Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick in the ’80s and Beyond

Tomorrow night, Turner Classic Movies wraps up its month-long slapstick series with a look at the 1980s and beyond. It’s a notably strong line-up, and heartening to those who care about the art form and its future (despite my nitpicking).


8:00pm (EST): Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988)

I’m a huge fan of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, although I am afraid I must annoy you with qualifications. I think their 1982 television series Police Squad!, on which this film was based, was a work of perfection, sharing with their first film Airplane!, a strict, straight deadpan and accurate details in the art direction and cinematography that nail the genre they are parodying. They hit the target they are shooting at. But in the Naked Gun movies, they compromised more and more with each outing. Leslie Nielsen, initially cast because he was “one of those guys”, was to my mind funnier the straighter he played it. In Airplane! and Police Squad! he gave a straight-up Leslie Nielsen performance as though he were doing the real thing, and the comedy came from that. Unfortunately (ironically) that gave him the idea that he was funny, and began to think of of himself as a comedy star. And the creative team began giving him lots of wacky slapstick to do. I don’t blame them too much. It’s hard to fill 90 minutes with a 20 minute idea. One way to do that is to have extended physical sequences. But I enjoy this movie more than its sequels because it hasn’t gone quite as far down the “we’re all wacky and we sure do know it” path.


9:45pm (EST): Top Secret (1984)

Top Secret was Zucker-Abraham-Zucker’s next project after Airplane! and Police Squad! My friends and I, big fans of their previous work, went to see it when it came out and watched it on video many times thereafter, because it is very funny and contains many laughs. BUT….even at the time it felt to me like a misfire. Unlike their previous two efforts, Top Secret lacks focus. It mashes together many things: Elvis movies, World War II movies, and Cold War spy movies. It doesn’t stick to one single, obvious point. It lacks focus and thus it lacks power. To me, the Cold War aspects were the most interesting. As for the other stuff, I couldn’t help asking: why do that? Disaster movies and cop shows were ripe, juicy targets, low hanging fruit right there to be made fun of. The stuff in Top Secret has got to be reached for. They’re stretching. I was especially unimpressed with the Elvis stuff, which feels off on many levels. A nicely focused parody of an Elvis movie, properly done, would be a beautiful thing, but this isn’t it. All that said, Zucker-Abraham-Zuckers are WHOLESALE gag merchants. They are about the quantity. And this movie contains many funny gags.


11:30pm (EST): Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Anchorman is one of my kids’ favorite movies, and thus I have seen it way many more times than I ever would have. I’ve probably seen it 6 or 8 times, where once would have been more than enough. I have never quite understood the appeal of Will Ferrell as either a performer or a writer. He doesn’t impress me on any level. So there’s that. That said, Ferrell does come up with great ideas for comedies though they are invariably realized at a desultory level.  So I understand why Anchorman was a hit, and I enjoy watching it, however frustrating it is. The kernel of the idea: it’s about the first lady anchorperson (Christina Applegate) at a local television station, and all the grief she suffers from her sexist colleagues (Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, David Koechner). This premise is SO potent and promising. Apparently P.T. Anderson was attached to the project at one point — imagine the movie HE could have made out of this. But Ferrell and cohorts (as they always do) just kind of skate along the surface, never mining the potential at either a dramatic of a comic level. I always get the feeling his scripts are largely improvised. And much of the improvised stuff he chooses to include just isn’t worthy to put in a feature length movie comedy. It’s just random silliness for its own sake, serving neither the plot nor the premise, and not even funny enough to justify the violation. It’s cutting room floor stuff. An entire movie of cutting room floor stuff. I laugh at it, but I don’t respect it.


1:15am (EST): Strange Brew (1983)

I am VERY excited to be seeing this one for the first time since it originally came out (oh dear I am dating myself). I was an enormous fan of SCTV and Dave Thomas and Rock Moranis’s Canuck characters Bob and Doug McKenzie. The advent of this film was hugely exciting to me at the time, and I enjoyed it to no end, although I understood why it wasn’t a big hit. As so often happens with the SNL/SCTV crowd, their ten minute sketch characters and premises can’t sustain a feature. Still, I’ll always have nostalgic affection for it (undoubtedly in the same way my sons do for Anchorman).


3:00am (EST): Sidewalk Stories (1989)

I am SO glad TCM included this deserving film in their line up. Charles Lane’s Chaplinesque tale of a homeless man during the age of Reagan deserves to be much better known. This movie affected me a great deal, and I think I can honestly say that it changed the way I look at things. This movie literally changed my life. Read more about in this 2013 article I wrote for The Villager. 


Again, this is the line up for tomorrow. For my take on tonight’s line-up, the 1970s, go here. 


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