It isn’t much of an exaggeration to call the three-headed comic beast that was Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (brothers David and Jerry Zucker and pal Jim Abrahams) one of the architects of contemporary comedy. Beginning with 1977’s John Landis-directed The Kentucky Fried Movie—still the gold standard for sketch movies—the filmmaking trio introduced a pop-culture-crazed aesthetic that delighted in nailing the tone and detail of whatever it was spoofing: disaster movies, blaxploitation cheapies, kung-fu schlockfests, police procedurals, or Elvis movies. ZAZ films specialized in dazzling comic density that hurled throwaway gags at viewers faster than they could process them. They didn’t delineate between high and low culture, smart and stupid jokes, pointed satire and scatological silliness. It was all fodder for some relentless, ingenious comic minds.
Three nice, middle-class, Jewish boys from Shorewood—the same Milwaukee suburb where Josh Modell and I grew up—Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker created the kind of pop-culture landmarks that people quote extensively, push on their friends, and hold near and dear to their hearts: movies like 1980’s Airplane!, 1984’s Top Secret!, and 1988’s The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad, a big-screen version of their cultishly revered 1982 TV cop-show spoof Police Squad! These weren’t just movies people laughed at or enjoyed; they’re milestones that played a huge role in shaping the comic sensibilities of multiple generations of smartasses.
With just a handful of uniformly great projects, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker created an entire school of cinematic comedy. The comedy world is filled with the trio’s creative progeny. Some are distinguished, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who repaid the debt they owed to the trio by starring in David Zucker’s BASEketball, which may yet be covered in this column at some point. Some are decidedly less so, like universally reviled comedy antichrists Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Epic Movie, Date Movie, Vampires Suck, etc.)
The ZAZ team has enjoyed scattered successes since its ’70s and ’80s glory days. Jerry Zucker directed the 1990 blockbuster Ghost, while Jim Abrahams scored a big hit with the military spoof Hot Shots!, but nothing they’ve done has had a fraction of the influence of their pioneering early work, and David Zucker was reduced, albeit very profitably, to directing the second and third sequels to Scary Movie, a pathetic but successful knock-off of the ZAZ formula. By the time Scary Movie 4 rolled around in 2006, the once-liberal Zucker was becoming as well known for his dramatic political conversion as his increasingly irrelevant films. That same year, Zucker released a YouTube video “comically” attacking then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that broadcast his new political orientation to the world.
From there, he decided to combine the wacky slapstick of his ZAZ days with his newfangled far-right political beliefs with 2008’s An American Carol, a right-wing “satire” that tapped into the raging, widespread hatred of muckraking leftist provocateur Michael Moore.
Michael Moore is such a divisive figure that even people who subscribe to his political beliefs frequently hate his guts. I am one of those people. I believe in just about everything Moore says, and find everything about him insufferable. There are many reasons to hate Michael Moore: his endless self-aggrandizement; his often-insufferable faux-populism (he’s just like you and me and the laid-off American auto worker, except for being rich and famous and powerful!); the dishonesty, manipulation, and button-pushing of his filmmaking style; the obnoxious, “I really care” quivering quasi-sincerity he adopts when making serious points in his films; and the equally obnoxious snarky sarcasm he employees when trafficking in clumsy, ham-fisted irony. There’s also his arrogant cult of personality and the aimlessness and self-indulgence of his movies, like his abysmal 2009’s would-be takedown of the free market, Capitalism: A Love Story. Finally, there’s the unconscionable ugliness of Moore targeting a seemingly dementia-stricken Charlton Heston to score cheap points in Bowling For Columbine.
Considering how many legitimate reasons there are to hate Michael Moore, it’s almost impressive that An American Carol goes 14 sweaty, joyless rounds with one of the easiest targets in pop culture without laying a glove on the guy. The non-starting comedy punches itself in the face until it’s woozy and disoriented, then deliriously proclaims itself heavyweight champion of the world while adding, as an addendum, “U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A.!” Which is also the film’s ultimate message: If you don’t like mindless jingoism, in the film’s all-or-nothing, you’re-either-with-us-or-you’re-with-Hitler logic, you might as well be giving Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein handjobs while shitting in the mouths of the proud men and women who serve our country in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And for all the reasons to hate Michael Moore, An American Carol can only think of two: because he hates the United States, and because he’s fat. (The infinitely more accomplished Team America: World Police had that problem as well, but it almost seems heretical to compare the two films.) Moore may be husky, but who cares? Fat jokes are the refuge of the witless, the mean-spirited, and worst of all, Ricky Gervais. And the belief that Moore hates the United States seems rooted in the reductive reasoning that anyone who is critical of our country’s history or foreign policy must hate the country as a whole: If you look at a country built on the twin foundations of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans and see anything but heroism, honor, and glory, you’re a traitor giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
An American Carol takes that poisonous logic to grotesque, moronic extremes. According to an unexpectedly revealing commentary, the audience at a focus-group screening in Texas was alternately confused and horrified by the film. According to Zucker and co-writer Lewis Friedman (a self-proclaimed liberal who apparently took the job out of intense masochism), the audience didn’t understand that the film was a parody of A Christmas Carol, or that, in the filmmakers’ words, “the jokes, even though they seemed mean, were something we could laugh at.” Yes, that’s the problem: Audiences just didn’t realize they were allowed to laugh at tasteless, unfunny, mean-spirited jokes involving the Holocaust, grotesque minstrelsy, slavery, or 9/11.
The writers decided the audience needed distance from the characters and the gags, that the film needed to be posited as a fable instead of an insane reactionary screed with gags about boobs, fat, and Hitler. So they added a wraparound segment wherein Leslie Nielsen—that shining icon of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s glory days—tells a group of adorable, wide-eyed moppets a story about a man who hated America so much that he tried to ban the Fourth Of July. The film opens on America as it should be: twinkly-eyed granddad toting a plate of hot dogs and hamburgers, Old Glory flying proudly in the breeze, the patriotic sounds of “Sweet Home Alabama” wafting through the afternoon breeze. When one of the moppets asks “Why does [Michael Moore surrogate Michael Malone] hate the Fourth of July?” another lispingly responds, “Because it was America’s birthday party and he wasn’t invited.” From the mouths of babes!
Malone, played by Kevin Farley, doesn’t just hate the Fourth of July. He hates America’s troops as well, as we learn when he scoffs at an angelic lad in a Cub Scouts uniform who tells him “We’re sending packages to the soldiers for the Fourth Of July. They’re far from home. Away from their families.”
Malone is much more excited to discover Girl Scouts selling cookies. (’Cause he’s fat! And consequently loves to eat!) Like everyone else in the film, one of the little girls selling cookies can barely stand to be in the presence of such a corpulent, America-hating liberal, as we learn when she tells him she’s earning a “good manners” badge for “being respectful to a fat, ignorant, traitorous sack of shit.” For the very slow, we’re then treated to a second shot of an angelic cherub calling Malone a fat, ignorant, America-hating traitor. Children calling people sacks of shit because the writers disagree with their politics: always the mark of sophisticated, nuanced satire.
It is a law of the universe, and especially the Internet, that the weaker an argument is, the more likely it is to associate opponents with Hitler and the Nazis. Accordingly, An American Carol plays the Hitler card early and often, beginning with an awards ceremony for a Moveon.org-like leftist organization where Simon Rex and Paris Hilton inexplicably posit Michael Moore as the creative heir of notorious Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
An American Carol argues, hysterically and unconvincingly, that if you are anti-war or pacifistic, you are, by default, against all wars ever, and opposed to all the good things that come from wars. Hell, in An American Carol, all good things come directly from wars: It’s that damnable peace and the monsters who agitate for it that pave the road to hell.
In a lazy riff on A Christmas Carol, Malone is visited by a series of ghosts representing America’s glorious, war-loving past. First, we’re treated to an appearance by John Kennedy, who in An American Carol’s crazy, topsy-turvy world, is a right-wing hawk who welcomes comparisons to Ronald Reagan and never misses an opportunity to slap the Moore character or take him to task for his insane belief that problems can be resolved without warfare. Zucker uses a segment of Kennedy’s inaugural address to shore up his conception of Kennedy as a warmonger, because heaven knows there’s nothing funnier than a broad comedy with footnotes and references.
Malone is then visited by Kelsey Grammer as General Patton, who takes him to another anti-war protest, this time in 1940. Yep, that’s right: if you’re against an endless, amorphous, civil-liberties-threatening War On Terror, you’re also against U.S involvement in World War II, and consequently pro-Nazi, pro-Hitler, and pro-Holocaust.
That’s not the worst of it. Grammer’s Patton then takes the Moore character to Alabama, where we learn that if peaceniks had their way, our country would still lustily embrace slavery, and the Moore character would be the biggest slave-owner in Alabama. Take a look at the clip below, then ask yourself exactly what was going through the filmmakers’ minds when they wrote this scene. Did they perform a cost-benefit analysis beforehand, then soberly assert that, yes, it was definitely worth having David Alan Grier do an appalling minstrel turn that would embarrass both Amos and Andy, since the resulting sequence is both hilarious and a cogent illustration of the end result of pacifism?
According to the audio commentary, the script for An American Carol originally was much more political and far lighter on comedy, which boggles the mind, considering how relentlessly didactic and poisonously unfunny the end result is. For long stretches, An American Carol doesn’t even attempt to be funny, as that would get in the way of the long-winded speechifying of sequences like this one, where Jon Voight’s George Washington delivers a joke-free monologue about the price of freedom (written largely by the humorless, self-serious Jon Voight, the writers note on the commentary) and holds the Michael Moores of the world responsible for 9/11 while he’s at it.
In An American Carol, opposing the PATRIOT Act or the War On Terror would lead unmistakably to the Taliban taking over the United States and remaking our nation, and especially Hollywood, in its image. After being beaten upside the head with the film’s ham-fisted message for an hour, even the Moore character sees the errors of his ways and does a Scrooge-like turnabout where he comes to embrace the United States and the proud, fit men and women who risk their lives to protect it.
An American Carol only lasts 76 minutes, but manages to make that seem like an eternity. It is a singularly ugly, toxic piece of filmmaking, quick to resort to name-calling and frothing hyperbole to advance reductive, borderline-incoherent points. Comedy is sacred to me, so it was both jarring and dispiriting to see a film that looks and feels like the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classics of my youth brutishly advance a far-right agenda. It’d be like discovering a lost Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown tells Linus that abortion stops a beating heart, or an alternate-universe issue of Mad magazine exclusively devoted to anti-immigration rhetoric.
At the end of the film, Farley’s Moore stand-in changes his evil liberal ways and makes films devoted to spreading the good news that everything the U.S does is great. In Nielsen’s words, “people actually wanted to see movies that showed the good things about America.” The makers of An American Carol undoubtedly hoped the same would be true of their film, but Zucker’s schizophrenic flag-waver doesn’t really show the good things about America. It doesn’t celebrate freedom of speech, the importance of honest and vigorous debate, or the necessity of confronting social ills. Instead, it just pits a stiff-backed assortment of patriotic saints in uniform against a cartoon aggregation of crazy lefty caricatures. Oh, and it turns out people didn’t actually want to see An American Carol, either.
Even though it was pimped out throughout conservative radio and on The O’Reilly Factor—Bill O’Reilly himself has a prominent cameo—the film was a huge financial and critical flop, shunned even by conservatives, whom the filmmakers joke “stayed home in droves.” It’s possible that even conservatives found the film’s politics strident and insulting. Or, alternately, it’s possible that even conservatives want comedies to be funny. David Zucker’s right-wing slapstick revolution was snuffed in its infancy, and a comedy world that Zucker once made richer is much better for it.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure