By John H. Foote
Comedy is a genre all its own consisting of ten subgenres, and they evolve and expand as the years slip past. It is also, along with horror, the single most personal of the cinematic genres. I saw Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979) with my wife, howling as the film played, while she sat stone faced, looking at me from time to time wondering what the fuss was all about. She just did not get that type of humour, yet it slowly grew on her, mostly because my humour tends to be very dark. She delighted in the slapstick of Home Alone (1991), loved the Bugs Bunny/ Road Runner Hour, but did not care for the viciousness of South Park, which I confess, I love.
In Part One of our series on comedy I explore the 10 greatest black comedy films ever made. Understand this is purely my opinion.
What makes me laugh?
If I see a person walking down the street and they fall, injuring themselves, I laugh. No worse, I must get out of sight because tears are slipping down my face, I am doubled over in hysterics as they struggle to get up. There are exceptions, old people, pregnant or the handicapped, and tiny children, not funny and I will be the first one there to help them up. But able bodied? Sorry, I die in laughter. But as much as I enjoy seeing that in real life, on film it rarely impresses me. Slapstick is the lowest form of comedy there is, a style dependent on another person’s misfortune. Think the Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, up through the savagely funny Slap Shot (1977) or Home Alone (1991), slapstick, though low brow, works. It has always worked for me, though not so much in the movies.
Sharp sarcasm gets me too. I love it when someone comes back at someone with a sharp retort and the look on the face of the person they have insulted shows they have no comeback. Once again, I am dying slowly as I break up into hysterics.
Early Chaplin makes me laugh, along with Mel Brooks, the sharp writing in The Graduate (1967), the genius of Mel Brooks at his best, the Hanson brothers in Slap Shot (1977), the fearlessness of Madelaine Kahn on screen, Woody Allen at his best with Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Midnight in Paris (2011). The chemistry of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy (1981), Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait (1978), Jack Nicholson at his devilish best, the absolute magic of Tootsie (1982), the chaos and terror wreaked by Kevin in Home Alone (1991), Robin Williams and Edward Norton in Death to Smoochy (2002), Sideways (2004), the droll, totally brilliant The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015), and yes Nick, the TV series and movie South Park break me up every time. I am betting some of those do not work for you at all, just as some of your choices would not work for me!
My favourite of the sub-genres of comedy has always been black comedy which I suppose says a lot about my personality. Fair enough.
By definition a black comedy is a sub-genre of the comedy genre explained as a story which explores distressing or a tragic happening seen with dark cynicism and humour. Though there is nothing at all funny about the happenings, the dialogue and reactions of the characters make it very funny. They are irreverent, offensive, but in the end laced with dark humour. Black comedy is often merged with satire. For me it gets no better.
It really began on screen with the stage play adapted to film of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), a wonderful old chestnut performed by every theatre throughout North America at one time or another, but with only a single film version. Frank Capra directed the film, and it stunned audiences with its dark comedic plot dealing with two elderly serial killers (before the term was coined) who dispatch lonely old men by poisoning them and burying them in their basement. Oddly it is the rarest of comedic forms, perhaps because it is too risky to pull off and failure is a true happening. But oh, when it works, the film soars, black to its last frame.
1. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2015)
Martin Scorsese’s breathtaking biography of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who created a multi-million dollar stock company which scammed hundreds of millions of dollars before the FBI shut down, moves like a great rock song, non-stop with incredible riffs along the way. Leonardo Di Caprio is extraordinary as Belfort, a money making genius who conned wealth from everyone who came in contact with him, building enormous riches, buying a massive mansion, a yacht complete with a helicopter, a gorgeous trophy wife who loved money as much as he did, and a life filled with excitement, always it seemed one step ahead of the law. Di Caprio goes further than he ever had as an actor before, and though we know he is a crook without shame, we cannot help but like him because he is so goddamn much fun! And that infectious sense of fun is passed down through to his company workers who adore him because he has made them rich, I mean what is not to like? However, it must never be forgotten that every dime he makes is at the expense of someone else with a great deal less. As Jordan spirals into drug addiction, alcoholism, expensive (and cheap) hookers, the life he loves slips away. Quentin Tarantino once said “film directing is a young man’s game” but I suppose Martin Scorsese did not get that memo from Tarantino. The film moves with incredible speed, the performances are electric from top to bottom, it is a flawless film and as dark as the soul of Belfort himself. The finest film of the decade 2010-19.
2. DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
Imagine today making a comedy about 9/11? Audiences would lose their minds would they not? Stanley Kubrick solidified his growing reputation as one of America’s most important new directors with this seething black comedy about an “accidental” nuclear strike, and the subsequent retaliation. Made shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, here is a film that dares to suggest the rather calm and comic playing out of conversations between the U.S. President and Russian President about acceptable losses of life. When a renegade pilot thinks he is given an order to bomb Russia, steals a jet and heads to the country armed and ready to bomb and bring about doomsday, all hell breaks loose. You see if the Americans launch against Russia, then immediately they will launch bombs at America (tit for tat) so it becomes a game of pure death, they wipe out Russia, and the Soviets make sure America falls. Just like children in a playground. George C. Scott is brilliant as the gorilla like maniac more than willing to launch knowing America might get their hair mussed, but no more. Peter Sellers, in several roles, is the genteel American President, calmly discussing annihilation with the Russian President; the actor is also the insane Dr. Strangelove, brazenly saluting Hitler at the film’s end. As dark as a black comedy can be, the film ends with the crazy pilot, riding the armed bomb down to earth like a bucking Broncho right through to detonation (the ultimate orgasm), and the end of the world. Incredibly fine on so many levels and just as funny and frightening today as it was back then.
3. TRAINSPOTTING (1996)
There is nothing remotely funny about addiction to heroin. It is said to be the most intense addiction one can have, a hunger and need for the thrill of that first high that can never be repeated, yet the user is left forever “chasing the dragon” or trying to have that first great high again. There is one sequence in Danny Boyle’s masterpiece that shows what drug addiction is, seen inside the needle as the plunger depresses, blood is released into the needle for a second before the plunger moves down, flushing the drug into the vein as a toilet flushes waste down into the sewer. The genius of the film is that Boyle makes no statement about heroin, it is great for those using when they have it, a living hell to get off, and that hunger always beckons to them. A group of Scottish lads are hooked on smack (nickname for heroin) and will do pretty much anything to score. We see the raw ecstasy each experiences as the heroin hits their bloodstream, sending them to highs we cannot imagine. Oddly, the worst of the group Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is not addicted to heroin but to violence and is a vicious bully who hangs out with the boys. Ren (Ewan McGregor) is on the drug when we first meet him and ashamed of the lengths he will go to get high (suppositories?) so he quits and attempts to start a new life away from his mates. One of them goes to jail, another dies of AIDS from using dirty needles, but the two nastiest, Begbie and Sick Boy, track Ren down in London and draw him back into the life. The film is a rollicking, jaunty, jolly explosion of life that grabs hold of you and never lets go. Yes, it is dark, a baby dies, there is a terrible betrayal, but in that darkness lies brilliance, and a great deal of humour of the blackest kind.
4. JOJO RABBIT (2019)
This film was absolutely not what I expected but, to be fair, I am not sure what I expected. It is a rollicking, lacerating black comedy about the growing awareness of Nazism through the eyes of a 10-year old Nazi fanatic. Set in the dying days of World War II, when the Nazis were crumbling and training children 10 years and over to fight as soldiers, we are introduced to Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) a young, wide eyed Nazi zealot who worships all things Hitler. Jojo is about to attend a Hitler youth camp where he will be teased for his inability to kill a rabbit and then blows himself up with a hand grenade, injuring his leg and scarring his face. He has an imaginary friend that stuns us, Adolf himself, Hitler (Taika Waititi), but this is a Hitler we have never before encountered. As seen through the eyes of an adoring 10-year old boy he is playful, fatherly, supportive, kind, even self-aware, helping Jojo navigate his way. But when the boy discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), pure goodness, (and funny!) has been hiding a young Jew, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in her walls, he is conflicted. Turn her in and his mother dies, and they will likely execute him too just for the fun of it. So he decides to befriend her, to use her to write a book about Jews. Hitler is unimpressed and a visit from the snoopy S.S. tells the boy they are closing in on his freedom fighting mother, who despises the Nazis. Everything in his world is turned upside down when he happens upon a horrifying tragedy that will alter the fabric of his existence and bring about an understanding of the madness of Hitler and the Nazis. Beautifully acted by the superb cast, Johansson is a particular wonder as the loving mother, a crackling good performance from an actress who has rarely had a chance to spread her comedic wings. She, along with the film, soar. And in closing Davis is a wonder as Jojo, one of the great performances by a child I have ever seen, with Waititi a perfect Hitler.
5. NETWORK (1976)
A scathing study of the inside politics of television, how could the artists creating this masterwork have known they were predicting what television would become 40 years later, a haven of reality TV shows? With scalding humour, and even darker dramatic elements, the film explores how a fictional TV network in America savagely exploits a mentally ill news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), in the throes of a nervous breakdown, allowing him on the air to cuss, to tell the nation he is a Moses like character, to attack anyone and everything that is bothering him, becoming the “mad Prophet of the Airwaves”, until he offends the owner of the network. Well, that just will not do. So, a group of respectable businessmen in suits, along with the fanatical television producer, Diana (Faye Dunaway), sit in a normal conference room and discuss how to have him killed on live television which will “get one helluva rating.” It is chilling but portrayed with such realism, and dare I say honesty, you cannot help but be impacted in some way. Today we have seen a man nearly have his hands burned to the bone on Survivor, men and women trying to live naked in the wilderness, and guys allowing poisonous bugs and snakes to bite them to gauge the level of pain, why not a planned execution? How long before we see this? Paddy Chayefsky wrote this biting film that is filled with as much comedy as it is shock, and Sidney Lumet directed, the finest film of his impressive career. Dunaway, William Holden, Finch, Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall and Beatrice Straight are simply brilliant in the film, each walking a line, but never stepping a toe over it into parody. Unsettling brilliance. Dunaway, the late Finch, and Straight won Oscars for their performances, while Chayefsky won for his searing original screenplay.
6. BAD SANTA (2003)
One of the funniest and bitingly nasty Christmas movies ever made, Billy Bob Thornton deserved an Oscar nomination as Willy, a safe cracker who once a year dresses as a department store Santa with his partner, a nasty dwarf, Marcus (Tony Cox) usually the brains behind the operation, though led around by the nose by his greedy, always scowling girlfriend. In Arizona, at their latest job, Willy becomes friends with a young boy Thurman (Brett Kelly), a target for bullies, obsessed with Santa, and discovering the child is cared for by a barely there grandmother, he moves into the opulent home, trying to answer all the countless questions about being Santa Claus. Willy even finds time to begin a relationship with a pretty young barmaid with a thing for sex with Santa. A sharp-eyed store detective, portrayed with smooth charm by Bernie Mac, is onto them and wants half their score, knowing it will be a rather large one. Willy is the worst possible sort of department store Santa showing up for work drunk, shouting obscenities at the kids, having anonymous sex with any woman who will have him in the dressing rooms, the guy is a complete loser. But something happens to him through his friendship with Thurman, he discovers something good within himself. Very funny, Thornton is hysterically good, but this is no family Christmas film. As black as it gets. Bold, visionary work from Terry Zwigoff.
7. DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002)
Asked if he is OK after being injured, Randolph replies “I don’t know. I’m kind of fucked up in general so it’s hard to gauge.” Robin Williams and Edward Norton are sheer magic together in the dark Death to Smoochy, a superb black comedy directed by Danny De Vito, easily his finest film. Critics (not me) beat up on this film when it was released in the early part of the year, a terrific year for Robin Williams who followed it with Insomnia (2002) and One Hour Photo (2002). I was not among the critical mass who disliked the film, in fact I believe it to be one of the best Williams made, a cracker jack of a black comedy with Williams perfection as a disgraced host of a popular children’s TV show. Long running Rainbow Randolph is exposed to be a greedy fraud, and ruined so the network approaches a positive thinking, health conscious tree hugging young man portrayed by Edward Norton to bring his rhino Smoochy to TV. An almost instant star, akin to Barney that annoying purple dinosaur, Smoochy represents everything positive for children. He is a huge success, and Williams hates him, obsesses over ways to bring the rhino down, to kill the rhino and his creator. To watch Williams in all his nasty glory as a supposed children’s entertainer dip into his dark side is hysterically funny, because this guy is one mean bastard. Norton is an absolute delight as a truly good man, an innocent, a tree hugger who just wants to do good with his celebrity and teach kids right. Brilliant, and I am betting it will be discovered in years to come.
8. FARGO (1996)
When we see the criminal, one of a duo, stuffing his buddy’s leg into the wood chipper, a geyser of blood erupting from the other end we are properly horrified, but you know you cannot help but stifle a chuckle at the sight, and the situation. In the frozen wastelands of Fargo, Minnesota, a group of people are up to no good and it all comes crashing down on them. Through some brilliant police work by Marge (Frances McDormand), a hugely pregnant, grinning, chirping, chipmunk like confident cop who is far smarter than she looks. Under that rabbit grin is a steel trap of a mind, deducing quickly everything about a crime scene before vomiting from morning sickness, or drawing her gun and shooting the guy stuffing his pal through the woodchipper before he can flee. And she truly does not understand the ugliness in the world, “all for a bit of money” she sighs. William H. Macy is superb as the sad sack, financial troubled car salesman who sets all this in motion when he pays two very bad dudes to kidnap his wife, which goes horribly wrong when they kill her. Then they kill her father, a rich bombastic ass who insists on dropping the cash himself and dies for it. Meanwhile Marge, portrayed by the great Frances McDormand in her first Oscar winning performance, is putting all this together and closing in on poor Jerry, who knows his plan has fallen apart and cost his wife her life. The Coen brothers directed and wrote the film, a masterpiece of the nineties and to the genre. Only Marge remains unscathed, unhurt and untouched by the crime, but having seen such horrors, how does one move on?
9. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)
Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar winner is a superb film about Hollywood in the sixties, a sunny time of peace and love, or miniskirts and colours, or rock and roll and exercising free love. Dominating the city of Hollywood were neon signs announcing what was playing at the movies, and signs were everywhere. Huge billboards announced what was coming soon on TV, and it is in this world we are introduced to Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) a TV star who thinks his career is fading and his best friend, driver and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) a charismatic war hero, fearless to get into it with no less than the arrogant peacock Bruce Lee. Hovering over the film like a grim specter is Charles Manson and his gang of minions because we know one of the lead characters, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), was brutally and viciously murdered by them in 1969 bringing an end to the innocence of the sixties. While the film is very funny, the ass kicking of Bruce Lee in particular, there is a growing sense of dread once Cliff visits the old western ranch outside of town and discovers Manson’s minions living there. You can feel evil there, you sense something terrible is coming, and when it does, it is indeed terrible, but not what we expect. The ending is not what we expect, nor what history documented, but man is it just leading to a haunting, near ghostly encounter between Rick and his neighbours, including the very much alive, pregnant Miss Tate. Pitt won his Oscar as Cliff, Robbie is superb as Tate, such a warm, beautiful presence, and Di Caprio near perfect as Dalton, surrounded by a brilliant cast.
10. ELECTION (1999)
Alexander Payne turned this story of an overachieving high school girl, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), into one of the most savage, scathing black comedies ever made as well as a superb political satire mirroring what happens in real life long after high school. His characters all have flaws, including Tracey, an arrogant ass kisser who just knows she will land a job in the White House, but first she has to be Student Body President. Beyond being obsessed about winning she will do anything to be elected including cheat, lie, work against her opponent in the most vile ways and yet comes out smelling like a rose, a victim even. But Miss Flick is no lamb in the woods, oh no, she is a smiling on cue young lady who willingly slept with her teacher (I know, I know, he was the adult) and when he fell for her ratted him out. She has no scruples, though carries on as though she were the moral compass of the school and all the other students are beneath and in fact beholden to her. Hated by the popular Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a popular well-liked teacher, Tracey has her hopes for President dashed, for a short time, before exacting a terrible revenge on the likable McAllister. Acted with stunning clarity, Witherspoon should have won her Oscar for this instead of Walk the Line (2005) and the film is a nasty reminder of the hell high school could be.
RUNNERS UP: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944), MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947), THE WAR OF THE ROSES (1989), VERY BAD THINGS (1998)
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.