Media Armchair Cinephile 

Funny strange, or Funny Ha Ha?

Sometimes a little obscurity isn’t such a bad thing. Reading through some of this month’s year-end recaps, for instance, cinephiles may have noticed a film that has been on Top Ten lists for both 2005 and 2004, and may even have been eligible for some in 2003. With the right movie and slots in enough festivals, it seems, you can convince wave after wave of viewers that they’ve found the next big thing.

Funny Ha Ha (Wellspring) is the movie in question, a comedy of 20-something aimlessness by budding auteur Andrew Bujalski. Thankfully it’s now out on disc — Bujalski’s new film, Mutual Appreciation, is already in the can, and it would just be silly for that to show up in a theater somewhere before Zeitgeist-riders get a chance to see his debut.

The film’s title could apply to a number of recent releases that straddle the border between straight comedy and itchy provocation. Take The Lenny Bruce Performance Film (Koch Vision), for instance. Yes, Bruce was a legendary stand-up comic. But it would be a hard sell to introduce him to a newcomer with this film, which documents his next-to-last concert appearance. Bruce is haggard here, obsessed with the obscenity charges that plagued him toward the end of his career. His piercing wit is still evident, but it’s hard to watch him with tragedy lurking right around the corner.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bill Hicks: Sane Man (Ryko), a stand-up film made just before Hicks cut his first comedy album, when his too-young death was still years away. Those of us who’ve bought the records know most of the jokes captured here (although seeing them told naturally adds considerable nuance), but the doc is nearly perfect for newbies. Hicks, fresh from kicking some bad habits, dives into religion, anti-intellectualism, and teeny-bopper mall culture in routines that show he was a true heir to Bruce’s crown.

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Provocation and cultural commentary are hidden beneath layers of weirdness in Mr. Show: The Complete Collection (HBO), which collects four seasons (already available separately) of conceptual comedy by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. The boys are so fresh-faced and friendly that you sometimes don’t notice what antisocial things they’re doing; they’re anarchists your grandmother could love.

HBO has other new comedy titles out, such as the two Tracey Ullman releases Tracey Takes On... and Live & Exposed, and Bob Odenkirk pops up briefly in the not-as-clever-as-it-thinks satire My Big Fat Independent Movie (Anchor Bay). But Mr. Show fans curious about the roots of sketch comedy might want to hunt down Beyond the Fringe (Acorn Media), a rare document of the ‘60s British satirical troupe that launched the careers of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. A bit dry by contemporary standards, the revue nevertheless started a ball rolling that led to Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and many other side-splittingly funny things. Acorn has also released Not Only But Always... , a biopic of sorts about Cook and Moore.

Finally, next Tuesday sees the release of last year’s sensation (well, OK, cult sensation) The Aristocrats (Lions Gate/ThinkFilm). I cannot remember a time I heard more laughter in a theater than I did at last year’s South By Southwest, where Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse hosted a midnight screening that was well-lubricated by beer and the presence of the film’s director Paul Provenza. I’ve seen it twice since, and neither screening elicited that “I think I’m going to die because I can’t breathe” laughter, which is proof of a fact every comedian knows: The crowd matters. A comedian can read a room, see what material is working, and adjust accordingly; a movie can’t.

But given the right audience or attitude, The Aristocrats is something truly special. The film’s lack of an MPAA rating — despite the fact that there’s no nudity or violence onscreen — is an indication of just how filthy the language is here, as scores of performers one-up each other in telling the most tasteless joke known to man. Hard though it may be to believe, a single joke sustains this doc for 90 minutes the same way “My Favorite Things” could become an evening’s worth of music for John Coltrane. And if you’re anything like most of the viewers I’ve seen the film with, even after the credits roll you’ll be eager to hear the joke a few more times — and the DVD’s bonus features will be happy to oblige.

By John DeFore

More by John DeFore



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