the New York Daily News, wrote, "Talk about a disaster of Biblical proportions." Robert Calvert, critic with Premiere, wrote, "We've seen funnier cave paintings." Robert Wilonsky, critic with the LA Weekly, wrote that Year One was "unbearably painful." Kyle Smith, critic with New York Post, wrote, "THOU SHALT NOT SEE IT."

The critics had three main complaints about Year One. I think it would be interesting to examine these complaints.

First, the critics did not find Year One to be original. Marc Savlov, critic with the Austin Chronicle, wrote, "Year One reimagines the Book of Genesis as a warped Hope and Crosby comic travelogue – The Road to Sodom." Owen Gleiberman, critic with Entertainment Weekly, thought that the film should be called Bill & Ted's Old Testament Adventure. Calvert wrote, "We loved this movie the first three times we saw it, when it was called Life of Brian, Wholly Moses, and History of the World Part 1." It made it worse that, for many critics, the silliness of Year One compared unfavorably to the biting satire of Life of Brian.

Critics were generally surprised considering the successful track record of director and co-writer Harold Ramis. They could not see how the man who made Groundhog Day (1993) could have made this film. They looked through Ramis' resume for clues. Michael Phillips, critic with the Chicago Tribune, thought the film coasted on an "easygoing appeal" much like Ramis' Stripes (1981). That, though, was one of the kinder observations. Robert Wilonsky, critic with the LA Weekly, believed that the film was as "unfocused and unhinged" as a long-forgotten Ramis flop, Club Paradise (1986).

Calvert was correct to equate Year One to Wholly Moses (1980). Wholly Moses, as a Biblical spoof, is surely a precursor to Year One. Dudley Moore plays Hershel, the cowardly brother-in-law of Moses. Herschel goes through a series of jobs - shepherd, slave in a salt mine, food taster, sculptor of graven images, and star gazer for the pharaoh. It is a historical film written by a career counselor. Along the way, Hershel recreates a number of Bible stories - Moses, Sodom, and David and Goliath. He is leaving Sodom when his wife turns into a pillar of salt. This unfunny film, far from original itself, makes use of a number of situations that turned up fifty years earlier in the Eddie Cantor comedy Roman Scandals (1933).

Other critics likened Year One to Caveman (1981). Caveman features Ringo Starr and Dennis Quaid as Atouk and Lar, cavemen expelled from their tribe by a muscle-bound leader, Tonda. The outcast cavemen wander the countryside and encounter an odd assortment of characters. Yes, this sounds more than a little like Year One. Tonda is played by former Oakland Raider defensive tackle John Matuszak. Marlak, the muscle-bound leader of the hunters in Year One, is played by 6' 7" retired NFL player Matthew Willig. Atouk, more inventive than his tribemates, is working hard to perfect the wheel. Cera’s character, Oh, is proud to have invented the shelf unit. Caveman, like Year One, includes flatulence jokes, poop jokes (a midget caveman falls into dinosaur poop), and narcotic fruit growing off trees. In a scene straight out of the Bible, Atouk vanquishes a giant by catapulting a rock into the giant's head.

It is probably that dumb minds think alike. Certain ideas float around in the ether just waiting to be snatched up. In time, ideas are passed around either consciously or unconsciously. The fact is that Caveman has even more in common with another derided comedy of the summer - Land of the Lost. Atouk gets high on red fruit like Land of the Lost star Will Ferrell. Atouk becomes plagued by an oversized mosquito like Ferrell. The cavemen feast on a dinosaur egg that fell into a geyser and got cooked. Ferrell and his pals feast on a giant crab that fell into a geyser and got cooked. Atouk rides a carnivorous dinosaur into his climatic battle against the villain. Ferrell rides a carnivorous dinosaur into his climatic battle against the villain. Ferrell and his friends have a series of absurd encounters with a cranky T-Rex. Atouk and his friends have a series of absurd encounters with a cranky T-Rex. The height of absurdity occurs in Caveman when a blind old caveman (Jack Gilford) unknowingly bumps into a T-Rex. He reaches up to find out what it is that has obstructed his path and ends up unintentionally stroking the dinosaur's penis. Land of the Lost, for its many flaws, should at least be commended for avoiding dinosaur masturbation.

Year One is, in many ways, similar to an obscure film no critic bothered to mention. In 2006, Adam Rifkin wrote, directed and starred in the caveman comedy Homo Erectus. The plot revolved around scrawny, intellectual caveman Ishbo who, according to Imdb, "yearns for more out of life than sticks, stones and raw meat." Rifkin, who wears eyeglasses in the film, acknowledged that his character had been modeled after Woody Allen. Ishbo struggles to get inventions to work. His failed inventions include pants, a bicycle, a fishing net and a fork. He, like Oh, suffers from feelings of inadequacy. It depresses him to be unable to muster the confidence and determination he needs to club the woman he loves. Ishbo is frustrated that muscle is valued more than brains in his tribe's courtship rituals. He simply does not have the muscles needed to be a caveman. Besides, he thinks that clubbing women is "needlessly violent and disrespectful." He tries to club a woman but he ends up knocking her off a cliff and killing her. Ishbo, like Black's Zed, proves inept on a mammoth hunt. During the hunt, he falls into a large pile of mammoth dung, then is eaten by the mammoth, and is eventually excreted by the mammoth. Rifkin did not want to miss a single nuance in depicting Ishbo falling into dinosaur poop. The poop is made to look as wet, messy and disgusting as poop can possibly look. It makes it even worse that the poop attracts a thick swarm of buzzing flies. This scene actually brings us back to Land of the Lost, which features Ferrell being eaten by a T-Rex and then excreted. Homo Erectus, like Land of the Lost, provides a giant mosquito scene . Tribal leader David Carradine spears a giant mosquito and stuffs it into his mouth. Big insect wings hang out of his mouth as he crunches down on this tasty snack.

The most direct influence on Homo Erectus came from Buster Keaton, a filmmaker greatly admired by Rifkin. "To me," said Rifkin, "Keaton is the pioneer of the action comedy. . . Keaton movies are really exciting, really innovative and really funny. . . Seven Chances, with the rocks and the hundreds of brides chasing him - it's unbelievable, that stuff, it's huge. You know, he jams dozens of gags into a 20-minute short - if you took five of them and put them in a full-length movie today, people would hail you as a revolutionary comedic genius." A tribe of women standing above Ishbo on a mountain ridge toss spears at him as he runs for his life. At the end, Ishbo has managed to repeatedly get people angry at him and he is chased across a barren plain by three different tribes. Rifkin's film was never able to obtain theatrical distribution and was instead released on DVD in 2008 as National Lampoon's Stoned Age.

Ramis claims that the idea for his movie predates Life of Brian, Wholly Moses, Caveman and History of the World Part 1. He explained that, while working with John Belushi and Bill Murray in improv theatre in the early seventies, he wrote a sketch which paired up Murray as a hip-talking Cro-Magnon Man and Belushi as a grunting Neanderthal.

Three Ages, which shows Buster Keaton in the Modern Age, the Roman Age and the Stone Age, is the granddaddy of all these films. The film had an immediate influence on Keaton's competitors. Harold Lloyd, in particular, borrowed ideas from the film. Keaton races to a church to stop a girl from marrying a man he has uncovered to be a criminal. This predates a similar climax seven months later in Lloyd’s Girl Shy. Keaton proves to be an acrobatic player on the gridiron. This was two years before Lloyd's similar acrobatics playing football in The Freshman. The influence of this film was still catching up to other filmmakers decades later. The imitators and adherents that arose in the subsequent years are too numerous to mention. Keaton's gags could turn up when least expected. In the climatic chase of Three Ages, Keaton escapes the police by climbing into a car, exiting on the opposite side and slipping inside a second car. Richard Lester used this same gag with the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night (1964). Despite its many copycats, Three Ages remains amazingly fresh today, as inventive and funny now as it was in 1923.

Keaton certainly cannot rely on his muscles as a caveman in Three Ages. Keaton has to compete with a much larger caveman for a pretty young lady. The young lady’s father decides that, to test the sturdiness of his daughter's suitors, he will see which one can withstand being pummeled by his club. His rival withstands a barrage of blows. Keaton collapses after taking one good rap on the head.

Land of the Lost climaxes with Will Ferrell riding in on a great CGI Tyrannosaurus rex. But, when Keaton shows up riding atop a brontosaurus, Three Ages is only getting started. The brontosaurus lowers his head to the ground so that Keaton can step off. Keaton waves goodbye to the brontosaurus, who turns around and leaves. This scene may lack CGI but it's a lot funnier than the scene in Land of the Lost, which is designed to excite an audience with action and special effects rather than make them laugh.

Keaton shows up in a funny, ill-fitting Roman helmet much like Cera. Keaton, too, lapses into Bible stories, enacting his own variations on Samson pulling down the temple and Daniel becoming trapped in the lion’s den. Keaton looks heroic pushing down pillars, but then chunks of loose brick and mortar conk him in the head and he stumbles around in a daze.

The historical dramas tend to stress high principles and goals to create battles between good and evil. It is all very idealistic. Also, studios executives figure that, as long as they are spending lots of money to recreate historical scenes, the scenes might as well look good. So, these films showcase extravagant sets and elaborate costumes. The satirist is often better at getting to the truth of matters. For years, films about the medieval times led people to believe that the poor farmers, who lived off their own labors and enjoyed the great abundance yielded by the earth, had nothing less than an idyllic existence. At times, these films conveyed pastoral scenes where peasants danced around Maypoles and sweethearts laid together in soft green meadows. It took Monty Python to let us know that the peasants in medieval times did backbreaking work in the fields and were usually covered in manure. A film about medieval times that does not have peasants scratching at the lice and fleas on their body is not at all authentic. Victor Mature looks regal wearing his centurion helmet in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). But, maybe, it wasn't all pride and splendor wearing those bulky headpieces. Keaton and Cera may have been more authentic as ancient soldiers than Mature. By the way, helmets were seen as comical years before Keaton came along. Gaumont Film Company produced an early comedy film that addressed the helmet issue all on its own. A Heavy Headpiece (1909) was entirely devoted to a soldier's experiences managing his weighty headgear.

The historical comedy is, by no means, an exhausted genre. Quite the contrary, not enough people have taken the time to examine our origins from a humorous perspective. So, Life of Brian should not be the last word that comedymakers have on human history.

This is not to say that Ramis went for gritty realism with Year One. Cinematographer Alar Kivilo was instructed by Ramis to watch Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) to get an idea how he wanted the film to look. In the end, Kivilo created these burnished images with golden hues. Also, Zed may be a caveman who eats dung but he was given stylish hair with pretty blond streaks.

The second complaint of critics was that the humor of Year One was juvenile. Kyle Smith, critic with the New York Post, asked, "Is Fred Flintstone writing this stuff?" James Berardinelli, ReelViews critic, wrote, "Filled to the point of overflowing with gross-out humor, Year One might get some belly laughs from six and seven year olds, who can't resist giggling at the image of someone farting. . ." Frank Scheck, critic with the Hollywood Reporter, found that the film "[offers] a plethora of poop, sex and fart jokes and vulgarity without a smidgen of wit." Robert Wilonsky, critic with the LA Weekly, wrote, "[N]o laugh’s too cheap." Liam Lacey, critic with the Toronto Globe and Mail, was deeply disturbed by the sight of "Zed snack[ing] on some poop." He was also bothered by a eunuch who carries his petrified testes around in a cloth bag and later tosses the testes at Black. A few critics singled out a scene where it is implied that a sheep herder is having sex with his sheep. Ty Burr, critic with the Boston Globe, wrote, "There’s ... the scene in which Oh, hanging upside down in a dungeon, urinates on his own face. Are you laughing yet?"

The urine does, in fact, stream down on Cera's face for an awfully long time. Ramis, himself, looked at the scene while recording the DVD commentary and remarked, sounding almost astounded, that it was a "prodigious amount" of urine. Ramis started the script on his own but later called in two young writers to help him finish it. The writers admitted that they took Ramis' insights about religion and built a lot of gross gags around it. The dominance of these gags is the weakest feature of the film and it is not something I am unable to defend. Still, it should be explained to anyone who failed to appreciate the urine scene that Cera broke blood vessels in his eyes while hanging upside down. It amazes me what an actor will do for their art.

The cavemen remain stylish throughout their gross travails. At one point, Zed compliments Oh on his hair. Oh attributes his urine shampoo to his hair's fine body and sheen.

The third complaint of critics was the performances of the leads. Black and Cera, described by Washington Post critic Michael O'Sullivan as a "first-century odd couple," did not win over most of these commentators.

A number of critics suggested that the comic pairing had inherent humor that never fulfilled its promise. Stephanie Zacharek wrote, "The initial sight of Black, with his sexy barrel belly, and Cera, in all his innocent scrawniness, both decked out in vests of shaggy fur, is momentarily amusing." Derek Malcolm, critic with the Evening Standard, wrote, "Black’s ebullient over-playing and Cera’s nervy wimpishness make a partnership that often seems about to make you laugh."

Joe Neumaier, critic with the New York Daily News, wrote, "No one’s idea of a classic comedy team, Cera sing-songs his way through his stammering-victim moments while Black — whose performances have become so arch and flip we should worry he’ll break his back the next time he shows up — is insufferable almost from his first scene, his every line spoken with air quotes around it."

Many critics complained that Black had worn out his act. Ty Burr, critic with the Boston Globe, wrote, "Black is way past his expiration date. The actor’s unvarying comic shtick - blubbery egotism and over-enunciated dude catchphrases - has never seemed feebler." Scheck wrote, "Black does his Jack Black thing well enough, but the results are by now unfortunately predictable.

Critics were, overall, kinder to Cera. Phillips found Cera's "deft, improvisatory underplaying" to be an asset. Scheck wrote, "Cera garner[s] genuine laughs with his deadpan pained reactions to the endless indignities suffered by his character." Kevin Maher, critic with the UK Times, wrote, "All hail Michael Cera, worker of unprecedented movie miracles! For here, in this biblical comedy, the. . . former Juno heartthrob takes a weak concept. . . and some weaker material. . . and, wherever possible, adds some much needed flashes of comedic genius. . . Watch him stare, for instance, at a sultry denizen of Sodom doing unspeakable things with fresh fruit — 'Wow,' he says, with a nervous, Allen-esque stutter, 'She’s really making that banana last!' He may, for some, be an acquired taste, but without him Year One would tank."

This is not to say that the praise for Cera's performance was unanimous. Stephanie Zacharek, Salon critic, wrote, "Cera, who's building a fledgling career on his shy, deadpan demeanor, gives a performance that's merely watery and indistinct."

The greater issue, more important than whether Black and Cera performed well individually was whether they bonded together and acted as a solid team. The risk certainly existed for their comic styles to clash. Black's brash character hardly seemed compatiable with Cera's tenative naif character. But Black and Cera did, in fact, manage to meet in the middle - Black is less manic than usual while Cera is more goofy. The fact is that, even if not every critic agreed, the most favorable responses to the film came from critics appreciating the teamwork of the two actors.

The naysayers included Zacharek, who found that the film was "hobbled by the lack of chemistry between its two lead actors." Peter Rainer, critic with Christian Science Monitor, believed that Black and Cera "did not know how to riff off each other." Liam Lacey, critic with the Toronto Globe and Mail, wrote, "Black blusters and Cera bumbles in very familiar ways here, and they react to a sequence of humiliations with their contrasting speech volumes."

Other critics were enthusiastic in their praise of the duo, recognizing that their teamwork offered more than contrasting speech volumes.

Betsy Sharkey, critic with the Los Angeles Times, wrote, "Zed has a hero complex, while Oh's issues are with inferiority." The character with the hero complex paired with the character with the inferiority complex does make for an intriguing contrast.

Michael Sragow, critic with the Baltimore Sun, enjoyed the "image of rotund Jack Black and willowy Michael Cera in animal-skins." He liked to see the “rotund” one and the”willowy” one “pratfall in and out of Bible stories.” This can't help but bring to mind Laurel & Hardy. But Sragow, himself, did not have Laurel & Hardy in mind. He found Black's Zed to be "all wiliness and appetite" like a Mel Brooks character while Cera, “intelligent but strangled in a continuing tussle between his erupting id and his feelings of inadequacy," was "more like an elongated Woody Allen.” Sragow found the duo, who shared "a loopy chemistry," to be appealing.

David Hiltbrand, critic with the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote, "The actors make a surprisingly effective comic team, with Black's manic energy trampolining off Cera's deflated passivity."

Dana Stevens, Slate critic, wrote, "The essential question of a buddy comedy, of course, is whether and how the two leads bounce off each other, and while they may not be the next Laurel and Hardy, I found Black and Cera's teamwork to be reasonably bouncy. Black's me-so-crazy shtick can get grating. . . but he's a natural collaborator, that rare comic who actually listens to his interlocutors instead of just waiting for his turn to riff. And I can't get enough of Cera, a sad-eyed beanpole whose delivery is so dry it's almost uninflected. He has a way of stepping on the very end of Black's lines with quickly blurted put-downs that gets me every time; it's the comedy of passive-aggression, a tart counterpoint to Black's oleaginous self-assurance. Cera's critics complain that he always plays the same role, but I've said it before and I'll say it again: We need Michael Cera to keep being Michael Cera. Nobody else knows how."

LaSalle wrote, "Black and Cera's comic styles are quite different. Onscreen, Black's persona tends to be self-promoting and easily exasperated, a character in constant collision with his environment, who acts before he thinks and tries to get by on bluff. Cera, by contrast, is watchful and paranoid, sardonic and full of dread, and thinks hard before he commits himself in any direction. These contrasts make them a superb comic duo, and so does their one similarity: They both operate under the implicit assumption that the world is a threatening place that must be mastered, either by forceful action (Black) or careful thought (Cera)."

This makes Black and Cera very much like Laurel & Hardy, who were always united in fear.

Fat comedians who act manic are automatically seen by some as “Bluto” from Animal House. But Jack Black, as fat and manic as he may be, is not a clod, a slob or a mad man like Bluto. Black can be found at his best in The School of Rock (2003), where he poses as a substitute teacher at a prep school. Black, as Sragow pointed out, is filled with “wiliness and bluff.” It is important to him to keep his mind working and understand the people around him. In his efforts to understand people, he develops sensitivity and affection towards them. In The School of Rock, he expresses a genuine affection for the children in his class. He shows compassion in his scenes with the principal, Ms. Mullins (Joan Cusack). He doesn’t simply fool the principal but, in fact, establishes a close friendship with her. For a long time, he is truly resourceful and does fairly well in a bad situation. He is not inept or foolish, demonstrating true talent as teacher. At the end of the film, he makes a speech about how much the children have touched him. It isn't a phony speech tacked on to give the film a message. It is just the sort of heartfelt speech we can imagine this character making. Mike White, who wrote the screenplay specifically for Black, clearly understood Black's strengths and knew how to develop characters with real feelings.

I have a great deal of respect for Black and I found that Year One put his talents to better use than Nacho Libre (2006) or Be Kind Rewind (2008). Black did not turn out to be a grunting caveman as Ramis originally envisioned. Black and Cera’s rational, forward-thinking characters are both a lot hipper than the other cavemen in their tribe and they are more morally developed and sympathetic than people they encounter in Sodom.

Unfortunately, Year One lacks the passion and focus of a great comedy. The cast spoke about Ramis being a Zen master for his tranquil behavior on the set, but Ramis in fact looks tired in behind-the-scenes footage and sounds even more tired speaking about the film on the DVD commentary. It is possible that Ramis failed to provide this film with a sufficient driving force and allowed the poop jokes to overwhelm the proceedings. Still, Year One has much to offer and is, in the end, an entertaining film.

Disclaimers and Clarifications

Reed Tucker, a columnist for the New York Post, acknowledged the proliferation of the male sexual organ in big screen comedies in a recent article, "Flash in the Pants.” Tucker declared Ken Jeong to be the newest member of the “rod squad” for flaunting his “family jewels" in the summer comedy hit The Hangover. The film also includes a scene where Zach Galifianakis has his pants down while receiving oral stimulation from an elderly hotel maid, but Galifianakis admitted in interviews that the penis in the scene was a prosthetic. I'm sorry, a prosthetic penis does not get you into this exclusive club.

I mention this article only because Tucker pointed out that this trend started with Sideways (2004), in which M. C. Gainey interrupts sex with his wife to chase after an intruder and ends up chasing a car down a neighborhood street with his penis dangling in the wind. I am embarrassed that I failed to mention Sideways in my own recent dissertation on the comedy penis. Sideways is one of the best comedies of the last ten years and I do not know how I could have overlooked it. Maybe, I was so traumatized by Gainey's penis that I blocked it out of my mind . In any case, I stand corrected.

Numa, Clown Cat

In the 1920s, lion trainer Charles Gay exhibited more than 200 lions at the tourist attraction Gay's Lion Farm in Los Angeles. His lions were featured in a number of films. Gay's biggest movie stars were Slats and Numa. Slats, pictured below, was the serious thespian assigned to jungle adventures.

Numa, a friendly lion able to perform funny tricks, was used in comedy films for Sennett and others. Here is a picture of Numa looking as if he is ready to take a pie in the face.
Numa was such a big deal that he got to co-star opposite Chaplin. I found these pictures while researching my new book, which will include a passage on Numa.

I am looking at a wide range of material for this book. One early film that attracted my interest was How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900), which is first film to use a car crash for comedic effect.