Merry Movie Mayhem – The Sweet Sixteen (Part 2)

The original goal was to wrap things up here by Christmas Eve, but that’s just not going to happen. C’est la vie. Best laid plans, etc. & so forth. I’m fine with that for a couple of reasons. First, the holiday season isn’t over until after the New Year, and if you really want to kick it old school the Twelve Days of Christmas don’t end until January 5. Secondly, I always kind of hate that Christmas night feeling when all the hoopla, hubbub, rigmarole, & hullabaloo of the past several weeks is just all the sudden over. The gifts have been unwrapped, the food has been eaten, families have returned to their own homes, radio stations stop playing carols, & these Christmas movies we love that have been a constant presence for the last month (or two) disappear as TV stations return to their normal programming. So why not extend that Christmas spirit just a little longer?? If you haven’t had time to check out Part 1 of the Sweet 16 please take a few moments to do so, and when you’re done come back here for semi-final action in the Mistletoe and Candy Cane divisions.

 

 

 

 

 

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation             vs.              Elf

I like to laugh. As far as movies (and television) go I have always preferred comedy to drama, action, & horror. So when my love of laughter is combined with an obvious passion for Christmas…well, that’s very cool. Christmas Vacation is the third in a series of movies starring Chevy Chase as the affable patriarch of the Griswold clan of Chicago. In this film they don’t actually go on vacation…instead they invite extended family into their home for a holiday season where everything goes hysterically wrong. But it’s not Clark Griswold who’s the real star of the movie. That honor goes to Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, a dimwitted country bumpkin who we first met in the original Vacation in 1983. Eddie, his wife Catherine, & two of their kids pop in on the Griswolds for a surprise visit, and in the process take Christmas Vacation to a whole new level of hilarity. Most of the best moments either belong to Cousin Eddie or involve others (mainly Clark) reacting to him. 2003’s Elf is a classic fish-out-of-water story, with much of the humor derived from Buddy the Elf trying to figure out how to interact with regular humans and being a bit overwhelmed by New York City. Elves are usually secondary characters in Christmas films, but Will Ferrell as Buddy carries Elf. I’m no expert on all the ways that a director shapes & defines a movie, but I will make an educated assumption that Jon Favreau deserves much of the credit for a flawless tone that almost feels a little retro. Even if a person doesn’t particularly enjoy Ferrell’s vibe in other films I can’t imagine many really disliking Elf.

 

The Verdict:       Christmas Vacation. It’s amazing how well Christmas Vacation has aged nearly three decades after its theatrical release. The humor has stood the test of time, although it’s more entertainment comfort food nowadays than laugh-out-loud amusement. That’s what happens when the masses have watched a movie dozens of times and can quote almost every scene verbatim. Elf is heading down the same path (perhaps it’s there already), but Christmas Vacation has been around longer and has a stronger pedigree.

 

 

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer                        vs.              Scrooge (1951)

Santa Claus is pretty cool all by himself, but over the years little bits & flourishes have been added to the legend, in the process creating a richly layered mythos right up there with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, George Lucas’ Star Wars Galaxy, & CS Lewis’ Narnia. In 1823 Clement Clark Moore, in his poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, made reference to eight reindeer…Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, & Blitzen. It wasn’t until a century later that an ad campaign from Montgomery Ward added a ninth reindeer to the group, and after a song, TV special, & countless other appearances in every form of media Rudolph really has become the most famous reindeer of all. The 1964 stop motion animated television special truly is a classic and is still aired annually more than a half century after it premiered. That’s some kind of staying power. 1951’s A Christmas Carol adaptation…simply called Scrooge…is celebrated by many as the best of the numerous versions of Dickens’ story. Its tone is appropriately dark, and Alastair Sim’s performance stands out as one of the greatest interpretations of Ebenezer Scrooge on film. He has a…unique…face, and uses it quite effectively in conveying the old miser’s evolution throughout the story. Of all the Carol movies, this is considered by most to be the standard that all others should be judged against.

 

The Verdict:       Rudolph. Here is the issue one runs into with the various A Christmas Carol movies: there’s just so many of them, and none strictly follow the book. They all add, subtract, & alter small details and/or significant plot points. Scrooge adds a character named Mr. Jorkins, a nefarious businessman largely responsible for leading Ebenezer down a greedy path, and creates a subplot in which Scrooge’s father resented him because his wife (Ebenezer’s mother) died in childbirth, and then Scrooge comes to bear a grudge toward his nephew because the boy’s mother (Scrooge’s sister) died the same way. I understand creative license and the idea of “fleshing out” a story, but I just don’t think it’s necessary when it comes to A Christmas Carol. And it’s not only major narratives…it’s small details. For example, in the book Scrooge’s fiancé is named Belle, but in this film she is called Alice. Why?? Why change something like that?? It’s completely pointless. Conversely, Rudolph actually makes direct references to the original story & song. The “film” fleshes out those things, but in a good way. We have fancier technology now than they did in the 60’s, but there’s just something about that quirky old animation that still provides the warm fuzzies. The music is fun, the characters are great, & the story is timeless.

 

 

 

 

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)               vs.              The Ref

A movie about the commercialization of Christmas is par for the course in the 21st century, but seventy years ago I assume it was rather edgy. Add to that a cynical single mother and a Santa Claus who ends up in a courtroom to prove his identity & defend his sanity, and all the sudden what we look at as a nostalgic trip down memory lane becomes something much more interesting. Speaking of edgy & cynical, The Ref has a lot to say about life. Listen to the dialogue. Really pay attention when watching The Ref. Yes, it is funny. The cast is perfect and the situation is amusing & silly. But what appealed to me the first time I ever watched it and why I’m still fond of it over two decades later is the writing. Compare The Ref to something like Christmas with the Kranks, and it’s like putting a Picasso on the wall next to a toddler’s finger painting. It may be a little too acerbic for the masses, especially at Christmastime when everyone expects their cockles to be warmed, which might explain why it’s never quite achieved the level of popularity that dictates heavy rotation on TV throughout November & December…and that’s a shame.

 

The Verdict:       Miracle on 34th Street. As much as I love The Ref I have to be truthful in my assessment. It is the offensive lineman of Christmas movies. It’ll never receive the glory or adoration of the crowd. It will never be part of Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas or be shown on TCM or AMC. The Ref can only be seen down in the trenches, and if one wants to recognize its greatness & appreciate its humor you’ll have to purposely seek it out. But I promise that if you make that effort it will be worth the time. Conversely, Miracle is on the Mount Rushmore of Christmas movies. Everyone has seen it, and everyone loves it. It may not be on television daily each December, but it’s on just enough that we continue to admire it with little risk of backlash or fatigue. Natalie Wood gets all the attention, not only because everybody digs precocious children, but also due to her fame as an adult and…sadly…in part because of her untimely demise and the mystery surrounding it. However, I really enjoy John Payne as the eager & sincere attorney Mr. Gailey, Maureen O’Hara as the jaded single mother Mrs. Walker, & Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, a role for which he won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.

 

 

 

Home Alone                vs.              How the Grinch Stole Christmas        

MacCaulay Culkin got noticed for his role in Uncle Buck, became a pop culture sensation after Home Alone, and eventually flamed out like so many child actors do when they can’t bank on their cuteness any longer. But unlike so many other child stars he gets an annual opportunity to go back in time for a few weeks every holiday season and become that mischievous little boy that everyone roots for. A tip of the cap also to Joe Pesci & Daniel Stern, because The Wet Bandits provide hilarious adversaries for that small boy. Many have overanalyzed the cartoonish violence near the film’s climax, and in the hypersensitive bubble that we now reside in some are critical of it, but I’ll always fondly recall my then grade school aged nephew & I laughing so hard we were crying when he stayed with me once and we ate pizza & watched Home Alone. The Grinch is mostly a vehicle for Dr. Seuss’ curious turns of phrase (what exactly are tar-tinkers & sloo-slunkers?), and I’m sure fifty years ago landing Boris Karloff to narrate the story was a huge coup. However, when one really pays attention what you’ll discover, more than catchy music or clever rhymes, is a tale of profound significance, and how often can one say that about a thirty minute children’s cartoon??

 

The Verdict:       The Grinch. I love Home Alone, but let’s be honest…it doesn’t age particularly well or hold up to thoughtful ponderation. I’m not a fan of paralysis by analysis, but the entire premise of Home Alone is amusingly far-fetched and there are little plot holes here & there. The biggest issue though is that less than three decades later it just could not happen. Post-9/11 there is zero chance the family could get thru an airport that rapidly, and the kid would have a laptop and/or smartphone with internet access & a social media presence that’d allow Mom & Dad to check on him before they ever got off the plane. I am well aware that I am picking nits here, but I’m also absolutely right. Conversely, The Grinch doesn’t take place within the confines of the real world, and that allows it to be eternal. I am not a fan of the live action Jim Carrey movie, but it is my understanding that 2018 will bring a computer animated film adaptation featuring the vocal talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, and I am open to giving that a whirl.

Merry Movie Mayhem: Candy Cane (Round 1)

Welcome to Round 1 of Merry Movie Mayhem!! Over the next few weeks we will be looking at 64 of the most notable holiday films & TV specials. Obviously Christmas is the focus of this particular genre, but there have been some prominent stories told about Thanksgiving & Hanukkah, so I am including them as well to round out the field. Most of what you’ll see here is pretty familiar…stuff you’ve watched on TV every November & December your whole life. While that may be an indictment of modern creativity, it is also a testament to the enduring affection that fans have for quality entertainment that soothes the soul, tickles the funny bone, & warms our cockles in a season that encompasses a range of emotions from joy to sorrow to wistful nostalgia. Don’t hesitate to leave feedback. The statements & decisions you’ll see here reflect my preferences & sensibilities, but sometimes I’m wrong. I would love to know what The Manoverse enjoys, so share your thoughts!! We’ll kick off the competition with the Candy Cane Division. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Released                                           5/2/47

Starring                                              Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, Natalie Wood           

Director                                              George Seaton (Airport)

Rotten Tomatoes                              94%

A cynical retail executive & her precocious daughter befriend the department store Santa that Mom hired. It turns out that Kris Kringle believes he is the REAL Santa Claus, a claim that lands him in court, where he is defended by a lawyer who is also smitten with the jaded Mom.

 

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Silent Night, Deadly Night

Released                                           11/9/84

Starring                                              no one you’ve ever heard of         

Director                                              Charles E. Sellier Jr.

Rotten Tomatoes                              31%

Holidays have been horror movie fodder for decades, with deranged serial killers stalking their prey on Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, et al. Christmas hasn’t escaped, though the sacred nature of the occasion makes such a film a tricky proposition. This campy classic finds a young boy witnessing the murder of his parents by a thief dressed as Santa Claus. After growing up in a harsh orphanage the youngster becomes a homicidal maniac when he gets a job as a department store Santa. There were a few sequels made in which the younger brother also becomes a psycho Santa, but I’ve only seen bits & pieces of a couple of them. I remember the original mainly because our church youth group once watched it at a gathering at Christmastime. Wrap your head around that.

 

The Verdict:       Miracle on 34th Street. Easy decision. I’m not really a horror movie guy, but even if I was it’s difficult to overlook the awesomeness of Miracle.

 

 

 

Home Alone

Released                                           11/16/90

Starring                                              Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern        

Director                                              Chris Columbus (Only the Lonely, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

Rotten Tomatoes                              55%

A mischievous child is accidentally left behind in Chicago while his family jets off to a holiday getaway in Paris. The boy is then faced with having to defend his house on Christmas Eve against two inept crooks who are looting the entire neighborhood while everyone is out of town. There was a sequel made a couple of years later that is pretty good and will be a part of this project, and then a couple of other “sequels” that may retain the title but have none of the magic of their predecessors.

 

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Mixed Nuts

Released                                           12/21/94

Starring                                              Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Rita Wilson, Adam Sandler    

Director                                              Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail)

Rotten Tomatoes                              7%

An all-star cast makes this blip on the pop culture radar somewhat memorable. The story revolves around employees of a suicide hotline that’s about to go under right at Christmastime. There are a lot of interconnecting storylines in a madcap adventure that…on paper…should work, especially given the amount of talent involved. Unfortunately it’s a hot mess and has appeared on various Worst Movies Ever lists.

 

The Verdict:       Home Alone. A no-brainer. I assume I’m not alone in adoring the work of many of those involved with Mixed Nuts, but all of those ingredients thrown together inexplicably results in something that I suppose has fans somewhere, but they are surely few & far between. Conversely, Home Alone has become a beloved Christmas tradition.

 

 

 

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Released                                           12/18/66

Starring                                              Boris Karloff, Thurl Ravenscroft   

Director                                              Chuck Jones

Rotten Tomatoes                              100%

Dr. Seuss wrote Grinch in 1957, and a decade later it was turned into a 30 minute animated special featuring the voice talents of horror icon Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscoft, known better as the original voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. The story is about a bitter cave dwelling creature who hates Christmas and decides to “steal” it from the delightfully optimistic & cheerful villagers in Whoville. We’ve been watching The Grinch every holiday season for over a half century, and it is adored by multiple generations. A live action film was made in 2000 starring Jim Carey as the titular character, and while I am aware that it has its fans I do not count myself among them. I’ll stick with the treasured original.

 

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Christmas Every Day

Released                                           12/1/96

Starring                                              Erik Von Detten, Robert Hays      

Director                                              Larry Peerce (The Other Side of the Mountain)

Rotten Tomatoes                              40% (a)

This was a made-for-television film shown on The Family Channel (aka ABC Family, now known as Freeform). I’m not typically a fan of made-for-TV movies. The production values are usually subpar and the writing isn’t always that good. Hallmark shows a ton of Christmas films every December that are mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable, and Freeform, thru its many incarnations, has made contributions to the sub-genre. This movie is one of the few examples of such entertainment that has tickled my fancy and remains on my radar. The story revolves around a bratty teenage boy who relives the same Christmas over & over until he gets it right. Essentially it is a Christmas version of Groundhog Day, sans the talent of Billy Murray & Harold Ramis. I’m not sure why I like it, but I do.

 

The Verdict:       The Grinch. Another easy decision.

 

 

 

The Ref    

Released                                           3/9/94

Starring                                             Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, Glynis Johns           

Director                                             Ted Demme  (Blow)

Rotten Tomatoes                              71%

A thief on the run on Christmas Eve kidnaps a bickering couple and hides in their house while cops comb the town looking for him. Things are further complicated when the couple’s delinquent son comes home from military school and the dysfunctional extended family drops by for dinner. Kevin Spacey is phenomenal in almost everything he does, and standup comic turned actor Denis Leary is perfectly cast as the acerbic criminal. In contrast to Mixed Nuts the cast of The Ref takes an otherwise pedestrian script and spins it into comic gold.

 

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Fred Claus

Released                                           11/9/07

Starring                                              Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks           

Director                                              David Dobkin            (Wedding Crashers)

Rotten Tomatoes                              21%

Vince Vaughn stars as Fred, the slacker brother of Santa. When Fred runs into money problems his brother agrees to bail him out only if he pops up to the North Pole to help during the Christmas rush. Hilarity ensues. The conceit here is that Santa, because he is a saint, has been able to make his family ageless, so there is a time travel element that is sort of cool though sadly glossed over. Paul Giamatti is one of my favorite actors, and he puts a unique spin on a character that has been portrayed numerous ways in countless movies. Vaughn plays the same loveable loser that he portrays in almost all of his films, but that’s alright because it’s a formula that seems to work for him. Critics despise Fred Claus, and it didn’t do that great at the box office, but it is a pleasant enough diversion on a cold winter’s night.

 

The Verdict:       The Ref. There is a really funny scene in Fred Claus involving Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, & Stephen Baldwin, all guys with brothers more famous than them. Outside of that Fred Claus is a rom-com wannabe that just doesn’t stick to one’s ribs, although it isn’t nearly as terrible as you might have heard. The charms of Vaughn & Giamatti are considerable, though not quite enough to make the movie anything close to memorable. Conversely, The Ref is an underrated gem that deserves to be shown on TV a plethora of times every December, but it’s never quite achieved that level of popularity.

 

 

 

A Christmas Carol (1938) 

Released                                           12/16/38                                                        

Starring                                              Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart

 

Director                                              Edwin L. Marin

Rotten Tomatoes                              100%

There is no shortage of A Christmas Carol adaptations out there, and we’re going to be discussing several of them. The 1938 version is a jovial take on Dickens’ novella that omits some of the more macabre aspects of the story and takes other liberties in altering or expanding the plot. I’m not a huge fan of needlessly changing a book’s narrative for the film, but I must admit that this one works.

 

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Bad Santa

Released                                           11/26/03

Starring                                              Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham

Director                                              Terry Zwigoff

Rotten Tomatoes                              78%

Department store Santas provide a convenient jumping off point for Christmas movies, and this one puts a…unique…spin on that particular element. Reflecting a 21st century move toward defining vulgarity as funny, the Santa Claus here is a hard-drinking, profanity spewing horndog who also happens to be a thief. He & his partner-in-crime, a “little person” who can conveniently portray Santa’s elf, are using the holiday season to case a shopping mall that they plan to rob on Christmas Eve. Things get complicated when Santa gets a girlfriend and befriends a strange young boy. Critics…surprisingly…really like the film and Billy Bob Thornton was even nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. I know there are those that absolutely love Bad Santa and laugh hysterically at every F-Bomb. I don’t consider myself a prude by any stretch, but I do try to be a Godly man and also pride myself on having a somewhat sophisticated entertainment palate. This movie is targeted toward teenagers & 20-somethings with a serious case of arrested development. A sequel was made in 2016, and it’s equally as….ehhhh…let’s just be nice and say neither film really frosts my cupcake.

 

The Verdict:       A Christmas Carol. This is purely a personal choice for me. If you love Bad Santa I won’t judge you, and if you dislike this particular version of A Christmas Carol I completely understand & might even agree with some of your reasoning. That being said, if I’m flipping thru the channels on a lazy Saturday in December and both of these movies are on TV I know which one I’d choose to watch.

 

 

 

Scrooged

Released                                           11/23/88

Starring                                              Bill Murray    

Director                                              Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon franchise)

Rotten Tomatoes                              68%

I was a little late to the party when it comes to Scrooged, having not ever watched it until atleast a decade & a half after its release. It is a modern, strange, yet oddly faithful retelling of the Dickens tale, with Bill Murray as a greedy television executive who is verbally abusive to his employees and still pines for a lost love. It has become a cult classic that’s not necessarily thought of as being on the same level as other holiday favorites, but three decades after its release it is still shown on television annually and seems to have grown in reputation in the past several years.

 

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Love the Coopers

Released                                           11/13/15

Starring                                              Marisa Tomei, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Diane Keaton

Director                                              Jessie Nelson

Rotten Tomatoes                              19%

There seems to be a growing trend in the holiday movie genre of putting together a large cast of well-known and highly regarded performers in a story that usually revolves around family angst. I get along great with my nuclear family as well as other relatives like aunts, uncles, & cousins, so I can’t really relate to such anxiety. Our Christmas gatherings are normally quite pleasant. However, I assume such dysfunction does actually exist. Love the Coopers is a newer entry into the mix, and though I really like the actors involved, at the end of the day it is a completely forgettable movie that I’m not sure I’d bother to watch again unless I was really bored.

 

The Verdict:       Scrooged. Citizens of The Manoverse will recall that I consider repeat viewings an essential indicator of a good film. If it’s being shown on television years after its initial theatrical run and if I’m still being entertained by it after I’ve seen it dozens of times then somebody somewhere did something right. Scrooged fits that description…the competition does not.

 

 

 

The Santa Clause 2: The Mrs. Clause        

Released                                           11/1/02

Starring                                              Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell        

Director                                              Michael Lembeck

Rotten Tomatoes                              54%

All three of Tim Allen’s Santa Clause movies are included in Merry Movie Mayhem, and I feel like this one gets shortchanged. You may have noticed that the original film and the third entry in the trilogy show up on TV often enough, but this second film is frequently skipped over. I read somewhere that the notion that Santa must find a wife to keep his job is considered by some to be old-fashioned or even misogynistic, which is utterly ridiculous logic. Elizabeth Mitchell, known by some for her work on the television show Lost, is radiant & enchanting. The biggest issue with The Mrs. Clause is that it came out eight years after its predecessor, which was probably 4 or 5 years too late.

 

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Home for the Holidays

Released                                           11/3/95

Starring                                              Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr. 

Director                                              Jodi Foster

Rotten Tomatoes                              62%

Dysfunctional family dramedy isn’t reserved for Christmas…families gather on Thanksgiving too. Another highly regarded ensemble cast is involved, which means that critics praised the film upon its release. It even has a well-known director, a rarity for the genre. I’m pretty sure Robert Downey Jr. was whacked out on cocaine throughout the film, and I find his manic display distracting. Two decades after its theatrical run I don’t feel like Home has really aged well, although it still pops up on TV occasionally around Thanksgiving.

 

The Verdict:       The Santa Clause 2. This matchup would likely generate a spirited debate among film buffs. Home for the Holidays certainly has the stronger cast and is admittedly well-written, but I’ve just never been able to embrace it. Conversely, there are those that consider The Mrs. Clause to be the weakest entry of that trilogy, and it does seem to get shafted as far as being shown on television, yet I find it completely charming.

 

 

 

Scrooge (1970)         

Released                                           11/5/70

Starring                                              Albert Finney, Sir Alec Guinness

Director                                              Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure)

Rotten Tomatoes                              75%

I generally prefer movies that stay true to the books they are based on, but I understand that when a story like A Christmas Carol is remade over & over people want to try something new and distinctive to stand out from the crowd. This version of Carol is a musical that is actually more faithful to the novella than one would think. It is a testament to the acting ability of Albert Finney that he was only 34 years old when he portrayed the elderly Ebenezer Scrooge, and he was rewarded with a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.

 

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Blackadder’s Christmas Carol

Released                                           12/23/88

Starring                                              Rowan Atkinson, Robbie Coltrane          

Director                                              Richard Boden

Rotten Tomatoes                              84% (a)

You probably haven’t seen it and may not have even heard of it. Blackadder is the titular character of a British television series that aired on the BBC in the 1980’s, with comedian Rowan Atkinson starring as Edmund Blackadder, an opportunistic descendant of an unspecified royal family. In this Christmas special Blackadder, in contrast to the traditional portrayal of Scrooge, is “the nicest man in England”, with the twist being that the ghost (there is only one…portrayed by Robbie Coltrane, better known today as Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) who visits him on Christmas Eve showing Blackadder that “bad guys have all the fun”, resulting in him waking up bitter, disillusioned, & meanspirited. I am not a huge fan of British humor, but Atkinson is hilarious and this bizarro world take on the familiar story is unexpected fun.

 

The Verdict:       Scrooge. This is a tough one, but I lean toward Scrooge a) due to its award winning pedigree, and b) because Blackadder is tough to find if you’re not really searching for it. Scrooge has shown up on American Movie Classics (or maybe it’s Turner Classic Movies) with some regularity over the years.

Superfluous 7 Favorite Stand-Up Comedians

My man Michael Wilbon recently posted a video commentary…for no apparent reason…on comedythe PTI Facebook page about his Top 10 stand-up comics. Because Wilbon, as erudite as he seems on TV, is subconsciously a militant black man and a throwback 60’s radical his list was, shall we say, just a little bit prejudiced. It wasn’t too terrible I suppose, but it had Wanda Sykes for God’s sake, a woman who is only mildly amusing at her best, while leaving off 2 or 3 certified comedy legends. My dismay with this absurd display of racially biased poppycock has inspired me to create my own ranking. I have made a concerted effort to eschew the kind of poor taste & obvious sociopolitical slant shown by Wilbon, but to be fair we are all a product of our background, bound to be influenced by the time & place in which we were raised and the things to which we were or were not exposed. I’m about 15 years younger than Wilbon, was raised in small town WV as opposed to Chicago, and watched way too much TV as a kid. I am a child of the 80’s (with fond memories of the late 70’s) and became an adult in the 90’s. I do think my rankings are better & more reasonable than the list that motivated this effort, but others may disagree. So be it.


comedy2In pondering this idea I had a lot of names pop into my head. It became necessary to create parameters. The focus here is on stand-up comedy…just a guy (or lady) on stage with a microphone in front of a live audience. Many of the best comedians have gone on to star in TV series or become movie stars. That’s fine, but that’s not what this is about. Jimmy Fallon may have once done stand-up comedy, but in my mind he is an SNL alum who went on to do a few forgettable films and now hosts the Tonight Show. Same deal with David Letterman. To me he is a talk show host that has been a centerpiece of late night television for ¾ of my life. At any rate, even with those self-imposed boundaries the list was overflowing, so we will begin with some Honorable Mentions that didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.

 

Honorable Mention

Tim Allen
His stand-up routines landed him a successful sitcom which he parlayed into a mediocre film career, so I think of him primarily as a comedic actor.

Billy Crystal
I LOVE Crystal, but to me he is an actor & awards show host.

Bob Newhart
His standup career was before my time. I remember him as the star of two of TV’s more underappreciated sitcoms.

Don Rickles
He’s funny, but his career trajectory plateaued before I was born.

Johnny Carson & Jay Leno
I know them primarily as two long time hosts of the Tonight Show.

Bob Hope
An undisputed legend, but one whose career peaked long before I was born and who I fondly recall as hosting the occasional variety show special on TV.

Steve Martin
I realize he was a revolutionary stand-up comic in the 70’s, but I know him mainly as a film actor and for his numerous appearances on SNL.

Garry Shandling
Funny, but not quite elite. I recall him as a frequent guest host on the Tonight Show and remember his first sitcom on Showtime in the late 80’s.

Buddy Hackett
He was before my time. I remember him mostly for his guest appearances on Carson’s Tonight Show in the 1980’s.

Sam Kinison
Sadly Kinison was gone far too soon, killed by a teenage drunk driver at the age of 38. Kinison was obnoxious, controversial, & often blasphemous, but he was funny. It would have been really interesting to see how he might have evolved. Would he have softened with age?? Would he have become a caricature of himself, still trying to be the loud, abrasive rebel even as an elder statesman of comedy?? Or would he have just flamed out & faded away once his shtick started to grow old?? We’ll never know, and that’s too bad.

Steven Wright
Wright’s deadpan delivery is unmistakable yet kind of defines him as a one trick pony. Amusing in small doses, but there is a reason he never became a huge star.

Ron White
I gave this spot to White over Jeff Foxworthy because I think he is funnier. His humor seems kind of restricted to a specific southern demographic, which is fine by me but limits his star power and accessibility to the masses.

Gallagher
You know & love him as the prop comedian who busts watermelons with a sledgehammer. It’s a gimmick that has narrowly defined his career for four decades.

Andrew Dice Clay
He’s funny & memorable enough to get a mention, but just too vulgar to be ranked amongst the best.

Andy Kaufman
It is difficult to describe exactly what Andy Kaufman did on stage. He was more of a performance artist than a traditional standup comedian. It seemed as if he was trying to entertain himself more than anyone else, and if that meant offending, annoying, & confusing the audience then that was just dandy. Kaufman is another artist that we lost far too early, as he succumbed to lung cancer at age 35. I remember him mostly as Latka Gravis on the sitcom Taxi, a role that he allegedly despised.

Redd Foxx
To me he is iconic junk king Fred G. Sanford from the 70’s sitcom Sanford & Son. However, before that role he had a long & successful career as a crude & profane stand-up comic. That was in the 50’s & 60’s though…way way way before my time, and in an era when profanity was actually shocking instead of the accepted norm.

 

Okay, so now that the honorable mentions are out of the way it’s time to move to the main attraction. To be honest I wish more of these guys worked “clean”, but it’s rare to find a comedian who does that nowadays. We live in an era in which F Bombs and sexual humor sells, so that’s what many do. It’s not my preference, but for the most part I think my choices would still be funny if they took the road less traveled instead of conforming to low worldly standards. At any rate, sit down, enjoy a cold beverage, and maybe chuckle, chortle, guffaw, & giggle as I present…..

 

 

 

From the home office in Happy, TX…..

 

 

 

My Superfluous 7 Favorite Stand-Up Comedians:

 

 

 

7 Eddie Murphy / Richard Pryor
murphyY’all should know by now, there will be ties. These guys are legends, with Pryor being the trailblazer who heavily influenced Murphy. Pryor’s stand-up career was en fuego in the 1970’s when I was just a baby. By the time I got to the age where I was consciously making entertainment choices and discovering what I enjoy Pryor, like so many others, had segued into acting. It is really interesting that a vast majority of comedians cite Richard Pryor as a huge influence. He really did make it look easy. His comedy was edgy & vulgar, yet accessible to the masses. Perhaps one of the most regrettable byproducts of Pryor’s legacy is that so many comics believe that peppering their act with a plethora of F-Bombs & other profanities is hysterically funny. I suppose it was humorous in a shocking kind of way when he did it, but now it’s just derivative & tedious. Murphy’s career has been all over the place, with a prominent chunk of the early 80’s spent as a cast member on SNL followed by a three pryordecade movie career with some hits (48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America) and a lot of misses (The Golden Child, Vampire in Brooklyn, Pluto Nash, Norbitt). In between those gigs, for a brief time in the mid-80’s, he was a comedy rock star that did a few really good HBO specials that became big sellers on home video. Unfortunately Eddie Murphy seemed to buy into the whole movie star fantasy and has become more aloof & pretentious over the years.

 

6 Chris Rock / Dennis Miller
rockI don’t often agree with Rock’s politics, but there is no denying that he is an intelligent, thoughtful guy whose observational comedy is a cut above. Much of his humor has racial overtones, but I’ve rarely found it racist. It is more like a brutally honest, undeniably subjective worldview to which I can’t relate. In contrast, Miller’s philosophies & attitudes are much more in line with my own. He also is a smart & solicitous dude whose comedy was tinged with insightful commentary about life even before he became a regular guest on political talk shows. Miller doesn’t dumb down his comedy for the masses. You either get the odd analogies & obscure references he makes or you don’t, and he’s not going to slow down and draw a picture for you. Both Rock & Miller had notable runs on Saturday Night Live. Rock has gone on to be a run-of-the-mill movie star in mostly pedestrian films, millerwhile Miller has dabbled in the whole talk show host thing (I really wanted him to be the guy to replace Letterman), did a season in the booth on Monday Night Football (not a good fit), & in recent years has become bogged down as a political pundit. I’d love to see him get back into doing stand-up.

 

5 Jim Gaffigan / Bill Cosby
gaffiganOkay…let’s first address the elephant in the room. I am not here to judge what Cosby may or may not have done in his personal life. That’s not my place, and I think the damage that has been done to his legacy speaks for itself. Both of these men do basically work “clean”, which is good. The foundation of their humor is family, marriage, children, & relationships. They tell stories that many folks recognize from their own lives. It’s easygoing & affable. Their comedy isn’t meanspirited, edgy, or brash. Cosby, of course is…or was…a living legend that has done movies & TV shows and has generally been a part of the entertainment landscape for a half century. Gaffigan has been around for about a cosbydecade. He’s a soft-spoken, self-deprecating guy who likes to joke about being fat & lazy, comedy to which I can relate. Young comedians need to study these guys and understand that intelligent, relevant, witty comedy doesn’t need to be vulgar, obnoxious, or malevolent.

 

4 Frank Caliendo / Denis Leary
caliendoBy far my favorite kind of comedian is one who can do spot-on impressions. If I could ask God for any fun & frivolous talent I’d probably choose being able to do impressions over singing, dancing, or playing an instrument. Older generations might prefer Rich Little, but to be honest I was never that enamored with Little. Caliendo hasn’t become the sort of superstar that landed his own sitcom, but he’s done a wide variety of media appearances…MadTV, Fox NFL Sunday, & a ton of radio shows…and is a regular in Vegas. He does awesome impressions of folks like Al Pacino, Morgan Freeman, President George W. Bush, & Robin Williams, as well as a ton of sportscentric impersonations such as ESPN personalities Mel Kiper Jr., Adam Shefter, & Stephen A. Smith, former coaches John learyMadden & Jon Gruden, Charles Barkley, Jim Rome, and Bill Walton. I think Caliendo is brilliant. Leary has segued into acting now, but at one time in the early 90’s he was a chain smoking, fast talking, “angry” comedian…kind of a toned down Sam Kinison…and he was hilarious. His comedy album No Cure for Cancer is classic and helped make dreary days at a tedious job more tolerable for me in the mid-1990’s. Leary was a much better stand-up comic than he is an actor, and I hope he goes back to what he does best someday.

 

3 Jerry Seinfeld
Yes I am aware that Mr. Seinfeld starred in a highly rated sitcom. As a matter of fact I chose Seinfeld as my favorite TV show of all time just a few years ago. However, that show was based, atleast partly, on the observational comedy of its star. Seinfeld was a celebrated comedian throughout the 1980’s, with his casual, conversational style playing really well on television in appearances with Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Seinfeld comes across as a kind of everyman, a guy it’d be fun to have lunch with or go on a road trip. Much like the beloved television show his standup comedy is about the trivialities, conundrums, seinfeldfrustrations, & contradictions of daily life. In contrast to guys like Kinison or Leary he isn’t particularly angry, and unlike Pryor, Murphy, or Dice he is far from profane. I would describe Seinfeld as perpetually bemused by the fickle nature of humanity. People like him just have a whole different way of looking at the world. They see things that most people overlook…and then they tell funny stories & jokes about what they perceive. Thankfully that perception is often quite entertaining. I always thought Seinfeld would end up hosting a late night show, but the stardom he achieved with his sitcom skyrocketed him past that. He doesn’t have to work that hard or often now. He hosts an amusing talk show called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which you can find online, and thankfully he has gone back to doing standup. Maybe one day I’ll get the opportunity to see him perform live.

 

2 Robin Williams
Robin Williams was like Jerry Seinfeld on cocaine. Literally. Sadly we lost Williams last year, but his legacy is rock solid. He, of course, became well-known in the early 80’s on the sitcom Mork & Mindy, and after that starred in a plethora of mostly good films. But Williams began as a standup comedian and never completely left it behind. On stage he did it all…jokes, stories, improv, pratfalls, impressions, observation. It is hard to put him in a box and categorize his williamscomedy. Robin Williams was manic, silly, intelligent, & creative. He was brilliant. His energy was unmatched. He always made me laugh. And not just a light snicker. I’m talking about wall shaking, tears in my eyes laughter that made others think I’d lost my mind. Hindsight informs us that the energy level was often drug induced, and sadly we also know that the comedy that made us laugh hid pain & depression that would ultimately lead to suicide. I don’t really know what to say about all of that. Unfortunately the tragic ending will likely forever alter the opinions of many about Robin Williams. I understand that, but for the purposes of this exercise choose to remember the good times.

 

1 George Carlin
George Carlin had a career unlike any other. He began doing standup in the 60’s and was still working nearly 50 years later. He dabbled a little bit in television & movies, but pretty much stuck to being a standup comedian. His observational comedy was a bit more acerbic, and many might say that in later years he bordered on meanspirited & angry. Carlin was a product of the counterculture 60’s and always had a bit of that “I’m smarter than you” attitude. In the 70’s he came up with his well-known routine The 7 Words You Can Never Say on Television, which seems a bit quaint now. I won’t repeat any of the words, but I will say that, as carlinopposed to four decades ago, I think I’ve heard atleast 3 or 4 of the forbidden words on network TV just this week. I didn’t really discover Carlin until the 80’s when he had several specials on HBO. By then he’d started doing a lot more sociopolitical commentary, much of it the complete opposite of my own worldview. However, I can usually overlook such disagreements and still find someone funny. While Jerry Seinfeld seems amused by humanity’s shortcomings they seemed to really tick George Carlin off. Sometimes this was hilarious, sometimes it wasn’t. The stuff I preferred from Carlin were his observations about language. He would talk about how language had evolved, mostly due to political correctness. Battle fatigue has become PTSD. Used cars are now pre-owned. Stewardesses are now flight attendants. Deaf people are hearing impaired & a person isn’t blind but has a visual impairment. I could go on but you get the point. Carlin was at his best when he was dissecting the idiocy of political correctness, something it seems like he hated as much as I do. That alone vaults him to the top of this list, despite everything he believed in that I disagree with.

100 Favorite Movies…..26-30

We’re moving full steam ahead toward the Top 25, but we’ve got one more stop to make before we get there. Going forward there will be atleast one Christmas film in each group we examine. Today’s entry also looks at a couple modern classics that were made in my childhood but appreciated by me as an adult, yet another George Clooney flick (even though I really do TRY to dislike him), and one more ode to the 80’s from the late John Hughes. Enjoy…and remember that you can find the previous 70 films broken into 14 entries in the archives.


 

 

30 Rocky

The only underdog more famous that Rocky Balboa is The Holy Bible’s David, who felled the giant Goliath. 1976’s Rocky is synonymous with the unknown who takes advantage of his one shot at success and shocks the world (even though he actually doesn’t win until the sequel). In the 34 years that have passed since the film’s debut, it’s thematic arc has been used countless times, some successfully (Rudy, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Seabiscuit, The Karate Kid, Dodgeball), some not so much (The Replacements, Summer Catch, any Rocky sequel past 2). Face it…the formula works if the writers, actors, and directors are halfway talented and put forth a little effort. By now though you know my mantra…it is nearly impossible to surpass the original. What is funny about Rocky is that it is remembered as a sports film and for its boxing sequences and some scenes of the titular character in training, when in reality it is a well written film with tremendous performances and really good development of the main players. Burgess Meredith and Talia Shire are probably not given enough credit for their roles, but their support is the backbone of the movie’s success. Sly Stallone actually wrote the script, but was an unknown commodity at the time and had to beg the powers-that-be to let him star in his own story then ended up giving the best performance of his career. Rocky went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning 3 of them including Best Picture. Not bad for a movie that was made on a shoestring budget and shot in under a month. I am sure that films will continue to “borrow” the formula in perpetuity, but I am also confident that we will still be talking about Rocky in another 34 years.

 

29 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

The movies need more people like John Hughes. While so many teen flicks these days seem to be all about sex and gross out jokes (American Pie, Road Trip, Superbad), Hughes wrote and/or directed a whole slew of teen comedies in the 80’s that had an element of pathos and just enough of a message to make them cool but not preachy. Ferris Bueller, on its surface, is about a precocious high school senior skipping school. But look a little closer because I think it’s a lot more. Matthew Broderick stars as Ferris, the kind of loveable schemer it’s almost impossible not to like and nearly as difficult not to envy. He convinces his clueless folks that he is too sick to go to school and then proceeds to drag his gorgeous girlfriend and his morose best friend to accompany him on a day long adventure. The only people who seem to see through his BS are his caustic sister and the school principal, who seems quasi-maniacal in his efforts to bring down the teenager. Ferris is wise beyond his years. He understands that soon enough he and his friends will be in the “real world” and wants to take advantage of one last opportunity to be carefree and have some harmless fun. I suppose it is possible that the modern tradition of Senior Skip Day owes something to Ferris Bueller…but no one has ever done a Skip Day with quite the panache as Ferris. The film is Hughes’ ode to Chicago, as our trio of truants visit many of the city’s landmarks. They take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, go to the top of The Sears Tower, eat at a fancy restaurant (where Ferris passes himself off as Abe Frohman: Sausage King of Chicago), visit The Art Institute, and quite memorably “crash” the annual Von Steuben Day Parade with Ferris hopping up on a float and belting out Danke Schoen and Twist & Shout. I am 37 years old and I have never had such a fun and interesting day in my life…in high school, college, or beyond. Alan Ruck, who now is best known for his supporting role in the television show Spin City, is hysterically sympathetic as Cameron, the best friend with Daddy issues. A pre-Dirty Dancing Jennifer Grey is outstanding as the jealous sister who is tired of seeing her brother get away with everything. I don’t know why Grey didn’t become a bigger star. She did Red Dawn, Ferris Bueller, and Dirty Dancing all within 2 years of one another and then dropped off the map…or atleast has never done anything else anyone gave a damn about. Charlie Sheen has a quick cameo. The always reliable Edie McClurg is funny as the school secretary. And who can forget economist Ben Stein’s droll, tedious call of “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…..”. There are so many iconic scenes and lines in Ferris Bueller that it has to rank as one of the most quotable films of the last 30 years. My affection is undoubtedly due in large part to being a child of the 80’s. I was 14 years old when this movie came out, so I embodied the target demographic. But I have seen Ferris Bueller many many times in the ensuing 24 years, and in my humble opinion it ages well, like a fine wine. It will still be relevant to high school kids for generations, and that isn’t a feat to which the majority of films in its particular genre can lay claim. Its relevance can be germane to adults too, if we pay attention. Look at Cameron, whose Dad loves his classic Ferrari more than his son. Or look at Ferris, who doesn’t take himself too seriously and advises us all that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That is some pretty sage advice from a 17 year old boy.

 

28 The Ref

I have warned you repeatedly that I LOVE Christmas movies. And while you have seen or will see many of the usual suspects that have shown up on our television screens every December for decades, here we have a criminally overlooked holiday treat. Somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my mind I vaguely recall seeing this for the first time in The Original Bachelor Palace back in my college days with a few good friends. It may have even been the same night we rented Trapped in Paradise. Or I could be totally off base. If my memory isn’t playing tricks on me it would partially explain my affection for The Ref. At any rate, whatever the particular circumstances may have been initially, I have seen this movie multiple times in the past 16 Christmas seasons. It is required holiday viewing in my household. Denis Leary…an excellent stand-up comedian who is now known primarily for his TV show Rescue Me…stars as a crook who, after a robbery has gone awry, is forced to hold a haughty Connecticut couple hostage in their home on Christmas Eve. The problem for Gus is that Lloyd and Caroline have some major issues. They are in marriage counseling because Caroline had an affair, Lloyd hates his life, and both blame each other for their son’s troubles. Now I know that doesn’t sound funny, but trust me…it is h-y-s-t-e-r-i-c-a-l. The bickering couple really tests Gus’ patience. Things get more complicated when Lloyd’s even snootier family shows up for dinner and then the conniving son comes home from military school. Hilarity ensues. Kevin Spacey makes almost anything instantly better…he’s such a great actor. The Ref isn’t as easy to find on your television as many of the better known holiday classics, but Comedy Central usually shows it once or twice. It is well worth the rental if you cannot find it on the ol’ tube though. For anyone who has never seen it, I assure you…you won’t be disappointed.

 

27 Ocean’s Eleven

Even though I am a huge fan of The Rat Pack and their music, their movies aren’t exactly high art. So I am not referring here to the 1960 original but rather to the 2001 remake starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. It’s bad enough that Clooney movies keep showing up on this list, but now I am adding Pitt and Damon?? What in the world is wrong with me?? I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. I am just going to blame it on my love for anything and everything Vegas. Anyway, Ocean’s Eleven is the textbook definition of popcorn cinema, and I =guess that’s not a bad thing. Danny Ocean is fresh out of prison and has his sights set on robbing not one…not two…but three Las Vegas casinos all at the same time. He recruits his best wingman and they assemble a team to pull off the job. We eventually learn that Ocean’s real beef is with the owner of said casinos, played by the always superb Andy Garcia. The evil casino owner has hooked up with Ocean’s ex-wife, played by Julia Roberts. The crew that is to pull off this massive heist is a ragtag group of con men, played by guys like Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Elliot Gould, and Carl Reiner. They all have their key roles to play in the masterful plan, and for the most part the plan goes off without too much consternation. As a viewer I advise against trying to figure out details or attempting to apply logic. There are some holes…like: they are supposed to be robbing three casinos, but really they’re just robbing one vault that holds the money from three casinos. But it’s all good. The cast is very Rat Pack-esque in their breezy delivery and cool demeanor. There’s a little action, a little romance, a little comedy. The performances are very good. Don Cheadle is an underrated actor, and it is nice to see old timers Gould and Reiner in a big time flick with the younger, hipper It Guys. Two sequels were made, and as per usual the second was a subpar money grab while the third rebounded nicely with the addition of Al Pacino to the cast. I am tempted to point out that it is another case where the original is the best, but technically it is a remake of an original.

 

 

26 The Blues Brothers

When one is in college and joins a fraternity a few songs and a few films kind of come along with the package. I am not sure why this is so, but it is what it is. I am sure things have changed in the 15 years since I last graced a college campus…or a fraternity house… with my presence, but in my heyday The Blues Brothers was one of those beloved films. It is also one of the two movies (the other being Animal House) that made Saturday Night Live alumnus John Belushi a superstar. I have often wondered what other treasures Belushi would have offered us and how his career would have evolved had he not tragically left us far too soon. He stars as Jake, who along with his brother Elwood (played by Dan Aykroyd) formed a successful blues act before he landed in prison for armed robbery. Upon Jake’s release, the duo gather up the rest of their old band so they can do a benefit show and help the orphanage where Jake and Elwood grew up pay its property taxes. Along the way they manage to tick off the police, a group of neo-Nazis, Jake’s ex-fiancée, and a country band called The Good Ol’ Boys, all of whom chase The Blues Brothers and cause mayhem and destruction. Our heroes make the gig, pay off the taxes for the orphanage, and are ultimately sent to prison for all the havoc they have wreaked. The soundtrack is spectacular if you like blues music, and I do. There are alot of fun cameos…Ray Charles, Carrie Fisher, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Candy, Chaka Khan, John Lee Hooker, Paul Reubens/Pee Wee Herman, Joe Walsh, and Steven Spielberg, among others. The Blues Brothers is just a lot of mindless fun, and it continues to be a unique classic thirty years later.