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Where Comedy Goes To Die (A Double Feature) September 7, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Movies.
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Part of my own, DVR-abetted alternative program schedule to the political conventions turned out to be two fairly awful comedy films that have always been on my need-to-see list despite their reputation. They both turned up on the ol’ cable this week, so I took it upon myself to trudge through them both.

Meet Wally Sparks was the easier of the two to like, since it actually had a couple of laughs in it. Rodney Dangerfield plays a ’90s-era Jerry Springer-esque talk show host who gets thrown in with a stuffy Southern family values pol.  The plot  first borrows from The Party when Rodney crashes the stuffy governor’s (David Ogden Stiers) fundraiser and wreaks havoc with a marble penis in his pocket and a drunken horse ride, and then turns into The Man Who Came To Dinner, as Rodney takes up residence and (of course) saves the pol while loosening him up a tad. Rodney rattles off a lot of his stand-up routine as we go – you’d think it’d be a good vehicle for him,

You’d think.

Unfortunately, it all has a been-there & done-that-better vibe to it throughout. The party scene, especially the gag with the marble schvantz, reminded me of watching those later Benny Hill episodes, where he’s basically repeating old schtick and phoning it in, and even when a gag or two is cleverly designed, the entire affair feels trite and tired. You can’t escape the feeling that hitting STOP and dialing up earlier work by the same comedian would be a better hit off their particular comedy bong…. ten minutes into The Big Store and I’d rather be watching Duck Soup.  Watching Rodney in this thing made me want to watch Caddyshack or Back To School instead.  As I sat through the endless and fascinatingly unfunny dick jokes of Meet Wally Sparks, I kept feeling like someone saw the bit in Caddyshack when Rodney, sitting at a table of bims at the posh country club, casually leans forward and lets out a fart louder than any Mel Brooks could have imagined and thought “Hey, let’s do that for a 90 minute movie!”

But a couple of one-liners made me laugh, I’ll admit. But overall Wally Sparks fails since Rodney’s character is only likable because he’s played by Rodney Dangerfield. In both Caddyshack and especially in Back To School, Rodney plays a guy we’d root for regardless, a guy who fought his way up into posh society while remaining real. Here, he’s just a walking dirty joke with nothing to ground him in reality, and a family relationship plot angle that reeks of being pasted on.  Now I want to watch both of those again.

What I DON’T want to watch again, EVER, is The Maltese Bippy, a Rowan & Martin movie (I can’t call it a comedy, I just can’t) that tried to cash in on the huge success of the Laugh-In show back in 1969.

This is a would-be comedy without a single laugh. Not a one – EVERY single routine, every line, every sight gag… everything… falls totally flat. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think it’s what kept me going through it as well – I kept wondering if it could keep up the streak of banal boredom and failed humor right to the end, and it certainly delivered.

Bippy attempts to be a mystery/comedy spoofing horror films, where Martin’s character thinks he’s a werewolf, Rowan’s exploitation film director/con artist character wants to exploit him,  and bad guys search for missing jewels in a spooky old house. You can’t escape the feeling that this entire concept may have begun as an attempt at a late ’60s revival of a Hope & Crosby comedy – you have Norman Panama directing, who had directed the final “Road” movie a few years earlier. You have Rowan playing a con man character a la Crosby, with Martin playing the nervous girl chaser a la Hope, complete with numerous scenes with Martin doing panicky cowardly one-liners identical to Hope’s recurring movie schtick. But instead of Hope & Crosby, we get Rowan & Martin, two Vegas lounge guys who made it very big thanks to a break given them on TV by Dean Martin, and who smartly surrounded themselves with a troupe of younger sketch performers in what is perhaps the most dated piece of television ever, in terms of any program being an obvious product of its cultural zeitgeist.

I can’t dislike these guys – they’re too much a part of my childhood. I loved Laugh-In as a kid and I still find it interesting to watch now as a bright, shining cultural artifact. And the Farkel Family is still funny, as is Uncle Al!

They get to do their usual stand-up routine over the opening credits & revert to it as they break the fourth wall and present alternate endings (something Hope & Crosby would also have done, I suppose). In any event, it may be the unfunniest film ever.

But I still preferred it over watching the conventions! Say goodnight, Dick!

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