“Just when I thought you couldn’t get any dumber, you go and do something like this … and totally redeem yourself!”
So Lloyd, of “Dumb and Dumber,” says to Harry after the latter exchanges their dog-shaped van (exterior-upholstered) for a one-man scooter. In comedic terms, Harry has traded the open slapstick of the Shaggin’ Wagon for a relatively subtler and much more awkward gag – two men squashed close on a too-small bike.
Critics be damned: “Dumb and Dumber” showcases two of the funniest hours ever put on film, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the recent shift in modern (popular) comedy has followed Harry’s course. Though the days of obvious frat-boy goofiness are only dwindling (not quite gone), the wiser social consciousness and flagrant discomfiture of today’s best TV comedy is starting to make its way to the big screen. Case in point: next week’s new release, “Borat.” Harry might not have gotten a good deal in his trade, but current audiences certainly have.
Recent displays of socially minded comedy run along the lines of “The Daily Show with John Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” touting their open mockery of typical TV news conventions. Sacha Baron Cohen brings a more fictional element to the style with his “Da Ali G Show,” in which, like the “The Daily Show,” Cohen stages humorously awkward interviews with real political figures by essentially playing dumb. His invented personas, however, are even more ridiculous than Jon Stewart’s crew of smugly know-it-all reporters, each as foul-mouthed as they are earnestly ignorant and sporting a flagrant political incorrectness that often leaves their interviewees stunned and stammering.
It’s Cohen’s Borat who’s coming to theaters, a simpleton from a small Kazakh village whose enthusiasm for America leads him to make a documentary while touring the country. Though the film is actually billed as a mockumentary, with both Borat and his random assortment of interview subjects unaware of the full scope of their unintentional comedy, some of the movie’s unscripted events rocket so far into the realm of the surreal that to lump the film in with Christopher Guest’s carefully tailored style of mockumentary is to do injustice to the integrity of both.
If “Borat” has any actual family among contemporary film, it’s “Jackass.” Borat may be the main character, but his movie is more about watching Sacha Baron Cohen play the trump card of his foreigner’s “different culture” to humiliate and infuriate innocent, well-meaning onlookers. From his bathroom etiquette lesson at a Southern socialite’s dinner party (literally, she instructs him on how to use a bathroom) to his naked romp through a hotel’s convention center (with an equally naked male co-worker), “Borat” pushes boundaries you didn’t even know you had, as if Cohen simply sat around with his producers and dreamt up just how far he could actually go.
“Jackass 2” reveals a similar approach to comedy. At one point, veteran Jackass-er Bam Margera holds up a quickly sketched cartoon of his next stunt idea (one end of a bungee cord tied around their resident midget and the other tied around their resident fat man, the idea being to see what happens when the former jumps off a bridge). It’s an appropriate demonstration of their creative process, since “Jackass 2,” as a good friend of mine appreciatively put it, is itself a cartoon come very much to life. At one point Johnny Knoxville even straps himself to a giant red rocket straight out of Wily. E. Coyote’s Acme catalogue.
You can disparage the inanity of “Jackass,” but it’s hard not to appreciate that you never know what’s coming next. You can’t deny its laughs – they make you uncomfortable, they’re in jaw-droppingly poor taste, but they’re because the “Jackass” gag operates (even if subconsciously) on the same level as “Borat”: taking any established social taboo and smashing it through performance.
It’s a refreshing extremism, since social commentary in comedy is often relegated to pop-culture references. The richest moments of the two early-’90s “Wayne’s World” movies draw on a sort of hyperaware public consciousness, featuring a long segment of product placement (Reebok, Pepsi), a “Scooby Doo”-style second ending, an awkwardly dubbed kung-fu fight sequence and a grand finale riffing so heartily on the famous ending of “The Graduate” that it even comments (justly) on the terrible acting of the great film’s smallest role, openly replacing its stuttering gas station attendant with the gravelly-voiced Charlton Heston.
This summer’s “Talladega Nights” plays equally with current pop culture, but it adds some specific addressing of current social trends – consider its overlong dinner-table discussion of the baby Jesus’s place in Christianity or its extended bar scene of outright homophobia. The heightened awareness of current issues has infiltrated even a Will Ferrell comedy.
It’s about time popular humor did something like this. The “dumb comedy” label may still indicate irreverence and raunchiness and even absurdity, but more than ever, it doesn’t mean that it has nothing to say.