When I was 19, my friends and I invented fireball. We hollowed out a nerf football, filled it with gas, lit it on fire, and kicked it around. The goal of the game, more or less, was…Do Not Die. I mention this as a standard of comparison because when Eddie Murphy was 19, he was starring on Saturday Night Live.
People forget after Murphy’s career has bottomed out twice, that he was in the 1980s the single biggest comedy superstar of his generation. SNL would have died on the vine after the original cast left the show if Murphy had not single-handedly kept the sketch comedy show afloat. Then came 48 Hours when Murphy was 21. By the time Beverly Hills Cop came out in 1984, Murphy (a seasoned 24 years of age) was a rock star, and unlike 48 Hours, which has not aged very well, Beverly Hills Cop still stands up a quarter-century later.
The fish out of water story is a staple of comedy (and film in general), but there’s something about Detroit cop Axel Foley (Murphy) wandering around the surreal landscape of 1980s Beverly Hills that works incredibly well. The film had kicked around Hollywood for years mostly as a much more serious action film. Mickey Rourke was first offered the part. Sylvester Stallone had it for a while and had renamed the character “Axel Cobretti”. Richard Pryor, Al Pacino, and James Caan all passed on the role before it was retooled to be an action-comedy and Murphy was approached after the success of 48 Hours. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Film Musical or Comedy and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and ended up as the highest-grossing film of 1984 in the United States.
As good as Murphy is as Foley, and he’s astounding, he nearly has his movie stolen from him by a pre-Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot. Sometimes all someone has to do to be funny in a bit role is to just be patently absurd. There’s something about Serge’s accent that makes it impossible for me to listen to him for more than thirty seconds without losing my mind, and I’m not alone. All through the gallery scene that introduces Serge to the world, Murphy is clearly barely keeping it together. Eddie’s best scene is the classic storming of the country club, but it’s Serge that keeps me rewatching this film.
I have a proposal that I think will make Philosophy 101 more palatable for all college freshman: replace the course with a binge watch of The Good Place. Now, I do understand that there are people who enjoy deep philosophical arguments. I do get that. But, by and large, those people are already collegiate philosophy professors and are, in this context, the problem. Michael Schur, the brilliant creator of both Parks & Recreation and The Good Place, is the rare example of a person who finds philosophy fascinating and not terribly serious. The Good Place disguises is with humor and an afterlife landscape that seems like the sort of thing Douglas Adams would come up with after drinking a lot of off-label cough syrup, but the show is sneakily giving its viewers a more effective philosophical education than they’re likely to find anywhere in higher education. A perfect example of this is season two’s exploration of the trolley problem.
You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option?
One of the pillars of The Good Place’s own philosophy is that anyone can change for the better. Season two, in large part, follows the journey of demon Michael (Ted Danson) as he learns more about what makes humans tick. The most hysterical example of this is when Michael plops the terminally indecisive Chidi into the middle of a real-life trolley problem and…ups the stakes. The Good Place isn’t just a good time. As it nears the end of its third season, The Good Place has become the best comedy of the decade and arguably the best show on television.
Recently I finished my umpteenth re-watch of the misadventures of the waffle-loving, mini-horse worshipping civil servants that make up the cast of Parks & Recreation. The more I think it over, the more certain I am that Parks & Rec mastermind Michael Schur (who now brings us the equally brilliant The Good Place) created the best sitcom of the last decade. Parks & Rec started off as a spiritual spin-off of The Office, borrowing that show’s fake documentary format and, like The Office, the first season is short and underwhelming. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve urged to try Parks & Rec who have flamed out after a few episodes, so if you want to start (and you should), start with season two when the show found its own voice and the brilliant ensemble began to run at full tilt.
In the times in which we currently live, there’s something unbelievably cathartic about a show heralding the positive impact the government can make in the lives of citizens. Even if you should loathe the government, the show provides the greatest comedic Libertarian ever forged in the mustachioed Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). The show is earnest and heartfelt; self-aware and smart, and nearly always hysterically goofy. I’ve written before about the show’s third season (peerless) which contains my favorite moment in the series in the brilliant “Ron’s Swivel Desk”. I have to revisit that season because it also contains my favorite running absurdity of the series: Pawnee’s rabid celeb crush on local mini-horse: Lil’ Sebastian. I can’t decide which moment in the episode is better: the tiny equine’s introduction and Adam Scott’s utter bafflement at his co-worker’s excitement or Chris Pratt’s “5,000 Candles in the Wind” tribute at the Harvest Festival so I am including both. In the dead of winter, if you need a laugh to warm your heart, you can’t go wrong revisiting Parks & Recreation.
The best comedies can usually be summarized in a single sentence that captures there absurdity. For example, Groundhog Day is about a weatherman who wakes up every day on February 2nd caught in an eternal loop. Tag is about a group of friends who have been playing the same game of tag for over 30 years. It’s a great set-up for a comedy. It’s made even greater by the fact that it is based on a true story (you can click here to read The Daily Mail’s write-up of the true life game). I was lucky enough to be able to attend an advance screening of Tag (which opens wide on June 15th) and a great ensemble cast delivers the year’s second awesome comedy (rent Game Night immediately if you missed it). Continue reading Movie Review: Tag (2018) *A Game 30 Years in the Making*→
The Office was a phenomenon, first in the UK, and then again in the US, because it tapped into the modern workplace’s almost Orwellian kindergarten atmosphere and just blew it up into an absurdity to which everyone could relate. The first season of the show was a six-episode experiment, and it wasn’t really until season two that it firmly found its legs and took off as one of the decade’s best sitcoms. One of the elements that was established right from the pilot, and remained my favorite part of The Office, was Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) torturing Dwight (Rainn Wilson).
Encasing Dwight’s office supplies in Jell-O in the pilot was good, but the brilliance of the prank war Jim and Pam would wage on Dwight’s paranoia first took off in the series fourth episode: “The Alliance”. When rumors of downsizing hit the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Dwight approaches Jim to form “an alliance”. Jim has no idea what this means, but immediately seizes on it as possibly the greatest gift anyone could have ever given him. It’s not as good as when Jim arranges for Dwight to receive daily cryptic faxes from his future self, but without the alliance, there could be no “Future Dwight”.