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Five scenes that... explicably or inexplicably hit the funny bone: just the first five that come into mind without recourse to the web
27 March 2014


1. Blazing Saddles
(Mel Brooks 1974)

I consider myself relatively sophisticated. We're not talking effete moustache, a perfect manicure and a haughty mien that drives people with accents other than my own to hunt me down and kill me but I do think of myself of having taste a smidgeon higher than the gutter; the curb perhaps. Well, as a fourteen year old, I could be forgiven. After all, Blazing Saddles' humour was based on the stupidity of racists and racism, the celebration of friendship and the utter absurdity of surreality in a Hollywood movie. There were many smiles, a few laughs and dare I say a careful but well judged guffaw. But if you want to reduce me to a weeping pile of semi-incontinent mush, snorting my Kia-Ora through my nose while falling to my knees, then just sit me in front of the wind-breaking scene around the campfire. I find farts simply a fact of life. In Brooks' movie, they are the instruments of a farcical orchestra that still to this day has me almost poleaxed with joy. I'm obviously not that sophisticated to be ashamed to say that. "More beans Mr. Taggart?" "I'd say you'd had enough."

2. All Of Me (Carl Reiner, 1984)

Steve Martin is a lawyer who's just had his head knocked by a falling metal dish containing the soul of Lily Tomlin. I don't think I need to go into a synopsis, do I? What follows is Martin slowly discovering that the left side of his body has been taken over by Tomlin while he retains control over the right. He's only convinced that this has happened once he sees Tomlin's face looking back at him from a car's side mirror. What follows is Martin at his very best. I appreciate the ex-stand up as a writer and as a serious and not so serious performer, he's up to the task. But give him broad physical comedy and there's nothing to touch him. In this scene, he has a grace coupled with an extemporaneous and quizzical exploration of his own body (as you would if someone else was controlling one side of it). You have no idea where he's going and how he's going to get there but the physical performance had me in such delight that I was always hoping for more.

3. Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot 1999)

A terrifically entertaining movie based on a premise that should have been thought of decades ago. What if an alien race took Star Trek as real, fashioned their interstellar technology on the show and summoned the cast from Earth to save them from the alien bad guy. There are pleasures to be found in each scene but there is a stand out moment from one of the UK's best actors recently specializing in slime balls. Say hullo to Alexander Dane. Here he plays the Mr. Spock character that has to tirelessly repeat his catch phrase for fans and sponsors alike, chronic experiences that have turned this cynical old thespian into a vituperative cad who, in the movie, finds his inner hero. Nuts to all that. Alan Rickman (for it is he) has his finest moment shilling for pennies, advertising at a Value Superstore. He intones very, very reluctantly... "By Grabthar's hammer... (pause). What a savings." Comedy gold.

4. Young Frankenstein
(Mel Brooks 1974 – busy year)

There are several sustained jokes in this superb and hilarious, loving pastiche/homage to the James Whale horror movies of the 30s. There are many moments I adore; anything with Marty Feldman with an emphasis on "Abby Normal..."; Gene Wilder hammering on the door because he was only kidding; let's not forget Frau Blucher (cue distant neigh) but even leaving Peter Boyle's finely judged top hat and tails version of 'Putting on the Ritz' off the table (or to give it its proper title, 'Pu'n ona Riz!'), there is still one small part of this movie that I fall for each and every time. I won't single out one moment. I will just say the words 'Kenneth Mars'. He will roo-t'tay that he was born a Frak-as-steen... "What?" If I had a wish and it had to be bizarre, it would be to play darts with Kenneth Mars. There's a book title, right there.

5. Going Bye Bye
(Charley Rogers 1934)

We have to nod to the greats. Anything in black and white may be anathema to this digital generation but to enjoy the fruits of Hollywood's latest labours – Hangover Part III, ye gods... – you have to go back to a dark time (wait, that's Star Wars). You have to go back to the 30s where laughter was a serious business and we still speak kindly of these extraordinary comedy practitioners today. Yes, you could argue for Keaton and even Harold Lloyd. Hell, the stick-swinging Tramp still has an enormous following (never clicked with Charlie, no idea why). My vote will always go to the boys, one stupid, one even more stupid. One was confident and courteous; the other simple and accepting. Their double act was a truly beloved one (their theme music was played by church bells on a visit to Ireland late in their careers. For some reason this makes me absurdly happy). But there will always be one moment (next week there'll be another I'm sure) in this short, that if I leave it long enough between seeing it, will reduce me to tears of laughter – and can you believe I gave in, snuck a look on YouTube and the tears sprang and I have only just stopped laughing. Stan Laurel takes a phone call. In his right hand is a can of something. Oliver Hardy (the one in charge even though he's as wonderfully clueless as his hapless partner) strides forward, all business. He takes what he thinks is the phone earpiece and tips it up resulting in a cascade of condensed milk flowing down his chest. The cherry on the cake? He picks up the real receiver and says the magic words; "Excuse me. My ear is full of milk." I'm laughing again just thinking of it.


1. Pontius Pilate and the giggling guards from Monty Python's Life of Brian
(Terry Jones 1979)

One day we may well cover in detail just why we regard Life of Brian as one of the smartest and funniest film comedies in all of cinema history, and there are so many scenes here that could have made it onto my list. My first viewing of the film, which took place at the Ritzy Cinema in London in the first two weeks of its release, was a physically exhausting experience. The audience was packed with boisterous teenagers, usually a recipe for viewing disaster in my book, but all were completely tuned in to the film's humour and were falling about laughing from the opening credits. And I don't know about you, but I almost always laugh harder and longer when I do so in the company of other equally afflicted souls, and I nearly pissed myself any number of times during Life of Brian. It all hit a peak in the justifiably celebrated giggling guards sequence, when all of those around me completely lost it and one guy was laughing so hard he actually fell out of his seat and was rolling around on the floor clutching his sides. I've seen the film about thirty times since, and I still laugh uncontrollably during this scene: Michael Palin going nose-to-nose with Chris Langham as both fight the desperate urge to crack up; the speech impediment that prompts Pilate to ask one of the sniggering centurions if he finds the name Biggus Dickus "wisible"; the lofty way he orders head guard John Cleese to "Oh yes, thwow him to the floor please"; the almost tearful look of desperation on the face of the guards when Pilate tells them, "He has a wife, you know. You know what she's called?" Pure comedy genius.

2. The "vessel with the pestle" scene Court Jester (Melvin Frank, Norman Panama 1955)

An enjoyable medieval comedy featuring Danny Kaye as the cowardly Hubert Hawkins, who in the film's showpiece scene is due to fight a joust against a fearsome opponent and struggles to learn a verse that will enable him to identify which of two drinking cups is laced with poison. It's a brilliantly written and performed piece of verbal quickstep that gets even funnier when Hawkins finally learns the verse, only to be informed that the Chalice from the Palace has been replaced with a Flagon with a Dragon and the Pellet with the Poison is now in the Vessel with the Pestle. It's a scene that never, ever fails to get me sniggering uncontrollably.

3. The Hanson Brothers hit the ice in Slap Shot
(George Roy Hill 1977)

It's one of those perfectly timed hold-out moments, the comic equivalent of that scene when middle-aged baseball rookie Roy Hobbs is finally allowed to show what he can do in The Natural. Here Paul Newman plays Reg Dunlop, the ageing player-coach on a failing ice hockey team in George Roy Hill's hugely entertaining sports comedy. The team's newest acquisition are the Hanson brothers, a bespectacled and gormless-looking trio that Dunlop initially refuses to put on the ice. When he finally does they unleash a torrent of almost cartoon violence on the opposing team. It's an absolute scream, but all the funnier for coming at the end of such a long wait. If you're going to watch it, see the whole film, not an isolated clip on YouTube.

4. The 'Uncle Fucker' song and its aftermath in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker 1999)

In a perfect example of how base humour can also be smart, South Park's flatulent Canadians make their big screen debut in a film within a film by singing a song about incestuous insults, which they accompany by farting in the manner of a manic musical tap dance. And it's funnier than it has any right to be. The first time I watched the film, again in the company of a receptive audience, I had no idea this was coming and almost choked on my popcorn. But it doesn't end there. Having been taught the fun of indiscriminate bad language by their favourite movie, Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman engage in a side-splitting crossfire of swearing in class the next day. This peaks when their teacher Mr. Garrison demands of Cartman "How would you like to go see the school counsellor?" to which Cartman responds calmly, "How would you like to suck my balls?" When Mr. Garrison furiously asks him what he just said, he repeats it...through a megaphone. I know this made the list because of how hard I laughed at the whole sequence on the first viewing, but like the others here, it still makes me chuckle ever time I watch it. It's all in the timing.

5. A weary request in Kenny
(Clayton Jacobson 2006)

This is as personal as the choices get, as I can guarantee precious few if any of you will respond to this one as extremely as I did (if you want to give it a go and haven't seen the film already, skip the rest of this and hunt it out). It was one of those rare lines of dialogue that just caught me at the right time when I was in the right mood and made be laugh so hard and for so long that I had to put the film on pause and leave the room to wipe my eyes and restart my lungs. And I can't tell you exactly why, as while I still chuckle at the line, it never had the same effect on me again. But it's here nonetheless because of the memory of that first viewing and how much I love laughing until I'm struggling for breath. For those who do not know, Kenny is a hugely entertaining portrait of cheerful and good natured Australian portaloo installer Kenny Smyth, one initially and successfully sold to its home audience as the real deal rather than the mockumentary it actually is. The moment in question comes when Kenny is inside a septic tank, cleaning it out, and getting an ear-bashing of banal chit-chat from his workshy colleague. His pleading response is priceless: "Look, mate, I understand what you're saying, I really do. And I am hearing you, but, mate, what you got to understand is there is a smell in here that is going to outlast religion..."