The hilariously tasteless birth of a notion

January 27, 2009


Watching Carl Reiner’s “Where’s Poppa?” (1970) when it aired on Turner Classics recently, it struck me that this film – and a couple of others released between 1968-70 – represented kind of a mini-golden age for outrageous comedy, with roots in Sid Caesar’s TV shows of the early 1950s.


Consider: Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” was released in 1968, Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” in 1969 and Reiner’s “Where’s Poppa?” (perhaps the most gleefully vulgar of the three) in 1970.


Watching them now, they’re all still exceptionally funny: still oddball and off-kilter in ways that influenced filmmakers for years to come. From the distance of 40 years, given the way mores and attitudes have changed, they seem almost quaint by today’s standards.


Yet I’d argue that, without these films, we wouldn’t have had the Farrelly brothers, the Judd Apatow machine or a lot of other comedy that’s fairly commonplace today.


Consider “Where’s Poppa?”, which, at the time, was considered scandalously foul-mouthed and taboo-breaking. It’s the story of a Jewish lawyer, Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal), who is trapped in a sprawling Central Park West apartment with his increasingly dotty mother (Ruth Gordon). She’s so obstreperous that he has trouble keeping a home-health aide for very long – and when he does fine one whom he not only likes but want to marry (Trish Van Devere), his mother tries to drive her away.


Gordon wants to kill his mother – because he promised his late father that he’d never put her in a home. He can’t even pronounce the world “home” without becoming a quivering, stuttering mess. But he can verbalize his anger; at one point, having lured the new nurse up to the apartment for dinner, he brings his mother to meet her, telling her under his breath, “If you blow this for me, Ma, I swear – I’ll punch your fuckin’ heart out.”


“Such a good boy, Gordon,” the unhinged mother coos.


It’s a movie filled with weird, transgressive humor. Ultimately, like the films of Brooks and Allen, its roots are in the same Borscht Belt school of comedy that was so prevalent on the Caesar show (on which all three were writers) and its off-shoots.


But “Where’s Poppa?” took it all a step farther – freed, as it were, by the kaleidoscopic cultural upheavals of the late 1960s. Reiner put in rape jokes next to Jewish mother jokes, riffs on racial fear mixed with stereotypes of Jewish mama’s boys (including a famous scene during that disastrous dinner in which Mama pulls down Gordon’s trousers and kisses his bare tush in front of the nurse). But he also took wild detours to courtroom scenes that had their own outlandish comic sensibility – roguish riffs to fill in between the scenes of Gordon and his mother.


Reiner had gone from Caesar’s show to create the classic “Dick Van Dyke Show” (and to direct a couple of other movies before “Where’s Poppa?”). Mel Brooks similarly went back to TV after working for Caesar, creating “Get Smart” with Buck Henry, as well as directing an Oscar-winning animated short (“The Critic”). Allen, however, had gone into stand-up comedy and screenwriting (“What’s New,Pussycat?”) before taking the plunge into writing, directing and starring in his own films.


 “Take the Money and Run” sent up TV crime shows and documentaries with Allen’s surrealist flights into everything from Yiddish to Proust. The stand-up comic’s set-up/punchline rhythm predominates in “Take the Money and Run”” – but so does the kind of absurdist, anything-for-a-laugh style we hadn’t really seen since Groucho Marx (by way of Bob Hope). Again, this was a movie that pushed boundaries, with its weird visual jokes about Hasids and one-liners suggesting strange sexual proclivities, such as the criminal on the most-wanted list whose priors included “dancing with a horse.”


Brooks’ “The Producers,” a huge flop initially (though Brooks won an Oscar for its screenplay), completes this hilariously tasteless trilogy. Teaming the incomparable, unstoppable Zero Mostel with newcomer Gene Wilder, it featured Brooks’ most original writing for film – a movie that wasn’t an adaptation, parody or homage. Rather, Brooks used characters of his own invention to push all sorts of politically incorrect buttons to yield big laughs. In one film, Brooks wrings humor from Nazis, flamingly gay stereotypes and the notion of a producer desperate enough for funds that he has serial sex with little old ladies.


It may have been the dawning of the age of Aquarius but none of these three filmmakers were youngsters attacking the system. There were, instead, comics taken off the leash of TV, freed by the new rating systems to make jokes that were irreverent, inappropriate, obscene, vulgar and blasphemous.


They blazed a trail, one that, today, is a comedy superhighway.



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