Genuinely Stupid Comedy

When I say I hate “dumb comedies,” I’m referring to comedies that pander to the mentality (if that’s not too sophisticated a word to use in this context) of simian-level moviegoers who love films like Balls of Fury. But if a comedy conveys the attitude and world-view of characters who are really and truly idiotic (and can’t help it or don’t care that they’re so afflicted), then I collapse into helpless spasms. I love stupidity, but only the kind that’s earnest and convincing.

Parts of Dumb and Dumber are hilarious to me. Ditto Bill Pullman‘s “dumbest guy in the world” character in Ruthless People. I worship The Music Box, that classic Laurel and Hardy short about trying to deliver a piano in a big wooden crate. That moment in William Friedkin‘s The Brinks Job when Allen Garfield opens up a storage-room door at a gumball factory that a sign on the wall says to not open….hilarious.

My all-time favorite stupid line is in What’s Up, Tiger Lily? when that colorfully- dressed Oriental warlord shows Phil Moskowitz a small map and says, “Here is Shepard Wong‘s home” and Moskowitz replies, “He lives in that piece of paper?”

Please don’t list scenes that show run-of-the-mill stupidity. “Stupid” isn’t funny unless a character (or characters) really mean what they say. We’re talking about serious conviction, about dumbness that is solid and genuine…not affected or used as an “act.”

67 thoughts on “Genuinely Stupid Comedy

  1. I’ve praised Kevin Kline’s work as Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda” here before. I love his conviction that he is an intellectual in the midst of brazen stupidity.

  2. Kline is a good call for sure.

    I think the distinction is actually between movies that are genuinely dumb and those that only use dumb jokes.

    The good ZAZ movies (Airplane! being the most obvious) do this to perfection. The difference between a good Farelly Bros. movie (There’s Something About Mary) a decent one (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin) and a bad one (um, the rest of them) is how much the dumb jokes are tempered by an actual story.

    Monty Python perfected the art of using dumb jokes (men in drag, jokes about vomitting) with brilliant, cutting-edge stuff.
    It doesn’t take much to have a movie with a fat guy puking. But to have the next two scenes consist of philophical monologues (one punctuated by an anti-semitic remark, the other by a series of “Fuck You!”) is what makes the comedy really work.

    As Nigel Tufnel said, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

  3. was blown away by turturro in big lobowski, i mean that was as over the top funny as you could get..when he came storming in after they canceled the match and his closing statement and exit…oh man..

  4. You beat me to the Big Lebowski, but I would nominate the scene with Bridges flicking the joint into his crotch, pouring liqour on himself, and driving into a dumpster…pretty classic. Steve Buscemi’s Fargo performance might go on this list, too.

  5. I forget which one it was, but there is a scene in one of the PINK PANTHER movies which starts with Peter Sellers outside a bank with a robbery in progress, where he argues with a blind man over whether or not he has a monkey license and continues with Sellers opening a car door for a fleeing robber and finishes with him knocking out a pursuing bank guard. It’s the funniest thing ever.

  6. I meant to make clearer that I’m nominating Bridges’ entire Lebowski role, from the supermarket milk mustache to the scratchpad boner to the sherriff’s office…
    Hard to ignore Goodman’s eulogy for Donnie and subsequent ash-scattering, though…maybe just take the whole movie as an example.

  7. The Big Lebowski is probably the greatest “dumb movie” ever.

    That’s why critics who loved the deep pathos of Fargo were so baffled by it.

    There is not a single typically intelligent person in the whole cast.
    Every main character has at least one great dumb moment whether it’s Walter scattering the ashes or pumelling the car, Donnie saying “I am the Walrus” or The Dude doing, well about anything.

    What elevates it to true greatness is the bizarre sidetrips, like the landlord’s dance recital and the Turturro flashback.

  8. Pullman in Ruthless People is a good call. Tim Robbins also has some great moments in Bull Durham while he’s under Sarandon’s tutelage. (It seems like most of the great stupid performances have to happen before an actor gets to be well known; once you’ve seen them play average or higher intelligence, it’s hard to go backward convincingly.)

    An iconic moment among my family members: on the Newhart TV show (when Bob was the host of “Vermont Today” or something along those lines), he welcomed the man who claimed to have “the world’s smallest horse”… who then produced a Shetland pony, or one of similar size. Attempting to clarify the statement, Bob gamely asks, “How do you know that’s the world’s smallest horse?” The guy looks at him uncomprehendingly for a second, then gestures at the horse, “Look at it!”

  9. “The difference between a good Farelly Bros. movie (There’s Something About Mary) a decent one (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin) and a bad one (um, the rest of them) is how much the dumb jokes are tempered by an actual story.”

    Kingpin has some real smarts along with milking-a-bull jokes. My favorite exchange is Harrelson greeting some washed-up raspy-voiced old guys smoking and drinking at 7 am on a porch:

    “Hey, Bob! How’s life?”
    “Takin’ too damn long.”

    From there to Shallow Hal is a sad decline.

  10. if you’re talking tv shows bob newhart’s original show was very funny as well as some of the sight gags on i dream of jeannie and Get smart…in fact for pure outrageousness get smart might be the king…

  11. I will say it (as they throw tomatoes at me) ISHTAR. The sincerity of Warren Beatty’s stupidity. Paul Williams’ lyrics and Charles Grodin’s performance.
    Still Crazy. Bill Nighy’s performance.
    Spinal Tap. Everything about it.
    Waiting For Guffman. Everything about it.
    Play It Again Sam. Woody Allen’s performance.
    Radio Days. Everybody’s performance.
    Bullets Over Broadway. Diane Wiest’s, Jennifer Tilley and Jim Broadbent’s performances.

  12. My father hated all comedies, so i’ll always have a special place for the following line in Naked Gun 33-1/3 for making him laugh so hard.

    Drebin: Cigarette?

    Anna Nicole Smith: Yes, I know.

  13. I love that line in Ruthless People: “We may very well be dealing with the dumbest person on the face of the earth.”

    And I’m still amazed, 19 years later, that Kline won the Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda. That performance is so note-perfect, and I can’t believe the Academy actually realized it.

    My nomination: Paul Gleason in Die Hard and The Breakfast Club. Both characters were idiots with hugely inflated senses of bravado, and Gleason never winked at the audience once.

  14. Reed Rotchild: Okay, now you’re talking above my head. I don’t know all of this industry jargon, YP, MP.

    (Also, Small Time Crooks is a recent underrated Woody flick about stupid people.)

  15. All of “Wet Hot American Summer”… one of the dumbest, funniest movies of all time. Anything that has a talking can of peas that comments on how it can suck its own dick is a-okay with me.

    Also the babysitter who puts the baby in the fridge in John Waters’ “Desperate Living”

  16. Can’t remember the character’s name but the dumb guy from “Midnight Madness” who tries to decipher the clue by reading it as:

    “Fag-a-beefy?”

  17. “Also the babysitter who puts the baby in the fridge in John Waters’ “Desperate Living”

    That led to one of my favorite comments from Waters in his book Shock Value, too. He talks about how people are way more scandalized that he stuck a baby in a fridge for two seconds than that, say, Divine ate dogshit, and says “What’s the big deal. I hardly think he’s going to grow up to only be able to have sex in refrigerators or something.”

  18. General Tommy Franks on Under Secretary of Defense Doug Feith: “I have to deal with the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth almost every day.”

    Oh sorry, it’s supposed to be from a movie, not real life.

  19. My wife’s comment on Samuel Jackson explaining the gun business to Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown: “They’re both really good at playing dumb guys.”

  20. Huge Coen fan here but I have always had a problem with Lebowski and two of the examples here are the reason why. Cheech & Chong did the joint in the lap joke first and Mel Brooks did the funeral ashes in the face bit in Life Stinks. I know the Coen’s reference a lot of older movies but Lebowski actually referenced films I grew up with and they didn’t tweak those jokes and make them their own. It was like seeing the wizard behind the curtain… but just a little bit.

    As for Raising Arizona, the thing I love most is how the stupidity of H.I.’s actions is contrasted with his master’s thesis of narration… “Hers was a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” Who talks like that, and why is he in a bunk in prison with a guy who ate sand when there was no crawdad?

    Related to the Coen’s via Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead series is about as stupid as they come.

  21. Kevin Kline’s Otto was the first character that came to my mind as well, so I am pleased to see it as the first mention here.

  22. GHOSTBUSTERS II

    – Not the movie, but around the 3/4 mark, some guy in the back row sneezed and gasped “AWW! I’ve been SLIMED.”

    As we’d all been waiting 90 or so minutes for a genuine laugh to come from the screen, the entire theater erupted in laughter and must have continued with it for a good five minutes. So yes, stupid joke, but came at the right time while watching the wrong movie.

  23. Craptastic, you’re looking for Brian Frishman as Barf in Midnight Madness. Now that’s a movie that’s amazing in its badness, which is perhaps even funnier now than when it was released. But oh, is it awful…which explains why I own the DVD.

  24. Elaine May’s performance in Small Time Crooks. As Woody Allen’s character says to Tracey Ullman about May: “Your cousin May is dumb like a horse, or a dog or something.”

    Watch the scene near the end where she tries to help Woody rob a society party. I still think that movie is underrated.

  25. Some good calls so far, but come on…where’s the love for Zoolander?

    “What is this? A centre for ANTS?!?!”
    “You can read minds?”
    “I bet you thought I didn’t even know what a eugoogly was.”

    However, one of my absolute favourites is John Heard in My Fellow Americans.

    “You all thought I was dumb, but it was just a big fakade!”

  26. The Kevin Kline stupid line from Wanda that always kills me is when John Cleese calls him a vulgarian, Kline’s response is, “You’re the vulgarian, YOU FUCK”. Killer stupid.

  27. One of my favorites in the “funny dumb” area is the Amber Waves documentary about Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights.

    “It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.”

  28. Robert Libertini as General Garcia in the original “The In-Laws”… “These are the finist security guards in the world… They worked at J.C.Penny’s in Detroit.” (Is Detroit right?)

  29. “When I say I hate “dumb comedies,” I’m referring to comedies that pander to the mentality (if that’s not too sophisticated a word to use in this context) of simian-level moviegoers who love films like Balls of Fury.”

    Balls of Fury isn’t that stupid, actually. It’s a wittier take on the cliches of the sports genre than Baseketball. It’s not classy, but it’s smarter than you think.

    Mgmax: I agree. I think Kingpin is much worldlier than Dumb and Dumber and Mary.

  30. peter sellers as hrundi bakshi: ‘birdy num-num’

    hugh griffith as king louis xvi: ‘i thought it was a costume party’

    and

    ali mc graw as jennifer cavalleri: ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’

  31. Along the lines of that Boogie Nights bit, there’s a fantastically dumb piece by a character in American Psycho: “What about the massacres in Sri Lanka, honey? Doesn’t that affect us, too? I mean don’t you know anything about Sri Lanka? About how the Sikhs are killing like tons of Israelis there?”

  32. God, I can’t believe an In-Laws line I don’t know and doesn’t already reduce me to utter hilarity.

    “Do you know, if Chiang Kai-Shek had come back into power, Billy and Bing would have been the co-anchors on the evening news in Shanghai? That’s how beloved they were!”

    Peter Falk in that movie is as good as comic performances ever get. “You little punk, those phone calls put you through college!” “Sadly, there’s very little that can be done, because of all the red tape. Tremendous red tape in the jungle.” “Sheldon, down here, they make a chicken sandwich, it comes on a kind of a hard roll– terrific.”

    peter sellers as hrundi bakshi: ‘birdy num-num’

    The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who, needing to test a microphone, say “Testing 1-2-3,” and those who immediately grab the chance to make a large room resound with “birdy num-num…”

  33. Leslie Nielson in O.J.’s hospital room trying to talk to a semi-conscious O.J. who is trying to tell him about what he had found out about the criminal gang they were chasing while O.J. was undercover. The whole scene is fabulous as Nielson takes everything O.J. says and twists it in the way Frank Drebin always does. When O.J. tries to tell him that the boat they’re looking for is named “I love you” and Frank says “I love you too, Nordberg” and when O.J. whispers “Heroin!” (what the gang is smuggling), Frank says “Well that’s a tall order, but I’ll see what I can do buddy.” Classic stuff.

  34. The Naked Gun series has too many pricelessly dumb moments to name.

    Banquet Doorman: Your coat, sir?
    Lt. Frank Drebin: Yes, it is. And I have a receipt to prove it.

    Or my absolute favourite:

    Lt. Frank Drebin: Now, Jane, what can you tell us about the man you saw last night?
    Jane Spencer: He’s Caucasian.
    Ed Hocken: Caucasian?
    Jane Spencer: Yeah, you know, a white guy. A moustache. About six-foot-three.
    Lt. Frank Drebin: Awfully big moustache.

  35. Probably not the intelligent stupid that’s being looking for, but Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the sunflower seed shells: Priceless.

    Melissa: Would you like an ashtray?
    Ace: Uh uh. I don’t smoke. It’s a disgusting habit.

  36. Nothing could be less hip than admitting you laughed at Men in Black, but I did love this exchange:

    FARM WIFE: What happened?

    FARMER POSSESSED BY ALIEN: SU-GAR!

    FARM WIFE: Ah never seen sugar do that.

  37. I second Dax Shepard in Idiocracy. Brilliance.

    I’d also like to nominate Steve Carell as Brick Thompson in Anchorman. He steals the movie.

    “I Love Lamp!”

  38. “Raul Hernandez yelping in frustration “Oh Man!” each time a poodle he’s thrown out the window hits the ground in UHF.”

    Good call!

    I can’t believe this thread has gotten so far with only one UHF reference. It features some awesome pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards stuff. How can you beat the bit where Stanley Spadowski is playing 20 questions with the guys who kidnap him:
    “I’m thinking of something orange….something orange…something ooooorange. Can you guess what is is? It’s an orange! Now I’m thinking of something blue. Something bluuuuuuue.”

    His inspirational, Network-style “Life is like a mop” speech is too lengthy to quote here, but certainly worthy of mention.

  39. And I’ll shut up after this but huge props to Christian for throwing out Animal House and Belushi’s speech (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”).
    Me? I always love quoting Dean Wormer:
    “Someone has to put his foot down…and that foot is me.”

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