08 July 2021

That's My Boy! America's Last Great Offensive Comedy!

I am going to level with you right here and now. I love the Adam Sandler / Andy Samberg 2012 vehicle, That's My Boy. I watched it the weekend it came out, on Father's Day, in theaters, with my dad. We had a great time. It's reliable Sandler fun, while he also ditches most of his usual Happy Madison cronies (although the film is full of truly, truly bizarre casting choices with few traditional actors), but it's also a Hard R with drugs, swearing, and nudity, which is relatively new territory for the Sand-man. Anyway, I can talk about this film all day, but let's dive into the big concept - this is the last traditional comedy that doesn't seem to mind offending people.

Now, we need to get something else straight right away. This is not an article designed to whine about PC culture or anything. Inclusion is vitally important and I find it generally amazing that the comedy world tends to have a knee-jerk reaction to make fun of SJWs instead of the block-headed people trying to preserve a woefully outdated status quo. Comedy doesn't seem to know quite where to go these days. They feel hamstrung by these concepts. This happens for a few reasons.

First, it's basically just Twitter, but all social media platforms gives everyone an opportunity to rant about whatever they want, whenever they want to. So, instead of complaining in the car ride home about a comedian, we get to complain to the entire world. By that same logic, we also have greater exposure than any other time in history. If you wanted to watch a vulgar comedian, you could, and generally, I'd say people who went to an Eddie Murphy show knew what they were getting into. In the social media age, there is not only greater sharing and exposure than ever before, but also an ever-evolving form of group-think where people can make judgments quickly and about things they would never have been willingly exposed to.

And to be sure, this isn't new. People complained about Eddie Murphy and Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and everyone. That's not really at the heart of our current issue, but it's certainly a factor - and as I decry social media for being an easy, consequence-free outlet for folks to complain about whatever they want, it is equally an easy scapegoat for complaining about how people can use it as an avenue to make complaints.

What's more is this idea that comedy, films in particular, struggle to find a voice out of a fear of offending folks. Movies face this more than television simply because they have so many more gatekeepers for any joke that gets in. It becomes difficult for auteurs to find their voice, especially as we thoroughly move past the era of Judd Apatow man-child comedies, which dominated so much of the past nearly twenty years.

This was already cresting by 2012, where we got three pretty big comedies. That's My Boy (fine, that wasn't big, no one saw it), TED and 21 Jump Street. TED worked that offensive humour as well, but it never felt as cringe as That's My Boy, which is fully of dated joke choices and really weak attempts to be woke (like making the household servants Asian instead of Black or Latinx. Like, it's still a racist deal, and when you try to look less racist you look more racist). Maybe the talking teddy bear lessened the blow of every insane line ("Yeah, whatever, thanks for 9/11" said to Norah Jones). At any rate, TED is a good movie, the sequel is derivative in that Family Guy sense where it relies more on references than constructed jokes (The Jurassic Park (1993) / weed field sequence comes to mind). That's not always a bad thing for everyone, but it's never really caught my interest.

But 21 Jump Street figured it out. And then 22 Jump Street (2014) figured it out more. I think about this article a lot. A LOT. What movie would you pick for 2018? 2019? I think 2017 belongs to Girls Trip, as many noted at the time. And so far 2021 probably belongs to Bad Trip so far, another Tiffany Haddish movie. But 22 Jump Street was honestly woke before woke was a thing and found great delight in spoofing collegiate institutions (and surely they've never been skewered before...), found a way to reflect on films themselves (at the time I commented that it was a little tooo meta, to the point where it lost its own substance via constantly commenting on itself), and turned ignorant talk about different people into one of the film's best jokes when it's turned around on less woke folks.

That's maybe the thing I most don't understand why comedians are so afraid to speak their mind. We've never been in a better age to skewer ignorant people in power. Modern comedy is only difficult when you punch down. It feels like there is more injustice than ever these days. A common refrain in the Twitterverse is "You could never make Blazing Saddles (1974) today!" which seems to ignore the fact that it was hugely controversial when it came out. I also generally don't understand that refrain, it was clearly a movie about elucidating ignorance but the kind of folks whining seem to just want an excuse for more white people to say the n-word. Memory, like ideology, is selective I guess.

There is always surely the danger in satire for people to take the wrong message. Personally I think that's just a risk you have to take. The people who are listening will get it, and those who don't weren't going to be swayed anyway. So, what about the ignorant woke people who take parody and satire at face value but are in actuality on the side of the comedian fighting for justice? I don't know, maybe you just need to be really in on the joke, like Borat: Subsequent Movie Film (2020 - another candidate for Comedy of the Year). Like, to be so unambiguous about your views in your private life that people know what side of the aisle you're on when the punches start to be thrown. That movie is probably the best recent satire of this vein, and we need more of it.

Then again we're in a weird spot. Is this satire even doing anything? As the amount of us who are moderates declines, who are we swaying to our side? Modern injustices are so obviously unjust, but there are many who disagree. Maybe that's the line, explore why this is, then make fun of them until the sun dries up into the big peach core it is.

There tends to be three major kinds of comedies these days. There are straight up dramedies, or movies close to dramedies. Something like Palm Springs (2020), which was very entertaining fits into this. But there's also The King of Staten Island (2020), which didn't even try to be funny. Dramedies can work, they really can, but there's so much fear over being funny. There are a lot of shows that fall into this as well. Every comedy is trying to do prestige character work. You're the Worst was one of the most depressing shows ever, but it was also genuinely funny. Barry hits that line. Shrill doesn't, or maybe I was just exhausted by the time I watched it, yearning for a return to silliness. Arrested Development is the greatest-written show of all time, had great continuous character work and growth and was also consistently thoroughly doofy.

Then there are movies trying to be throw-back comedies, that are mostly about older folks complaining about younger folks. This is a lot of current Adam Sandler like Hubie Halloween (2020). These movies also include revival movies like Coming 2 America (2021) which must exist in a weird zone where they are moving older characters forward, so the culture clash is really the only choice. They invariably neglect to give the newer generations a chance to shine, however. In the television zone, this is...pretty much every network show. Matt LeBlanc and Kevin James and Ashton Kutcher seem to not be able to let go of their previous personas and are far more comfortable returning to this schtick over and over again.

Then there are the films that are legitimately trying to advance the genre. I think of Game Night (2018) or TAG (2018), which never really work. It always feels like they are really trying to be funny, but afraid to go all the way. There are so many movies like this. I can't remember a thing from Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016) or Let's Be Cops (2014). They tend to feel tired and trend chasing. Kevin Hart is a slight exception. For every uninspired Get Hard (2014) he has a Night School (2018), which was super-tropey but genuinely funny.

We were talking about That's My Boy? Yeah. That was probably the first movie I watched in the theaters that I really cringed at. There was a lot of "Ooooh...you probably shouldn't say that." Around this time we were just starting to melt away all our use of "retard" and "midget" and these other expanded slurs that ran throughout the mid-2000s. The word "faggot" is used so early on in The Fast and the Furious (2001) that when I re-watched it the other day to get pumped for F9 I was genuinely taken aback. "Oh yeah, we kind of just didn't care about this only 20 years ago."

That's My Boy doesn't actually have any of those grievances or discriminatory language, but it does feature the aforementioned awkward Asian servants (The Campaign [2012] did this, too. It was as if 2012 didn't know what to do with its servant characters, panicked, and cast Asians). It is generally full of contempt towards women, and uh, oh yeah, the whole premise is that a 12-year old boy was raped by his teacher and then raised a son who hates him.

There is a sly undercurrent here that cooould border on parody. Maybe? Said 12-year old becomes an instant celebrity with no single mention ever about the mental health ramifications (except that his dad is going to kick his ass). Instead, the whole thing is played up to an extreme level. Donnie Berger is able to parlay his rape into nationwide celebrity (clearly he would be on Dancing with the Stars later in his career), and universal cheers and applause. There's even a sign behind him perfectly framed that says "Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them."

Now, you could take all this another way. The film is saying that our culture is so rotted that it praises sex with hot women, even if statutory rape that you can parlay this into celebrity. Our mental health system is so broken that adult Donnie Berger is clearly a maladapted alcoholic. Our child services system is so broken that he had to raise his son on his own, which created severe lasting psychological trauma. This is all under the surface, but to be sure, NONE of it is treated as anything more than joke fodder. There are others out there who think like me. It goes for some truly fucked up shit, too. It's hard to pass the bar set by the brother /sister secret tickle time.

It all makes for a fascinating film. Character behavior is off the wall. It is relatively well-written. Samberg brings his all, and Sandler does really dive into the abhorrent material in a refreshingly R-rated way. The stakes are clearly articulated, the tension of the relationship keeps driving the movie forward, and we are well set up Samberg's spoken and unspoken desires - a normal life with a great job and hot wife or the sheer chaos hanging out with strippers and Vanilla Ice offered by his past. It's all pretty fun, but you need to check your soul at the door to truly hop down the rabbit hole.

This was the last film that got through the gate. Pushing any further wouldn't have worked. And hell, this isn't even the kind of movie you could make today. The charm of its leads really make it watchable. I'd be hesitant to show it to any sort of woke audience today. If it is in fact a satire, it does not present itself that way. I think you had to be there and know what they were going for, and like I said, check your soul at the door and go to work. Once you do that, you get to see Vanilla Ice bang grandma and Rex Ryan talk about how much he loves Tom Brady. There are good things here.

What do you think? Are comedies dead? Where do we go from here? Am I crazy to love That's My Boy? Or does it exist now as a genuinely interesting historical artifact as the last bastion of comedy before we couldn't say and do these things anymore?*

*Oh, and just a disclaimer, I'm not complaining like "Ohhh why can't we treat women as only sex objects anymore?!" It is assuredly a good thing we've moved on and started actually caring about underrepresented groups. There are a lot of good stories there, and easy racism to skewer. Go for it.

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