A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 496 – How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It

How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It – July 9th, 2011

When Andy and I went through our VHS cassettes to find some Muppet movies we knew we owned we also came across a number of other items we’d stashed under the television. Some were feature length, but others weren’t. Still, they were little oddities we wanted to be able to include in this project, so we checked the running times and paired them off. These both star John Cleese but are non-Python pieces, so they really do work together. I’ve owned them for years, but it was nice to see that the tapes were still in good shape and in more exciting news, our VCR didn’t try to eat either one!

I’m going to approach this review in two parts, because these aren’t really connected even if we did watch them together. Overall, my thoughts on the two of them together are that they do showcase Cleese’s sense of humor, but also that they’re both very much made on a tight budget and show their ages.

How to Irritate People

Watching this tonight I was amused to note that it was produced by David Frost. It’s a pre-Python sketch comedy special starring John Cleese. He does a number of host segments wherein he lectures on various techniques to irritate people with and then introduces sketches that demonstrate some of these techniques. Then he stars in said sketches, either as the irritant or as the victim.

As a precursor to Monty Python this is a nice little curiosity. Some of the sketches in it clearly had bits repurposed for later Python sketches. They’re certainly rougher around the edges and created for a specific purpose (to showcase methods of irritation) but they’re still quite funny. They do tend to be less fantastical and more rooted in the real world than Python, but that’s not really surprising.

It’s amusing to see John Cleese doing the hosting segments completely straightfaced. He does play a good straight man and here it’s apparent just how good at it he is. Every joke is delivered seriously, with a hint of long-suffering. He’s sharing these irritation tips with you in order for you to help him get back at every pain in the rear he’s ever met, or so I assume from his tone. I imagine this is what Cleese might be like doing stand-up, delivering every joke as a lecture.

When in the sketches, however, Cleese comes to life. My two favorite segments of the special both star him but in very different roles (though it’s suggested they’re the same character). In one, he’s a young man visiting his parents for Easter. His mother is the queen of irritating, prodding and disapproving and emotionally manipulating. She can cry on demand and does so in order to keep her son at her side or wheedle information out of him. As the son, Cleese exudes exasperation. He simply can’t win, and in the end he doesn’t, even if he does get to do what he wanted to do in the first place. In the second segment – which is my absolute favorite – Cleese plays an airline pilot who, along with his copilot and the chief steward, irritate their passengers by giving out complex directions and telling them not to worry. The wings are not on fire. Both sketches are fantastic, but really most of the others are too. There’s some severely dated humor and some misogyny I’m really not pleased by, but overall this one stands the test of time. Edit out the bad joke sketch and the Indian restaurant sketch and you’d be good to go.

The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It

So. Very. Dated. Also So. Very. Culturally. Insensitive. Really, it’s impressive how horrible some of the jokes are here, and I’m not just talking about the bad impressions. But despite all that, I still enjoy a good chunk of this. It’s messy and hasn’t aged well, but the core concept is still fun and the jokes aren’t meant to be complicated or subtle, so what works definitely works and what doesn’t could easily be removed and replaced if this were to be remade.

The idea is that it’s the 1970s and someone claiming to be a Moriarty is making demands in return for not killing off a bunch of important people. A supercomputer determines that there is indeed one last member of the Moriarty family and the best way to cope with the threat is to call in the last member of the Holmes family: Arthur Sherlock Holmes (played by Cleese). What follows is a series of referential jokes and puns and very little in the plot department. There’s no time for plot! We have politicians to make fun of!

This special takes shots at a lot of things, among them British politics and foreign cultures. The military representatives who meet to discuss the Moriarty threat are a whole host of offensive cultural stereotypes. And it’s a pity that those scenes are so painful because the European representative is played by Denholm Elliott and on his own he’s got some fantastic lines and moments. The joke with the sniper no one seems to bother getting rid of? Predictable after the first time, but still funny. If only the scenes weren’t riddled with prejudice.

On the other hand, this special has given me at least one frequent reference and some of my favorite pun-based humor ever. “Grab a crossword,” Holmes tells Watson. “We have several moments to lose!” And so they work on the crossword together, figuring out the answers to such clues as “Conservative pays ex-wife maintenance” and “A simple source of citrus fruit” with each answer being a play on “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (The answers to those two being ‘alimony Tory’ and ‘a lemon tree’). This is hands down one of the simplest, most ridiculous and most amusing jokes I know of. All the humor between Holmes and Watson is fun, really.

The movie ends somewhat abruptly, with very little in the way of plot resolution. But plot was never the point here. The point was to make jokes about Holmes’ drug habits and Watson’s cluelessness. The point was to use a classic reference as a way to make lots of thematic jokes. There are repeated cameos by various other famous detective characters (impersonated rather badly most of the time) and an atrocious Scottish accent from Mrs. Hudson (it slips into US deep south in places) and a whole bit about pot smoking bus drivers in London. Overall it’s a very strange little piece of silliness. I wish it had aged better, and I’d love to see it redone without some of the more offensive humor, but I can still enjoy it.


July 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment