Thursday, July 12, 2018

Reserved Seating: Our Favorite Comedy

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who hasn’t laughed since 1992.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week, we’re going to each discuss our personal favorite film comedy. Rob, before we get into that, do you like the comedy genre usually? Is there a style that’s common in the comedies you love?

Rob: I enjoy comedies generally, though I find that the range of comedy titles I revisit and explore is much narrower than the range of other film genres. I’ll give anything with spaceships or serial killers a chance (and almost always find something to enjoy in them), but comedy is so dependent on personal sensibilities and pathos that I find myself sticking to the stuff I love rather than looking for lots of new things. I can count on Clue, Superbad, A Fish Called Wanda, Annie Hall, Hot Fuzz, etc., so I’m rarely tempted by stuff like The House or Father Figures. It feels risky, which I know sounds kind of odd. I also know that I’m missing out on a ton of great stuff because of this attitude, but it’s hard to help the fact that we watch comedies to laugh, and I like laughing! It seems that comedies and horror films are the two specific genres with the most to prove to the audience: make us laugh or scare us. I’m generalizing, of course. But it makes a difference.
I’m drawn most to the absurd, and I blame that almost entirely on Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which I’ve already named as my favorite comedy). Anything that plays with conventions or pokes fun at social structure is usually my deal. It’s not that everything has to be “smart” comedy, but a well-written and well-performed comedy script tells me a lot more about the people making it than generic skit-based romps. That extends to formal elements, as well: “Every Frame A Painting” has a great video essay about how Edgar Wright is one of the few modern directors who actually uses the frame and the edit to make us laugh, while many others simply cut together improv in medium close-up. The same goes for sound and soundtracks. Invention is important. That makes a difference, too, and it’s another reason why I’m less likely to explore new stuff once I get into a rhythm with a team I like.

How about you?

Adam: On the podcast, Patrick once mentioned Billy Madison as a comedy that feels like it’s getting away with something. Those tend to be my favorites. Overall, I’m not a big fan of comedy as a genre because there are so many I don’t find funny or, even worse, aren’t funny and don’t work as a story, either. I agree with you that the absurd is what I gravitate to the most. I’d rather see a cast shed their vanity and do anything to make me laugh than for a lead to have a cool guy persona he or she needs to uphold. The weird thing about comedy though is there’s no exact formula. One that defies what I just said might be better than one that adheres to it.

My favorite comedy was difficult to decide. I was torn between a few: White Men Can’t Jump, Kingpin, Ed Wood, Bridesmaids, Happy Gilmore, American Pie, and The 40-Year Old Virgin. The one that stood out most was John LandisComing to America. That film combines the absurd with the sincere and does it with a familiar fairy tale structure. Unlike a lot of modern comedies, the jokes are held together with a tried-and-true template that could fit a gender reversed Audrey Hepburn movie and it has production values (e.g. costumes, set design, makeup) where it’s obvious that the filmmakers gave a shit about the movie working as a complete experience and not merely a vehicle to deliver laughs. It feels old-fashioned, but also modern to 1988.
Nearly everyone in Coming to America is funny in different ways. Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem is funny because he’s naively endearing, but then Murphy creates another character like Randy Watson (lead singer of Sexual Chocolate) who is funny because he’s entirely vain. Arsenio Hall is great, also playing several characters. My favorite is when he’s dressed in drag and propositioning Murphy and himself for a threesome causing Hall (as Simi) to do a terrific meta spit take. Murphy’s mugging facial reactions in that scene are unbelievable. With every viewing of Coming to America, I notice a different performer killing it comedically. Most recently, I was laughing the hardest from John Amos’ performance as the owner of McDowell’s. It’s little things he does that really sell it. For example, when Amos is showing Murphy and Hall how to mop the floor and then he excuses the dude at the grill so he can flip over a handful of burgers. This move is great because it shows Amos taking such pride in an entirely tacky and shameless enterprise. That juxtaposition is all over this movie. Another example is after Akeem and Lisa (Shari Headley) kiss on their first date and we see Akeem scream singing the song they kissed to in the streets of Queens. It’s sweet because Murphy is just playing it as a guy on cloud nine/falling in love, but at the same time everyone in the background is cartoonishly shouting at him to shut the fuck up. The silliness of Coming to America is what draws me to the movie, but the sweetness of the film is what keeps me wanting to revisit it when the end credits roll. It’s a rare film where I laugh at the same things every time I watch it, mostly because I just love the characters so much.

Rob, what do you think of Coming to America and what did you choose as your pick?

Rob: It’s a movie I hadn’t rewatched in a long time, so I was really excited when you told me it was your pick. It’s such a wonderful example of a goofy concept played honestly, and it has the kind of integrity that helps it stay fresh thirty years later. As much as I remember loving the movie, I was sure that revisiting it in 2018 would expose some #Problematic issues, but as you said, it’s such a sweet and well-intentioned production that it never punches down or falls victim to the kind of snarky or raunchy stuff it could have easily gotten away with if it wanted to. The drag scene you mentioned is just there to pay off the longer “Murphy and Hall are multiple characters” gag, and Eriq La Salle’s rival love interest character isn’t that bad a guy. Even the “New York City is a shithole” trope from so many contemporary movies is played with and ultimately redeemed by the end. It’s an example of that silly/smart blend that few comedies pull off: The fish-out-of-water stuff on the surface is coupled with the juxtaposition of American/Zamundan cultures underneath, which leads some real progressive statements about masculinity juxtaposed with “The royal penis is clean, your highness,” which is still one of my all-time favorite jokes.
My pick is Jonathan Lynn’s My Cousin Vinny, which I’ve mentioned as a favorite a few times on the site already. I want to be careful here because I know Patrick thinks it’s the worst movie ever made, but it’s such a crucial and formative part of my upbringing that it felt like the right choice for this column. It’s the same kind of warm blanket for me that it sounds like Coming to America is for you. I know every beat and every line of Dale Launer’s screenplay by heart, and while many people my age have fond memories of Goodfellas or Home Alone, My Cousin Vinny is always the first movie I think of when anyone mentions Joe Pesci. I think he, Marisa Tomei, and Fred Gwynne are giving career-best performances here, and there are great courtroom dramatics, to boot. That part is especially important, I think, because it pays off Pesci’s New York Street Smart character; it’s not about him adapting to Louisiana, it’s about him proving himself as a lawyer in any state. Randy Edelman’s score still gets stuck in my head all the time, and my lifelong hope is that someone will write a symphony dedicated to Tomei’s wardrobe.

What are your thoughts on My Cousin Vinny?

Adam: I absolutely adore My Cousin Vinny. It was love at first sight when I saw it in theaters after baseball practice one Friday night in April 1992. Since then, I have probably seen the movie twenty times. Like Coming to America, the movie works even better because in addition to being very funny, it’s a great courtroom movie. Even lawyers say so (look it up). They praise its sequences about expert witnesses and cross examinations. The performances you mentioned are all terrific, but to me the movie will always be the Marisa Tomei show and that’s no knock on Pesci or the rest of the cast. It’s just that Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny is a supernova. Even when I was 9, I was like “I want that one!” She is so damn good in this movie: funny, sassy, sweet, smart, attractive. I never understood why she was in a relationship with Joe Pesci (just because of the age difference), but it doesn’t matter by the time he says, “You stick out like a sore thumb around here” and she replies “Oh yeah! You blend.” I’m laughing even typing that. They are a great movie couple. I also love My Cousin Vinny because it taught me things that I have retained my entire life such as the art of making grits. I really like the supporting cast, too. There are many character actor favorites like Maury Chaykin, Lane Smith, Bruce McGill, James Rebhorn, and Austin Pendleton peppering every scene. It’s a great comedy and I only didn’t mention it as a favorite of mine because I knew it was your choice for this column. I miss the ‘90s when comedies like this were more commonplace. Now we have Tag.
Rob: The disparity between Pesci and Tomei used to confuse me, too, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to justify it because, like you said, they spar so well. She probably had all the pretty boys she could get her hands on when she was young, but then she discovered that only Vinny could keep up with her wit and intellect. It was an early example of a realistic “adult relationship” for me, one with lots of little nagging issues (“My biological clock…”) but one in which you knew both of them truly wanted — not needed, but wanted — the other. It’s a pitch perfect movie, for me, not a scene is wasted and not a joke misses.

Adam: I love when Vinny intentionally gets held in contempt of court just so he can get a good night of sleep. That running joke is terrific.

Rob: It’s funny that we both chose movies about characters adapting to new cultures and helping change them for the better. I guess it’s just our jam.

Adam: We’re great people, apparently. I can dig it.

Ok, now some topical discussion about comedy in 2018. I think it’s in a weird transition phase right now. The end of the Judd Apatow man-child era (era) seems to have been due for the past five years (I like some of those movies, but enough already) and we seem to be waiting on a new comedy star to chart the path. If you had to take a wild guess, what type of comedic persona would hit the most nowadays? I’m thinking it would have to be someone less ironic (almost slapstick or farce that makes you laugh without being in your head), more inclusive and not as navel gazing. Also, what do you prefer - comedic actors stretching into dramas or dramatic actors taking a shot acting in a comedy? Based solely on Saturday Night Live, I find the dramatic actor guest hosts to be a lot better than the comedians because they don’t act like they know they’re in a comedy.
Rob: To answer your second question, I want to say dramatic actors shooting for comedy, but there’s that old adage about comedy being a lot harder than drama, and I’ve found that I’ve enjoyed stuff like Punch-Drunk Love, Lost in Translation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind more than comparable movies with dramatic stars. Also, I know those three are still comedies, but you all understand what I mean.

The first question is really interesting. I agree that comedy in general is in a transition phase and that low blows and gross-out stuff isn’t going to play as mainstream in our more inclusive culture. I feel like we’ve had enough deconstruction and postmodernism for now, too. The trouble is that the cultural divide is so pronounced that I’m honestly not sure what will play in Middle America (to use a generic and somewhat pejorative term for a place that probably doesn’t exist, at this point) anymore. Are we beyond any kind of stable comedy character archetype? The Will Ferrell/Chevy Chase rebellious schlub feels tone deaf and unsympathetic. The Robert Downey, Jr. cocky genius thing is getting a little old, too. Maybe ensembles will make a comeback; Girls Trip was a big hit, right? The problem with comedy is that it should always have an anarchistic quality to it, and anarchy is the last thing we need right now. It’s not cool to DGAF anymore. We all GAF.
Adam: I think you can be anarchistic in comedy, but it might have to be the Jackass variety, where the harm is inflicted on yourself or other willing participants. I had an idea for a Girls Trip sequel last year that I think would be amazing: put them in the Dark Universe. That shared universe fell flat on its face, so why not go straight to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein with The Invisible Man pissing himself on a zip line?

Rob: Oh, man. Can you imagine Dracula trying to seduce Tiffany Haddish? I just did. What should we talk about next week?

Adam: BASEBALL! We’re going to tackle another Kevin Costner diamond epic, For Love of the Game. Between my boy Kev and Kelly Preston...I’m already swooning.

Rob: Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. One of the best things about My Cousin Vinny is, believe it or not, it's legal accuracy. By far and away one of the most accurate movies in terms of trial procedure and techniques. It's actually a go to movie for law professors to use in class.