On M*A*S*H, Monty Python, Animal House and smart humor

Juxtaposed in my daily newsletter from The Guardian yesterday:

  1. Monty Python’s Terry Jones has passed away.
  2. Now that the movie M*A*S*H is 50 years old, can we talk about what a misogynist piece of crap it was?

M*A*S*H and Monty Python were both products of the turn of the decade into the 70s. Conventional wisdom would say M*A*S*H is the More Serious Work of Meaningful Art. It was released during the Vietnam War, and it had an irreverent attitude toward war. It has been deemed “culturally significant” by the people who deem things as such. So it must be brilliant, right?

In snippets, it was. Robert Duvall’s Maj. Frank Burns is a prototypical hypocritical Christian soldier who snaps when confronted about his dalliance with Maj. Houlihan, leading to one of the better lines in the film — “Now, Colonel, fair’s fair — if I nail Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye can I go home?” The best remark on the military was one of those moments that goes quickly, and it’s delivered by another person who left us recently — RenĂ© Auberjonois, whose harried Father Mulcahy provided, as William Christopher’s version did in the TV series, a much-needed dose of kindness:

But too much of it is, well, crap. Yes, it’s sexist crap. Nurses, including Sally Kellerman’s Major Houlihan, are objects. This was Kellerman’s only Oscar nomination, which may be as powerful a statement on the rampant sexism in the Academy than the inability to nominate a female director. Kellerman’s is too good a comic actress to be totally lost here, and she rescues an otherwise cringe-worthy football scene with a perfectly delivered line, but this character’s one-dimensional sex-object status is confirmed when she’s later found sleeping with Duke, one of her tormenters. (All that said, I frequently quote “Yay, we got a flag!” when I see a penalty in a football game.)

It’s also selfish crap. In a rather pointless digression from the activity at camp, the doctors are called to Tokyo to operate on a congressman’s son. They take full advantage of their status as hotshots, demanding steak and demeaning nurses.

The Guardian piece above blames M*A*S*H for sexist films to follow, such as Animal House, Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. There’s no defending Revenge of the Nerds and its mistaken-identity sex scene, and I can’t speak to Porky’s. But let’s talk about Animal House, coincidentally featuring M*A*S*H star and ubiquitous actor Donald Sutherland …

The case against, as laid out in a USA TODAY story that gives the film a thumbs-up with a few caveats: Bluto is a Peeping Tom, Larry sleeps with a 13-year-old, and the end credits have a joke about Greg being raped in prison. The story doesn’t mention Neidermayer being killed in Vietnam by his own troops, which was actually so serious a problem that Colin Powell felt threatened while he was there.

The case for: First of all, it has so many indelible lines and scenes. Bluto’s “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” motivational speech is a staple of sports fandom. I frequently use Kevin Bacon’s “REMAIN CALM! ALL IS WELL!” GIF in response to people who think there’s nothing wrong with the current sociopolitical state. “Seven years of college down the drain” is something I hope not to be hearing. The rigged trial. The parade, from the marbles to Stork redirecting the band.

So Animal House, like M*A*S*H has been deemed culturally significant. So was Amadeus, giving Tom Hulce at least two films on the list. And NYT columnist Elvis Mitchell said Animal House followed the M*A*S*H legacy not in sexism but in bringing us the “arrogance of the counterculture.”

Animal House borrows more good than bad from M*A*S*H. And the women aren’t as one-dimensional as in previous films. Mandy is in full control of her sex life — “agency,” we’d call it today. Katy is justifiably frustrated with Boon. I’d love to see an edit, but I’m not going to dismiss it. It punctures the hypocrisy of authority — to me, more effectively than M*A*S*H. (Of course, the M*A*S*H TV series did a bit better than the Animal House series. A bit.)

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Monty Python may not seem to be such a powerful comedic voice. The troupe dwelled in the absurd — an incongruous argument about the air speed of a swallow, a cheese shop with no cheese, a soccer match between philosophers (for the record, Marx was right — Socrates was offside), etc.

But Python was driven by legitimate intellectual heavyweights, which certainly explains its appeal to nerds like me. The importance of philosophy is evident today only in The Good Place, which I’ll have to binge-watch at some point. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was inspired by a solid grounding in medieval life.

And that’s where we’ll start with Terry Jones.

Jones was, as many obituaries have noted, a Renaissance man. His work on Holy Grail was intertwined with his research on Geoffrey Chaucer, about whom he wrote two books. He produced documentary series on the Crusades (a must-watch) and other medieval phenomena, bringing the sins of the past into a modern context with strong commentary leavened with outrageous humor.

Much of Jones’ commentary was direct. He wrote frequently against the burgeoning war industry. But he also was a master of satire, most obviously as the director of Life of Brian, which satirized Christianity and cult behavior but not Christ. The people who complain about the film never realized they, not Jesus, were the ones we were laughing at.

I’ve often lamented the decline in comedy in an era in which humor in film seems consigned to quips from Marvel characters as they dispatch the bad guys. The 2015 Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical went to The Martian, which I’m guessing is funny in places but isn’t exactly Caddyshack, a glorious anti-authoritarian mess of a movie. The last comedy to have any sort of pop-culture impact was probably The Hangover — a decade ago.

The idea that political correctness is to blame is simply ridiculous. Listen to any Pandora comedy station, and you’ll hear the same misogynist crap we heard from bad standups in decades past.

We do have a lot of great comedies on TV, at least, and Saturday Night Live is in a golden era. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ushered in a new era of sharp satire just when we needed it most.

But wouldn’t we love to see another Terry Jones?