Tom Jolliffe looks at comedic actors putting themselves back to school for laughs…
The comedy genre is reliant on its situations. Take a comedian, place them into a scenario with comedic potential, and all being well, you’ve got yourself some fried gold. From mismatched partners on a caper, to a protagonist being thrown into a situation way beyond their capabilities, there are a number of tried and tested scenarios which have proved reliable.
Take the back to school film. For whatever reason, our protagonist never got through high school or college. Then the crux of the movie is launched and it’s time to send a comedy specialist back to school. First it’s time to venture back to 1986 at the height of Rodney Dangerfield’s cinematic career. From his turn in Caddyshack to a number of other loud mouth shlub comedies, Dangerfield’s routine, born of standup translated well into the films he made. A brash, classless wisecracker who stumbled into money. Constantly upsetting the apple-cart.
Dangerfield’s Back To School is the best of the breed. A college dropout made mega rich has never been able to deal with failing to graduate. Hilarity ensues as he joins his son at college, and soon causes havoc. It plays brilliantly to Dangerfield’s talents, and sets out a number of enjoyably goofy scenarios among atypical college film stereotypes (there’s the disapproving teachers, a love interest, the jocks etc). Of course drama between father and son arises before being cleared by the end. It gets progressively more outlandish, but it’s gleeful in its silliness.
Adam Sandler took the formula and his man-child act and doubled down, making Billy Madison. Not college but Sandler plays an idiot with a waiting family empire to inherit, but only once he passes the second grade. Cue some hilarious (no really, it is hilarious) situations with Sandler causing chaos among kids. He beats up the school bullies, he has to pee in tiny urinals and even his miniature desk is a visual gag in waiting. Sandler plays it with all his peak era shlubby charm, and despite the ridiculousness of the whole concept, even throws in a relationship with his teacher. You know, because what’s more attractive than a 25 year old man having to repeat the second grade? It may not be as good as Back to School, but Sandler has the same kind of whimsy in breaking the rules as Dangerfield, which we saw just as ably in his Caddyshack riff, Happy Gilmore.
Stepping forward the back to school flick has made something of a recent comeback. With a tad more logic, Kevin Hart finds himself looking to learn in Night School. It perhaps lacks the required absurdity levels to really work, even if it still captures plenty of ridiculous scenarios, but it rests all too heavily on Hart’s image and the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up. Back To School and Billy Madison were also blessed with over the top side characters too. Hart has made a lucrative film career in over his head scenarios like Ride Along and Central Intelligence, and those were more successful uses of his talents.
Melissa McCarthy then took a stab at going back to college with Life of the Party. For McCarthy the comedy is fairly restrained, opting to inject more heart than her male counterparts did, but the film sadly could have benefited from being edgier and really letting McCarthy let loose in the way we’ve seen in films like Bridesmaids. Her character is too good, too unflawed, and besides learning to appreciate herself more, there’s not much else she learns. Even bedding a college guy becomes an innocent rite of passage, rather than making more of a joke of it and missing some R rated comedy potential. Like her male contemporaries, McCarthy’s act has always best been served in a placing her in situations way out of her abilities (Spy, The Heat). The whole going back to learning thing is never made difficult enough. She easily deflects the attentions of bullies, she doesn’t flout the rules and upset the authorities and the whole thing never gets out of third gear. A missed opportunity, even if McCarthy keeps the film watchable through sheer likeability.
One of the best examples of course would be the new Jump Street film series, riffing on the popular TV show. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, having to go back to college as undercover agents. That extra element also adds to the out of depth comedic scenarios as they’re hopelessly ill prepared not only for being college students again, but for being police officers too. The first film and sequel, loaded with crude and ridiculous scenarios is unashamedly and delightfully silly. Where McCarthy and Hart’s efforts felt a little lifeless and devoid of the kind of silliness levels both are capable of, Hill and Tatum get into ever more ludicrous situations and perform with relish and aided by great support (most notably Ice Cube). Likewise, as with Dangerfield and Sandler, this comedy set up is best played with logic thrown out of the window and unrestrained verve.
What is your favourite back to school comedy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.