Saturday, May 22, 2010

TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) - breaking down the greatest scene in the history of filmed comedy

looks like man's chain of evolution still has a couple of holes

Everybody has their own notion of what makes something funny. I'm no different, and I've even been able to quantify comedy into some sort of system, reducing untethered guffaws into simple, easy to understand terms. So, here goes:


Not to be confused with jokes about abstract expressionism, these are jokes about our "friends" from Poland. Polack jokes are to comedy what a good lead off hitter is to baseball; a consistently safe bet, a good chance you'll get on base, but very rarely a game changing play.

A perfect example of this takes place in Albert Brooks' excellent Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World. On the streets of India, Albert tries to find out what makes the locals laugh. While most of his jokes fall flat, he gets a solid chuckle with a potent Polack joke, and tells his assistant to write down the revelation that "Polack jokes work everywhere". Yes, they are sort of a universal language. Probably not in Poland though.
If you happen to be telling one of these within the borders of Poland, you might have to substitute the Polack in the joke with a Russian.


I don't know what it is about dudes in monkey suits, but they are funny in every possible context. If you have a guy trying to impersonate a monkey...funny. A guy in a monkey suit performing regular human actions (like reading the morning paper, for example)...funny. A guy in a monkey suit standing on a street corner doing nothing...still pretty funny.

Hell, even
real monkeys are pretty funny by proxy. Take, for example, Every Which Way But Loose. Clint Eastwood's orangutan (close enough) sidekick is consistently amusing by virtue of his close approximation to the species known as the random asshole in a gorilla suit.


Here it is; the greatest cache of comedy gold - the put-upon Jew. A hebe is thrust into an uncomfortable situation, forced to hem, haw, and kvetch his way through an insufferable existence. Look no further than Larry David, who built a dual fisted comedy empire based on this concept (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm). The beauty of the put-upon Jew is that it presents a razor thin dynamic between comedy and tragedy, all presented through the point of view a character we, assuming a non-antisemitic audience, can identify with (this dynamic can work with non-hebes by proxy, but never as well).

Woody Allen is certainly no slouch in the put-upon Jew department. I could mention many a scene, or indeed, an entire film of Woody's, that fully showcases this comedic dynamic at work. However, it is one single thirty second scene, buried in Take the Money and Run (one of his early funny ones), that defies all odds, combining the two greatest rules of comedy into a scene of distilled comic perfection.

While golden rules #1-2 are brilliantly effective on an individual basis, they normally cannot be combined, like comedic oil and water. You see, the put-upon Jew is an urban creature who stays clear of the jungle, or the zoo for that matter. He would never willingly put himself in company with a large, potentially dangerous animal (fake or otherwise).

ANYWAY, the film stars Woody Allen as Virgil, an incompetent career criminal. He finds himself in jail at one point, but agrees to be injected with an experimental vaccine in order to get out on parole. Luckily, the vaccine only temporarily turns him into a rabbi (figures), and he is back on the streets. Of course, since his job prospects are approximately zilch, he resorts to petty crime to sustain himself.

Sure enough, a voice over proclaims: "desperate and broke, Virgil tries to support himself with small crimes. Here he attempts to rob a local pet shop." We see Woody approaching a pet store, holding a gun hidden in his jacket pocket. He nonchalantly looks around as if casing the area. With no security or law enforcement in the vicinity and carrying a firearm, surely this small store will be easy pickins. He quickly pounces into action and enters the store. His plan goes awry when a dude in gorilla suit chases him out of the store and down the street, flailing his arms about in a wild fashion, "going bananas", as it were.

Here, the Virgil character is hopeless in his attempts to lead an honest criminal life. He finally has a golden opportunity to succeed at his chosen profession, with all of the odds seemingly stacked in his favor. Tragically, the least likely scenario imaginable occurs, and Woody is chased away by the funniest, and most tangential, figure you could associate with a pet store: a gorilla. It's so pathetic, you can't help but laugh. On top of that, the monkey guy is hilarious all by himself, as is Woody Allen, and watching the monkey furiously chase Woody for a moment is comedy squared. All of this is conveyed in a mere half minute; the simplicity and purity just adding to the scene's greatness.

This little scene stands tall and majestic amidst the labored horseshit that qualifies as comedy nowadays. That is, at least until someone comes up with some sort of ripoff of The Defiant Ones, with a stammering Jew shackled to a Polish guy shackled to a fake gorilla; forced to go on the lam as a most unlikely, yet unspeakably funny team. On second thought, maybe a film like that would prove too much for human consumption, hitting some sort of humor vortex, imploding the comedy cosmos from within. Probably still worth a shot.

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