This week's question, courtesy of Josh Modell, as an antidote for last week's depressive wallow in misery: Is there a piece of pop culture that absolutely, 100 percent never fails to make you laugh? (Or at least smile?)
Oh hell, there are any number of them. Raising Arizona leaps immediately to mind; it's probably my all-time favorite comedy film. Pretty much every word out of Jennifer Jason Leigh's mouth in The Hudsucker Proxy. ("I'd stake my Pulitzer on it!" "Pay up.") Most of A Fish Called Wanda (the other comedy that would have to duel it out with Raising Arizona for top honors on my all-time-favorite list), particularly the "K-K-K-Ken is c-c-c-coming to k-k-k-kill me!" sequence, Maria Aitken's flawless responses to "Mister Manfredjinsindon," and the scene where John Cleese strips while reciting Russian poetry, then gets caught naked by a shocked family. Actually, most anything involving John Cleese and physical comedy tends to crack me up. His insane goose-stepping in Fawlty Towers and in the Monty Python Ministry Of Silly Walks sketch pretty well sum up physical comedy for me. And there's just something hugely appealing about the particular way he goes apocalyptic in sketch comedy. Writing this made me realize I needed to see his Muppet Show appearance again. You know what never fails to make me laugh? The Muppets gleefully bursting into song at the end of this bit.
Like, I'm sure, everyone else answering this question, I could go a dozen different ways with surefire bits of comedic genius. Homer Simpson's unshakeable belief that "Everyone is stupid except me"; an increasingly exasperated Jimmy James answering questions about his memoir, Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler; a banker failing to grasp the very concept of charity in Monty Python's Flying Circus; President Merkin Muffley's one-sided telephone conversation with Premier Kissoff in Dr. Strangelove, perhaps the single funniest thing ever captured on film. But instead, I'll go for a slightly more obscure bit from my beloved Mr. Show: the "pre-taped call-in show" sketch. It's brilliant in a lot of ways: a clever concept that takes a minute or two to even dawn on you; a terrific acting job by David Cross; a brilliant structure that's realized in the best possible way; and one of my very favorite comic conceits, the slow burn that ends in an explosion of helpless yelling. (Bob Odenkirk was rightly praised for his comedic shouting skills, but Cross was no slouch at it himself.) It's not quite a 10-percenter joke, but it's damn close—;and damn funny. I must have watched this thing a hundred times since it first aired, and it kills me every time.
In our house (and I'm pretty sure chez Tobias as well), the phrase that describes these tidbits is "never not funny." Hopping vampires, for example. That video of the kitten falling asleep. Amazing Race contestants chasing wheels of cheese down a manure-covered Swiss hill. The How I Met Your Mother episode "Slap Bet." A gay couple sitting in a giant chair in a Talk Of The Town piece collected in Susan Orleans' The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, telling the photographer "we want to look like tiny babies." I'll bet we're all most helpless, however, in the face of the things that made us laugh when we were kids. And for me, that's Bob & Ray. My brothers and I spent hours upon hours listening to a few cassette tapes of Bob & Ray sketches that my dad bought from a classic radio catalog. We cracked each other up trying to recreate the sketches on tape. It's probably Tommy Braddock's Sports-A-Phone that brought down the house most often: "I think you keep changing the sports figure just to save a ticket." Oh, wait, maybe it's the audience-participation race featuring a elderly biddy versus a clueless young man: "You win the honor of having won our studio game." Or One Fellow's Family, Volume XXIV, Chapter XXI, "A Strange Odor": "Let's do it now, is my suggestion." If just typing the words is enough to elicit an involuntary chuckle, you've hit upon the essence of "never not funny."
I'm gonna jump in before anyone can suggest Arrested Development and say, well, Arrested Development. I was sick a few months ago, and I plowed through the entire show in a matter of days. It's amazing how well it holds up, and how fresh and funny every single episode was—;truly, from start to finish. Specifically, while people often go for Tobias, Buster, or Gob ("Illusions, Michael!) as their favorite characters, I'm gonna say Michael Bluth. Sure, he's not as outlandish as everyone else, but he's undeniable proof that everything comedy-related—;one line, a sketch, an entire TV series—;needs context. Michael was the ultimate straight man, which made his occasional quirks (falling madly in love way too quickly; unwarranted loyalty to his father; "Her?") hit even harder comically. Oh, and Franklin ain't bad either.
I'll back Steve up here, which I know is hardly contentious. Hardly a day passes that we don't make an obscure reference to Arrested Development to each other, and for the longest time, my buddy icon was a shot of Franklin wearing a "President Bush doesn't care about black puppets" T-shirt. I've watched the entire series twice on two separate weekends in the past three years, and while I'll never back down from my point that the show was basically spinning its wheels for the second and third season, I still think that first season is untouchable. (Still, if they released a proper Franklin Comes Alive CD, I'd be the first in line to buy it.) What also comes to mind, though, is Futurama. A couple years ago I was recuperating from some minor surgery, unable to do anything, really, and the only thing that kept me sane was that show. Before it was tarnished by some overly long and passable movies, it had a respectable run over three seasons and only had two duds ("Three Hundred Big Boys" and "Obsoletely Fabulous"). There are entire bits I can recite from memory, like Bender's horrible audition for All My Circuits, and the time-traveling "Roswell That Ends Well" episode is beyond genius. Then, of course, there's the absurdly excellent and aptly titled Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Dr. Steve Brule's spin-off show can't come out soon enough. The list goes on and on…
God, guys, way to steal my thunder. Arrested Development and Futurama are two of my go-to laughers, and ones that I try to reference as often as possible. (There's a "Mr. F" bumper sticker on the side of my desk as I write this, as a matter of fact.) I better get this in before someone else says Werewolves And Lollipops, Patton Oswalt's 2007 stand-up album. I never thought I'd listen to a comedy CD more than a couple of times, max, because that just seems weird; but I've gotten to the point where I think I could recite "America Has Spoken" (a.k.a. "KFC's Famous Bowls") verbatim. Hell, I know I could, because I have. Many times. But there's something about Oswalt's intonation that gets me every time, even though the content is exceedingly familiar. However, those are all pretty long-form selections, so it's not surprising that they can be revisited over and over again with consistently hilarious results. So I feel compelled to also mention Tenacious D's "Fuck Her Gently," simply because I can't believe a two-minute novelty song continues to crack me up every single time—;what can I say? I have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy. Back when I was still waiting tables, my coworkers and I used to blast the song every Sunday before brunch service began, leading to countless reiterations of "That's fucking TEAMWORK" throughout the morning. Somehow, having "I'm gonna ball you discreetly" playing in my head on a loop made having to deal with customers whining about their undercooked eggs Benedict a lot more tolerable.
Okay, how many of these will come down to The Simpsons, Arrested Development, Mr. Show, and Patton Oswalt? Mine sure will. There's an amazing one-joke sketch in Mr. Show's fourth season called "The Story Of Everest," where Jay Johnston repeatedly knocks the same thimble rack off a wall. That's the joke, half a dozen times in a row, but Johnston's physicality, Bob Odenkirk's irritated shouting, the old-timey set, the silent-film adaptation ("Whatta boob!")… it always makes me laugh. Also, this Homer line from "Much Apu About Nothing" (The Simpsons season seven)—;"You must love this country more than I love a cold beer on a hot Christmas morning"—;which I maintain is one of the greatest jokes ever written, period.
Oh you A.V. Clubbers with your totally predictable answers. Arrested Development! Mr. Show! You're making us look like a herd of cattle, or maybe even lock-stepping Nazis! (Seriously, though, you know I love that shit, too. I got your back, A.V. Club.) Anyway, can I do two? The one that always comes to mind first is the scene from Next Friday in which Mike Epps explains to Ice Cube about the trouble he's having with a gangsta girl named Baby D. I have no idea if he was making it all up on the spot, but the scene feels so improvised and loose that I like to imagine it was. "She know about all the new snacks before they even hit the street. The bootleg snacks!"
The other thing that always makes me laugh is similarly improvised: On Zach Galifianakis' amazing Live At The Purple Onion DVD, there's a fake documentary about the trouble Zach has in his relationship with his twin brother, Seth. Seth (played by Zach, duh) talks to NPR's Brian Unger, who can barely keep a straight face. If you've ever seen it, you'll never look at Fugees and Funyuns the same way again.
The one that gets me the most all the time, without fail, is the part in Annie Hall when Woody Allen charges into the bathroom to get rid of an unwelcome arachnid and tells Diane Keaton, "Don't worry, I've been killing spiders since I was 30."
It's shocking to me that no one's mentioned Dazed And Confused yet. I guess much of the movie isn't really gut-busting, but it is one of those things that gets warmer and ingratiating with every repeat viewing (it's fantastic for depression). But you know what's hilarious? Wooderson. Everyone always remembers Matthew McConaughey's sleazed-out perfection, and he doesn't even show up for 30 minutes. When he asks Wiley Wiggins how "this year's crop of freshman chicks" is looking, that's awesome; when he pauses, takes a step forward and announces what he loves about high-school girls—;"I get older, they stay the saaaaaame age"—;gives a creepy chuckle, then adds on "Yes they do…" This may be one of the most perfect comic things I've ever seen, and it makes me want to repeat all his lines over and over. Which I did for an ill-advised period in college, though I've subsequently knocked it off, to everyone's relief. Yes, I was that guy.
If I might sidestep the bloated whale-corpses of my comrades sunning themselves on the shores of Obvious Beach, I'd like to name something that I'm ashamed no one has thought of: The Simpsons. What? The Simpsons, Arrested Development, Mr. Show, Monty Python, and Patton Oswalt are already taken? Well, hell. I guess I'll have to assume those as read and rattle off some deeper cuts, like: Pretty much any exchange between Larry David and Wanda Sykes on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Pretty much anything that comes out of H. Jon Benjamin's mouth on Home Movies. Pretty much anything that comes out of Trace Beaulieu's mouth on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The "Happy Time Harry" episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. This exchange in Ghostbusters: "Where do these stairs go?" "They go up." This exchange in Top Secret!: "This is Deja Vu." "Have we not met before, monsieur?" Most episodes of Beavis And Butt-head, which I'm fairly certain that even when I'm old and decrepit will leave me giggling like a 15-year-old moron all over again, though my favorite is still "1-900-BEAVIS." ("Put the phone on your butt!") And while asking me to choose my favorite Kids In The Hall sketch is a wicked, wicked game you play, if pressed at this very moment I'd have to name "Paranoid Undercover Alien," "I'm not being sarcastic," "Daddy Drank," "McGillicutty And Greene," The Sizzler Sisters—;actually, anything featuring Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, my favorite comedy duo ever. (Sorry, Bob and David.)
I guess I could just say "Everybody else stole mine," right? MST3K is huge up there; it's one of the few shows I know of that I can watch over and over without ever getting sick of it. Usually the riffing does me in ("Oh no, they destroyed the Hitler Museum!" "The movie that takes the bold step of not including the audience." "Every frame of this film looks like someone's last-known photo."), but there are some moments in the movies themselves that slay me without any quipping required; there's one in this clip from the Touch Of Satan episode, right around the 4:10 mark, that's become a running punchline with my friends:
(It's weird; I don't really have a preference between the Comedy Central/SCI FI years, but most of the quotes I know off the top of my head come from the later stuff. Guess I've just watched that the most often.)
Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams both generally make me laugh, although I can't think of any specific examples off the top of my head—;so long as it's not Mostly Harmless, it's all good. The Simpsons, of course—;the bit with Sideshow Bob and the army of rakes from "Cape Feare" was the first time I can ever remember being laughing at something because it was so self-consciously pointless. It's a style that's been done to death since, I think, but back then, it worked great on me.
Oh, and since we're talking about Kids In The Hall, this scene in Brain Candy made me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe. (Not safe for work, language-wise.):
I never crave watching it, but I always find something new and idiotic to laugh at whenever The Naked Gun is on TV. Like I laughed for about two minutes straight recently after re-watching Vincent Ludwig get thrown from a stadium, trampled by a cement truck and then a marching band, only to hear Ed say "Oh Frank, it's so horrible… my father went the same way." The Arrested Development cast commentary—;I know everyone's been saying Arrested Development, but the other day, I was watching the commentary, and it makes the series so much better, getting the insider's view on what makes it so great. Dogs barking "Jingle Bells." A few choice essays in David Sedaris' Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day. Martha Stewart + Conan O'Brien. Obviously, The Simpsons: just off the top of my head, I always laugh at the alien that tells Professor Frink to shut up, Officer Quimby replying with interest, "The baby looked at you?" after Ralphie told on Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel, and, "Pray for Mojo." Finally, this video:
Surely something that's made me laugh since I was 10 has to count for something? Is there a funnier stretch of film than Groucho Marx's first scene in Duck Soup, the one where he repeatedly plays off the bottomless solemnity of straight-woman supreme Margaret Dumont? I've seen it countless times and I still marvel that a) It squeezes so much comedy into such little space, and b) It's funny every time. (Or never-not-funny, to use the preferred parlance.)
Dumont: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I extend the good wishes of every man, woman, and child of Freedonia.
Groucho: Never mind that stuff. Take a card.
Dumont: A card? What would I do with a card?
Groucho: You can keep it. I've got 51 left. Now what were you saying?
…and we're off.
For someone whose black, shriveled heart is powered by rage and hatred, I certainly have been known to enjoy a larf. Where to begin? While writing my Dirty Work MYOF entry recently, I found myself compulsively re-watching and re-enjoyening (it's a word, look it up) footage of Norm MacDonald roasting Bob Saget. Other shit that always cracks me up—;seasons two through eight of The Simpsons (I'm surprised no one has brought that up yet), everything Tracy Morgan says on 30 Rock, everything Ralph Wiggum says on The Simpsons, a number of recurring bits on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, including Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, the Clutch Cargo-style fake celebrity interviews (Schwarzenegger perennially pimping his "all-time holiday classic Chingle All Dey Vay" never stops being funny), faux telenova "Conando" and the Brian Stack characters Hannigan and Artie Kendall, the way Woody Allen delivers the phrase "mess o' catfish" on "Woody Allen: Stand-Up Comic," Kool Keith's "Thug Or What," the MF Doom line "A lot of bitches think he's overly chauvinistic," "Woody Allen: Stand-Up Comic" in its entirety, the way Jon Wurster says, "Wait, whhhuutttttt?", Daffy Duck, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the button on my desk of a man sassily lisping, "Ain't Gonna Happen," and lastly about a bazillion Onion articles, especially this one, featuring pictures of my esteemed boss:
No film makes me happier than Jonathan Demme's day-glo mob comedy Married To The Mob. It's not the funniest film ever made, or even Demme's best, but it's light and intoxicating and generously colorful in every aspect—;the gloriously tacky décor; the eclectic soundtrack; the mix of Demme regulars and a loaded cast with standouts like Mercedes Ruehl, Dean Stockwell, and Alec Baldwin; and incidental delights like the Burger World theme song and the post-credits coda. Back when I worked in a movie theater, the film played for a week in second-run, and I used to slip into the mostly empty house while still on the clock, just to get away from the customers and immerse myself in the magical world of Demme-land. There, the fries are crispy. The shakes are creamy. The Double Continental with cheese is dreamy. It's a Burger World town!
My friend Erik turned me on to "Pretty much everywhere, it's gonna be hot" a year ago, and ever since, it's become my go-to for a quick pick-me-up. It sits atop the bookmarks on my laptop, and Arthur and I have become really, really good friends. It plays perfectly into my love of TV Carnage-esque found comedy and short things, like perfect pop songs and myself. Also, I've found that its subject matter makes it even more effective as the temperature drops here in Chicago. Probably my favorite thing about it, though, is that it has almost 1,700,000 views on YouTube, and I'm willing to bet that most of those views are from me. When I want to hang with Arthur, I don't just watch this clip once, because as great as its initial randomness is, I swear it gets funnier with repetition. By the tenth time I've heard Arthur laugh in under two minutes, I've forgotten why I came to see him in the first place.