Top 10 Subversive Comedies

by Eric Melin on April 14, 2009

in Top 10s

The box office performance of “Observe and Report” this past weekend proves that subversive comedies usually have a way harder time finding an audience than a nice, family-friendly picture, even when that movie stars Seth Rogen. Funny thing is, subversive comedies often make a bigger impact and have a longer shelf life. To make this list, the movie has to challenge some culturally accepted notions or possess a generally rude rebellious streak. Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” for example, doesn’t make the list because for all of its posturing and flashiness, it’s completely obvious and says nothing new about the media. If you have a Top 10 list of your own you’d like to contribute, email me at eric@scene-stealers.com. Enjoy!

Runners-up: Obviously, I like subversive comedy. I’ve already written about “Borat,” “Harold and Maude,” “Office Space,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,”  “Series 7,” the original “Dawn of the Dead,” “Bulworth,” “Happiness,” “The Graduate,” “Brazil,” and “Dr. Strangelove” on other lists, so I’ll make them runners-up (even though “Dr. Strangelove” should probably be #1 here—I can’t have it on every list!) and include links to the other Top 10s they appear on here. Click on the title to see the original post.

nurse betty zellweger10. Nurse Betty (2000)

On the surface, Neil LaBute’s black comedy is about a sweet little soap-opera-obsessed waitress from a diner in Kansas (Renée Zellweger) who travels to Los Angeles to meet her favorite actor (Greg Kinnear). What actually happens, though, is that the innocent Betty goes into shock, entering a psychological fugue state after watching her drug-dealing, cheating husband (Aaron Eckhart) get scalped(!) by two hitmen (Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman). These killers chase Betty—who has broken from reality so hard that she thinks she’s actually a part of the fictional soap opera—as she drives west to find Kinnear’s fictional doctor. Soon everybody starts playing by her rules, as Betty sucks Kinnear’s actor character into her reality and he thinks she’s a struggling method actor. In uniquely bizarre climactic scene, he gambles on her never-breaking-character routine and puts her on live TV. Lost you yet? While this is all happening, Freeman falls in love with his prey, and two bumbling cops rush cross-country to try and protect her. Like “Observe and Report,” “Nurse Betty” switches its tone on a dime and is a juggling act that doesn’t always work. Like “Observe and Report,” it’s also alternately ugly and charming—an absurd look at identity and societal roles where everyone falls under the spell of an ordinary woman who radiates goodness and purity.

putney swope9. Putney Swope (1969)

Directed by Robert Downey Sr. (yes, it’s his Dad), this spotty but inspired black-and-white B-movie was a sensation when it came out but is somehow nearly forgotten today. A black man named Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, voice dubbed uncomfortably by Downey himself) becomes the head of an otherwise all-white New York ad agency after all the other executives vote for him to be the new boss thinking that no one else will. Re-dubbed “Truth and Soul, Inc.”, Swope hires militant blacks and gets to work making outrageous attack-style anti-consumerist ads right away. His new motto for Truth and Soul is: “Rockin’ the boat’s a drag. You gotta sink the boat!” He refuses to make commercials for cigarettes, war toys, and liquor, instead making ludicrously shocking commercials (in color even) like the interracial duet for Face-Off Acne Cream (“Pimples are simple”) and the ad for Dinkleberry Frozen Chicken Pot Pies (“Miss Redneck, N.J. is a social worker and her favorite hobby is emasculation”). Not enough for ya? There’s an Abraham Lincoln dartboard in the boardroom and the President of the United States is played by a pot-smoking German midget. This low-budget curiosity is all over the place, but every moment thumbs its nose at conventional society.

they live carpenter 19888. They Live (1988)

Since I’ve already covered Terry Gilliam’s brilliant and disturbing dystopian future in “Brazil” on my Top 10 Movies That Prove the Future Will Suck list, I’ve decided to shine the spotlight on that film’s looser, shaggier stepchild. John Carpenter’s “They Live” takes place in an America in economic crisis (sound familiar?) and when unemployed construction worker Nada (pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) puts on a pair of sunglasses, he is the only one who can see that all the bankers and politicians in power are actually aliens with metallic skull faces. Laughing yet? You will be. Nada also notices subliminal messages on billboards that read “OBEY” and “CONSUME,” while our currency reads “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” Carpenter’s movie falls too often into action/thriller cliché, but its central theme—that upper-class greed is taking over the world like an alien invasion—is even more relevant today than it was in 1988. Add in some hilarious dialogue (“I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum!”) and a seemingly neverending fight scene over a refusal to put on the special sunglasses, and you’ve got an erratic but nevertheless subversive comedy classic. Oh yeah, and—a remake is in the works. Hurm.

pink flamingos divine 19727. Pink Flamingos (1972)

Trying to summarize the plot of this filthy little film in one paragraph is futile, so let’s just say it involves a couple who kidnap and impregnate young women to sell their babies to lesbians, which, in turn, finances an elementary school heroin trade. The film’s tagline is truth in advertising: “An exercise in poor taste.” Despite being filmed for only $10,000, “Pink Flamingos” immediately launched its star (drag queen extraordinaire Divine) and its director (John Waters) into the collective consciousness of film fans across the globe. Waters narrates the film in—what had to have been a last minute attempt to make some kind of sense out of it—an annoying shout that matches the film’s campy tone and exaggerated “acting” style. It’s not a good film by any normal standards, but who can apply a value-driven checklist to a movie that revels in its lack of technical know-how, happy as a pig in shit? You can’t. What even the most jaded film fan will find, however, are a large number of “huh?”moments that are kind of liberating. How else would I be able to describe a movie where a mother gives her son oral sex and enthusiastically eats dog feces as “fun”?

citizen ruth dern6. Citizen Ruth (1996)

What’s funnier than abortion? Well, almost everything, but that didn’t stop writer/director Alexander Payne from making this subversive comedy starring Laura Dern as a paint-huffing pregnant woman who finds herself in the middle of a raging political debate. This comedy could have been a dismal wreck. After Dern pukes on the hood of his car, a policeman actually says to his partner about her: “I’ll drive her by the pound on the way to the station and get her spayed.” The question you have to ask through all of this, though, is who’s crazier—the cash-strapped, pregnant drug user (who’s had and lost four children already) or the zealots on either side of the pro-life/pro-choice debate? Payne skewers both in equal measure and his screenplay (co-authored with Jim Taylor) manages to say some bleakly funny things that a drama about the same subject would never be able to approach. One particularly inspired bit of casting comes in the form of Burt Reynolds as a pious, over-the-top televangelist. Like “Dr. Strangelove” parodied the military-industrial complex, “Citizen Ruth” mercilessly lampoons the abortion debate and Ruth becomes a political tool for extremists on both sides.

m.a.s.h. 1970 poster5. M*A*S*H (1970)

Although it is set in Korea, Robert Altman’s anti-establishment comedy was actually a not-so-thinly veiled and pointed attack on the then-raging Vietnam War. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are two military surgeons struggling to maintain their sanity through boozing, sex, and an utter contempt for authority in this cultural watershed movie. Altman’s almost complete disregard for Ring Larder Jr.’s script and his improvisatory style of shooting scared not only the studio, but also the film’s stars. “Donald and Elliott went in about a quarter of the way through the picture and tried to have me fired because they said I was going to ruin their careers,” Altman said. Struggles with the studio finally ceased after a wildly successful preview screening and the movie went on to gross $80 million and signal a new era of filmmaking in Hollywood. Not everyone agrees it’s a classic, though, as one of our user-contributed Top 10 lists had this film at #3 of the Most Overrated Movies.

heathers 1989 ryder slater4. Heathers (1989)

Question: When is teen suicide funny? Answer: When it actually turns out to be murder! What? Yeah, you read that correctly.  In addition, “Heathers” plays it all for laughs. This hilarious and shocking movie is still the nastiest and most bizarre of all teen comedies even after 20 years. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater are a high school Bonnie and Clyde making their way through the popular clique. Armed with a battery of surreal dream sequences, its own biting vocabulary (“Well, f*ck me gently with a chainsaw.”), and a sympathetic Ryder who manically expunges her demons and explores her conscience in her diary (giving us her outrage and sympathy), “Heathers” gave every teenaged outsider a screaming voice of discontent and a healthy amount of violent wish fulfillment at the same time. It’s really too bad that director Michael Lehmann (“Hudson Hawk,” “40 Days and 40 Nights,” “My Giant”) and writer Daniel Waters (“Batman Returns,” “Happy Campers,” “Sex and Death 101”) haven’t even come close to the dizzying highs of their first movie project.

the great dictator chaplin 19403. The Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” was certainly subversive in that Chaplin broke from his Tramp character completely and portrayed a cold-blooded serial killer, but it was this movie that took on Adolf Hitler and the entire Nazi movement before America was even at war with them. This was also Chaplin’s first feature-length “talkie,” and it saw him taking the dual role of a tyrannical dictator named Adenoid Hynkel (guess who?) and a lowly barber. Chaplin portrays Hynkel and his followers as stupid bullies and arrogant buffoons, including one famous scene that has the dictator dancing with a globe to a Wagner overture. The movie was a great success and became Chaplin’s highest-grossing film ever. As more details of Nazi war atrocities were made public, however, Chaplin admitted that had he known the extent of their crimes, he wouldn’t have been able to portray the stormtroopers in the movie in such a slapstick manner. The final scene, where the barber delivers a message of hope in disguise as the dictator (and many in the audience felt Chaplin himself was making the plea), may seem a little schmaltzy now, but in the context of World War II, it definitely resonated with audiences.

life of brian crucifixtion2. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

I don’t think this will be on the Heartland list of Truly Moving Pictures anytime soon, but what better way to engage with the absurdities of the Bible than with a side-splitting satire of the New Testament? Before the idea had even been hatched really, Monty Python troupe member Eric Idle offhandedly remarked to the press that their next film (following the hugely successful “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) would be titled “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.” That sparked the idea of Brian—a man (Graham Chapman) who is mistaken for the Messiah, tries to evade worshippers and enemies alike, and is eventually crucified to the tune of a catchy little ditty called “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” The movie mercilessly criticizes those pesky antithetical side effects of organized religion, and even director Terry Jones admits that the movie is “heretical.” However, he also believes that “it’s not blasphemous.” Even though most of the pointed satire is delivered through the story of the decidedly non-Messianic Brian (thereby avoiding blasphemy – kind of a technicality), the rampant fanaticism and hypocrisy that the Pythons poke fun at is universal.

would you like to know more?1. Starship Troopers (1997)

This is the most subversive comedy ever made because it’s possible—if you close your eyes to its overtly fascist ideology and all the Nazi-like military dress—to think that “Starship Troopers” is simply a dumb action movie with bad acting and giant bugs. In fact, director Paul Verhoeven’s film is subversive  in more ways than one.

It also deserves the top spot here because the movie purposely does something that few films actually do on purpose: It subverts the entire message of the Robert Heinlein sci-fi novel on which it’s based. Ouch.

The book—which envisions a society where the government only gives the right to vote to youths who fulfill their “terms of service,” which was usually in the military—was criticized as fascist when it was published in 1959. Verhoeven keeps Heinlein’s ideas intact, but pokes fun at them mercilessly throughout the movie with hilarious mini-propaganda films (one featuring soldiers giving guns to little kids), tons of Nazi iconography, and cruel military training that includes public flogging and “friendly” fire.

starship troopers 1997 bugMoreover, he uses an enthusiastic young cast and has them act as if they just stepped out of the latest “Saved by the Bell” episode. They begin the war a bunch of idealized lemmings and come out changed by the horrors of war. It’s never explicitly said who started the war (though the humans are the ones invading the “bug” planets), but to anyone in military service, it doesn’t matter. Graphic depictions of said actors getting ripped in half by giant bugs underscore the consequences of a jingoistic worldview. You may be thinking, “Wait one minute—this was supposed to be a list of comedies!” “Starship Troopers” is a comedy. From the cheesy, naïve dialogue and acting (again, this was on purpose, to achieve an effect) to the laugh-out-loud absurdity of the Federation’s slanted news shorts (Fox News, anyone?), “Starship Troopers” is the funniest movie to have such scary foresight into what would become post-9/11 extreme patriotism. Plus, you get to see Neil Patrick Harris mature into Joseph Mengele. How is that not funny?

I Twittered/Facebooked yesterday while I was writing this list and got tons of great suggestions. Here’s a sampling to get the comments started:

@TreyHock: It’s a Wonderful Life is basically a treatise for communism wrapped in a christmas movie. Pretty awesome.
@ToServeMan: Does THEY LIVE qualify as a comedy?
@worleygirl: One fave is the much overlooked Parents, from ’89. Bonus: the kid in it looks just like Ron Hayes. http://bit.ly/1LuNrr
@danielc: An old roommate of mine had a soft spot for Cry-Baby. I’d say Election is up there. (I would too, but I didn’t want to put two Alexander Payne movies on the list and I’d already included “Citizen Ruth.”—Eric)
@ManMadeMoon (or Duncan Jones, director of the upcoming film “Moon,” starring Sam Rockwell) retweeted @jpgardner’s suggestions: Robert Altman’s MASH to @SceneStealrEric for subversive comedies. Also, The Graduate, Catch 22 & Dr. Strangelove
@softreeds: Tapeheads.
@BeckIreland: And the original of The Out-of-Towners and Fun With Dick and Jane
@kcklo63: I think every Michael Moore movie fits into that category. Super Size Me? Born on the Fourth of July? 9 1/2 Weeks?
@dumbwhore: Brazil or Office Space. can’t decide

Sorcha Father Ted
Tim M. Neighbors
Tim V. heathers, hudsucker proxy, high school high, they live
Laura Oh. Okay. Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Brazil, Dead Alive, Dawn of the Dead (1978), The Big Lebowski
Sara Dr. Strangelove of course. I also second Life of Brian and Brazil. Harold and Maude, Desperate Living (since John Waters was mentioned), Series 7.
Dustin the dudesons.
Richard Hot Rod. Definitely Hot Rod.
Scott Bunuel movies like The Milky Way, Viridiana, or even Discreet Charm. Oh, don’t get me started!
Colin “Josie and the Pussycats,” now and forever.
Brad nurse betty, citizen ruth
Adam M. I vote Man Bites Dog or Tromeo and Juliet
Adam S. hank and mike. its very funny, and subversive, and even from canada.
Jeremy putney swope!

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 RCM April 14, 2009 at 2:04 am

Funny, I just watched Troopers last night (edited for TNT) and was thinking how funny it was and how it seemed like a post-9/11 parody except it came out prior to that date.

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2 heftyjake April 14, 2009 at 10:34 am

I love watching Starship troopers. I don’t laugh out loud during it so I’ve always had trouble putting my finger on why I liked it so much. You nailed it. It’s the kind of funny that makes you feel guilty for indulging in. Bravo. Great list.

PS I sing that song from life of brian whenever anything terrible happpens.

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3 Alan Rapp April 14, 2009 at 11:19 am

I still can’t believe you left Thank You for Smoking off this list. For shame!

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4 Troy April 14, 2009 at 12:59 pm

I love Starship Troopers. It was a complete good time throughout the entire film. It is too bad that the follow ups were just terrible.

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5 Tony Sams April 14, 2009 at 1:56 pm
6 steven g. April 15, 2009 at 9:04 am

Recent films could have included Burn After Reading….

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7 Eric Melin April 15, 2009 at 9:26 am

I went back and forth between that, Barton Fink, Lebowski, and ended up including none of them…not enough room!

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8 Reed April 15, 2009 at 11:34 am

I still think Dr. Strangelove should have been #1. I can’t think of a better comedy. And I can’t really think of a more effectively subversive film. Yet I understand your reasoning. You might as well make your subversive list a bit subversive itself!

I couldn’t decide whether I should start crying or go to sleep while watching Nurse Betty, and it was that dilemma that kept me rolling to the point where I finished the film. But I wish I would have gone to sleep.

Others I’d include:
Delicatessen
Flirting With Disaster
Shallow Grave (it’s been a while, is this film as good as I remember?)
Bob Roberts
Braindead/Dead Alive
Kingpin
Lost in America (really fits the category well!)
Risky Business
The King of Comedy
Used Cars

Also, I always meant to see Parents, but eventually forgotten about it. Thanks for putting it back on the radar!

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9 RCM April 16, 2009 at 12:19 am

I offer a list of funny movie, TV and book descriptions- http://www.postmodernbarney.com/2009/04/uncomfortable-plot-summaries/

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10 Walker April 16, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Tony beat me to it, Brain Candy. Good call.

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11 gsw May 14, 2009 at 9:44 am

I thought starship troopers tried too hard and made it’s subversive-ness too obvious and so ended up being a B movie about nasty bugs. It somehow over parodied and ‘ironied’ itself back into a b movie! Still it was fun, and somehow worthy enough in any case!

I like They Live a lot though and that worked for me.

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12 CET May 30, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Another vote for Parents..and how about Fido?

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13 Jim Smith November 1, 2009 at 5:30 am

clerks

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14 JimiLives March 11, 2011 at 4:44 am

Robocop.

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