Last night, I went to a semi-gala event sponsored by the Writers Guild of America at the Cinerama Dome, over their presentation of the "101 Funniest Screenplays." There are two ways to look at the evening -- the list, and the event itself. The list, of course, was the most important part, the very point of the evening, after all. But then, one could have stayed at home and read the list in four minutes. So, it was the event that stood out.
The list first, though, since it was the point.
I didn't expect to "agree" with the list, and did expect to find a few "outrages." And that was the case. After all, this was just a random collection from online voting, and when then happens you just know that more recent films are going to predominate. The Top 10, though, was a pretty good collection, and if I didn't personally agree with the exact order or was a touch surprised by a couple of film left out, those are small quibbles of taste -- like, for me, Mel Brooks' The Producers only being #12, while his Young Frankenstein coming in at #6 (and his Blazing Saddles at #8). Nothing wrong at all with being considered the twelfth funniest ever, but I think The Producers is one of the seminal film comedies in movie history. And if we're looking at screenplays here -- which we are -- the screenplay of The Producers won the Academy Award. One of the very few screenplays on the list of 101 to have actually won the Oscar. But again, the Top 10 was a good, respectable list.
1. Annie Hall (Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman)
2. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond. Based on the German film Fanfare of Love by Robert Thoeren
and M. Logan)
3. Groundhog Day (Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, Story by Danny Rubin)
4. Airplane! (Jerry Zucker & Jim Abrahams & David Zucker)
5. Tootsie (Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, Story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart)
6. Young Frankenstein (Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, Screen Story by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, Based on
Characters in the Novel Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
7. Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick and Peter George
and Terry Southern
8. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger, Story by
9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones,
10. National Lampoon's Animal House. (Harold Ramis & Douglas Kenney & Chris Miller)
You can see the full list here. It includes brief commentaries and who wrote each. (There's a typo on #17 with who wrote The Big Lebowski. It was Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Not "Mel Brooks.")
As I said, I didn't expect to agree with the full list, and knew there would be some eye-rolling selections. For instance, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times only being #82 and his City Lights just being #91, while films like Office Space reached #47. And Clueless at #71. Perfectly good comedies, and if it's personal taste to be on the list, so be it. But that far ahead of two legendary Charlie Chaplin classic??? Well, okay, so our tastes differ. I expected it.
But as much as I was prepared enough not to be "outraged" by any inclusions and omissions, I have to admit that one did. And that would be the omission of any movie from W.C. Fields. Not The Bank Dick. Not It's a Gift. Not Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Nothing. Not mentioned even once in the top 101. As readers of these pages know, I'm a huge W.C. Fields fan. And happily wrote about him here on his 100th birthday a few months ago. (And here and here.)
There properly were two Marx Bros. movie, Duck Soup (#17) and A Night at the Opera (#38). But zero mention of W.C. Fields? None, in the top 101?? Seriously, folks? Sigh. Well, okay, so be it. I do understand that his films have become a touch more forgotten -- as this list testifies -- but while I didn't expect any of them to be high on the list, The Bank Dick is hardly a lost film, at the very least, and so total disappearance is another thing entirely. How overlooked was W.C. Fields here? When the WGA put together a brief montage at the end of some great comedies that were left off the list -- even they (!) ignored The Bank Dick and It's a Gift and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man and Never Give...well, okay, you get the idea.
There also were no movies on the list from Laurel & Hardy, though so many of their best-loved films were shorts, so I'm not as surprised by their omission. Though still, they did have some wonderful full-length features, like Sons of the Desert, Way Out West, Flying Deuces and much more. And yes, they were left off the "left off" montage, as well.
Still, it's just a list of online voting. So, you take it at that. I'm not going to go through the list and quibble about what's there and what isn't and whether one film should be above another, and... Overall, it was a solid list of wonderful comedies, and most especially in the top 10 -- even top 15 -- I thought the list was very solid.
As for the event itself...
Well. I was disappointed. I found it, hmmm, sloppy. The organization of the night went okay, but only at best. It just sort of seemed slapped together in a couple weeks, though I'm sure it wasn't. The list was movies wasn't presented in the most-involving way -- broken into segments of about 25 and then quickly scrolled by on the movie screen. Perhaps graphics might have been a nice tough, and run the the scroll a bit slower to let the audience appreciate each one, and applaud. Though it was a great list to read.
The host was Rob Reiner, who I like a lot and find smart, outgoingly pleasant, funny and often charming. But I was deeply underwhelmed here. To be fair, much of the large audience seemed to greatly enjoy him and found him very witty. I just got the sense that he hadn't put a lot of thought into hosting and just figured he could give it a once-over and wing it. And he often was funny. But just not especially well-prepared. I found his opening remarks (that got a lot of laughs) borderline insulting to writers -- a bizarre choice given the point of the evening. Things like talking about how it was the actors who made things funny. And how comedies are all about collaboration. And snarkingly noting that no one voting actually read the screenplays but are just reacting to the movies, suggesting that the list was meaningless. (Hey, great way to start the night!) Even making sure to point out that his film, This is Spinal Tap, which was #11 on the list of screenplays didn't even have a screenplay, but was ad-libbed. (I do suspect it had an outline and structure created before they began. So, while not traditional, this wasn't a bunch of actors saying, "Hey, let's just start filming and see what we get!!") Ultimately, this evening was about the screenplays, that blank page, no characters yet, no plot yet, no jokes yet, just the writer. Not actors and "collaborating," which sometimes improves, sometimes weakens the original material, but about the core foundation of the movies that gave those gems life. The blank-page script when the screenwriter sits down at his desk with...nothing. And then and only then when those writers are finished, then the actors get to say and do something funny, and others get the chance to "collaborate." But first, it's the screenplay.
And the group of panels throughout the night were handled sort of sloppily, as well. Happily, there was a pretty good collection of writers there, some of whom gave brief, interesting speeches, like Jon Favreau (Swingers) and Alexander Payne (Election and Sideways, written with Jim Taylor). And the panels included George Gallo (Midnight Run), Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love), the ZAZ team -- Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (Airplane! and The Naked Gun), the Farrelly Brothers and Bennett Yellin (Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber), Randi Mayem Singer (Mrs. Doubtfire, written with Leslie Dixon) and Buck Henry, who got the one standing ovation of the night (The Graduate, What's Up Doc?, with Peter Bogdonavich, who was there on the panel, as well.)
Note: all these people above wrote other, terrific films -- I'm just listing the ones on the top 101 list.
But though it was a very good collection of people, and the conversation was often entertaining, the discussion was sort of rambling and repetitious. And they never figured out the logistics of when to bring out speakers and panelists in relation to showing the list and clips. It was sort of odd all night. In moderating the panels, Rob Reiner was enthusiastic and involved and had an infectious liveliness, but there are only so many times you want to hear, "What movies first inspired you?" and "How did you come up for the idea of your movie?" They're absolutely fine questions, but shouldn't be 75% of what's asked. Far better if there had been some more preparation to come up with a range of specific questions that fit the panelists. Instead, the panels were fairly rambling. And there's a limit to how many times I want to hear that someone is such a good friend and why. That's perfectly okay, since it personalizes things, and it never became too much, but there's still a limit because this was about 101 screenplays, not just those few talents on the panels.
There was also an odd, final panel with five writers whose movies were not on the list. A strange thing to do, and almost stranger way to end the evening. And it wasn't like the group, while consisting of quite good comedies, was something that made you go, "How in the world could those possibly been overlooked?!," as a way to honor those that somehow fell through the cracks. (There was a brief film montage of some of those that did make you think that. Though, as mentioned earlier, even that montage left off W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy). I got the sense that the WGA wanted to include more panelists with women and minorities. A good idea, just handled oddly.
To be clear, there were laughs throughout the evening. But I found it more sporadic than what could have been, given the comedy talent across the stage all night. And could have been much more insightful. I do recall, though, my own favorite laugh of the night -- which got perhaps the biggest laugh from the audience, though it was a huge non sequitor --
As a new panel sat down, Rob Reiner turned to Peter Bogdanovich and said, out of the blue, "So, Peter. What was it that made you think you could pull off an ascot?" (referring to his trademark attire). This got a big laugh, and then Bogdanovich replied, "It's not an ascot. It's a bandanna." There was a brief pause after a chuckle, and then he added, "An ascot would have been pretentious." The house broke up.
I want to reiterate, I have a feeling that my reaction was more in the minority. The audience seemed to have a wonderful time. And I had a respectably okay time. But from an evening like that, I made the long drive through rush hour traffic because I expected more. I expected a special evening. And I didn't expect writers to be that much put down (even if largely unintentional) at the opening of an event by writers saluting writers. In the end, the gala was okay. Enjoyable enough, but much too sloppy.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor