Watching the 1985 comedy Better Off Dead for the first time in 2016, as I did so recently, is like listening to an early James Brown or Parliament-Funkadelic record after a lifetime of listening only to hip hop. It’s astonishing how familiar everything feels because seemingly every riff, every idea, and beat has been so thoroughly internalized and recycled by the army of entertainment it inspired.
The mile-wide grooves of Parliament-Funkadelic and the agitated, persistent funk of James Brown formed the rock-solid foundation of hip-hop, particularly in its early days and golden age. The spirit of Better Off Dead can be felt, meanwhile, in the comedy that Sean and Hayes of Hollywood Handbook mockingly refer to as “rando.” It’s a stoned, casually surreal sensibility that pervades the lineup of Adult Swim and other proud Cartoon Network mind-benders as well as Tim & Eric and a number of popular Old Spice commercials and movies like Wet Hot American Summer.
At its core, rando is the comedy of randomness, of crazy, unexpected or surreal juxtapositions and wild, left-field pop-culture references and oddball running jokes. It’s comedy so weird and particular that it at times calls into question the very nature of comedy. This type of comedy implicitly asks, Is this funny? Is this even comedy? Does this makes you laugh, and if so why? Do you even understand the mechanisms at play? Do we? And should a silly comedy really be asking so many rhetorical questions? Isn’t it kind of pretentious? I mean, at most, a silly 1980s teen comedy like Better Off Dead should ask one or two questions about the essence and true nature of comedy. Anything more than that is showboating and deeply unbecoming.
It’s reductive but not entirely inaccurate to think of Better Off Dead as a suburban 1980s teenybopper version of Harold & Maude but with more radical skiing action and Booger from the Revenge Of The Nerds movies. It speaks to the film’s ingratiating weirdness that its central comic conceit – that protagonist Lane Myer (John Cusack, back when that used to mean something) is so despondent after getting dumped by his popularity-obsessed girlfriend that he is forever attempting suicide, albeit in zany, non-triggering ways – actually qualifies as one of its more conventional and straightforward gags.
A more characteristic running gag has Lane continually being taunted by a pair of formally dressed Japanese men in an automobile, one of whom never talks and the other of whom talks exclusively in the exact cadence, tone and voice of Howard Cosell (and, in keeping with the exquisite 1985ness of the movie, is voiced by Rich Little). It’s the kind of gag that might get a modest chuckle on Family Guy, but here the context proves essential. In 1985, a joke that like that was startlingly fresh and original, a bizarre but inspired juxtaposition of the familiar and the literally and figuratively foreign.
Better Off Dead is powered less by a plot it understandably has little use for than a series of running gags that elegantly lope along in tandem like a herd of majestic comic antelopes. The most inspired, insane, and iconic gag features Lane being pursued with the relentlessness of Javert hunting Jean Valjean in Les Miserables by a demented paperboy who will stop at nothing to collect the two dollars Lane owes him, including showing up on his bike to race alongside Lane and Lane’s hated preppie rival in the film’s climactic ski-off.
Like Orson Welles and Tim Burton, “Savage” Steve Holland had the misfortune to make his masterpiece while he was still in his mid-20s. That means that everything that followed was doomed to be anti-climactic, and while yes, we all agree that Better Off Dead is a better movie, objectively, than Citizen Kane, the film has more in common with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which came out the same year.
Like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Better Off Dead is the work of someone adept at live-action and animation alike. Like Burton and Frank Tashlin before him, Holland brings an animator’s sense of infinite possibilities with him to the world of live-action. He knows that in the right hands, a live-action movie can do everything that an animated one can, including be animated at times. Accordingly, Better Off Dead doesn’t just focus on a sad sack who is forever drawing doodles, it also features two different kinds of animation. At one point Lane’s angsty doodles come alive through animation that is as modest as it is charming. At another, Lane, in his job as at the Pig Burger, fantasizes about being a mad scientist and creating a sentient hamburger that plays Van Halen on electric guitar. It’s a sequence that suggests what Ray Harryhausen’s work might have looked and felt like if Harryhausen was a stoned teenager in the mid-1980s.
Researching this piece, I was surprised to discover that Better Off Dead is semi-autobiographical. As a young man, a depressed Holland wrestled with suicidal impulses, but nothing in Better Off Dead feels like it’s rooted in anything resembling real life or the real world, let alone deep, intense personal pain. Sure, Better Off Dead feels deeply personal in a strange fashion, but it feels more like a feature-length doodle conceived by a bored but brilliant middle-schooler than an expression of personal anguish.
Better Off Dead has the curious quality of being at once intensely, wonderfully dated and ahead of its time. Its fashions, music, and tropes all scream “Reagan era!” but its warped comic sensibility at once hearkens back to the ingenious tomfoolery of classic Warner Brothers animation and anticipates the rando comedy that would follow in the decades to come.
Better Off Dead understands its own inveterate ridiculousness. The precociously gifted Holland seemed to realize at an early age that the present invariably looks ludicrous to the future (hell, it often even looks ridiculous at the present) and made his movie the most mid-1980s movie possible, although he is somewhat hamstrung on that account by a dispiriting absence of gratuitous breakdancing sequences or a score from Tangerine Dream or Harold Faltemayer.
It’s easy to mock the fashions of the past once time has rendered them hilariously dated and untimely but Better Off Dead is ahead of the curve in being so over-the-top timely that it can’t help but look like a tongue-in-cheek time capsule of the era that created it.
Better Off Dead has attracted a huge cult following over time but Cusack does not number among its fans. I suspect that’s partially because even at the height of his boyish charm and likability, Cusack is reduced to playing the straight man in a movie whose margins are electric with manic comic invention and brilliantly loopy running gags involving everything from Lane’s brother being an unspeaking genius capable of building rockets and luring scores of trashy women to his bedroom for sordid sexual purposes to everyone from the postman (the dear departed Taylor Negron) to a teacher (handsome Vincent Schiavelli) asking Lane for permission to ask out his ex-girlfriend after she dumps him.
Curtis Armstrong steals every scene he’s in as Charles De Mar, a “super-senior” who has been matriculating in high school for over seven years without coming close to experiencing the horror of graduation. De Mar is a bit of a Bluto type character who is obsessed with sensory derangement, but in a typically warped, weird, meta gag, he’s all about snorting and smoking things that aren’t actually drugs. Like so much in the film, this feels like a meta-commentary on teen movies with characters who were clearly written and designed to be stoners but are never shown actually using drugs, like Bill & Ted in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. As in Revenge Of The Nerds, Armstrong plays a geek who is aggressive and abrasive instead of shy and self-negating. He takes the energy geeks usually reserve for self-loathing and turns it on society as a whole.
Better Off Dead even helped me better appreciate the weird melancholy of Hot Tub Time Machine, which is a terrible movie if you’re looking for “laughs” or “characters you don’t despise with the heat and intensity of a thousand suns” but an oddly resonant motion picture if you look at it as a sad movie about broken, despondent baby-men obsessed with reclaiming their mid-80s swagger. Thinking about Cusack playing a variation on Lane in Hot Tub Time Machine just makes the whole thing even sadder.
It’s also sad that after making such an auspicious debut while still in his mid-20s, Holland ended up working in children’s television as a writer and director, with credits like Safety Patrol and the direct-to-video Legally Blonde spin-off Legally Blondes to his credit. Holland did create the popular cartoon Eek The Cat! however, so Better Off Dead is not his only claim to fame.
I’d like to think that now that the comedy world has caught up with Holland and his anarchic vision, the time is right for him to make another personal movie in the vein of Better Off Dead. If Holland were to create a Kickstarter to fund Better Off Dead 2: Even Deader I would happily kick in a whopping two dollars, and I know a whole bunch of people whose sense of humor was agreeably warped by childhood viewings of this oddly prescient, lasting comedy would do so as well.