Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Weirdo Idiot Man-Child

The man-child can at times assume the form of a ridiculously maladjusted weirdo idiot.  These characters are, typically, a maelstrom of lunacy, idiocy and juvenility.  It is impossible for this sort of fool to find maturity or even a modicum of sanity during the course of their wildly comic escapades.  It is because these comedy characters mostly express idiosyncratic and otherworldly qualities that they do not appeal to everyone. 

Here are the fifteen all-time greatest weirdo idiots of film comedy.

1.) Larry Semon

Buster Keaton said of Semon, "[H]e was so weird looking that he could have posed either as a pinhead or a Man from Outer Space."  Semon's surreal gags were often on the eerie side.  Let's take, for instance, a gag from Lightning Love (1923).  When Semon gets his bottom half stuck in one end of a barrel and a dog gets its top half stuck in the other end of the barrel, it creates the illusion of a half-man/half-dog creature. This unnatural hybrid has the same unnerving effect in Lightning Love that similar hybrids would later have in horror films, including The Mephisto Watz (1971) and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

Barbara Parkins and dog pal in The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
2.) Dot Farley

In the early days of film comedy, Farley was able to get laughs by exaggerating to a grotesque extent her less than beauteous features.  She drastically twisted her facial muscles to make herself look outlandish.  It can be seen in this portrait that the actress had a slight overbite. 

Farley jutted her teeth out even more to make herself look unattractively buck-toothed.  Farley is credited by Columbia University's Women Film Pioneers project for her "trademark facial and bodily distortions."  But she went even further with her make-up and hairstyles.  An IMDb reviewer who saw Farley in a 1920 comedy was surprised to find Farley in possession of "outrageous pigtails sticking out horizontally that look like something found on an alien planet."  It was that the actress played her funny characters with an utter lack of vanity that made her popular with film fans. 

Farley helped to pave the way for our next two oddballs.

3.) Alice Howell

Film historian Steve Massa ideally described Howell as follows: "A round Kewpie-doll face, with large eyes and bee-stung lips was topped off with a mountain of frizzy hair piled high on her head producing the effect of smoke billowing from an active volcano. . . The mountain of hair and a stiff-backed penguin-waddle walk became her signature trademarks."

4.) Louise Fazenda

As Farley and Howell, Fazenda relied on unusual make-up and costuming to insure she left a strong impression in her film appearances.  The actress became best known for playing a bizarre farm girl in a series of Sennett comedies.  Fazenda explained to The Stanford Daily that she was "rigged up so absurdly" for her comic roles.  The newspaper reported, "When she plays those peculiarly shaped, timid ladies, she wears a special corset amply padded fore and aft and all around.  Personally she is very attractive, but the public and the producers value her genius for comedy too highly to let her be her real self on the screen."  Today's funny ladies owe a great debt to comedy actresses like Farley, Howell and Fazenda.

Kristen Schaal

5.) Harry Langdon 

Entertainment historian Trav S. D. acknowledged that a significant number of people dislike Langdon for his strangeness.  He wrote, "The complaint is usually some combination of 'strange' and 'weird' and 'I don’t get it'. . . I think Langdon is like a lot of other outre performers in that audiences just need to be exposed to a lot more of the work of that performer in order to develop an appreciation. . . Harry’s weirdness is what’s funny."

6.) Larry Fine 

The frizzy hair.  The rubbery face.  The spacey stares.  Fine was certainly a comedian with an offbeat look and, even more, an offbeat sensibility.  Actor Eddie Deezen described Larry's hairy head blossoming out "[l]ike a fast-growing chia pet. . . into an Afro-like monstrosity."  Larry stood out as the oddest of an odd group.  Consider a scene from Pardon My Scotch (1935) in which Larry removes a flower from a table centerpiece, sprinkles it with salt, and happily devours it.

7.) Ben Blue

Geoff Collins analyzed Blue's acting in the 1930s "Taxi Boys" series on the blog "Third Banana."  He wrote, "I have to admit that for a while I just didn't 'get' Ben Blue, with his unfocused eyes, giggling, failed attempts at folding his arms, and odd exclamations such as 'Well, I'm a tippetywitchet!'; but ['Third Banana' founder] Aaron [Neathery] has patiently explained to me that Ben is an Alien Life Form, an extraterrestrial pretending to be a nightclub comic pretending to be a taxi driver.  You see, it all makes sense; 'Blue' isn't his surname, it's a nickname based on his actual skin colour.  He's a genuine tippetywitchet; it's not his catchphrase, it's his excuse!"

8.) Huntz Hall  
Hall's quirky screen persona, Horace DeBussy "Sach" Jones, was an odd duck by anyone's standards.

9.) Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens)

Alden Ford of the Splitsider website wrote, "I guess I just never got Pee-Wee Herman.  As a kid his show kind of creeped me out.  I didn’t and still don’t really get what’s funny about him."  Ford wasn't the only one.  Journalist Stone Phillips noted while interviewing Reubens, "Even at the height of your popularity not everyone was entirely comfortable with the persona you created.  Newsweek, I think, at one point wrote, 'You either love him or he gives you the willies.'"  Reubens was the inspiration for other freakish comedians, including Emo Philips and Chris Elliot. 

Emo Philips
One of Pee-wee Herman's contemporaries, Martin Short's Ed Grimley, got a significant boost from Pee-wee's success.

Martin Short as Ed Grimley
10.) Chris Elliott

Megh Wright of the Splitsider website noted that Elliott made it his specialty to play "strange, smarmy, and unstable weirdo characters."  Vulture critic John Sellers said that Elliott built a career on playing "cocky optimists who don’t realize how pathetic and disgusting they are to other people."  Frank DiGiacomo of Rolling Stone thought that a good reason to see There's Something About Mary (1998) is to watch Elliot's daring portrayal of "a hive-covered nutjob enslaved to the radiant beauty of Cameron Diaz."  DiGiacomo believes that Elliot "deserves both our revulsion and our love."

11.) Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson)

Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times defined Mr. Bean simply as a "strange rubbery man causing havoc."  A. V. Club's Amelie Gillette described Mr. Bean as "a slightly dark, unpleasant man in a crumpled brown suit, with a bizarre, funny set of problem-solving skills."  Misha Colbourne of the Dorkly website wrote, "There's a thin line between 'eccentric weirdo' and 'deeply unbalanced psycho' - and that's never clearer than in the case of Mr. Bean."

12.) Adam Sandler 

Sandler established himself as a movie star with Billy Madison (1995), in which he sets dog poop on fire, chases a hallucinatory man-sized penguin, and conducts a heated battle between a shampoo bottle and conditioner bottle while soaking in his bathtub.

Although Madison has supposedly learned vital life lessons during the course of the story, he still acts far from normal when he delivers a graduation speech at the end of the film.

13.) Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon)

Mary Katherine Gallagher, who started out as character on Saturday Night Live, has the leading role in the feature comedy Superstar (1999).  Gallagher is a nervous, hyperactive and socially inept student at Saint Monica's Catholic High School.  Her discomforting trademarks include flashing her underwear and sticking her hands under her armpits and then sniffing them.  The SNL sketches stuck to a strict formula.  Wikipedia described the formula as follows: "The sketches would usually begin with a school-related dramatic arts function, such as choir practice or school play rehearsals.  Mary Katherine would run on stage and introduce herself, and then attempt to participate, hogging the spotlight until she would lose her cool and do something socially inappropriate. . . [T]he sketch would usually end with her losing control of herself, such as falling over, crashing into a wall or destroying something.  She would then jump up, compose herself, and extend her hands in the air, proclaiming 'Superstar!'"  Strange for sure.

14.) Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder)

Do I really need to explain this one to you?

15.) Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey)

Roger Ebert wrote, "[Ace Ventura] basically has one joke, which is Ace Ventura's weird nerdy strangeness."  This weird nerdy strangeness is obvious when Carrey stuffs asparagus spears into his mouth to provide a manic imitation of a walrus.

Read more about the comic man-child in I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.

Additional notes

Carol Burnett as Norma Desmond
Mary Katherine Gallagher had many forerunners in television.  We can start with Carol Burnett, who provided grotesque caricatures of everyone from Nora Desmond to Charo.  Later, Laugh-In introduced to television sketch comedy a stock female character whose peculiarities quickly made her a national icon.  The character, Gladys Ormphby, was created by actress Ruth Buzzi with nothing more than a hair net, support hose and a purse.  Ormphby launched a major trend that continues in television today.

Laugh-In inevitably followed up with similar characters, none more popular than Lily Tomlin's Ernestine.

But it was Saturday Night Live that created a long-running industry out of the simple idea that grotesque female characters were funny.  Prominent among the SNL characters are Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner), Pat (Julia Sweeney), Gilly (Kristen Wiig), and Amber, the One-Legged Hypoglycemic (Amy Poehler).

Kristen Wiig as Gilly
It should be noted of course that Lucille Ball, the First Lady of Television Comedy, made a point on occasion to don ugly disguises for laughs.

Have a weird and wild day!

No comments:

Post a Comment