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The Writer’s Room: Lesser-Known Comedies

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Throughout cinematic history, comedies have made their mark in cinema from Charlie Chaplin to Jack Black, creating cherished, laughter-filled memories.While many films like Ghostbusters have become pop-culture classics, other comedies have become signature generational comedies (The Odd Couple) or even cult comedies (UHF). Sadly, some comedies either fall out of mass public awareness and become lesser known or were always lesser known to begin with. In honor of April Fools’ Day, the writer’s room highlights the lesser-known films that we wish more people knew about.

Justina Bonilla, Blogger

One Body Too Many

One Body Too Many (1944):

Albert Tuttle (Jack Haley), a cowardly insurance salesman, desperately tries to sell a major life insurance policy to a well-known eccentric millionaire, only to arrive at the millionaire’s creepy and isolated mansion at night and discover he’s already dead. To make matters worse, the mansion is filled with the millionaire’s greedy and murderous relatives looking to cash in on the inheritance.

Haley, who was a multitalented comedian and vaudeville performer, is best known as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. His portrayal of Albert feels like a vaudeville performance with his use of slapstick physical humor. Adding to the humor of the film is having horror icon Bela Lugosi play the creepy butler. His creepiness and deadpan humor are so opposite yet complementary to Haley’s humor despite the fact that they don’t have a lot of scenes together.

Directed by Frank McDonald, best known for his B picture westerns of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, this kooky B-comedy from Paramount Pictures is as silly as it is adorable. One Body Too Many doesn’t take itself too seriously and at times is just so over the top, it’s hilarious. Considering how overdone isolated, creepy mansions filled with shady and murderous people are in entertainment, this film happily spoofs the trope.

The biggest disadvantage of this film is the very poor lighting. There are scenes that are in the dark and require dim lighting. However, the film can be so dark, you can’t help but wonder if lack of lighting was McDonald’s purposely dimming the lights to stay under budget.

One Body Too Many is one of my favorite comedies that’s as wholesome as it is ridiculous. It’s one of those films I can watch over and over and not get tired of.


Penny Folger, Blogger

The Tall Guy

The Tall Guy (1989):

This movie is a fish-out-of-water comedy starring Jeff Goldblum as Dexter King, an oafish allergenic actor who lives and works in London and describes himself as “a tall American whose entire career consists of playing sidekicks and circus freaks.”

This movie brilliantly roasts the medium of musical theater, particularly as done by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with a musical production of The Elephant Man. (This was the 1980s, before musicals done on ridiculous properties were so common.) Dexter’s agent speculates about the show’s title, “Elephant, I think. With an exclamation mark, presumably.” Said Roger Ebert, it is “the funniest deliberately bad play in a movie since Mel Brooks’ ‘Springtime for Hitler’ in The Producers.”

The Tall Guy was directed by late comedian/actor/director Mel Smith, who started one of the biggest British comedy television production companies in the UK and even introduced the band Queen at Live Aid. You may know him as “The Albino” in The Princess Bride.

Rowan Atkinson plays the arrogant, megalomaniacal comedy star who Dexter initially works for as a straight man. The film’s screenwriter, Richard Curtis, would go on to co-write Atkinson’s show Mr. Bean, also penning mega hits like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually.

I was introduced to this film around age 19, and the comically outlandish sex scene involving shattering dishware and swaying cacti really left an imprint on my young mind. It should receive some kind of award on its own. The Tall Guy has comedy elements that are kinkily off kilter and British at times but also cartoonishly broad in a way that is endearing rather than annoying. I think because in the end, like Dexter King going after his love (a very clever, no-nonsense nurse, played by Emma Thompson), this movie has heart.


Anthony McKelroy, Blogger

Fear Of A Black Hat

Fear of a Black Hat (1993):

Where the ’80s have Spinal Tap, the ’90s have Fear of a Black Hat.

Before he made a name for himself with the Tales from the Hood franchise, writer-director Rusty Cundieff premiered this goofy, lo-fi mockumentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 — one of the few comedies to screen that year. Thirty years on, this “dated” film that once existed on the margins is now enjoying validation from the most esteemed institutions of higher cinephilia, occasionally surfacing on places like TCM and the Criterion Channel in recent years (as it rightly should).

Framed as a doctoral thesis film by a sociology student — played by future director Kasi Lemmons — Fear of a Black Hat follows a year in the life of controversial rap group N.W.H. following their meteoric overnight fame. Cundieff splits the difference in how he renders these vérité documentary aesthetics (as in Spinal Tap) onto sketch-based structures (as in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) to achieve maximum hilarity, as well as some genuine insight to the cultural machinery of the era.

Unlike their contemporaries, N.W.H. are an explicitly political group, constantly seen wearing hats to signal their resistance against white supremacy. Much of their music underscores this commitment to dismantling oppressive systems, such as “Come and Pet the P.U.S.S.Y. (Political Unrest Stabilizes Society, Yeah!),” “Booty Juice,” and “My Peanuts,” songs that are legible as real music without condescending to it. Fear of a Black Hat’s uncanny accuracy in parody, right down to the music video sequences interspersed throughout, is part of the film’s enduring charm, its ability to push familiar tropes beyond imagination and into gleeful absurdity. A must see for April Fools’ everywhere.


Finn Sullivan, Blogger

Top Secret

Top Secret! (1984):

What’s the best joke in a movie? Like, single joke. One line, one gag, or one of whatever you consider a joke. I guess there can’t really be one definitive answer because comedy is subjective or whatever (and comedy is definitely subjective), but I am about to make the claim that the single best joke in a movie is a seemingly random, throw-away bit in Top Secret.

The scene in question happens pretty early on in the film (and yes, Top Secret is a film), where Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer), a sort of Elvis-esque rockstar, attends a dinner hosted by the East German government. When one of the waiters starts speaking to him in German, he mentions that he doesn’t know any German. The woman sitting next to him follows this with “I know a little German. He’s sitting over there!” Cut to a random shot of this little German guy waving. I don’t know why, but something about this little German guy and his little hat and his little wave makes me laugh every time I think about him. It’s my favorite moment in the movie, and it’s one that I like to tell people about all the time.

Did me explaining the joke completely ruin it? Probably. But Top Secret is filled with little moments like these. You could put 20 people in a room, force them to watch Top Secret, and all of them might leave with a different favorite gag, and honestly, I’m willing to hear out every single one of them.

Despite being considered a box office bomb upon release, Top Secret has aged pretty well over time, and its following has continued to grow since its release on home media and cable. While the team of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker will always be best known for Airplane, I’m a strong defender of Top Secret being their best. While Airplane! takes one genre (that being of the disaster movie) and parodies it, Top Secret plays out like a weird combination of a spy movie and a war movie and an Elvis movie, complete with a Beach Boys parody song about skeet shooting written by the original “musical genius,” Brian Wilson himself. And that alone makes it worth watching.


 

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