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by Bill Gibron

12 Aug 2008


We hear it all the time, that comedy cop out meant to assuage the offender of all implied guilt:

“It’s just a joke.”

Be it a race under attack or a particular person getting the crude raspberry, it’s still the same:

“It’s just a joke.”

Sometimes, they easily get away with it. The supposed target takes control of the situation, granting the ersatz-satirist some sage dispensation. In other instances, like in the case of Rajan Zed and his Hindu followers, the insult takes on a life of its own. When Mike Myers’ horrendously awful The Love Guru appeared to belittle Indians and their religious heritage, the aforementioned leader went on a nearly year long mission. Zed called for preview screenings, then a boycott, and after the film’s dismal box office performance, an apology. Of course, he got none of his demands. Instead, all his well meaning whining did was up his profile among grassroots gamesters and fringe political organizations. While he claimed victory for the movie’s miserable receipts, the hollowness of the comedy was a much more solid reason for its failure.

And now it’s happening again, albeit on a much larger and less avoidable stage. With its release today, Ben Stiller’s new scathing industry spoof Tropic Thunder is facing harsh words and possible action from groups such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities. The reason - a character named Simple Jack and the rampant use of the word ‘retard’. In the film, Stiller’s stunted superstar (action movie icon Tugg Speedman) is shown having attempted to woo Oscar gold by playing a mentally handicapped young man with a bad bowl haircut and a mouth full of fake teeth. Simple Jack was never a real person - just a part he played. The ruse didn’t work, and Speedman became even more of an industry ‘joke’ because of it.

As with any helping of humor, there are two sides to the story. For anyone who’s seen the film, Simple Jack is definitely the brunt of a few jokes. During the sequences where we see snippets of the film within the film, as well as when Speedman is forced to recreate the character for a bunch of drug smugglers, Stiller’s portrayal pushes the boundaries of insult. He stammers and stutters. He says ridiculously goofy things and twists up recognizable clichés meant to suggest sensitivity inside a drooling, unrefined dope. It’s not simpleton as savant so much as an easy laugh milked (perhaps) one too many times.

As if to emphasize the movie’s position, the far more scandalous character of Kirk Lazarus (an Australian arse who had himself surgically altered to look like an African American) gives Speedman some advice. “Never go full retard”, he says. Running down a litany of actors who have used the intellectually challenged and outright impaired for their run at Academy recognition - Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, etc. - Lazarus points out that only obviously fake performances garner critical praise. They seem ‘safer’ to the viewer. But in Speedman’s case, he went all the way into total impediment. Alas, the actor faced the same fate as Sean Penn when he went “full retard” in I Am Sam, according to Kirk.

To the aforementioned groups, none of this is remotely funny. They find the inference insensitive and the actuality downright indefensible. They have slowly started drumming up support for a protest, and by today’s opening, it’s obvious that there may be some picket lines in larger urban markets. For them, it’s not a matter of subtleties or free speech. They see one of their frequently marginalized and misunderstood membership turned into a borderline hate crime. In a classic case of PC powered apologizing, they purposely pick a high profile target and set their agenda on stun. No one thinks they will stop the release of the film (especially not them). Instead, this is publicity as chest puffing coattail riding. They get their message out, the movie plays, and everyone waits for the issue to die down until the inevitable DVD release.

It’s hard to say whether or not these groups have a point.  As someone who grew up in the pre-Willowbrook exposé days of America, the word “retard” just doesn’t hold much contemporary weight. It was used frequently by kids trying to circumvent actual socialization and often had a guilt-laden alternative meaning. This critic had a best friend whose sister was severely mentally handicapped. Over the 15 years of our friendship, I never once met her. For families in the ‘60s and ‘70s, institutionalization was the only option outside of hard work and home care, and before Geraldo Rivera’s heartbreaking takedown of the state-sponsored industry, it was easier to warehouse your ‘special child’ than actually try to care for them. So while my pal’s household technically had five members, I only ever saw four.

Later on, in high school, I dated a girl whose brother suffered from severe mental impairment. In his case, their mother and father decided against hospitalization. Instead, they treated him as normally as possible, even inviting him to sit in on our pre-prom photos. While he sometimes ‘embarrassed’ his sister with his uncontrollable behavior, he was never unloved or unwanted. Indeed, the entire family (and myself included) tried to make him feel as integral and important as any other aspect of our lives. Even now, some thirty years after we dated, I wonder about that young man, and hope he’s had a productive and problem-free life. 

For parents and siblings in similar situations, the word ‘retard’ has to sting. It has to remind them of how society sent them oblique (and sometimes outright direct) messages about their loved one’s proper place. Over the last forty years, organizations such as the Arc of the United States and the National Down Syndrome Congress have made major strides in gaining understanding and acceptance of these often misunderstood individuals. Honestly, only the most arrogant, heartless individual would set out to purposefully mock and ridicule such an innocent target. “This population remains the defenseless butt of jokes all throughout media,” said Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, who has not yet seen the movie. “We think it’s time to end.”

The key phrase in that soundbite (courtesy of ABC News), is that most of the complaints center around an equally misguided mandate. Like Zed before, few who are arguing for the boycott have actually seen Stiller’s performance, heard the previously mentioned dialogue in context, and understand the overall purpose of the subplot. It goes beyond “It’s just a joke.” Granted, the rogue word is used dozens of times, but never in reference to an actual individual. No one calls Speedman a “retard”. No person with actual mental retardation is so readily dismissed. In fact, Tropic Thunder‘s use of the term is rather meta. It’s meant to suggest something bigger - the need for famous celebrities to put on false facades to win respect (and maybe a prize or two). It’s no coincidence that the character who calls out Stiller is the one who’s gone to the greatest extremes to hide behind overly obsessive sham personas.

Which leads to a much bigger point. Robert Downey Jr. offers what many might consider a minstrel show like turn as Lazarus. Remember, this is a Russell Crowe like superstar who had plastic surgery so he could play black. Indulging in every kind of stereotypical slam possible (including several sections of outright race baiting), it could easily be the movie’s most risky creative choice. Add in the exaggerated make-up, and there should be a massive minority backlash.

So why no clamor? The answer arrives in the form of rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson). While guilty of a few racially biased flaws himself, the hip hop impresario takes Lazarus to task every chance he gets. He knocks the character off his thespian high horse, everpresent to provide a rational counterpart to the egomaniac’s “I can do anything” ideals. Besides, Lazarus finally realizes the error of his ways during the last act. His mea culpa is short, sweet, and apparently good enough to avoid the weight of 400 years of onerous oppression.

And it’s not really a matter of free speech. Sadly, everyone considers it an absolute, and while there are Constitutional rights and duties, there is no such thing as a wide open ability to express oneself. We are not dealing with one of the recognized legal limits (yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater, etc.) however, we are involved in what’s called the elemental quid pro quo. Phrased another way - you do have the right to say whatever you want. However, there is an equal and reciprocal right to be held accountable for said speech. While no one is suggesting that Stiller and company are guilty of a crime, they do have to put up with said protest. But what these organizations have to remember is that such leeway is mutual. They can surely complain, but they can’t call for the outright removal of such ‘hateful’ words and images.

In some ways, there’s an uneasy, mutually beneficial conspiracy at play. Just like Zed did a few months back, tying oneself to a major media event (like the release of a film) drives interest to what are frequently forgotten about organizations. While it’s clear that their intentions are noble, those defending the mentally challenged must secretly recognize the publicity pluses. And Tropic Thunder doesn’t really mind the turmoil. They know that audiences will still turn out, and the added curiosity factor may actually drive a few more into the theater who may not have given the movie a second thought. Both sides will probably be disappointed, however. Simple Jack is a minor element of a film packed with potential provocations. One wonders if Jewish groups will complain about a certain famed Scientologist’s turn as a balding, hirsute financier with a major potty mouth and a bad case of “white boy can’t dance-itis”. 

In the end, “It’s just a joke” may be the best way to truly handle any and all problems caused here. It’s a succinct shorthand that minimizes the many loose ends while proposing a plausible out for both sides. Indeed, Tropic Thunder is so inside, so insanely insular in its laugh out loud shamelessness that, while it will definitely inspire a reinvigoration of the complained about word (as in Downey Jr.‘s comment about going “full retard”), many won’t make the connection to actual individuals. Those who do are probably already prone to marginalizing all minorities in the first place.

As in many of these circumstances, the sturm und drang will eventually die down, and in its place will be the same outstanding issues, the same personal and political battles to fight. In the end, “It’s just a joke” seems indicative of the eventual importance the situation suggests. It’s not an excuse so much as a reality. And like all concepts of cleverness, one’s reaction is indicative of who they are and where they stand. Some will get the joke. Others can’t and won’t. And that’s the way it should be.

by Bill Gibron

11 Aug 2008


That’s it. I’ve had it. I am officially at my character actor capacity. Nothing personal on the man in question, but after a summer where it seems like he shows up in every movie made, I am over Danny McBride - just about. Again, this is not meant to be an individual criticism or a knock against who he is off screen. But in a world where thousands of actors remain unemployed or underemployed, is it really fair to feature this funnyman over and over again?

I first became aware of Danny’s jarhead joking in last year’s lamentably awful Heartbreak Kid remake. There, he was the bone brained brother of Michelle Monaghan’s Amanda. It was also here where I was initiated into the McBride “type” - not quite hillbilly, not actually intelligent, just a beefy buffoon with a bad haircut and a head full of Red State resentment. It was a persona he would carry on to his next supporting part, as a homeless pal of the title character in the disappointing Drillbit Taylor.

As Don, a casual criminal with a definite psychotic streak, McBride more than made up for the scripts underwhelming attributes. Even better, his scenes were short and sweet, never overstaying their welcome or announcing their arrival. In fact, it’s safe to say that, at this point, I was willing to tolerate this beery bumpkin in carefully controlled creative bursts. Use him right, and his appearance would only add to the onscreen mayhem. But use him wrong and, well…

Oddly enough, all careful consideration was thrown for a loop when I finally saw The Foot Fist Way. Made back in 2006, this starring vehicle for the Georgia-based actor found McBride playing a pompous, self-important Tae Kwon Do instructor who tries to corral his action hero idol into a personal appearance at his failing martial arts school. So real in its mock doc execution and brave in its outright arrogance that it was scary, this film found a way to take McBride’s inherent ill-advised machismo and make it multifaceted. Even better, it signaled that he could stretch beyond the white trash troublemakers he seemed to excel at.

Thanks to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Foot Fist finally got a wide distribution, and with such a profile, McBride has become almost omnipresent. This month alone he turns up in two of the Summer’s most highly anticipated releases. In Pineapple Express, he’s the urban idiot dope peddler Red, attempting to address all of his problems both personal and criminal with a smile and smatter of misinformed rap lingo. Even with his limited time onscreen, he rivals James Franco for best overall performance in this clever action/stoner amalgamation. Then, in Tropic Thunder, he is Cody, the special effects artist who has a bad case of hero worship for those he works with, and an even shakier grasp of pyrotechnic professionalism.

In both instances, McBride is very good. While relying on a similar skill set - one that trades on his flabby physicality while adding a satisfying and unwashed stupidity - he manages to make each lummox likeable and different. In each film, he creates such a compelling presence that you can’t wait for his next anticipated manifestation. Red, in particular, provides some last act heroics that help sell Pineapple‘s switch over into ‘80s styled stunt spectacle. Indeed, it’s safe to say that in each instance mentioned, MrBride adds to the movies he’s in. He’s the true definition of a supporting (or in the case of Foot Fist, starring) presence.

So why am I so fed up? Why am I praising this man only to argue for his future limited use? The answer is not as simple as it seems. Maybe it’s because he’s so good at what he does. It could be his purposeful pigeonholing into the aforementioned personality types. Perhaps it’s because, like all Hollywood decisions, his casting comes off as being as much about laziness and lack of vision as it is talent. Watching him work, one can literally hear the suits saying to themselves “that McBride sure makes a great blue collar cretin. Instead of that Cable Guy, let’s get him”.

This is obviously meant in jest, and stands as a gross overgeneralization of why McBride is seemingly everywhere at once. But never underestimate Tinsel Town’s track record of tendencies. In the last two years alone, balding boob Rob Corddry has been in 11 films - 11! - and always playing the same insecure schlub with either an anger management issue or an advanced case of marital emasculation. Similarly, David Koechner has racked up 16 such turns. Usually employing a stereotypical drawl to accent his Southern Comfort crackerdom, he’s another of these supposedly bankable morons. One can just see a casting director, looking over head shots and sighing “Oh HELL!, Just get me Koechner (or perhaps Corddry)”.

Again, this is not meant to take away from these otherwise talented men. But since movies are no longer based in artistry, but instead rely on a baffling business model which hopes to guarantee successful before a single frame is shot or screened, past performance - including the all important box office receipts - rule most decisions. In Corddry’s case, he’s got Old School, Blades of Glory, and the nauseating I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry pushing his paydays. Koechner gets the aid of the Apatow touch, supposedly helping Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Talladega Nights earn its considerable keep. They can fail together as well. Both were in the bafflingly unfunny Get Smart update.

Naturally, these men were ancillary to such success, but studios sometimes fail to see the forest for the financial windfall. McBride may just be the latest example of such a schema. Or perhaps it’s all about ability. After all, no one is questioning his (or anyone else’s) worthiness. But what those in charge fail to recognize is that familiarity, while maybe not breeding actual contempt, creates reservations in the audience’s mind. When we see a certain face standing next to our above the marquee A-lister, the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming, and since most are hired merely to create such easy awareness, constant repetition leads to more and more pre-knowledge. Soon, we are guessing the beats that will color their performance and wondering why they were brought on in the first place.

And since I like McBride (for now), I don’t want to see him stifled. I don’t want him standing in the backdrop, mangled mullet substituting for actual characterization. There seems to be so much more that he can offer a project (again I am reminded of his work in Pineapple Express) that he doesn’t deserve such stereotyping. By proclaiming my tolerance topped off, perhaps others will join in. Call it a boycott or a non-focus group lesson, but Hollywood needs to learn that not every facet of a successful film will, individually, work the same magic. Danny McBride’s borderline overexposure won’t only prove this out, but it threatens to destroy a career just starting to spark. And even though I’ve had my fill, he clearly deserves better. 

by Bill Gibron

10 Aug 2008


He was Black Moses, creator of some stellar Hot Buttered Soul. He gave Shaft his Oscar winning authority, and broke down color barriers in the highly conservative - and Caucasian - film composer’s club. He was a member of the famous Stax Records team, ushering in hits as writer, producer, arranger, and artist. He earned an Academy Award, three Grammys, and a well deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 2002). And now, sadly, at age 65, legitimate legend Isaac Hayes is gone, found dead in his home by his fourth wife, Adjowa. It’s a depressing end for a man who overcame so many obstacles and inspired so much devotion, even among those who didn’t understand his own personal philosophy.

He was born Issac Lee Hayes Jr. in Covington, Tennessee. After his parents’ death, he was raised by his grandparents, and the young boy spent his early years picking cotton. After dropping out of high school, he headed to Memphis. There, his self-taught skills on the piano and organ earned him a slot in the famous Stax factory backing band. Soon, he was stepping from behind the mic to write such classic songs as “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man” (along with partner David Porter). At age 25, he released his first album, the mostly improvised Presenting Isaac Hayes. It was not well received. But it would be his fantastic follow-up, Hot Buttered Soul, that would finally announce his rising star.

With its combination of long form covers (Hayes was notorious for turning tracks like “Walk On By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” into extended jams and spoken word epics) and stunning originals, it helped a lagging label that had just lost Otis Redding to a plane crash. It reestablished its prominence in the process. Hayes would parlay that success into a pair of 1969 hits - The Issac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued. Again, he explored the classic catalog of Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a take on “The Look of Love” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”. But it would be the opportunity to score a seemingly unimportant blaxploitation film that would change Hayes, and the face of Hollywood, forever.

1971’s Shaft remains significant for many important reasons. First, it was one of the first mostly minority films to take the groundwork laid by Melvin Van Pebbles with his indie masterpiece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and turn it into a mainstream mandate. Second, it established the viability of the genre to those outside the urban setting - especially among the critical counterculture. Finally, it gave a soundtrack voice to the growing influence of R&B and soul. Hayes’ now classic wah-wah peddle tinged theme, containing lyrics that today are just as outrageous in their considered cool, became an instant smash. It earned the then 29 year old a much coveted gold statue, the first ever awarded to an African American outside of the AMPAS acting category.

This is monumental for reasons that reach beyond Hayes’ own career. It opened the door for musicians of color, paving the way for Stevie Wonder’s win in 1984, Prince’s score prize the same year, Lionel Richie’s award the year after, and perhaps most remarkably, the Three 6 Mafia’s stunning upset in 2005 (Hayes actually appeared in Hustle and Flow). His reward was not without controversy, though. When Hayes agreed to appear at the 1972 Wattstax concert, MGM refused to allow his performance of “Shaft” to be included in the resulting documentary. Claiming outright ownership of the theme, as well as the soundtrack song “Soulville”, it was an issue that wouldn’t be resolved until the film’s 2004 DVD release.

It was just the beginning of troubles for the talented troubadour. By 1974, Stax was in ruins, and Hayes sued his studio for several million dollars. Unable to pay, they agreed on a settlement which saw the formation of HBS Records. While he continued to release albums - Chocolate Chip, Disco Connection, Juicy Fruit - he was no longer a guaranteed chart topper. In 1976, he filed for bankruptcy, claiming nearly $6 million in debt. He lost most of his publishing royalties in the process. It was indeed darker times for the performer. While his albums maintained good critical buzz, the changing face of the industry - and music itself - meant more than a few years in entertainment exile.

He supplemented his music by well received turns as an actor. He got his start in another exploitation classic, Truck Turner (where he starred and also wrote the score) and had a recurring role on the Jim Garner hit TV series The Rockford Files. He got another major break from fan John Carpenter, who traded on Hayes gold chain and bald headed badass-ness to feature him as The Duke in the post-apocalyptic classic Escape from New York. Throughout the ‘80s he took minor roles here and there, working on making a comeback as a musician. Virgin signed him in 1995, and his subsequent albums Branded and Raw and Refined reintroduced him to a whole new fanbase.

So did his accidental casting in Comedy Central’s anarchic South Park. After debuting in 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crude cartoon cavalcade became an almost instant classic, with Hayes’ Chef the show’s voice of recognizable reason (and the occasional sex-based song). Over the course of 10 seasons and one sensational film, Park provided a wonderful outlet for the aging icon. It made him instantly cool among the younger crowd, while confirming that he still had the authority and command that made him a talent and trendsetter decades before.

All seemed fine with the Park partnership until Parker and Stone decided to take on Scientology. As they had with Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism before, the show scalded L. Ron’s revisionist faith in an episode which also tweaked Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Hayes had joined the ersatz religion in 1995, and did not appreciate the series satirizing his beliefs. He argued that his newfound conviction had helped reestablish and center his success, and unless Parker and Stone abandoned the idea, he would be forced to leave. He did just that in 2006, and the split remained acrimonious up and until his death.

While there are many sides to the story (for their part, Parker and Stone stand by their decision), what’s clear is that, once outside the limelight again, Hayes’ fortunes failed. In 2006, he suffered a stroke, though many inside his camp denied it initially. This past April, his appearance on Adam Corolla’s radio show suggested that he was losing some of his faculties. He found it hard to answer questions and blamed his blankness on aphasia, a disorder driven by his diminished capacity. Some four months later, he was discovered motionless alongside his treadmill. He was pronounced dead upon arriving at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.

As with any loss, the tragedy tends to temper the particulars of the past. Eulogy wipes out the bad while amplifying the already known good. In the case of Isaac Hayes, we need both sides of the story. For everything he did right in his benchmark career, he made mistakes that added even more mystery to his outsized enigma. He could be suave and smooth. He could also be cold and very calculated. Combined together, they explain how Hayes could break down the color barriers of Hollywood. They also clarify his late in life conversions and out of character choices. The good thing is that Isaac Hayes will always be remembered as the prophet of soul. The bad thing is that the very things that made him an indisputable icon will probably be lost to legend - and maybe that’s where they belong.

by Bill Gibron

9 Aug 2008


When we think of classic comedy, especially from the era before sound, slapstick stands as the main significant form. Sure, there were works with witty rejoinders and filmed plays piled high with clever dialogue, but sans the title cards, the power of pantomime and the purity of physical shtick argued for its viability in a wholly visual medium. Naturally, within such subsets lie the considered kings - Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd - but among their cinematic court were jesters of equal aplomb, if not fame. Thanks to the archivists at All Day Entertainment, and digital distributors Facets, we are treated to a wonderful second volume of forgotten figures and farces, shorts and features that prove there was more to onscreen pratfalls than little tramps and great stone faces.

Compiled over three loaded DVDs, American Slapstick Vol. 2 is then divided into sections. On Disc 1, we are treated to a look at Harold Lloyd, his brother Gaylord and the latter’s brief career, including his take on his sibling’s ‘Luke” character. Next up is an overview of Hal Roach’s remarkable studios and several of its b-players. Finally, we witness the birth of Educational Pictures, a brand that had very little to do with learning and everything to do with lunacy. Disc 2 offers the sole feature film, a look at Charlie Chaplin’s brother Syd and his turn in the classic satire Charlie’s Aunt. A few of his ‘Gussie’ shorts are offered as well. Equally interesting here is a chance to see Chaplin imitator Billy West. The final DVD presents a true piece of history as famous ladies of slapstick are discussed. Their importance is accented by takes on Billy Bevin as well as the talkies attempt to incorporate the ideas of old with the technology of the new.

All in all, it’s over seven hours of silent silliness and casual insights. Each section is introduced by a pleasant female voice, the information she passes along instrumental in understanding the context of each area. In addition, a handy insert outlines the stars being surveyed as well as the films on each DVD. Granted, much of this material is incomplete. As a matter of fact, historians argue that as much as 85% of pre-World War II cinema is lost forever. So the fact that we have access to any of these rarities is really special. Naturally, video purists will balk at the condition and visual variables, but if that’s all they care about, they are missing the bigger picture. Physical comedy didn’t begin with Moe, Larry, and Curly, and there was much more to the genre than Chaplin’s sentimentality and Keaton’s technical advances. The more we know about slapstick, the more we come to truly appreciate it as an art.

In a compendium loaded with intriguing elements, three items stick out specifically. The first deals with Chaplin and his mystique (the focus of Disc 2). Learning that his popularity created a series of imitators and impersonators is nothing surprising. Yet watching as West tries to emulate the Little Tramp, or seeing how brother Syd strived to create his own classic character is worth the price of admission alone. “The Hobo” is hilarious, West really doing a dandy bit of buffoonery. The snippets from animated takes on the Chaplin mystique are also excellent. But it’s Syd who steals the show. His work as Gussie, a haughty halfwit whose main attribute appears to be a rather ample rump is quite compelling and - dare it be said - equal to his brother’s subtlety and skill. “Caught in the Park” and “Gussie’s Wayward Path” stand as ready to be rediscovered gems, and thanks to American Slapstick Vol. 2, modern generations get a chance to witness the other Chaplin’s brilliance and personality acumen.


The second most significant contribution this collection makes is in the feminine side of show business. We always here about the men, both celebrated and infamous, but when was the last time you heard scholars reference Louise Fazenda, Anne Cornwall, or most importantly, Alice Howell. These three remarkable women are the focus of Disc 3, and their short films and sequences are absolutely fantastic. Beyond that, they are eye opening. We are used to seeing silent screen actresses as damsels in distress, clumsy dowagers, or sad, slightly soiled ladies. Here, our trio introduces us to amazing moments from “Cinderalla Cinders”, “Hold Still”, “A Hash House Fraud”, and “Faro Nell” and in each one they more than hold their own. It’s just too bad we can’t see more of these incredibly important individuals. A set of female slapstick stars is probably long overdue.

Finally, even though it’s part of the Syd Chaplin section, seeing Charlie’s Aunt here is quite stunning. Granted, the performances and the storyline are major selling points, but the chance to see a full fledged costumed comedy, complete with elaborate sets, faked locations, and other classic Hollywood hullabaloo is too good to pass up. Representing a near perfect time capsule of the industry of the era, we see that oversized ambitions, overacting, and larger than life spectacle are not a contemporary fault. This is also true of forlorn funnyman Billy Bevins. His almost epic “Be Respectable” goes from a clever character piece to a full blown citywide chase, complete with more Keystone style cops than modern day Los Angeles has policemen. It makes for a wonderfully thrilling addition.


Indeed, everything about American Slapstick Vol. 2 is spellbinding, even if some of it is in minor, mere footnote ways only. We enjoy the reckless ethnic stereotyping, as it provides insights into the social structure of the past. We champion those brave gals who orchestrated their onscreen gags with the precision of their far more renowned (and better paid) male counterparts. We wonder why certain names are no longer remembered while realizing that some actors were mere fading fads in a consumer driven entertainment marketplace. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this anthology, aside from the wealth of historical context and pure performance bliss, is how accurately it preserves the truth. While we may never see the likes of this style of humor ever again, the ability to revisit it in such a significant, substantive manner is a joy to behold. American Slapstick Vol. 2 is mandatory viewing for any functioning film fan. 

by Bill Gibron

8 Aug 2008


According to the reports, it was a rather surreal Comic-con for the members of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. With almost everyone involved in the show participating in a panel discussion in association with the show’s 20th anniversary (and upcoming DVD releases from new distributor Shout! Factory), hope sprang eternal (and internal) that some major announcement would be made - perhaps a fan-mandated and prayed for coming together of the so-far divergent Cinematic Titanic/RiffTrax crews. On the one side is Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, larger than life talents who carried on the in-theater mockery motif long after others gave up on the concept. On the opposite end sits the CT crew - Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl, flush with success from their own self-promoted releases and collective critical acceptance.

Yet aside from Patton Oswalt’s genuine geekdom and some rather uncomfortable stares, it was clear that, at least for the time being, the geniuses behind the classic cowtown puppet show won’t be having a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Nelson et.al. seem content to add their smart alecky attacks to recent releases (via their audio only offerings) while Hodgson and his cohorts crank out original DVD titles in the old, silhouettes against the screen format. Prior to attending the notorious nerd herding in San Diego, the group even offered up a salvo for those desperate for more Cinematic Titanic goodness. Unlike the release of The Doomsday Machine, which took almost six months to materialize, their next effort, the Roger Corman retardation from 1959, The Wasp Woman, would be out in a matter of weeks. Sure enough, 8 August saw the release of the downloadable version of the project, and as usual, it’s another dose of daffy satiric goodness.

For those unfamiliar with the ultimate ‘b’ movie, Susan Cabot plays Janice Starling, the aging magnate of a major cosmetics firm. Where once she was the spry and youthful face of her product, her advancing years (she’s all of 38!) have meant a significant lag in sales. When a weirdly accented doctor named “Mr.” Eric Zintrop writes to her, explaining his rejuvenation techniques using the royal jelly from wasps, she’s instantly intrigued. She sets up a lab for the potential madman, and allows him to experiment on her. After nearly a month of no results, Janice takes matters into her own hands. She shoots up a significant amount of the bug enzyme, and sure enough, she becomes instantly younger. Of course, Zinthrop fails to fully inform his patient of the side effects. Apparently, along with headaches and occasional moodiness, Janice will intermittently turn into a giant insect - one that craves human flesh and plenty of it!

While previous Cinematic Titanic wonders like The Oozing Skull really delivered on the new series’ promise, Wasp Woman finally feels like home. As a matter of fact, if one closed their eyes, they could easily envision a late night rerun of a first year Comedy Channel episode of the old MST. With its barely there cast and certified Corman corner cutting, what starts out schlocky turns tacky in a matter of minutes. Cabot, whose career was cut short when her dwarf of a son bludgeoned her to death (no, we are not making this up), has to play dour and depressed for most of the movie, her fading beauty an evidently painful subject for the high powered and excessively rich CEO. Of course, since this is the ‘50s, our heroine must be surrounded by piggish chauvinists who smirk at her concern with crowsfeet over constantly puffing pipes and liquor laced breath.

Clearly influenced by the massive success of 1958’s The Fly, one has to give Wasp Woman credit for attempted ingenuity. Corman could have easily gone for the “man mutates” formula that made the Al Hedison horror show a hit. Instead, this narrative goes gaga for entomology, providing us with a precursory prologue where the benefits of royal jelly and all other bug butt extracts are explored. Zintrop even gives a little speech about respecting nature - of course, he’s addressing the insects he apparently confides in on a regular basis. As the story moves along to its standard spookshow sequences, we also see some patented Filmgroup falderal. Two obvious typing pool ‘broads’, whose names could be Mavis and Trixie for all their Brooklyn bar maid mannerisms, discuss their lagging love lives in a way that would make even the most desperate gent run in easy pickings paranoia.

Of course, all of this is prime material for the CT staff, and they come up with one of their most satisfying slam dunks yet. Thematically, it’s all heroin and insect riffs, the quintet taking every opportunity to mock anthropods and ridicule those who ride the white horse. The quips get so intense that J. Elvis begins a kind of comedy withdraw, arguing that if he doesn’t come up with another smack joke soon, he’ll die. It’s brilliant stuff, as is the pun-demonium over the word “bee” (sadly, no shout out to everyone’s favorite ambiguously asexual music sprite fro years past). Frank even references the unusual way in which Cabot died, starting everything off with a strikingly off comment that had this critic running to Google for confirmation. Of course, finding the origin of a Joel or Trace take is part and parcel of the overall MST/CT experience.

Elsewhere, the series is really coming into its own, concept wise. The time tube, explained in more depth last time, gets its status reaffirmed again, while the notion of a backstory (living pods? plasma beds?) also receives a mention. As for skit or scripted material, Wasp Woman doesn’t really lend itself to easy associations. Still, Mary Jo grinds things to a halt so she can get a boardroom power fix, while Frank brings back his ‘controversial’ variety spot so he can showcase an abusive and belligerent Buddy Rich. One of the things that fans have argued over here is the lack of the old Mystery Science sketch comedy. Even the Rifftrax offshoot, The Film Crew, were less than successful in recapturing that retro humor magic. Part of the problem is that everyone involved in these new projects are playing themselves - not characters trapped in space or working in an underground lab. And second, budget restrictions limit the amount of material they can generate. No funds = no additional funny business. 

Still, with a schedule that promises a more robust release strategy, and a growing appreciation for their efforts (EZTakes, who provides the downloadable versions of the CT discs, typically find their website swamped with retail requests) it looks like this latest attempt to recapture the old Mystery magic will finally get the mainstream acceptance the TV show failed to find. Of course, everything could change tomorrow, what with Shout! Factory promising an aggressive model for their upcoming DVD releases of the original series. And with three viable reminders of all the talent pooled for these projects, only the most cynical fan would complain. Cinematic Titanic continues to put out the amazing attractions, and The Wasp Woman truly lives up to their standards.

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