From Cheech & Chong to Harold & Kumar: Stoner flicks live in pop culture infamy

[1 August 2008]

By Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Funniest pot joke in a movie?

The moment in “Up in Smoke (1978) when the blissed-out Cheech, having sampled a doobie the size of Baja California, asks, “How’m I driving?” and the blitzed-out Chong answers, “Um, I think we’re parked”?

Or when The Dude (Jeff Bridges), the bowler/stoner of “The Big Lebowski (1998), hallucinates tumescent pins and balls that resemble private parts dancing?

Or maybe when Thurgood (Dave Chapelle) in “Half Baked (1998) inhales, exhales and declares, “This weed was the shiz-nittlebam snip-snap-sack”?

Cheech & Chong, Beavis & Butthead, Jay and Silent Bob, Harold & Kumar, Bill & Ted.

To this movie minyan who worship at the ark of cannabis add Dale and Saul (Seth Rogen and James Franco) from “Pineapple Express” (opening Aug. 6), the comic misadventures of a genially inept stoner (Rogen) and his dealer (Franco), who witness a murder, are hunted down by mob dealers, and avoid bullets - without harshing the peace-out types.

Like so many stoner movies, it’s a weed action-comedy that is really, really, really funny without being really good. The pothead comedy is the triumph of munchies over inertia.

Potheads and action? Inherently comic, for as most anyone who has lived in a college dorm can attest, stoners are to action as the Tilt-a-Whirl is to driving.

To enjoy stoner silliness is not to advocate an unlawful activity (says one whose post-college pot experience is limited to the Revereware-in-the-kitchen variety). My sentiments about marijuana are pretty much like those about guns. I firmly believe in their control - except on-screen, where they are crucial for entertainment value.

Just as you can be antigun and enjoy “Dirty Harry,” you don’t have to be stoned to enjoy stoner comedy.

The earliest recorded comedy - Greece, seventh century B.C. - involve the antics of drunks. Then, as now, one in an altered state lacked social and sexual inhibition and exhibited anti-authoritarian behavior, vicariously enjoyed by his audience. Then, as now, the comic function of souse (or stoner) was to stand apart from everyday life and note the inconsistencies in institutions and social order.

Heirs to this tradition: W.C. Fields (“Everybody should believe in something; I believe I’ll have another drink.”); Red Skelton (famous for his “Guzzler’s Gin” bit, as the pitchman taping an ad who gets sloppy drunk on his product); and George Carlin (“Drinking and driving don’t mix. Do your drinking early in the morning and get it out of the way. Then go driving while the visibility is still good.”).

Cheech & Chong took drunk humor out of the bar and into the car, substituting doobie for highball and leaving no stoner unturned. Thirty years ago, they combined buddy movie with substance-abuse comedy, creating the pothead comedy, which reintroduced visual humor to movies in an era when much comedy was purely verbal (see Woody Allen). Since then, the equation for pothead drollery has been:

2 dudes + 1 doobie = 1,001 giggles.

(Curiously, stoner comedy is, like so many things, almost exclusively a male preserve. Can anyone name a pothead frolic besides “Smiley Face,” in 2007, in which the toker is female?)

Pothead humor is particularly suited for film because it provides endless possibilities for slapstick. Take the scene in “Pineapple “Express” where Franco, driving an unfamiliar car where he can’t find the wipers, improvises a peephole through the toxic-red Slurpee blanketing the windshield.

Likewise altered-state humor is conducive to suggesting comic uses for commonplace items. Outside of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, few slapstick scenes have made me laugh so convulsively as one from “Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers.”

At the dawn of the French Revolution, C&C arm French peasants with day-old baguettes, which are used to club all the queen’s men. Nothing, not granite, not cast-iron, is harder than stale bread. Let Marie Antoinette eat cake!

Pothead movies have many subgenres, including the “implied stoner comedy. This is the movie in which the hero does not visibly partake but nevertheless has glazed eyes, is unable to perform simple tasks, and is immobilized before the TV set pondering whether Wilma or Betty is the sexier cartoon cavewoman.

This subgenre includes the divine “Bill & Ted” movies, the two “Wayne’s Worlds,” and also “Repo Man” (1984), in which the hero’s hippie/stoner parents have donated his college savings to a televangelist.

There is another subgenre, the stoner-endorsed movie, which potheads insist is better under the influence: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Winged Migration” are among the anointed titles.

We know that marijuana kills brain cells. So is it counterintuitive to ask: Smartest movie pot joke? For me, it’s a toss-up.

Is it Kumar (Kal Penn) and his reply to the med-school admissions dude in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” who can’t understand why he doesn’t want to attend, even though he has perfect MCAT scores: “Just because you’re hung like a moose doesn’t mean you gotta do porn”?

Or is Spicoli (Sean Penn) in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” explaining the meaning of the Declaration of Independence to his bemused history teacher: “What Jefferson was saying was, ‘Hey! You know, we left this England place ‘cause it was bogus; so if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves - pronto - we’ll just be bogus too!’”

In the immortal words of Bill & Ted (and Wayne and Garth): “Party on, dudes!”

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