Can Drunkenness Be Funny Anymore?

Posted on June 16, 2010 at 3:59 pm

One of the many unpleasant elements of The Killers was the light-hearted portrayal of one of the main characters as a substance abuser. Catherine O’Hara plays the mother of Katherine Heigl’s character. Her role is one drunk joke after another. And there is never a suggestion that anyone in the family has any concerns or resentment or sadness about the fact that she is perpetually drinking, tipsy, or both.

A few decades ago, the funny drunk was a comic staple. Dean Martin and Foster Brooks created entire personas based on an “I’ll drink to that” approach to just about everything. (In real life, both drank very little.) Lee Marvin, best known for playing tough guys in war films and westerns, won an Oscar for a funny drunk role as a broken-down gunslinger (and his identical twin brother) in “Cat Ballou.” Another character introduces himself by saying that he is drunk and a sight gag shows a horse that has had too much to drink.

Lucille Ball had comic drunk scenes (after inadvertently imbibing) in both her television series (the “Vitameatavegamin” episode) and the movie “Yours, Mine, and Ours.” Many serious actors had comedy intoxication scenes on their resumes, from James Stewart (another Oscar-winner, for “The Philadelphia Story”) to Charles Laughton (directed by David Lean in “Hobson’s Choice”). Perhaps most surprising, these kinds of scenes and characters were even found in children’s movies like “Dumbo” and “Aristocats.”

But these days, with heightened awareness of the consequences of drunk driving and the visibility of celebrities who participate in 12 step programs or stay in rehab facilities like the Betty Ford Center, drunkenness, alcoholism, and other substance abuse problems are hard to make funny. In the case of “The Killers, it’s just evidence of the same laziness and bad judgment that makes the rest of the film so painful to watch. But even the deftest 21st century comedies may not be able to find a way to make comedy based on drinking too much work. I am pretty sure that’s progress.

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10 Replies to “Can Drunkenness Be Funny Anymore?”

  1. Yes. As long as there are those with the courage not to be limited by political correctness, yes, it will be funny.
    Not everyone is a coward.

  2. I’m not so sure, Nell. Among the longest-lasting of Western cultural memes has been the funny drunk. From Greek plays, to Falstaff, down to Otis on the Andy Griffith show, the funny drunk has allowed us to laugh at our swinishness and indulgence by externalizing it. It may soothe us to think that the funny drunk has suddenly become taboo because we’re all so enlightened now. But I suspect it has more to do with growing cultural fears over loss of control and contempt for human weakness (though cult groups like MADD have certainly had an impact). The loss of the funny drunk in our culture could be related to another curious cultural disappearance — the private detective in movies and on TV. Surely we don’t mind guys with guns kicking butt and enforcing morality. We just want him to be a cop now. We’re uncomfortable with random violence unless it’s done by civil servants.

  3. Yes, Ralph, but even your examples are decades old. We don’t have a funny drunk on sit-coms anymore. Yes, there will always be humor based on exaggerated fears of human weakness and the inherent pleasure of characters who get away with things we don’t. These days, we have (supposedly) funny characters who sleep around a lot (Wendie Malick on “Just Shoot Me,” Charlie Sheen on “Two and a Half Men”) instead. That would have been unthinkable on television back in the days of Otis the town drunk. But today even movies like “The Hangover” draw their humor from the (bad) consequences of substance abuse. We get almost no screen time of characters under the influence.
    As for private detectives, it seems to me there are still plenty and always will be, though often the characters are former cops: Monk, Burn Notice, Psych, Numbers, etc. You could even put the A-Team in that category. And they’ve just announced a remake of “The Rockford Files.”

  4. While I definitely agree that the cultural awareness today regarding the damage alcohol abuse does has had an effect, I also think that we eventually hit a point where the same ol’ shtick just isn’t as funny anymore, except maybe when it’s done clearly as an homage to ages gone by, but not when it ultimately comes across as lazy writing. There just comes a point when we say to ourselves, “I liked that gag better the first 200 times I saw it …” Be it the funny drunk, or the profane comedian, or the character that sleeps around, or whatever.

  5. Agreed 100%, Dave. I think it is possible to be funny about tipsiness or even drunkenness, but it is a bit harder these days in part because we’ve seen it so many times. And that’s in part because it has been an easy laugh in the past. I guess I’m just saying it’s not as easy a laugh any more.

  6. Someone thinks so. Supposedly, there is a remake of “Arthur” in the works, starring Russell Brand.

  7. You’re right, Kevin, which reminds me that there is a lot of substance abuse humor in “Get Him to the Greek,” though with the obligatory redemption.

  8. I think that drunkenness can be funny if it’s done right. For example, Hellboy 2 has a scene where Hellboy and Abe are discussing women. They get drunk and sing along to Barry Manilow and it’s hilarious (made even more funny when the song gets a repriese in the end credits). Another example is when Bart gets drunk in The Simpsons Movie. However, I do think that such humor is best restricted to one or two scenes. It probably wouldn’t be funny for an entire movie, especially if you’ve seen something like The Lost Weekend or When A Man Loves A Woman.

  9. I love that scene in “Hellboy 2,” Vince! I think I’d make a distinction between one scene where a character gets tipsy and the idea of a character whose primary role in the story is to be drunk all the time. I think it is that second category that is harder to make work now than it was a few decades ago.

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