Tag Archives: Comedy

RIP Gene Wilder, 1933 – 2016

When the great comic actor Gene Wilder passed away on August 29th at the age of 83 due to complications from Alzheimer’s it felt just as though a favorite eccentric uncle had died. (The New York Times obituary is here.) For those of us who grew up in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s Wilder left an indelible impression. If you enjoyed funny movies in the least (and really, who doesn’t?), Wilder was one of the joys of the cinema during that period, all the more so because there was nobody before or since who quite possessed his unique blend of neurotic mania and soulful mensch-ness. Even when Wilder was portraying a character a little bit naughty, like Leo Bloom in the original The Producers, the unpredictable Willy Wonka of chocolate factory fame, a descendent of Victor Frankenstein compelled to pursue the same macabre obsessions as his infamous grandfather or a wrongly convicted con alongside his great comedy partner Richard Prior in Stir Crazy, Wilder always seemed to juxtapose a sweetness with his delightfully manic outbursts.

After studying acting at the Old Vic in England and the HB Studio in New York, the Milwaukee-born Wilder first came to wide attention with a small but impactful role in Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn’s seminal Bonnie and Clyde (1967), interrupting the film’s otherwise grim narrative with a burst of humor as a rather eager and happy hostage. But his major breakthrough came a year later in Mel Brooks’ all-time classic, the hysterically funny The Producers. As the nebbishy and neurotic Leo Bloom, Wilder was perfectly matched with the bigger-than-life, morally bankrupt has-been theater producer Max Bialystock, played to the hilt by the peerless Zero Mostel. Amidst the side-splitting opening sequence, as Bloom is abruptly initiated into Bialytsock’s crazy world when he comes to do the producer’s accounting books, it is Bloom who conceives of the idea of raising much more money than needed for a production so bad that it is doomed to close on opening night, thereby allowing the surplus cash to be kept. Bialystock runs with it, coercing Bloom to be his accomplice. They then find a fantastically wretched play called “Springtime for Hitler” and the rest is cinematic comedy history.

His next major role was as the title character in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though not a major hit at the time it became a cult classic with some likening it to a latter day Wizard of Oz, a film that works as both a kids’ movie and something more profound, and Wilder’s influence can be seen throughout in his unique bits of improvisation and inspiration. Johnny Depp was good in the remake but it’s hard to think of anyone other than Gene Wilder as the definitive Willy Wonka, especially when delivering his unexpectedly poignant song, “Pure Imagination.”

He was drafted again by Brooks, as a last minute replacement no less, for 1974’s screamingly funny Western satire, Blazing Saddles. Against type, Wilder played a laconic gunman with a drinking problem given renewed purpose by his fast friendship with the town’s besieged new black sheriff, played by Clevon Little. As if that wasn’t enough comedy gold, that same year Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the brilliant Young Frankenstein, a masterpiece that was Wilder’s concept and that he co-wrote. Filmed in beautiful black and white as an elaborate sendup of 1930s Universal-style horror, Young Frankenstein became a classic in its own right with an unparalleled ensemble cast — including Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars and newcomers Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle — and pitch perfect direction and screenplay. It stands as one of the great collaborative movies of all time and is arguably both Brooks and Wilder’s best work.

1976 saw a magical bit of good casting as Wilder was paired with Richard Pryor for the first time in Silver Streak. Alongside the wonderful Jill Clayburgh in this very good, very funny comedy-thriller about murder and mayhem aboard an LA-to-Chicago train, the two men made cinema history as the first bi-racial comedy duo and audiences loved their unlikely, yin-yang chemistry. As a result, Wilder and Pryor would make three more films together, 1980’s excellent prison comedy Stir Crazy (directed by Sidney Poitier!), the underrated See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and finally Another You in 1991 when Pryor was already greatly diminished by multiple sclerosis.

Wilder found another impactful partnership when he met Gilda Radner on the set of 1981’s Hanky Panky. The two became comedy royalty when they married in 1984. But the relationship ended tragically when Radner passed away in 1989, a victim of ovarian cancer. This loss inspired Wilder to establish an early detection center in Los Angeles, as well as co-founding Gilda’s Club in New York City, a non-profit support group for cancer patients and their families that now has branches throughout the United States (where it is now known as the Cancer Support Community) and Canada. Wilder found love again when he met Karen Webb while working on See No Evil and they married in 1991. They remained together until his death, a much longer if less romanticized relationship than his union with Gilda Radner, so spare a thought for Ms. Webb at this sad time as well.

Though Gene Wilder had largely retired from acting since the early 1990s, instead concentrating on writing, the importance of his best work grew over the years as his special films became part of the greater pop cultural and comedy firmament. That makes it extra difficult to lose such an original actor who got the laughs because he played his characters so truthfully, one who was always so audaciously alive and vibrant on screen. For those of us who grew up with his movies it feels as if we’ve lost a very funny older friend, one we could turn to for a guaranteed laugh no matter how the world was treating us. But we must also remember that Gene Wilder lived a wonderfully full life, was a truly good man and left a massively joyful contribution to the world that survives him via his films. And if we’re being just a little sentimental, it’s not hard to imagine Gene reunited with Richard and Gilda and Marty and Peter and Kenny and Madeline someplace special, cutting up with them all again, his explosive, utterly contagious laugh ringing out through the ether in the company of fine old friends.

Earworm of the day/A little Wednesday comedy

Ever since I flew back from vacation a few weeks ago and killed some time with the obligatory viewing of The Big Lebowski, this song has been rattling around my brain. You know the one — the psychedelic side of Kenny “The Gambler” Rogers? Who knew, right? Works on a few levels — period pop, ironic delight, its permalink with a cult classic movie. And, oh that Coen Brothers “video”!

Are you ready for the sequel?

A little Sunday comedy — Surströmming

Or what I learned on my summer vacation… There is a “delicacy” in Sweden and parts of Scandavavia called Surströmming. The name literally means “sour herring” but that does’t even hint at the, shall we say, pungent qualities of the fish after it has been fermented for no less than 6 months. In fact, a freshly opened can of surströmming has been found to be the most putrid food smell in the world — and that’s saying something! Here are six foolhardy and funny Americans becoming acquainted with this most acquired of tastes (plenty of profanity & retching so definitely NSFW). And unlike these poor souls, if you ever decide to try surströmming never open the can indoors. Or really anywhere near a civilized population. Enjoy!

RIP Robin Williams — 1951-2014

Ok, I’ve been procrastinating on posting this because it is so fucking sad. Robin Williams died this August 11th of suicide by self-asphyxiation. The great actor and comedian had been battling depression, as well as falling off of the sobriety wagon in recent years. Williams was just 63 years old. His New York Times Obituary is here and a very good A.O. Scott appraisal with video is here.

Obviously the tragic irony of one of the world’s funniest men succumbing to depression is well-trod ground by now. To think that someone that successful and accomplished could not get the help they needed to make it through the darkness is simply frightening. But in the end we often walk alone in this world and what drives an amazing artist, which Williams undoubtedly was, can come from the dark places of insecurity and sadness deep within, even if the art in question is comedy with a capital C. I can’t think of another person funnier than Robin Williams when he was at his manic improvisatory best. If a talk show appearance can be called art, Williams performed it, on Carson or Letterman or a million other venues that should never have had room for such pocket Dada free associative miniature moments of brilliance. He enlivened the most mundane show business rituals with electric bolts of inspirational lightning. The sense that he was barely in control of his manic energies only added to the thrill ride.

As the years went by, well after his comet-like appearance on the scene in the late 1970s, Williams evinced a melancholy sensitivity in movies like Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and Dead Poets Society that saw him turning into a sounding board for people in need of compassion, especially young people, and an outsider’s point of view to deal with a stifling world. But that sad smile has been there from the start like the tears of Pagliacci, at least as far back as The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson and bursting to raw fruition in Terry Gilliam’s revelatory The Fisher KingThat undercurrent of melancholia was probably a major part of Williams as a person when he wasn’t “on”, obscured in the early days by his irrepressible, some would say uncontrollable, daffy genius when he seemed to be very nearly Bugs Bunny come to life. To be sure, Williams felt loss and sadness keenly through the years with the deaths of such friends as John Belushi, Andy Kaufman, Christopher Reeve and, most recently, his mentor and idol Jonathan Winters. Maybe we just didn’t want to believe that such real life losses would take their toll on our favorite comedian.

A genius in more ways than one, Williams’ gift must have also been something of a curse, creating the expectation in his audience that he must deliver to them transcendental moments of hilarity on demand and at all times. Continue reading

A little Thursday comedy — Slap Shot (1977)

The Stanley Cup Playoffs may be over (proud of you Rangers, congrats LA) but Slap Shot is forever (clips definitely NSFW).

Sure, 1977 was one of the all-time great years in cinema history with the release of Star Wars, Close Encounters, Saturday Night Fever and Annie Hall, not to mention such crowd pleasers as The Spy Who Loved Me and Smokey and the Bandit. But it also saw the premiere of the best, most profane and funniest hockey film ever.

The late, great Paul Newman, Strother Martin, one of the finest character actors of the 60s & 70s, and director George Roy Hill of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and The Sting fame team up to create not just an uproarious sports comedy but a great movie with the backdrop of the Recession in the Rust Belt grounding the hijinks in place and time and giving the rollicking plot a desperate, melancholy undertone. And for the hockey-oriented, the film serves as a knowing commentary on the eternal existential dilemma of the sport: goonism vs. skillful clean play.

Yes, ’77 was a landmark year for Hollywood where popular entertainment also achieved incredible quality and originality. And Slap Shot is a part of that magical run, a little gem among that year’s remarkable cinematic treasure trove.

A little Monday comedy — Bowfinger (1999)

It’s hard to believe that the sly and uproarious Hollywood satire Bowfinger is 15 years old. The Frank Oz directed film from a Steve Martin-penned script tells the tale of a band of show biz hangers-on struggling to make a grade Z sci-fi flick via a highly dubious workaround to the whole lead actors-knowing-they’re-shooting-a-movie thing. It still slays with its dead-on take of what makes LA the company town it is: unkillable dreams of fame, beautiful starlets with “felxible” morals and weirdo movie stars in need of cult control. Best of all, the unlikely comedy dream team of Martin as the titular never-was “producer/director” Bobby Bowfinger and Eddie Murphy, in priceless dual roles as paranoid exhibitionist action star Kit Ramsey and his mega-dorky brother Jiff Jiffrenson (a Steve Martin character name if ever there was one), create gold when they share the screen together.

And for laugh-out-loud, funny-as-hell scenes there really aren’t that many as good this one short of primo Mel Brooks:

Oh, for that complex Starbucks order! Definitely worth renting again or even buying the DVD if you haven’t seen it in a while. It’s that good and after all these years, it holds up hysterically well. Welcome to Mindhead and Keep It Together!

A little Friday comedy — The Trip (2011)

Just cannot get these funny bits from 2011’s Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon mockumentary, The Trip, out of my head. This movie is so damn funny in such subtle but uprorious ways, I could watch it once a month. Or maybe more like once a week — it’s that obsession-worthy.

Two Bonds for the price of one as a game of one-upsmanship between world class impressionists? So much win. And let’s not forget dueling Michael Caines.

The Trip is not only hilarious but also at times touchingly melancholy and always feels grounded in the real and complicated relationship between these two guys. Throw in some fancy food, lovely ladies and stunning North England scenery and it makes for a fantastic comedy. And don’t even get me started on the insanely long DVD outtakes for “Gentlemen, to bed!”…