But How Does it Hold Up?

A few weeks ago I re-watched the venerable Mel Brooks film, Blazing Saddles. I hadn’t seen the movie in at least seven years, mostly because due to my near nightly screenings of it during my teens and early twenties, there was no point. The film had been committed to memory. After finding out that my girlfriend had seen the movie only once (obviously she must have had a full social life as a young person), I decided it was high time to see this film again.

But while watching it, I began to feel uncomfortable. In my memory, this was a madcap romp with jokes flying fast and furious, speeding past me like the bullets from Black Bart’s guns. What struck me, however, was that the pace was not nearly as quick as I remembered. The jokes didn’t fly at a devil-may-care pace. In fact, it moved pretty damned slowly.

Now, I would never argue against Blazing Saddles’ rightful place in the pantheon of classic comedies. It was and is a truly courageous, biting, and most importantly, hilarious comedy that performed double duty as fantastic spoof of the Western genre and as a brilliant satire of racial relations in America at that time. But the fast paced and layered comedies of today, such as Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Community, Knocked Up, and even The Hangover may have ruined my ability to enjoy the older classics such as Blazing Saddles.

Take this scene from Blazing Saddles, in which we meet the film’s hero, Bart (played by the hip and witty Cleavon Little), as he is working on the railroads:

While this scene is still very funny, the timing seems off. The pace seems slower than what I remembered. When the boss, Lyle, (hick character actor extraordinaire Burton Gilliam) interrupts the worker’s rendition of “I Get No Kick From Champagne” with an explosive, “what the hell is that shit?”, the action pauses, presumably to give the audience time to compose themselves from their raucous cacophony of laughter. This is something I feel wouldn’t happen today, as the idea of slowing down the action for audience response in a movie seems rather dated in this full throttle generation.

I’ve grown used to the slick editing used in many of the comedy films today; perhaps the fears of the so-called MTV generation of quick cut editing voiced by many critics during the late 80’s and early 90’s have come to pass. But comparing the Camp Town Ladies scene from Blazing Saddles against this scene from a more recent spoof of a film genre, Hot Fuzz, in which Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel character says goodbye to his ex-girlfriend before he moves to his new post in the country, I can’t help but feel the viewer is rewarded for their impatience. Like Mel Brooks before him, Edgar Wright has raised the bar for comedy filmmaking with his quick edits, zooming cameras, and joke-filled scenes.

Animal House is another film I re-watched recently only to be surprised by its somewhat glacial pace and large swaths of time in between jokes. In this scene from the movie, Otter (played by Chevy Chase surrogate Tim Matheson), gives a speech to the fraternity house board to fight for the Delta’s right to keep their fraternity open:

The filmmakers rely on the inherent irreverence of the situation to make this scene work, with only a couple of jokes thrown in. Perhaps this flippancy toward authority was enough to get the audience’s attention in the counter culture haze of 1978, but to the modern audience, this scene seems like a missed opportunity. Now take fellow master speechmaker Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) from a show that shares the setting if not the sensibilities of Animal House, Community. In this scene, Winger argues for the inclusion of much maligned ex-Spanish teacher Ben Chang (played by Ken Jeong) into the study group:

Like Otter’s speech, Winger is obviously arguing for something that is only in his self interest but wrapping it around some greater world view to elicit sympathy, but this speech from Community is brimming with great jokes punctuated with asides from Chang and other members of the cast that add layers of comedy to this scene. Otter’s speech, meanwhile, is a one-man show and gets by purely on his glib chutzpah, albeit expertly delivered by the underrated Matheson.

Caddyshack follows the pattern; it’s another movie that seems churn along until something funny happens. Perhaps its greatest weakness is its tendency to lean on the great comedians that fill the cast, leaving the rest of the players in the film with little to do. After all, when we tend to think of Caddyshack, we tend to think of the performances turned in by Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, and Chevy Chase, but we forget the movie is actually about a caddy trying to figure out what he is going to do with his life. In this scene, Chevy Chase’s character Ty Webb gives advice to Michael O’Keefe’s character Danny Noonan:

It’s a classic example of straight man/funny man, but the comedy comes off as one-sided, making the trek from joke to joke feel long and arduous. In Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, there is another mentor/mentee relationship that has become the heart of the show. Her character, eccentric and left-leaning Liz Lemon, and Alec Baldwin’s rigid and conservative Jack Donaghy have at least one or two scenes in every episode in which Donaghy teaches Lemon about business or life (often with advice about as applicable as “be the ball”). However, in 30 Rock, the comedy isn’t one-sided. Both characters often get great lines to say and the scenes play less like a tennis player practicing against a wall and more like a full on two-player match, in which jokes are volleyed back and forth at a thrilling pace.

Comedy, as an art form and perhaps more than any other art form, is fluid. A Van Gogh painting is just a beautiful and haunting now as when it was painted over a hundred years ago; a Marx Brothers movie, however, is going to find few new fans in this day and age outside of hardcore comedy geeks. A lot has changed in the comedy world over the past decade or so. With the introduction of software programs that help edit movies and TV shows, comedy creators now have the ability to edit scenes in ways that will make jokes more impactful. With digital video, comedians are given more free reign to improvise during scenes, as directors were less willing to experiment when trying to keep on budget back when they were shooting on pricey film stock. And the public’s sensibilities have evolved as well; the antics of the Delta frathouse probably seem quaint to a generation brought up on films like Superbad and The Hangover.

I’m of the mindset that it’s impossible to create anything great in the present if you are overly reverent to art from the past. I also think if we cling to the pop culture we loved in the past too much, it limits us from enjoying the truly great and wonderful comedy that is being produced today. So while these classic comedies with their slower pacing and outdated sensibilities will always have a place in my heart, there’s nothing quite like seeing new and exciting work being built on their shoulders.

Justin Gray is a stand-up comic, podcaster (is that a word now?), and writer living in NYC, which is a fancy way of saying he is poor.

But How Does it Hold Up?