Note: Most of this can apply to cult films in general, but sticking to comedies makes it a little easier in terms of scope.
Cult comedies. Those weird, wacky, and often times darkly subversive films, that inspire both fervent devotees and confounded dismissal. Films such as: The Big Lebowski, Repo Man, Happiness (really any Todd Solondz film), and Office Space have HUGE fan followings, yet they never quite made it to mainstream success. These films often die at the box office, but are resurrected on video (DVD, Blu-Ray, whatever) by niche audiences. These fans quote the films endlessly, will often dress up, and even hold conventions devoted solely to a single film. However, most people find these types of films confusing, weird, and painfully unfunny – and find their hardcore fans somewhat scary. What is it about these films that inspire such diverse opinions?
I guess we should first start with what a cult comedy is and isn’t. What separates the cult comedy from a mainstream comedy? It’s not simply whether or not a film succeeded at the box office. Most Eddie Murphy films in the last ten to fifteen years would be considered mainstream, despite bombing in theatres. Conversely, Napoleon Dynamite found pretty good success at the box office (despite a slow roll out), yet it’s considered by many to be a cult comedy. Why? Well, because cult comedies are just different. Their characters are different. Their plots are different. Their humour is different. They challenge conventions and are often subversive. Whether it’s the outrageous, in-your-face style of John Waters or the sly and dry poking and prodding of Mike Judge, cult comedies often confront preconceived notions of society or normalcy, or even what makes a film a comedy. It’s because of this, I think, general audiences usually steer clear of these films, while others hold them in such high esteem. Does this mean that cult comedies are superior to mainstream comedies? Does the fact that they are challenging and different make them better?
The short answer is yes. They are superior. Mainstream comedies are often bland and uninteresting. Their characters are stock. Their plots are stock. And their humour is stock. Can anyone name a mainstream comedy in the last ten years, aside from maybe The Hangover (which can somewhat be considered mainstream), that is memorable? Cult comedies don’t always work, but at least they try for something different. However, just because you don’t like some cult comedies doesn’t necessarily mean you have bad taste. Comedy is subjective. Critics give negative reviews to cult comedies all the time. It is easy to see why people wouldn’t like Napoleon Dynamite, for instance (it does rely an awful lot on ‘quirk’). Just because you don’t like Holy Grail or The Big Lebowski doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got poor taste in film. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to taste (however, I would argue that if you don’t like any cult comedies, you’re probably boring).
The thing with cult movie fans is that they can make you feel like an outsider. If you’re not a fan ‘their’ film, you’ll be met with derision and, more often than not, that “you just don’t get it”. And maybe that’s true, you don’t get it. However, that’s your opinion to hold. You gave the film a chance and you didn’t enjoy it. Fair enough. You can get into a serious argument over a film, but it ultimately comes down to taste. What I think is worse is not having seen said cult movie that everyone is quoting. At least if you’ve seen it, you can agree or argue with them, but you won’t feel lost. Thankfully, I’m here to help.
There are a ton of cult comedies and it’s hard to know where to start or what to see. Here are some Cult Comedies that you Must See (if you don’t agree, remember that this is just, like, my opinion, man):
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Classic. That’s all that can really be said about Monty Python’s first feature film. Chances are that, even if you’ve never seen this, you’ve heard someone repeat a line or even a whole scene. And it really is endlessly quotable. If you’ve never seen this film, go out and see it NOW. This will also be a great starting point into Monty Python’s work in general.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
A modern classic. The Coen brothers’ bizarre, meandering film centering on Jeff Bridges’ iconic Dude. Also endlessly quotable, due to the Coens’ sheer love of vocabulary. The Dude makes use of terms he hears (often in an incorrect fashion) and the same odd words and phrases pop up from multiple different characters. The movie also contains weird dream sequences, German nihilists, kidnapping, and John Goodman’s immortal Walter Sobchak.
Office Space (1999)
Another modern classic. Mike Judge’s biting satire of dull office jobs – and really work in general. Classic lines, classic characters, everything you need for a cult comedy hit.
Harold Ramis’ golf classic doesn’t have much of a plot to it, but damn is it funny. Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield pretty much steal the show from Michael O’Keefe’s Danny, the protagonist of the film. Danny’s problems are really secondary to the hilarious, mostly improvised scenes with the a fore mentioned comedians.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Any number of Mel Brooks’ comedies could be on here, but this is my personal favourite. Brooks deconstructs the western genre with glee. There’s plenty of slapstick, breaking the fourth wall, very un-PC comedy, and great performances.
Repo Man (1984)
This weird film from Alex Cox combines punk rock, repo men, and aliens all in one seriously funny film. Emilo Estevez stars as a directionless youth who’s recruited by Harry Dean Stanton to join his repossession team. This film is very strange, but awesome. “The life of a repo man is always intense.”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
This might not be purely a comedy, but it’s funny enough to classify as one in my books. This is the very definition of cult film: super weird, shocking, subversive, and absolutely loved by its fans. I’m sure most are familiar with the midnight screenings that happen all over the world, in which people dress up as characters and shout and throw things at the screen. All for a musical about transvestite aliens. This is about as cult as it gets.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters is the king of trash, and it doesn’t get much trashier than Pink Flamingos. Warning: this one is definitely not for everyone. Waters set out to offend everyone and everything with this movie, and he pretty much succeeds. It’s funny and horrifying all at once. More of an endurance test than a movie, Pink Flamingos will definitely stay with you after you’ve seen it.
I’d be remiss to leave Todd Solondz off this list. He has created quite the cult following around his body of work, and Happiness is probably his best. This film is also not for everyone. It is incredibly dark, forcing the viewer to laugh at quite disturbing situations and to also look differently upon outcasts. It’s got a lot on it’s mind and it’s wickedly funny.
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
One of the first mockumentary films ever made. Rob Reiner’s classic story of an aging rock band is still hilarious today. Endlessly quotable and endlessly re-watchable.
Ghost World (2001) – Excellent slacker film with female protagonists (which is good for a change). Steve Buscemi gives one of his best performances.
Clerks (1994) – Kevin Smith’s first and best film.
Rushmore (1998) & Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Two of Wes Anderson’s funniest comedies. Bill Murray is awesome in both.
Up in Smoke (1978) – Classic Cheech and Chong.
Orgazmo (1997) – The first film from Trey Parker (of South Park) about a Mormon getting involved in the porn industry.
Half Baked (1998) – Classic stoner film written by and starring Dave Chappelle.
Dazed and Confused (1993) – Richard Linklater’s classic 70s hang out movie.
I’m probably forgetting a lot, but these will suffice for now. Suggestions? Let me hear them.