Who's Laughing Now?

When good comedians go bad

When I was growing up, I could never understand why baby boomers were always insisting that Steve Allen used to be funny and cool. It was hard to imagine: the old guy with the giant glasses and the none-too-convincing rug, who was always showing up on talk shows to brag about how many songs he wrote in the bathtub? He seemed only slightly less tedious than, well, his baby boomer apologists.

And now, lo these many years later, I find myself in the unhappy position of trying to explain to you snot-nosed punks that the comic heroes of my youth did not always suck. Hard as it may be to believe, once upon a time guys like Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks made movies that weren't just not-shitty, they were actually great. Honest! With vulgar, hysterical, hysterically vulgar movies like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks had audiences laughing themselves purple. Steve Martin was a supernaturally gifted actor/comedian whose range extended from the giddy, almost balletic slapstick of The Jerk to the gutter-faced tragedy of the underrated Pennies From Heaven. For almost a quarter century, Woody Allen managed to be formally daring, hilarious and emotionally incisive all at once, while Albert Brooks was arguably the greatest screen grump since W.C. Fields.

So what the hell happened to these guys? To be blunt, they all got old. Don't get me wrong—getting old does not automatically lead to feebleness and irrelevance. Some old folks never give up raging, raging against the dying of the light, and they manage to stay vital and interesting all their lives. (Picasso, for instance, was a brilliant prick until the very end.) But most of us aren't that tough, and the decades pound us down relentlessly until we're like those stones you find in a riverbed, round and dull and covered with a grimy film.

With each of the former comic geniuses under discussion here, you can chart to the film—sometimes almost to the scene—when their powers really began to fail them. Sure, they'd always had their misfires, but then there came that moment when you looked at the screen and thought, "Uh-oh. This isn't just a bad day we're talking about here."

With Allen, I'd say it was the astonishingly self-important, self-indulgent Shadows and Fog, featuring a gallery of A-list stars wandering around a Brecht-ian Europe and spouting the kind of dippy philosophical pontifications you'd expect from a dorm room full of stoned college kids; with Mel Brooks, the dividing line was the unfocused and tragically unamusing History of the World: Part One, while Albert Brooks' The Muse felt like a middling sitcom stretched to fill an entire evening. You knew they were still trying, but that just made their increasingly awful movies that much sadder. By the time Mel Brooks got to Robin Hood: Men in Tights, you wanted to drive to his mansion, get down on one knee and beg him to retire. Martin, meanwhile, stands apart from these other guys because he didn't just get old, he willfully turned his back on his comic gifts. He decided to suck.

Martin had his last truly great screen moment in 1986's Little Shop of Horrors, as the sadistic rockabilly dentist Orwin Scrivello. Scrivello was equal parts Lux Interior and Freddy Krueger, his greasy spit curl snapping through the air like a domme's whip as he drilled craters into the molars of a distressingly enthusiastic Bill Murray. (Now there's a gent who knows how to stay golden into his golden years.) Martin's performance went recklessly, wonderfully over the top, and he was never that interesting again. In the late '80s Martin transformed himself into a clock-punching leading man, and ever since he's portrayed humdrum dads, harried businessmen and humdrum, harried businessman dads in one lucrative but bottomlessly unimaginative comedy after another. With a movie like Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks is at least still trying, however clumsily, to stir up the shit. Martin, on the other hand, hasn't risked offending anybody for 20 solid years now. He is the utter opposite of the "wild and crazy guy" whose every Saturday Night Live appearance was once an event.

Like those pitiful baby boomers fixated on Steve Allen, I just can't quite let go of my fandom for the comedians I grew up loving, no matter how many times they disappoint me. Fortunately, you young punks won't have to suffer my fate and spend the rest of your lives watching the sad decline of your favorite comedians. After all, most of today's comic superstars—your Martin Lawrences, your Jimmy Fallons, etc.—are incapable of sucking any more than they already do. There's something to be said for starting at the bottom.

 
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