YouTube is an excellent place to watch fast-food employees beat up unruly customers, or guys with names like Brody and Tyler “pranking” their wives into believing their kid is dead, but did you know that there are movies on there? Honest to goodness scripted comedies? I often forget, scanning the dreck that clogs the usual spouts of streaming entertainment, that there’s a lot of good stuff sitting right there, on an app that mostly dispenses poison.
Even without the recent string of mass shootings, I’m burnt out on violence. I just want something that brings me joy, absent the unrelenting cruelty and malevolence of America in 2023. Here are five comedies that might make this awful week a little easier, all streaming for free.
Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton): Just a year shy of its centennial, Sherlock Jr. continues to amaze, a work so ahead of its time that I’m not sure the world has fully caught up with it. Like many other films that were ahead of their time, it underperformed commercially and reviews were mixed; even Keaton deemed it just “alright.” Over time, it became rightly recognized as a surrealist touchstone, one of the first films to merge newly popular Freudian dream analysis with the moving image’s endless formal and stylistic possibilities.
Almost as soon as Buster crosses the silver screen into dream, his environment begins changing from one second to the next: a courtyard, a busy street, a mountainside, a lion’s den. Through means of standard linear cutting, we witness the fluid nature of the dream environment, whose different stages are only connected by the dreamer’s movement, untethered to any narrative logic. When his surroundings finally settle, he is Sherlock, the world’s greatest detective—an appropriate avatar for the ego, anticipating Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud—whose search for missing pearls is punctuated by ingenious visual gags and stunts that only a madman like Keaton would dream of, let alone attempt.
Buster eventually wakes up to find his own real-life conflict resolved. As he and his lover embrace in the projection booth, their kiss is mirrored by the characters on screen. Life imitates cinema imitates dreams. If what Lacan said about dreams is true—that a dream is the ego’s way of burying one’s deepest desires in the unconscious, where they are more or less impervious to the standard measures of comprehension (i.e., language, logic)—Sherlock Jr. suggests cinema as a means of tapping these recesses: a waterslide into the deep end of our brains, where language and logic dare not tread.
Abigail’s Party (1977, Mike Leigh): Cringe comedy dates at least as far back as the late-1960s (three possible urtexts: Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, John Cassavetes’ Husbands, and Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!), but Mike Leigh took the comedy of discomfort to new levels in Abigail’s Party, one of several stage plays he filmed for the BBC. Like a lot of Leigh’s filmography (Meantime, High Hopes, parts of Naked), Abigail’s Party is a class-conscious comedy of manners, mining comic gold from the social stratification among its principal cast. Lowest in the pecking order is Angela (Janine Duvitski), a kind (if a bit simple) nurse; then Laurence (Tim Stern), the real estate agent whose love for Beethoven feels less like a genuine passion and more like an affect; Tony (John Salthouse), Angela’s husband and former footballer who now works as a computer operator, an upwardly mobile meathead whose primary social tactic is saying as little as possible; and finally Beverly (Alison Steadman), Laurence’s wife, the passive-aggressive bully of a party host.
Watching it unfold is Sue (Harriet Reynolds), a divorcée from the neighborhood who joins Beverly’s party while her daughter Abigail has a party of her own down the street. Sue’s the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate, the outsider who has to endure the unbearable awkwardness of Beverly’s condescending treatment of Angela, flirtations with Tony, and testy exchanges with Laurence. But Beverly isn’t a villain, as Leigh has been quick to point out. If we too readily identify with the well-mannered Sue, it’s only because we know that somewhere inside us also exists a Beverly.
The Wrong Guy (1997, David Steinberg): I got a chance to see The Wrong Guy three years ago in New York City, in a packed theater on 35mm. It was already a favorite of mine, a straight-to-video deep cut that I frequently recommend to comedy lovers, but seeing it on the big screen with a crowd of people who’d mostly never seen it reminded me just how funny it is, the kind of movie I have to take an aspirin after watching because my head hurts from laughing.
The Wrong Guy takes a classic Hitchcock premise and turns it on its head: Nelson Hibbert (Dave Foley, who also co-wrote the script) gets skipped for a promotion at his job and publicly threatens to kill his boss, but by coincidence, someone else kills his boss later that day. When Nelson discovers the body, bloodying himself in the process (a standout scene), he believes he’s been mistaken for the killer and goes on the lam. However, the police have already identified the real killer, making Nelson’s escape completely unnecessary. As Nelson and the real killer’s paths intersect over separate cross-country journeys, the killer comes to believe that Nelson is an FBI agent on his trail.
It’s a clever vehicle for a series of irreverent gags, The Wrong Man by way of The Jerk. There’s good physical comedy, like Foley jumping through the open door of an oncoming train and rolling out the other side, but the absurdist flourishes are the most memorable: the doo-wop singing cops (cameo by the Barenaked Ladies), the disheveled late night radio DJ (“That was… jazz, some sort of jazz music”), the JFK conspiracy theorist (“His head just did that. I call it the No Bullet Theory”), the small town bank that’s being run out of town by greedy farmers. My head hurts just thinking about it.
The Stella Shorts (1998-2002, Stella): Stella, the three-man comedy troupe of Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain, began their series of short videos mostly as a lark, screening them during NYC comedy shows. The suit-clad Stella quickly fashioned themselves as a turn-of-the-millennium Marx Brothers. The Stella philosophy of comedy is that everything’s permissible; no joke is too stupid or offensive. If (per Slavoj Žižek) the Marx Brothers were Freud’s ego, superego, and id in human form, the Stella boys are all id. This results in a number of gags that don’t age very well (i.e., the heavy use of sexual harassment as a punchline), but they’re far outweighed by moments of juvenile transcendence. This is the comedy of following your every whim. It’s making a fart noise after shaking a stranger’s hand. It’s throwing a cup of coffee in a person’s face for no reason. It’s smoking a cigarette in the middle of a yoga class and telling someone to shut up when they cough. It’s repeating “you guys… the pizza… you guys… the pizza…” until the words become nothing more than a series of guttural groans. In its way, Stella foreshadowed the current era of comedy podcast riffing: it’s puerile, vulgar, homoerotic (the giant dildo is the closest thing Stella has to a Zeppo), and unpolished—the natural byproduct of a few good friends just trying to make each other laugh.
Windy City Heat (2003, Bobcat Goldthwait): I know I said these movies were cruelty-free, which isn’t true of Windy City Heat. The movie is undoubtedly mean-spirited, an elaborate prank perpetrated on a single individual, meant to humiliate him. Even as he recommends the film, director Edgar Wright adds that he doesn’t condone it (other notable fans include Eminem, Mike Judge, and Johnny Knoxville). Wright’s ambivalence reminds me of John Waters’ response to a friend who called Spring Breakers the most socially irresponsible movie they’d ever seen: “It wasn’t that good.” But Windy City Heat is that good, the meanest (and possibly funniest) comedy ever made.
The story goes that Comedy Store vet and Jimmy Kimmel (who produces) warm-up act Don Barris and his longtime friend Tony Barbieri (aka Mole) spent over a decade fucking with Perry “Scary Perry” Caravello, a boorish Store open mic regular whose style might best be described as Mentally Challenged Sam Kinison. Windy City Heat shows old video footage of their pranks before laying out the premise: they’ve convinced Perry that he’s up for the starring role as sports detective Stone Fury in a movie called Windy City Heat (sample dialogue: “Of all the gin joints in all the world, frankly my dear I don’t give a damn”). Of course, he gets the part, but not after a tense, hilarious interaction with his rival for the role, Carson Daly.
From that point forward, every moment, on set or off, presents an opportunity to push Perry’s buttons (a conspicuously fat Stone Fury action figure prototype, a flamboyantly gay wardrobe assistant played by Tom Kenny) and test the absolute limits of his gullibility (the list of improbable names he encounters on set includes Roman Polanski, Frances Farmer, and a Japanese financier named Hiroshima Nagasaki, who angrily pulls out of the production after Mole knocks over a craft services table). This would seem pretty cruel, were it not for Perry’s increasingly arrogant and entitled behavior (not to mention fairly overt sexism and homophobia), making him a much more deserving target.
The movie climaxes with the premiere of their film, at which the “President of Show Business” (veteran TV actor Geoff Pierson) presents Perry with an award. “All I can say to everybody is strive forward,” Perry tells the planted audience. “And don’t ever stop, and always remember that your goal is always in front of you, always always always, seek and you will destroy, which means you will conquer that goal, and you’ll be the winner.” We might laugh at Perry’s asinine remarks, but truth be told, they’re not that far off from an average Oscars speech. In the end, Perry is just the funhouse reflection of an industry that’s simultaneously self-obsessed and totally lacking in self-awareness, a town where everybody plays the fool.