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5 for the Day: Death by Laughter

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5 for the Day: Death by Laughter

Today’s topic is scenes or sequences from movies and TV shows that made you laugh so hard that you fell off whatever chair you were sitting in, had trouble breathing or suffered abdominal cramps so severe you had to look away from the screen for fear of sloughing off this mortal coil. Comedy as health risk.

1. Raising Arizona (1987): I saw this movie in high school with my then-girlfriend. We were one of about ten people in the theater. Midway through we were both laughing so hard that we were kneeling on the floor, holding onto the seats in front of us, gasping and crying. We looked like we’d been tear gassed in church. The sequence that put us in fear of our lives was the one where doltish prison escapees Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) are leaving a scene of a savings and loan robbery and a dye pack goes off, spraying their car interior with blue paint. It’s hard to say what’s funnier, those two ox-like gents covered in blue paint and bellowing, or the earlier moment in the S&L where they tell the customers and staff to freeze and get down on the ground, only to be met with blank stares. “Now, what’s it gonna be young feller?” an old man asks. “You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? ’Cause if’n I freeze, I can’t rightly drop. And if’n I drop, I’m gonna be in motion.”

2. Big Business (1929): Laurel and Hardy roam around suburban Los Angeles neighborhoods, selling Christmas trees door-to-door, and get in a running feud with a sourpuss homeowner (James Finlayson) who doesn’t want any. By the end, the boys are chucking the homeowner’s furniture out onto his lawn while the homeowner systematically destroys their car. I first saw this one from inside the projection booth during an SMU class in silent and early sound comedy. During the climactic orgy of mayhem, I laughed so hard I thought I was going to rupture an internal organ.

3. Ren & Stimpy: “Ren’s Toothache” (1991): Possibly the grossest cartoon ever aired on commercial TV. Despite Stimpy’s evangelizing on behalf of good dental hygiene, Ren refuses to brush his teeth and, thanks to the infestation of the Tooth Beaver (which chops away with a tiny axe) they disintegrate into a wasteland of nubs, holes and exposed nerve endings. Ren’s mouth becomes so revolting that in time even the Tooth Beaver packs up and splits. High (or low) point: flies swarming over an abscess declare that it’s too stinky even for them.

4. Duck Soup (1933): I saw this at a local repertory house in eighth grade, when I was still acclimating myself to the Marx Bros. The whole movie is great, of course, but for my money the most striking and hilarious moment is when Chico, clad in Groucho garb and nightshirt, stands before a broken mirror and impersonates Groucho’s reflection. Groucho seems to know that he’s not really looking at his reflection, but an impostor. Yet he feels obliged to test his theory by gyrating, dancing and making faces, etc. Whole papers have been written about how this scene is uncharacteristically quiet and purely physical (by Marx Bros. standards), and hopeless movie referencer Woody Allen thought enough of it to rip if off wholesale in Sleeper. But academic considerations aside, it’s just flat-out funny.

5. The Big Lebowski (1998): The pot-addled title character visits porn king Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) while investigating a mystery. Mid-conversation, Jackie takes a phone call on the other side of the room and speaks cryptically to the person on the other end while scribbling intently on a notepad. Pulling a North by Northwest, the Dude waits until Jackie pockets the note and leaves, then goes over to the notepad and rubs the exposed page with a pencil to see what the guy was scribbling. Let’s just say it’s of no help.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.