Friday, July 04, 2008

THE ONION MOVIE And 5 Other Comedy Sketch Films That Actually Don't Suck (For The Most Part)

Ah, the sketch comedy film - not really a genre, more like a sub section of cinema that barely exists. Wikipedia doesn’t have a category listing for them, only listing them under anthology films. 


A recent hard copy movie guide I browsed through recently - the VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever - had a listing for “comedy anthology” films but only had about 20 or so - very few of which came anywhere near essential. What brings this whole shebang to mind is the direct to DVD release of a film adaptation of a popular print and online satire rag:



THE ONION MOVIE (Dirs. Tom Kuntz & Mike Maguire, 2008) After years in development Hell with shelvings and re-shootings this troubled film finally gets dumped onto DVD with little fanfare. I usually stay away from reviews of movies until I can see them for myself but the critical stink surrounding the THE ONION MOVIE still wafted in my direction so I had some idea before inserting the disc that this may be hard going. 


What I didn't anticipate was how painful it was going to be to get through. I have been a fan of the Onion since the mid 90’s with its great hysterical headlines like “Desperate Vegetarians Declare Cows Plants” and “Cop Kills Own Partner, Vows To Track Self Down” but the idea of making a movie of vignettes based on their silly satirical style seemed sketchy (sorry, couldn’t resist) at best. 


Unfortunately it’s even worse than expected with horribly unfunny stabs at race, sexism, politics, and corporate commercialism that at times turned my stomach. A segment involving surburbanites gathering to play a “Who Done It” type board game involving rape particularly made me wince. It’s no wonder that Onion Inc. 


President Sean Mills has stressed that they are no longer associated with the movie, much like Mad Magazine disowned their own ill-fated foray into film - the originally titled raunchy ANIMAL HOUSE rip-off MAD MAGAZINE PRESENTS UP THE ACADEMY. Following in National Lampoon’s footsteps, even in the era of the sexual revolution, was a lot harder than it looked I suppose.


THE ONION MOVIE oddly even tries to have something of a plot between the terrible skits - Onion News Anchor Norm Archer, played by solid character actor Len Cariou (who had a short but sweet part as an old friend to Jack Nicholson in ABOUT SCHMIDT), rebels against the plugging of their parent company during the newscast and threatens a walk-out if his forum is used to advertise their big budget movie release “Cock Puncher" starring Steven Seagal. 


Seagal himself appears as one of the only actual celebrities that appear, otherwise its filled with bit players from Seinfeld and OFFICE SPACE (like the “oh face” guy - Greg Pitts). Cariou is obviously headed for a Howard Beale-breakdown (you know, “I’m mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!” from NETWORK) and despite lines like “Georgia officials announced plans to add a swastika and middle finger to the Georgia State Flag” he acts as if he’s in a straight drama. 


That's probably the only way he could stomach such dire material. Not only is THE ONION MOVIE one of the worst comedies I’ve ever seen, it’s an excruciating experience that I’d pay to forget. That it is only an hour and 20 minutes long is the only good thing I can say about it.


Okay! Since that sketch comedy film royally sucked let’s look at some examples of the form that are more worthwhile. Like I said above there aren't many so it comes down to:


5 Sketch Comedy Movies That Don't Suck (For The Most Part)

1. Tie: AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT(Dir. Ian MacNaughton, 1971) / MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE (Dir. Terry Jones, 1983) Book ending the Python filmography are these 2 anthology films filled with a high ratio of quality material. AND NOW... was made to introduce American audiences to their material (mostly from the first and second seasons of Monty Python's Flying Circus). It didn’t do the trick - they’d have to wait for Public Television reruns and MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL to get U.S. acclaim). 


Weirdly the films was more successful in Britain where the material was already well known and the title was completely redundant. Despite that John Cleese remarked “However we edited the film, people got bored half way through because there was no story” and Michael Palin lamented that there were too many scenes with "men behind desks” it is still nice to see such classics as “Nudge Nudge”, “The Upper Class Twit Of The Year", “The Dead Parrot”, and “The Lumberjack Song” get the big screen treatment.


As Monty Python’s last movie THE MEANING OF LIFE is a sketch film with an obvious theme. Its sketches are presented with titles: “PART I - THE MIRACLE OF BIRTH” through to “PART VII - DEATH” representing the 7 stages of man. Cleese (definitely the most critical Python) said the film was “very patchy, though it had wonderful stuff in it.” 


He's right but the wonderful stuff like the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number, the obese Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones in a massive fat suit) sequence, and the Grim Reaper/Heaven as Vegas finale is up there with Python’s best. “Perhaps we're just one of God's little jokes” Eric Idle’s opening theme song ponders and while we never get an answer to that we do get a lot of existential laughs along the way.


2. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (Dir. John Landis, 1977) Though it was directed by Landis this is the first film project by the comedy team of ZAZ (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker). It typifies crude 70’s humour and foreshadows the rising tide of gross-out lowbrow fare that would soon flood the market. 


Still, it has a lot of material that works including an extended Bruce Lee parody “A Fistful Of Yen” (which runs for over half an hour), a trailer for the ultimate disaster movie “That’s Armageddon!”, and a commercial for a board game based on the Kennedy assassination called “Scot Free”. There's also lots of nudity if the comedy isn’t working for you. I


f you want to see where the AIRPLANE!-style joke-a-minute genre that begat the awful recent SCARY/EPIC/DATE/etc. MOVIE series began check out this dated but still decent sketch comedy platter. Incidentally the title on the marquee in picture above - “See You Next Wednesday” which comes from a line in 2001, appears in nearly every John Landis movie.


3. EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX * BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (Dir. Woody Allen, 1972) Allen’s loose adaptation of the best selling book by David Reuben is one of my least favorite of his films but as a sketch comedy collection goes it has more than its share of funny moments. 


Featuring actors who never worked with Allen in any other film (including Tony Randall, Burt Reynolds, Regis Philbin, and Gene Wilder) in surreal sexual settings such as a game show called “What’s My Perversion?” and a sci-fi satire taking place inside a man's brain during intercourse, this film is by far Woody Allen’s most outrageous and weirdest work. 


Wilder has some oddly touching moments as a man having an affair with a sheep but the craziest and most memorable scene has to be the countryside terrorized by a gigantic breast created by a mad scientist. After subduing the runaway mammary a policeman warns that they should still be cautious because “they usually travel in pairs.”


4. THE GROOVE TUBE (Dir. Ken Shapiro, 1974) The quality is starting to drop way off on this short list of skit films with this extremely raunchy television send-up which misses a lot more than it hits. A sleazy scatological bent overwhelms the humour (or lack of it) here with scenes involving a talking penis puppet, a TV clown who reads pornographic literature to his children viewers after telling the adults to leave the room, and the linking thread of promotional films for the fictional Uranus Corporation. 


Most notable for sure is that was the film debut of Chevy Chase who had better luck with counterculture based sketch comedy the next year with Saturday Night Live. Doubt he holds this film in very high regard.


5. AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (Dirs. Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, 1987) 


A sequel of sorts to KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE in that it involves Landis and has a likewise extended film parody -the 50’s sci-fi satire of the title. It’s, of course, another uneven collection of TV commercial parodies, educational films, and late night showings of B movies with a lot of dicey material (including Andrew “Dice” Clay himself!) but a few laughs emerge and the fast pace makes it breeze by. 


Lots of familliar folk to look out for too - Phil Hartman, Arsenio Hall, Carrie Fisher, Steve Guttenberg, Steve Allen, and Michelle Pfeiffer poke their heads in and out of this long forgotten fitfully funny sketch comedy jamboree.

So there you go - 5 comic anthology movies that don’t completely suck. Let me stress though that I’d only really recommend the last 2 as alternatives to the THE ONION MOVIE. Looks like with that awful entry this slight genre can now truly be put to rest.


R.I.P. Sketch Comedy Movie Genre (1972-2008)


More later...

3 comments:

Fletch said...

I love the Kentucky Fried Movie ("althought there's no known treatment for death's crippling effects..."), but haven't seen Amazon Women. Thanks for the heads up.

seems said...

Thanks for info about The Groove Tube..

Anonymous said...

The format's not dead - Human Interface Parser is currently being made in Australia

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3E8F38AD153E78FF&feature=plcp