List of Four — #1

I had a playwriting instructor during my second year of college who was accused of playing favorites with his students who were adept with comedy. There was probably some truth to this accusation, but it didn’t bother me much as I was one of his students who specialized in humor. This professor was clearly a man who appreciated comedy. Most of the peer examples that he used in class were by those of us with considerable skill with comedic dialogue, and a good number of the well-known professional examples that we were required to view or read the scripts to for grades were comedies. He once said something during lecture (in re: comedy) that I have never forgotten. I’m paraphrasing: It’s easy to make an audience cry. He told us that there are universal things that just about everybody on the planet finds traumatizing or sad (having a child die or killing an animal were the two examples he gave in class), but that there was no way of knowing what might make every single person in an audience laugh. Our individual senses of humor, according to this professor, are like snowflakes or fingerprints.

I will be honest and admit that I haven’t done a whole lot of movie watching lately. My work schedule has been just to the left of insane, and I spend most of my free time sleeping. There has been little time for television and even less time for writing. I’ve spent the hour or two before I retire in the morning (I work third shift) reading comic books or a novel because it honestly helps me sleep. When I do take the opportunity to watch some television, it is usually in the evening, in the hour-and-a-half or so that falls between putting the children to bed and heading out the door to drive to work. During this time, I watch Star Trek reruns, get caught up on the most recent season of Superstore, or get lost in reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond (don’t judge me– the cast is top notch). I watch these things because I have seen them before and they are comforting to me.

Comforting. That’s the operative word for me right now. I need the comfort of familiarity. I’m struggling with day to day. I was anxious most of the time about the recent presidential election. I am still feeling lost and adrift, surrounded by co-workers and family who are ardent supporters or vehement apologists for a President who has, for the first time in my life, made me ashamed to be an American. The pandemic looms over everything. It’s not a great time for my mental health right now, but I am trying to find positivity in the aspects of my life that I can control. My wife and kids. A handful of close confidantes. Comic books. And reruns of old comedies that make me laugh every time.

As I’ve mentioned, the time that I have available to write has been sadly lacking, but I do find it important that I keep the blog rolling. I appreciate that I have a good number of readers that are following my writings. To that end, I find it important to keep the content fresh, even if I don’t necessarily have a new entry for an individual film. I also wanted to keep things positive as well.

There’s a new feature at Cinematic Rabbit Hole, friends. You may see a few of these entries over the next few months. They will be easier for me to write. They will provide readers with new content while I work on the longer entries (I have three entries still in process, one of which that may be capable of getting my inter-connected labyrinth back on track). These entries are not intended to replace normal content. They are intended to invite discussion. I hope you enjoy it.

In the spirit of remaining positive, our first List of Four (which is what I am intending to call this feature) is Four Comedies That Make Me Laugh Every Single Time:

Airplane! Poster

Airplane! (1980)
Written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker
Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
88 minutes, rated PG

This is, admittedly, a pretty stupid movie, and I ought to feel shame for loving it as much as I do. But I don’t. And I won’t. With that said, I defy you to find any critical list of “funniest movies of all time” that doesn’t have this movie very high on the list. I’m, obviously, not alone in this assessment.

Weird story that always comes to mind when I think of this film: I saw it for the first time at a very young age. At the time, network television showed Hollywood movies as part of the prime-time schedule. This movie was one that I had seen with the entire family. Of course, as a child– I’m talking six or seven years old– I didn’t get a lot of it. I didn’t understand a lot of the clever wordplay. I didn’t understand a lot of the drug humor. I certainly didn’t get a lot of the sexual innuendo. What I did understand is that my whole family had watched it together, that we had all enjoyed it, and that there seemed to be something in here for every one. There are many different types of comedy on display in this film, and for every crass joke about racial stereotypes that I didn’t get there was a sight gag that I did (even if I didn’t completely understand that, often, the sight gag in question was a spoof on a similar visual in a better film). Jump ahead several months . . . my siblings and I are staying at an aunt’s house in Mattoon. This particular aunt was far more religious and conservative than my parents. What we were allowed to watch at her house was, generally, miles more family-friendly than we might get away with at our own. This aunt had satellite, though, and satellite meant that she had pay movie channels. Desperate for ways to entertain her nieces and nephews, she had made a painstaking list of movies that we might be able to watch and stave off boredom (this is, for the record, how I ever saw The Muppet Movie for the first time). Among the movies she had approved was Airplane!, a movie that was rated PG and had earned our parent’s seal of approval as something we had already seen.

What no one seemed to realize about Airplane!, however, was that the version for network television was drastically edited. There were many, many gags and visuals in the original version that had not made the cut for prime-time viewing. Some of these gags (such as the visual of Julie Hagerty using a small straw to blow air into the auto pilot’s crotch) would garner an automatic PG-13 today. There were jokes abut pedophilia (Have you ever seen a grown man naked?) and, even worse in the eyes of my super-religious aunt, nudity. And I mean, nudity. As in, a decently-long shot of a pair of naked breasts. I don’t completely recall, but this might have been the first pair of naked breasts that I had ever lain eyes on. It was absolutely the first pair that my younger brother had ever seen. Regardless, my poor aunt was utterly scandalized.

This is a movie that never grows old for me. I can easily rank it as (potentially) my favorite comedy of all time. A large part of that is how I have aged as the movie has. As a child, I found the visuals hilarious. As I got older, I found more and more in it to laugh at. As an adult, I began to appreciate that this “stupid” movie was far more sophisticated than a sampling of the dialogue would lead you to believe. For example, the fact that Barbara Billingsley is the only woman on the plane who speaks “jive” is a great joke regardless of whether her actual dialogue is funny or not. If anything, as an adult, I have realized that this movie was way ahead of its time, and that absolutely no one does this kind of thing as well as Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure Poster

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Directd by Tim Burton
Written by Phil Hartman & Paul Reubens & Michael Varhol
Starring Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, and Mark Holton
91 minutes, rated PG

I have not lost my mind. This is a great movie. It’s a very funny movie. And it is, quite possibly, the single best movie in the entire Tim Burton filmography.

At the time of this film’s release, my parent’s divorce had been final for almost a year. My father had revealed his truest nature afterwards and become a deadbeat, devoting more time and energy to his new wife and her children. My mother, not holding her breath for any of the promised child support, had recently begun doing what she continued to do for many years: working multiple jobs to make ends meet. This meant that she wasn’t home very often. It also meant that we didn’t have a lot of money for frivolous extras.

In Urbana, the sister city to the town in which we lived, there was a movie theatre that showed second-run movies for only a $1. My mother, who is also a movie lover, usually took us here. None of us knew anything about this particular film when it was playing, but it was rated PG, had gotten really good reviews, and had been touted as a good family film. Unfortunately for my mother, in this case, “a good family film” meant that “your children will love it while you sit terrified that this odd little man-child will somehow warp your otherwise intelligent offspring’s psyches with his general weirdness”. My mother hated this movie.

My brother and I loved it, though. Somewhat inexplicably, in retrospect, because it really is a very strange film. It was not at all the sort of thing we usually enjoyed. We became obsessed with it, though. It became imperative that we see it more than once. It was a popular film, too, and it played at our favorite theatre for many, many, many weekends, much to my mother’s chagrin. She enjoyed taking us to the movies, but there was no way in pluperfect hell that she was going to sit through this movie again. This movie was the sort of thing that comprised her nightmares.

Think about it. If you were a single mother in the 1980’s, Pee-Wee Herman, who is– let’s face it– a grown man luring children into his playhouse by pretending to be one of them, would not be very funny at all. He might be downright terrifying. I didn’t see it that way, though. I can’t speak for my brother, but I was intrigued by Pee-Wee Herman because he was a grown man who pretended to be a child. He did what he wanted to when he wanted to do it. He went on crazy adventures to the Alamo with no parental supervision. He had the coolest toys and no responsibilities. With that in mind, Pee-Wee actually being a grown man was a point in his favor. He was an adult who, not only refused to judge me for being just a kid, but didn’t expect anything from me. With Pee-Wee, I was allowed to just be a kid. Pee-Wee was an adult who understood me. He got me. He was the only adult who didn’t expect me to be anything but a kid. This was important to me in the tumultuous aftermath of my parent’s divorce.

Yes, dammit, Pee-Wee Herman made me happy. And he still does. This is a very nostalgic film for me. To watch it now, takes me back to that era of my youth, and it serves as a reminder that not everything about my childhood was as terrible as I constantly tell myself it was. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure made me happy. Going to the movies with my mother made me happy. Going to the movies with us made her happy, and this is the only time in my memory that she didn’t enjoy the movie as much as we did.

Nostalgia aside, this movie still holds up for me. It’s still funny every single time that I see it.

Liar Liar Poster

Liar, Liar (1997)
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Written by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur
Starring Jim Carrey, Maura Tierney, Cary Elwes, Jennifer Tilly, Swoosie Kurtz, and Justin Cooper
86 minutes, rated PG-13

For about four months in 2006, I dated this girl named Lisa. She was the singer in a local band I liked. She had the voice of an angel and I was quite enamored of her talent. It didn’t hurt one bit that she was adorable. Somewhere down the line, it turned out that we shared some mutual friends and they, naturally, encouraged us to go out. Listening to us constantly (and shamelessly) flirt with one another was apparently getting tiresome.

Lisa and I didn’t last long. The reasons for that are complicated (and have far more to do with me than they ever did with her), but we managed to break up amicably and remained good friends. We’re still friends to this day.

I have many fond memories of my time with Lisa, but one of my favorites revolves around this film. Truth told, a lot of my most prevalent memories of Lisa somehow circle back to the movies we enjoyed together, but this film holds a very special place in “the memories of Lisa” file. Mostly, I think, because the circumstances of seeing it together were unquestionably not so good. This idiotic Jim Carrey comedy made a terrible situation much more pleasant, helped turn what could potentially have been a bad memory into a good one.

Lisa has cystic fibrosis, and this period of her life was possibly the worst off she had ever been in regards to her health. Some of this was the result of her lifestyle choices, but a lot of it was outside her control. A couple of days before we watched Liar, Liar, she had gone to Chicago to see a specialist at Northwestern. This specialist was none too impressed with her current state and admitted her. I went to Chicago on a day off to visit with her, and was very shocked to see the condition that she was in. She was clearly not at optimal health. She tried as best as she could, wanting to take a walk around the ward she was in, but she didn’t get too far from her room before she was too winded to keep going. It was actually difficult for her to carry on a conversation without becoming short of breath. It concerned me, but, more importantly, it seemed to be concerning her. I had never seen her like this. The Lisa I knew and loved was a fighter, the sort that doesn’t take any shit. She was never willing to let her illness define her. The Lisa I was seeing now was consumed by her illness, gaunt and almost at the end of her rope.

We enjoyed lunch together. We played cards. I read a few chapters of the novel that she had been writing while she received various treatments from the attending staff. We watched the last half of a documentary on television about U2 (her favorite band). She was clearly getting exhausted, though, and suggested that she might be in line soon for a long nap. I said that I would stay until she fell asleep.

She ended up not going to sleep. At least, not while I was still present. I mean, that was the intention– I had even taken time to help get her tucked in and comfortable– but it didn’t work out that way. Our plan completely changed when we discovered on the television that Liar, Liar had just started. We both said, “Oh, my God! I love this movie!” at exactly the same time.

It struck me as strange at the time that this movie had never come up in conversation before. Lisa and I spent a lot of time watching and discussing our favorite films, and our tastes were remarkably simpatico. This movie, a movie that she clearly loved and knew by heart, had never once come up. In retrospect, I am glad that I didn’t know. If I had known, we might have watched it, and I would have missed out on this opportunity to watch it together for the first time.

I pulled a chair as close as I could to her hospital bed, and we held hands while we watched the film. There seemed to be an unspoken competition to come up with the next line before the other person (or the characters in the movie) could blurt them out. We laughed uproariously at our favorite lines (Stop breaking the law, asshole!), so much so that she commented that the laughter was making her cough, which, in turn, was hurting her chest. I offered to watch something else, but Lisa wasn’t having it.

I should possibly admit at this point that my love for Liar, Liar is an anomaly. I love comedy, but I am quite picky about it. Jim Carrey is very high on a list of actors whose dramatic works I appreciate more than his comedies. Most of his work I don’t find humorous in the slightest. I appreciate Liar, Liar (and, to a certain extent, The Mask) because it makes sense in the context of the movie for the character to act the way he does. Comedies like Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective strain the levels of absurdity that I am willing to accept and still find a character believable. I feel the same way about Robin Williams. Honestly, I feel this way about a lot of the top comedians of the day. Don’t even get me started on Adam Sandler.

I only ever watched Liar, Liar in the first place because, when it came out on video, I was the assistant manager of a Blockbuster Video store. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It was doing what no other Jim Carrey “comedy” had done before: making me laugh. I am not ashamed to admit, though, that, even if I had hated it, it would still hold a very nostalgic place in my mind.

My hospital bed “date” with Lisa really is one of my favorite memories of watching a movie with a member of the opposite sex.

Safety Last! Poster

Safety Last! (1923)
Directed by Fred Neymeyer and Sam Taylor
Written by Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, and Tim Whelan (with Jean C. Havez and Harold Lloyd)
Starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, and Westcott B. Clarke
74 minutes, not rated

Harold Lloyd, the extremely agile and athletic star of this classic silent comedy, is often referred to by film historians as “The Third Genius”. As in, “third in line behind Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton”, the household-name masters of silent comedy. Did you know, though, that Harold Lloyd made more movies than both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd combined? To that end, his movies also took in more money at the box office than the other two comedians combined. Why then does Lloyd’s genius play second fiddle to the genius of his contemporaries?

The answer is simple: availability. Harold Lloyd was a cinephile, as well as a brilliant comedic actor. In addition, he was also a shrewd businessman and maintained ownership of all of his films in return for a lesser salary. This meant that, once his films were completed and exhibited, they were usually put in a private vault and only available for screening with express written permission from Lloyd himself. Chaplin and Keaton films were shown repeatedly over the years, whereas Lloyd’s pictures were not.

Of the three comedians, Harold Lloyd is easily my favorite. This film is the one most people are familiar with, thanks largely to a still photograph of a nerdy, bespectacled man hanging perilously from the bending hand of a clock looming high over the streets of New York. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it highly. You will be a Harold Lloyd fan for life.

Safety Last! concerns the mistaken-identity adventures of a young man who lies to his girlfriend back home that he has made good for himself in the big city and become the manager of the upscale department store where he actually works as a put-upon sales clerk. He has to be clever to pull this lie off when she comes to the big city to visit, a series of switcheroos which eventually devolves into him posing as The Human Fly, a man hired by the department store to scale the side of the building for promotional purposes. From there, the film becomes one of the single-most awe-inspiring comedic sequences in the history of American film. He gets attacked by pigeons. He teeters on a ledge while an errant mouse climbs up and down his pant leg. Ropes he hopes might save him turn out to be attached to nothing at all. He fights with a weather vane. It’s a stomach-tightening sequence of events, not only for how frightening it is, but for how downright hysterical it turns out to be.

I discovered this film quite by accident. I had seen a short Harold Lloyd comedy a couple of years prior at The Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, an annual film festival that originated in my hometown. I could not remember the name of the movie, only that it started Harold Lloyd and that Harold Lloyd spent a majority of the film precariously climbing a building under construction. The film I was looking for was actually called Never Weaken, but searches on the Internet (which was not nearly as expansive as it is now) pulled up the wrong movie when I googled “Harold Lloyd climbs a building”. Harold Lloyd has climbed many, many buildings in his filmography.

I was not at all disappointed by watching the wrong film in this instance. In fact, Safety Last! immediately became a favorite film to watch over and over. Its nice, tight running time made it a great movie to show people who had never seen it, a good example for visitors to my home who had never heard of Harold Lloyd before. Almost every single friend who was introduced to Harold Lloyd due to my impromptu screenings of his most-famous film asked to watch another one when we were finished. I usually showed them Grandma’s Boy or The Freshman, which depicts the single, funniest football game ever filmed for posterity.

I actually own a boxset that has 28 of Lloyd’s most enduring films. Curated by his granddaughter from the original prints in his vault, the collection has more than a few movies that had not been seen publicly since their original release. Every one of them is comic gold, even if Lloyd’s sense of humor was mildly darker than his two genius contemporaries.

4 thoughts on “List of Four — #1

  1. Two of these films I completely agree with, and two I like your assessments, but not necessarily the films.
    Carrey may be an underrated dramatic actor. He doesn’t display the schmaltz or overwrought pathos that some of his peers have been accused of. His comedies are hit and miss, but his commitment to his characters are to be admired (except Riddler).
    I was perhaps too old to appreciate the absurdity of Pee Wee. I remember him more as the annoying Hambuger Man from Cheech & Chong.
    Some humor doesn’t always hold up, but there are always moments from every comedian or comedy that still give me a fond chuckle.
    BTW, love how you equate your memories and movies


  2. “Hey, Mr. Lizard! Would you like a hamburger?”

    I had completely forgotten about that until you mentioned it just now.


  3. I’m the same way with Airplane! I was a kid when I saw it and I have no idea why I liked it then because I didn’t get any of the jokes. It must be because I saw adults laughing at it.


    1. When I was younger, the part that made me laugh the hardest was when the entire passenger manifest gets in line to smack the hell out of the hysterical lady– a visual cue reminiscent of things I would have been familiar with.

      And the weird man in the control tower who just says random things (“And Leon’s getting laaaaaaaaaarger!”). That’s funny no matter how old you are!


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