“I was struck by how pale he was in person,” Short said slowly with a wide-eyed deadpan as Martin reacted with mock horror. “It was like I was being haunted suddenly.”
It’s a charming interview, but it’s also kind of tragic, especially if you’re prone to nostalgia. Seeing these comedic giants is a reminder that they don’t make movies like those goofy 1980s comedies anymore — and much of America could really use them these days.
In 1986, the year “Three Amigos!” came out, five of the top 10 movies at the box office were comedies — and some were memorable enough to leave a lasting impression. Who could forget Mick “Crocodile” Dundee explaining, “that’s not a knoife; this is a knoife” or Rodney Dangerfield pulling off the triple lindy in “Back to School”? Who doesn’t still laugh at the image of Jeanie ninja kicking the dean of students in the face before sprinting upstairs to her bedroom in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”?
“Three Amigos!” didn’t even crack the top 20, but it had decent returns, no doubt thanks to a stellar cast that also included Chevy Chase, coming off a hot streak of “Fletch,” “European Vacation” and “Spies Like Us.” In today’s dollars, the movie would have brought in close to $90 million, just edging out another laugh-out-loud comedy from that year, “The Money Pit,” starring Tom Hanks.
This year, the closest thing to a live-action comedy in the top 10 will be “Deadpool.”
We’re in the midst of a comedy drought, at least on the big screen, and it’s partly the result of a Catch-22. The first issue is comedies aren’t as important to studios as they once were, because they don’t do as well overseas as an action or superhero movie might. Because a comedy is already a risk, it’s only likely to get made if it’s a known entity. Hence we get a bunch of sequels — lame retreads that aren’t very good but coast along on name recognition. Audiences don’t go to see the movies because they’re bad, which indicates to studios that audiences don’t want comedy. But the genre isn’t the problem. Lazy movies are.
This year has provided an endless stream of comedy sequels and revivals, and nearly all have been terrible. There was “Zoolander 2” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” the “Absolutely Fabulous” movie and the all-female “Ghostbusters,” plus “Neighbors 2,” “Bridget Jones’s Baby” and the “Ride Along” sequel.
I saw all of them and don’t believe I laughed out loud once. Of all the mainstream comedies I saw this year, I only remember having that feeling — the sweet release of a good guffaw — during two: “Central Intelligence” and “Bad Moms” (though “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” came close with a certain full-frontal scene).
Laughter, like a good cry, can be cathartic. It’s a pure form of escape and, unlike a weepy, it feels good both during and after the fact.
“Three Amigos!” came out Dec. 12, 30 years ago and it was hardly a masterpiece. It had its moments, though, not to mention a pleasantly original plot about a trio of silent movie actors who accidentally end up agreeing to defend a Mexican village from a marauding villain named “El Guapo.” In one of the funnier bits, the guys go into a bar, where a crowd of tough guys mistakenly think the ostentatiously dressed Amigos are ruthless killers, so the patrons sit patiently through the entertainers’ rendition of “My Little Buttercup.”
Remarkably, 1986 wasn’t even a standout year for comedy, when you look at the years before and after. Eight of the top 10 movies of 1988, for example, were comedies, including “Big,” “The Naked Gun,” “Coming to America” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Beyond the highest-grossing handful, there were also a slew of standout classics: “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Scrooged,” “Bull Durham” and “Ernest Saves Christmas.” (Don’t judge.)
On Friday, 2016 will add yet another lackluster comedy to its collection. “Office Christmas Party” is basically a musty old gift wrapped in shiny new paper. In fact, the movie has an almost identical bit to “Three Amigos!” when a man tries to swing from a string of lights, but crashes to the ground instead.
Because a lot of people so desperately need comedy right now, they might flock to “Office Christmas Party” anyway, only to be greeted by a stereotypical let’s-throw-a-rager! movie with a funny cast — T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn — that’s stuck telling tired jokes. They could save their money, though, and get as much laughter out of any number of clips from old movies floating around YouTube.
The good news is that there actually were some funny movies this year, even if most people have never heard of them. “Toni Erdmann” is a German movie about a practical-joke-loving man who wants to help his type-A daughter loosen up; the New Zealand import “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” follows an adorable foster kid hiding out from the authorities in the woods; and “Sing Street,” an Irish musical comedy, is set in the 1980s and concerns a bullied kid who starts a band to impress a girl. There are even some stateside releases that are good for a few laughs, including Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” and Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship.”
For the most part, these movies aren’t going to make you laugh till you cry. You won’t find yourself doubled over like people were for “There’s Something About Mary,” “The Hangover” or “Wedding Crashers,” but the movies are original, at least, not to mention consistently amusing. And if none of them give you the kind of cleansing merriment you need, you could always watch an old movie instead. 1986 has plenty to choose from.