Several years ago one of my coworkers was showing me some headshots he had taken for the company ID card.
He was smiling broadly in the first shot, but the grin slowly slipped from his face over the course of the next three pictures.
“Death of a smile,” I said, looking over the images.
That phrase came back to me this week when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing back-to-back Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Woody Allen’s Sleeper, two of my all-time favorite comedies.
Or at least they used to be.
I’ve seen both these films again in the last year for the first time in decades and I had the same surprising, and rather sobering reaction to both of them.
While I had laughed uproariously at these two movies the first time I saw, I could barely crack a smile during the most recent viewings.
The scenes that I had found hilarious back in the Seventies now seemed hackneyed and stale.
Young Frankenstein mercilessly mocked the old Universal horror movies, right down a dart game that Frankenstein plays with a one-armed police chief.
When I saw the movie in the theater—was that the Quad Cinema?—I couldn’t stop laughing at that particular scene.
I loved Sleeper, too, a science fiction parody that is listed on "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die."
I argued with my parents who had also seen the movie and weren’t in the least bit impressed.
At the time I thought it was some kind of generational divide where my poor Mom and Dad just didn’t get Woody’s unique brand of comedy.
Now I feel exactly the same way they did. So I really am turning into my parents?
Hail, Hail, Freedonia...
I first noticed this phenomenon during the holidays a few years back when I watched the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup.
Now that’s a hysterically funny movie and I sat down in front of TV looking forward to enjoying the screwball comedy I had loved since I was a kid.
And…nothing. I don’t think I so much as grinned for the entire film. Even the famous mirror scene with Grouch and Harpo left me cold.
“I didn’t think it was at all funny,” I told my auntie the next day.
“That’s what usually happens, dear,” she said.
What the hell going on here? I always thought I had a good sense of humor. So why was I looking blankly at my widescreen like it was a tombstone?
Part of the problem is that, yes, I am older, and my tastes have changed.
Also, I’m watching these films at home and not in a theater full of people, so maybe the human factor is at play here. Maybe, but it’s not the deciding factor.
I tuned into TCM a few weeks back to watch The Ruling Class, a bizarre comedy featuring Peter O’Toole as a member of the House of Lords who thinks he’s Jesus Christ.
When I saw it in the old Elgin Cinema in 1973, I thought it was brilliant. Please, I silently begged my TV, stay that way for me. Be the same outrageous, shocking satire that I so fondly recall from my high school years.
But, once again, I watched this film as silently as a Trappist monk at Sunday dinner.
The movie was terribly dated and the few points it had to make—like the rich get away with everything, including murder—were delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow right between the eyes.
To borrow a phrase from my auntie, “it was like hanging by the thumbs.”
Maybe I’ll take a break from comedies for a while and focus on heavy dramas. There’s nothing like somebody else’s misery to bring my smile back to life.