Exactly forty-two years ago, US president Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which requires the packaging of all tobacco products to display a Surgeon General’s warning about the consequences of smoking. To commemorate this fateful day, our contributors have decided to recommend a few works that exemplify the administrative changes one can expect when a bill is passed into law… April Fool’s!
I Want to Go Home (1981)
I think everyone can agree that, at its core, comedy should make us laugh. Forget convoluted mistaken identity plots, uncomfortable errors in judgement that make you wince, or social relevance. I just want a quick read that makes me laugh out loud in a public place. As such, I recommend a book that first made my ribs hurt when I was eleven and still tickled my funny bone last year as I read it to my daughter: I Want to Go Home by Canadian children’s author Gordon Korman.
I Want to Go Home centers on Rudy Miller, an exceptional but antisocial boy sent to camp on the advice of his guidance counselor. Once there, he torments the staff and campers with his reluctant brilliance and increasingly creative attempts to escape the island. This leads to an absurd scavenger hunt, great wordplay, and the best practical joke ever played (by a beaver, no less), all filtered through the keen eye of a child who sees the humour in everything even when he himself isn’t amused. Neither intelligent nor pertinent, Korman’s ode to camp is quite simply the funniest book I’ve ever read.
Arrested Development (2003-2006)
When I look back at the yardsticks against which I’ve measured myself, it’s with comedy I always come up short. Though my palate for pretension developed early, there isn’t much I found funny growing up to which I’d dare go back now. It’s not that I consider these works embarrassments. Rather, I’m embarrassed for myself: did I really think that stuff was funny the first time around? I guess some standouts have turned out more than one-night stands. For example, the energetic inventiveness of the Looney Tunes begat the clever world-building of The Muppet Show, which, in turn, lead to the absurdist wit of Fawlty Towers. Soon later, I brushed up against cringe humour and fell in love with The Office and Extras, both brainchildren of Ricky Gervais.
To paraphrase Carl Weathers, baby, you throw it all together, and you’ve got Arrested Development, Mitchell Hurwitz’ short-lived sitcom about the dysfunctional Bluth family: the well-meaning Michael (Jason Bateman), his insecure son George Michael (Michael Cera), his neurotic brothers Byron (Tony Hale) and Gob (Will Arnett), and his manipulative parents George (Jeffrey Tambor) and Lucille (Jessica Walter). Brush up now. With the series soon relaunching on Netflix, a fourth television season and a movie might still be possible.
Jane Carver of Waar (2012)
Here’s my theory about parodies and their appeal: we crave, above anything else, to belong to the secret club that gets the joke. Take Jane Carver of Waar, a parody of the 1917 classic A Princess of Mars that swaps the immortal Virginian captain John Carter for a big, tough, red-haired, foulmouthed, no-nonsense, harsh-talking, hard-punching biker chick. Author Nathan Long delves deep into the details of the John Carter universe, turning it upside down and exploring every angle. On the one hand, we sense his annoyance with the source material’s flowery style as he constantly undercuts it. On the other, we can also perceive a genuine love for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories, and I found myself raising my index finger in the air, shouting, “Aha! I get this!”
Ironically, Long ends up improving on the source material. As much as I loved Burroughs as a kid, I’ve always found his main characters generic and interchangeable. Our heroine, by comparison, feels fully fleshed out, as she works out how gravity works on the planet called Waar and puts up with the macho customs of its purple inhabitants. Replacing John Carter’s grandiloquent narration with a series of hilarious, foulmouthed reflections, Jane wonders what path to take, lashes out in anger, hates herself for every mistake, but tries, time and again, to do the right thing. That is the sort of champion I want to read about.
King of Comedy (1999)
I’ve always considered comedy a spectator sport. Take, for example, the 1999 film Hei Kek Ji Wong, better known this side of the Pacific as King of Comedy. With a title like that, directors Stephen Chow and Lee Lik Chi are pretty much asking for supercilious contrarians to come in with their arms crossed, refusing to laugh at even the best gags, such as the John Woo spoof with a Mexican standoff expanding endlessly under a cloud of pigeons. In fact, I remember the person I saw it with never cracking a smile, proudly declaring his ticklish humerus of superior sophistication.
It’s too bad because Chow strikes me as utterly charming as Wan Tin Sau, a struggling actor who falls in love with a prostitute named Piu Piu (Cecilia Cheung). Sure, the story kind of falls apart near the end with its various threads tied together in the most convoluted way imaginable, but I dare you not to cheer when our hero finally earns his Styrofoam lunch box from craft services. Equal parts absurd and pathetic, King of Comedy will both warm the cockles of your heart and split your sides, leaving you a confused anatomical mess. You just have to let it. Better yet, maybe you should stay home and spare me the hipster condescension next time I invite you to see a classic hit by one of Hong Kong’s greatest comedians. Either works fine.