My Year Of Flops Case File #113, Ask The A.V. Club Crossover Edition: Yellowbeard
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We live in a time of crisis. Gas prices are skyrocketing. The war in Iraq drags on interminably. The housing market has imploded to the point where hobos are now being offered thousands of dollars to move into unsold houses. The August 28 release of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg's Disaster Movie looms ominously in our near future. More importantly, a plucky little column known as Ask The A.V Club teeters on the brink of extinction due to a dearth of questions.
I'll probably get in trouble for revealing this, but things have gotten so bad that we've taken to outsourcing the difficult task of coming up with Ask The A.V. Club questions to an Indian company called Trivia Question Askers Inc., a fully-owned subsidiary of Globochem. This has proven a costly, foolhardy endeavor. Here's a recent question we purchased from Trivia Question Askers:
Okay, so I have this memory of this show I saw when I was a kid. It took place in the future, or maybe in the past, or possibly in an alternate universe. There was a girl, or maybe a boy, and she had a dog, or maybe a cat. In the first 15 minutes, she bounced a big rubber ball that may have been red. At one point she sang a song that went "La la la la la la la." I grew up in Canada in the mid-'70s, or maybe New Hampshire in the early '50s, and I remember seeing it on PBS or NBC or on the BBC. Come to think of it, it may have been a song or a children's book or a Love Is cartoon. No wait, it was a dream I had last week. Never mind.
Not A Paid Ringer From Trivia Question Askers Inc, A Fully Owned Subsidiary Of Globochem
We paid more than a thousand dollars for that question, only to nix it as too crappy to answer. I don't want to make anyone question their faith in outsourcing, but Trivia Question Askers Inc. has proven a huge disappointment. It doesn't help that half of their "questions" involve Bollywood. If we get one more overpriced question about Buddhadeb Dasgupta's early films and their relationship with his poetry, I'm gonna scream.
If things don't turn around in a jiffy, we're considering holding a "Save Ask The A.V. Club" telethon featuring all your favorite "alternative" comedians who think they're so great just cause they went to college and have read some Chomsky, plus hipster bands people only pretend to like so they'll seem cool in our home base in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I know we like to pretend that we're headquartered in Chicago, but as many of you have already figured out, we all actually live and work in the back room of a Brooklyn American Apparel outlet. As I write this, Noel Murray is prissily grooming his faux-hawk, readjusting his wallet chain so it fits more snugly against his skinny jeans, listening to a white-label, vinyl-only Radiohead remix EP, smoking a big fat J, and cackling maniacally at the thought that some A.V. Club readers actually believe that he's a sober, responsible father and husband in Arkansas instead of a glib hipster caricature.
Ah, but I've already said too much. Pay no attention to the Decemberists super-fans behind the curtain. Nevertheless, we have received some apparently genuine, intelligent questions from folks like yourselves, so I am going to do my part to help save Ask The A.V. Club by answering one of these questions in My Year Of Flops.
Yes, that's right, I am officially embarking on the non-awaited, utterly non- historic Ask The A.V. Club/My Year Of Flops crossover. Like Paul Wall, this is bound to have the Internet going nuts. There hasn't been a crossover this earth-shattering since Jason, Freddy, the Alien creature, the Predator, and Jay Sherman descended upon Springfield to judge a film festival and visit their good friends The Simpsons, only to discover that the cartoon family had headed down to New Orleans to visit their good friends Seymour "Skinny Boy" Skinner and police-chief-turned-private investigator Clancy Wiggum. At this point, you might be asking, "Jeez, Nathan. Are you going to shoehorn a clumsy Simpsons reference into everything you write?" Yes. Yes, I am.
Here's the question I'll be answering, in my trademark rambling, digressive fashion:
As pro reviewers yourselves, what is your take on the fact that more than any other films that become classics, classic comedies get slighted in the reviews upon their initial release? Since I have been a sentient consumer of review media, I know for a fact that this happened to The Big Lebowski when it was released, and am also pretty sure both Austin Powers and Office Space got slagged in print before the proles rose up against media tyranny and lifted them up to their rightful place in comedic history. More recently, The A.V. Club (Keith Phipps) gave Napoleon Dynamite a middling review, and I'm wondering if he takes that back. I'm also pretty sure that, back in the day, Caddyshack was completely dismissed, and probably Animal House, Stripes, and who knows how many others. Why do great comedies so often get past reviewers? Is there some program of increased awareness or a trusty algorithm we can follow to assure that this travesty Never Happens Again?
And am I putting too much blame on reviewers? Is it audiences' fault for ignoring them on initial release too, à la Spinal Tap? I even remember The Princess Bride falling off the edge of the earth on its initial release. The best comedies never seem to smash out of the gate and take over the country for a year in a Titanic or Platoon sort of way, Pulp Fiction and 9 To 5 excepted.
Phipps doesn't have to answer this question. In fact, I'd prefer if you gave it to Nathan, if he has a few moments to spare. But hell, don't let me put constraints on you. I'd be grateful for any answer.
No problem, Joe. I'll do you one better by using your question as a springboard to discuss today's entry in My Year Of Flops, 1983's little-loved Yellowbeard. First off, I can assure you that Keith does not regret his negative review of Napoleon Dynamite. I sat next to him during the press screening, and even though the theater shook with laughter, Keith and I barely chuckled. Like horror films, comedies shoot for a clear-cut physiological reaction: If you don't laugh at a comedy or tense up during a horror film, it doesn't work for you on a primal level. I have often experienced the weird cognitive dissonance that comes with sitting stone-faced through a dire comedy while everyone around me exploded with laughter. I'll never forget watching The Animal with my dad and looking on in abject horror as he guffawed from start to finish. I'd look over at my dear old pa, red-faced with laughter, and wonder if I'd been adopted.
More than just about any other genre, comedy is subjective. You either laugh or you don't. There's precious little grey area when it comes to chuckles. I think part of the reason the films you list received mixed-to-negative reviews is because they're largely slobs-vs.-snobs endeavors. Critics have historically occupied the "snob" end of the spectrum.
Similarly, middlebrow Oscar-bait generally comes with a critic-friendly air of respectability. A movie like Atonement veritably fucks audiences up the ass with class, what with its literary pedigree, respected director, challenging structure, and period setting. A critic could be left cold by Atonement and still find much to praise in its cinematography, acting, costume design, and structure, but if Stripes doesn't make you laugh, it's hard to see it as anything other than a failure.
These broad, SNL-style comedies are also overwhelmingly pitched to teenagers, so it's not surprising that largely middle-aged critics weren't reduced to giggle-fits. These films also tend to fall into the "sloppy but funny" category. As the years go on, fans tend to remember the "funny" element and disregard the sloppy part.
I doubt many non-critics left the theater following Caddyshack thinking, "That was funny, but the pacing was off, the plot was thin, the tone was a little ramshackle, and Michael O'Keefe made for a weak protagonist." But critics are paid modestly to analyze the craft and structure of comedies, not just whether they're funny. I like to joke that is a critic's noble obligation to take the joy out of movies by overanalyzing everything. That's especially true of comedies.
Yet I think we are seeing a seismic shift in how comedies are received. Borat, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Superbad are four broad, raunchy, dick-joke-fortified comedies that received almost universally good reviews. They also had more on their mind than mere laughter: Borat spiced up its belly laughs with social satire, while Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Superbad all had an emotional component that has become synonymous with Judd Apatow productions.
Critics are getting younger and younger. Film criticism is beginning to look an awful lot like Logan's Run or Wild In The Streets, as older critics are put out to pasture to make way for young kids who work cheap. Kids who cut their teeth blogging about movies are more inclined to think positively about raunchy comedies than world-weary fiftysomethings whose comic tastes run more to Jacques Tati than Adam Sandler.
It's hard to overstate the effect the Internet has had on film criticism. Once upon a time, film critics were a one-way conduit of opinion and information handing down cinematic verdicts from on high, whereas now John Q. Olddude can instantly receive 700 online comments accusing him of being a total douchetard for not "getting," I dunno, Napoleon Dynamite.
So it isn't surprising that critics were hostile toward Yellowbeard. Where a film like Atonement (which I liked enormously, incidentally) arrives in theaters with a lustrous sheen of respectability, Yellowbeard scampered into the local picture show with a giant "kick me" sign affixed to its back. Christ, even its cast spoke out against it. John Cleese called the screenplay one of the worst he'd ever read, and insisted that he only appeared in it because Graham Chapman, his longtime writing partner, begged him to. As a man who said "Hell yes" to Isn't She Great, The Adventures Of Pluto Nash, and two Charlie's Angels movies, Cleese knows a little something about terrible scripts.
To be fair, I suspect that Cleese no longer reads the scripts he's sent. He just rolls around in a giant bed of money while his assistant reads him his three lines from Pink Panther 2, which I imagine go a little something like:
Cleese [as Inspector Dreyfuss]: Here, Inspector Clouseau. I trust that you can carry this armful of priceless Faberge eggs down this rickety, oil-slicked staircase without too much trouble.
Cleese [as Inspector Dreyfuss]: Oh, just look at the mess you've made!
Cleese [as Inspector Dreyfuss]: Well, I never!
In his shitty memoir, Cheech And Chong: An Unauthorized Autobiography, Tommy Chong huffs that he and Cheech were recruited by the makers of Yellowbeard for their "audience appeal" rather than their comedy. Chong fretted that they were cast in Yellowbeard because they'd bring in the kids, not because the producers understood the sublime genius of Cheech and Chong bits like "E.T., The Extra Testicle."
Yellowbeard all but wrote its own scathing reviews. For starters, it contains perhaps the greatest concentration of rape-based humor in film history. If I had to describe its comedy using a single, made-up, incredibly offensive adjective, that word would be "rapey." Unsurprisingly, not too many critics risked looking sexist and emotionally stunted by going against the tide and standing up for the film's use of rape and murder as go-to gags. Yet despite the abundance of rape, murder, and gratuitous profanity, the film was inexplicably rated PG. The producers must have bribed the ratings board with rum and hookers. Unfortunately, viewers couldn't be bribed quite so easily.
Nor did it help that, like The Corsican Brothers before it, Yellowbeard was a marijuana-free Cheech and Chong movie. Cheech and Chong without pot is like Terry Southern without exclamation points, David Foster Wallace minus footnotes, me without dick jokes and lame pop-culture references. Where the Monty Python factor sucked critics in, the Cheech and Chong element pushed them away.
For comedy geeks, Yellowbeard is a tricky proposition. Its once-in-a-lifetime cast makes it seemingly irresistible. But its toxic reputation makes it eminently resistible. Oh, what a cast! Yellowbeard boasts half of Monty Python (co-screenwriter Chapman, Cleese, and Eric Idle), half the leads from Young Frankenstein (Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Marty Feldman), Peter Cook, who co-wrote the screenplay, and regrettably, all of Cheech and Chong. Plus James Mason, Spike Milligan, Kenneth Mars, and Beryl Reid.
The film's tagline in Australia justifiably boasted, "The greatest comedy cast ever assembled for a movie! Everyone who's ever been funny!" With so many funny people in one film, how could Yellowbeard go wrong? Yet the giddy abundance of iconic laugh merchants points to one of the film's primary flaws: With its gaudy smorgasbord of comic styles, it's incredibly disjointed. Instead of proving complementary, the antithetical comic stylings of Peter Cook and Tommy Fucking Chong threaten to cancel each other out, and not just because Cook is daft and funny, while Chong is agonizingly, punishingly unfunny.
Yellowbeard casts Chapman as the title scalawag, a notorious outlaw of the high seas who takes the "rape" part of the "rape and pillage" thing very seriously. Chapman's idea of a perfect date involves rape, then murder, though not necessarily in that order. Black comedies often revolve around unsympathetic protagonists. But few boast leads as devoid of honorable qualities as Yellowbeard. Chapman—who the opening narration cheerfully points out killed more than 500 men in cold blood, tearing captains' hearts out and eating them and forcing his victims to eat their own lips—is not only less sympathetic than most heroes, he's less sympathetic than most villains as well.
Chapman is imprisoned for tax evasion, but refuses to reveal the whereabouts of his treasure. He's such a badass that he scoffs indignantly at weak-willed fellow prisoners "taking the easy way out" by dying after torture. He boasts to fellow prisoner Marty Feldman, who may not have been the funniest comic actor of his generation, but was undoubtedly the funniest-looking, "You won't catch me dying. They'll have to kill me before I die."
These early sequences are rife with pitch-black Python-esque absurdity. Here's some choice dialogue between Chapman and Madeline Kahn, who visits Chapman in prison with big news:
Kahn: Do you remember before you were arrested, we were having a cuddle?
Chapman: I was raping you, if that's what you mean.
Kahn: Right. Sort of half-cuddle, half-rape.
Kahn underplays the scene perfectly, acting as if the concept of a "half-cuddle, half-rape" is the most natural thing in the world. She reveals the existence of their 20-year-old son, a fellow who unfortunately does not follow in his dad's raping, murdering footsteps. When Chapman boasts that by the time he was 20, he'd killed more than 500 men, Kahn deadpans, "Well, he's not quite as extroverted as you."
Alas, Chapman's son (Martin Hewitt) is one of the many elements of the film that just doesn't work. He's a stiff, especially compared to the all-star constellation of comic talent surrounding him. Kahn disparages Hewitt's bookworm tendencies, arguing, with impeccable logic, "If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that learning never taught me nothing. And books is the worst. The last time I read a book, I was raped. Let that be a lesson to you."
With Chapman due to be released from prison, Secret Service man Eric Idle hits upon an ingenious scheme to unearth the location of his secret treasure: He connives to have Chapman's sentence extended so that the pirate will become enraged, immediately break out of prison, and lead Idle to his treasure.
Sure enough, Chapman breaks out of prison and joins forces with Hewitt and benign father figure Peter Cook. Like Jay Sherman's adoptive father in The Critic, Cook is a genteel, upper-class gentleman who is quietly yet completely insane. On the lam, Chapman goes undercover as "Professor Anthrax" (his first two suggestions, "Professor Rape" and "Professor Murder," are understandably nixed) and ends up part of a press gang onboard a ship run by discipline-obsessed madman James Mason.
I loved the way Mason tries to get around the prohibition against bringing women on board (they're apparently bad luck) by trying to pass off a buxom young hooker with a hilariously transparent fake mustache as his new disciplinary officer, "Mr. Prostitute." Needless to say, half of Mr. Prostitute's name is more appropriate than the other.
Seafaring shenanigans ensue as Chapman and his motley gang try to reach the treasure before Idle and Chapman's lieutenant-turned-rival Peter Boyle. Yellowbeard is animated by a proudly adolescent nihilism that's initially kinky and transgressive, but ultimately wearying.
Yellowbeard is uncompromising in its darkness. It's a measure of the film's warped conviction and refreshing dearth of sentimentality that its only heartwarming moment comes from Hewitt ostensibly murdering Chapman in cold blood. Then, and only then, does Chapman sees his son as a proper pirate instead of a book-learning fancy lad.
To return to your question, Joe, I think part of the reason sloppy, slapdash comedies get little respect from critics and much love from audiences is because they aspire to do nothing more than make people laugh, and it's hard to view them charitably if they fail at their only aspiration. If a visionary like Terry Gilliam had directed the film, it very well could have been more than the sum of its sometimes genius, often flat and disappointing parts. But instead, it's directed by journeyman Mel Damski with zero visual flair or personality.
Plot isn't Yellowbeard's strong point. Nor is structure, pacing, characterization, direction, or cinematography. It lives from gag to gag, and while its first two acts ride some genius gags and very funny performances from Chapman, Kahn, Feldman, Cook, and Cleese (playing a blind man whose keen hearing makes him a popular informer) all the way to mild amusement city, the film capsizes in its interminable, punishing final act, which is inexplicably dominated by the comedy stylings of Tommy Chong as a tyrant who, like pretty much every other character in the movie, including the heroes, is a murderous sadist.
In the Cheech and Chong segment's only joke, Cheech addresses a lithping Chong with a faux-sycophantic litany of insulting titles ("your assholiness," "your offensiveness," "your molestation"). At first it's merely unfunny, but it soon devolves into a grueling comic endurance test.
The first time I saw Yellowbeard, it benefited from low expectations. I thought, "Hey, this isn't so bad. Some of it is actually quite good." It didn't hold up very well to a second viewing, when my thoughts shifted to "Hey, this isn't so good. Much of it is actually quite bad." Yet there's much about it I liked, from its pitch-black humor and Pythonian love of wordplay and doublespeak to the following lines, which can only benefit from being taken out of context and rendered in harsh, unforgiving print instead of coming out of the mouths of beloved comic geniuses:
"I'm sure I killed the last one I raped. It couldn't have been you."
"The afterplay was a bit on the rough side, but not fatal, dear."
"Sounded as though there was a bit of a squabble."
"Squabble? They're all dead."
"Must have been more of a tiff, then."
"I can't kill him. He brought me up just like a father."
"You mean he beat and kicked you and smashed you in the teeth?"
"I don't ask for much. I'd just like to see a few of my little dreams come true. I always wanted to buy Denmark and be richer than the Queen."
In the ultimate indignity, Yellowbeard has gone down in history as a second-rate Cheech and Chong movie instead of a second-rate Monty Python vehicle. In spite of Chong's comedy-and-movie-killing term, that just seems wrong. Of course, Yellowbeard's DVD box doesn't exactly help the situation:
So, Joe, there are lots of different reasons why sloppy, slapdash comedies get hated on by critics. Though, in the case of Yellowbeard, the film's critical and commercial failure can at least partially be attributed to the sad fact that, in spite of some great moments and terrific performances, it kind of sucks.
For the second and final entry in Pirate Month©, I plan to write primarily about Cutthroat Island but see and touch upon Ice Pirates, Roman Polanski's Pirates!, and The Pirate Movie. Why do just a little bit of work when you can do a whole lot?
As your humble public servant, what other theme months would you like me to pursue? Disco Month? John Travolta Month? Nathan Finally Learns Some Fucking Brevity And Stops Wasting Everyone's Time Month? I am, as always, open to your suggestions. Oh, and don't forget to send your obsessive pop-culturey questions to Ask The A.V. Club. I promise never to transform them into the basis for a horribly bloated, unedifying My Year Of Flops installment ever again.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco