My dad is a true product of the seventies. He doesn’t like electronic music. He doesn’t trust the government. He wishes vinyl were still a thing, and he absolutely refuses to get a Facebook account. Most of all, my dad has a very seventies sense of humor. He’s completely bizarre. Every time I watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail or Used Cars, I’m reminded of him. Not because he would watch these movies with me as a child- as I’ve mentioned before, my dad isn’t a huge movie person- but because the characters in the film represent a type of humor that I see in my dad more than any other person. I could never put my finger on exactly what it was, but I saw it mirrored in The Fatal Glass of Beer in class last week. The short film reflected, to me, a type of humor I usually see in seventies films like Airplane or Monty Python. It’s a humor I also see in certain instances of “country” humor, like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” or humorous country songs. What’s the common factor here? Is it the parody aspect (whether that be a movie parody or the parody of a stereotype) or is it the bizarro factor? Are these things combined to create the kind of humor I find the funniest? The idea of parody is important because we allow ourselves to laugh at something we may hold dear or are very familiar with. I think, however, that the root similarity between thirties and seventies comedy lies in the confused and desperate moral of the nation in each era.
Now, take a look at The Fatal Glass of Beer. What is this short even about? We have a Canadian (complete with every stereotype in the book) father mourning his prodigal son, who was tempted by the alluring call of the city. The short is a parody of prohibitionists, melodramas, and frontier life. Small details in the short add to the absurdity of the piece. The dulcimer (which the father conveniently keeps in his shack, along with an electric fan) represents the melodrama of the “frontier way,” in which sorrow is best expressed through a terrible song and shared with others, performed while committing the terrible dulcimer faux pas of playing with your mittens on. Of course, he manages to individually pluck strings even with the mittens on, giving an even stronger impression that the story we are being told is framed in a completely unrealistic universe. From the funny-turned-strange storyline to the pointless repetition (it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast!) to the clearly fake elk projection, The Fatal Glass of Beer leaves the viewer with a sense that they are in a world they do not understand but are somehow experiencing. Watching the film feels like riding a roller coaster blind; you think you had fun, but you have no idea what just happened.
Surely The Fatal Glass of Beer would have made more sense to a viewer in the 1930’s. The ending, in particular, might have resonated with Depression-era audiences more than a happy ending would. Just as there is no “happy ending” in the wake of financial disaster, The Fatal Glass of Beer does not try to give viewers the moral and emotional satisfaction of a son returned to his upright parents. Instead, the son is cast out, and the father, wrought with desperation, laments the fact that his son did not keep the money he stole to end up in jail. This surprise ending relieves the viewer of the pressure to conform to the “perfect” expectations that the cinema often impose. This short works particularly well as a parody because the audience secretly wants the morally upstanding, teetotaler father to have a desperate streak in him. The audience wants to see themselves reflected, and the goody-two-shoes families of the twenties didn’t reflect how the average person felt about their situation. By making fun of the “perfect ending,” the film sends the message that in times like this, it is normal to put aside morals for survival.
In a way, I think the comedy of the seventies echoes this. The seventies weren’t a whole lot of fun; between bad presidents, economic crisis, and social change, the nation’s morale was at an extreme low. Without faith in the government or the future, it’s pretty easy to see how a nation’s comedic tendencies would veer toward the absurd. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see the logic of villagers as they try to condemn a woman for being a witch, deciding that she was guilty because witches and wood both burn, wood and ducks both float, and the woman weighed the same as a duck. The rhetoric of the villagers teeters in between logic and idiocy, making connections based on word-play rather than reasoning. The whole situation is reminiscent of the style of Groucho Marx; unforgiving and brash, this style of comedy echoes a time period where the viewer does not believe things will get much better. Airplane mixes cultural humor with smart societal criticisms; everything from alcoholism (“I’ve got a drinking problem.”) to pedophilia (“Have you ever been inside a Turkish prison, Joey?”) is poked fun at. The characters in both films are inherently flawed in ways that films often portray to be unforgivable. They aren’t just messy or chronically late; they are murderers, pedophiles, selfish, and ignorant. Comedy in times of upheaval or national conflict gives the viewer a way to confide their confusion and fears within the context of the theater. Hollywood’s refusal to always give a happy ending during these times reflected the mood of the nation. Parody and bizarre comedy do more than make the viewer laugh through means of familiarity or the lack thereof. They change the way we think about society; without imperfect examples of humanity or an understanding of the feeling of confusion the nation felt, film would not have been a medium in which viewers could leave their downfalls and shortcomings at the door and relate to others.