Watch Me Two Times

 

A FEW WEEKS after 9/11, while getting off the subway at Broadway Station in Astoria, I was suddenly overcome by an urge to watch The Big Lebowski. I’d seen it in the theater when it came out in 1998, found it okay but nothing special, and had not thought of it until I stepped off the platform that afternoon. And yet the urge to see the film was as powerful as it was sudden.

I stopped Blockbuster, and found, to my surprise, a DVD of the movie on sale for $12.99. I bought it, went home, and watched it. Then I watched it again. It was much, much better than I’d remembered. In fact, the more I watched it, the better it seemed to get. I was not alone in this assessment. Since I bought the DVD in 2001, The Big Lebowski has become something of a cult classic. Each year, there is something called Lebowski Fest, where fans of the film gather to pay homage to Walter and Maude and The Dude. It is, obviously, one of those movies that demands, and rewards, multiple viewings.

This is very difficult to accomplish, especially with comedies. I saw There’s Something About Mary in the theater, with a group of friends, and howled the whole way through. But when I watched it a second time, I didn’t laugh once. Most comedies are like that: unsubtle, over the top, designed to make you (or, more likely, your ten-year-old) crack up the first time, to ensure you tell your friends how funny the film is—never mind that they aren’t remotely funny the second time, to say nothing of the third or fourth. In short, there’s only so many times one can find injury to Ben Stiller’s genitals amusing.

Save the speeches for Malcolm X.

Watching the same movie or TV show over and over again, memorizing the lines, the gestures, the inflections, is something I did a lot of in college. I’ve seen Animal House more than 100 times. (“I’m in love with an idiot.” “Is he bigger than me?”) I can still quote liberally from episodes of The Simpsons I haven’t watched in a decade. (“I don’t know how it could have happened. It started out like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but it ended in tragedy.”) I could probably write the entire screenplay of Heathers from memory. (“Just give me the cup, jerk.”) And so on. But what makes certain films and certain shows—and, for that matter, certain songs and certain books—more re-watchable, re-listenable, and re-readable?

One element is attention to detail. The comedies with staying power operate at multiple levels. When you watch again, you notice things you might have missed the first time. A great example of this is Groundhog Day, a movie that, ironically, gets better each time you see it; the subtlety of Bill Murray’s performance cannot be appreciated in a single viewing. I must have watched Shrek 15 times (with my kids, of course) before I realized that the name Lord Farquaad was “Lord Fuckwad” pronounced with a Scottish accent. Fuckwad! In a kids’ movie! I mean, that’s brilliant.

Confidence is another attribute all re-watchable films possess. A lousy flick like Meet the Fockers is desperate for you to laugh, not unlike the guy at the party who is desperate for you to like him, and this obvious desperation kills the comedy. The gentlemen in Monty Python, by contrast, act like they couldn’t give a tin of Spam if you so much as smile—and this makes what they do funnier. Humor is like sleep; it only happens when you’re not thinking about it.

Pay it.

The Coen Brothers have this down. They are so unconcerned with making you laugh—and thus so sure that they can achieve that effect—that they disguise their comedies as other genres: detective movies (The Big Lebowski), spy pictures (Burn After Reading), thrillers (Raising Arizona). When I first watched Burn After Reading, I had the same reaction I had after seeing The Big Lebowski: decent, I thought, but nothing special. I was so busy processing the twisted plot that I didn’t realize how funny it was—that the plot was itself part of the gag. Then I caught the end of it on HBO a few months later—the final scene, when J.T. Simmons’ CIA undersecretary and his minion are dissecting, essentially, the plot of the movie, which is beyond ridiculous. Simmons has one line—“Pay it,” he commands, exasperated—that is just pitch perfect, and made me crack up alone in my basement. So I watched the movie again. And again. And again. And it gets funnier every time. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovitch, Tilda Swinton—all of them brilliantly funny. “Pay it” has become a go-to line in our house, like those Simpsons quotes were in college. I think Burn After Reading is funnier—and certainly a more even film—than Lebowski.

As for the zombie box, the funniest re-watchable TV show out there—one that I would, if I were still in college, absolutely be recording and watching over again, like I once did with Homer, Bart and co.—is called Adventure Time. Adventure Time is set in the future, after the Mushroom Wars destroy much of our civilization, and its cast of characters includes: Finn, an 11-year-old boy and the last surviving human; Jake, his best friend, a shapeshifting dog; Princess Bubblegum, ruler of the Candy Kingdom, who is actually made out of bubblegum; the villainous Ice King, who has stinky feet and a habit of kidnapping princesses; and a 1000-year-old Goth bass-playing vampire named Marceline. It’s sort of a combination of fantasy and science fiction, a perfect introduction to the conventions of those genres, trippy and weird and at times scary but heartfelt, with a terrific soundtrack, genius dialogue, clever plot twists, and a heart of gold—with a healthy dose of hipster thrown in for good measure. It’s on the Cartoon Network, and its target audience is ostensibly boys of Finn’s age. My house consists of two fortysomething grown-ups, a seven-year-old boy, and a six-year-old girl—none of us the desired demographic—and yet we all love that show. There was an episode the network was heavily promoting, when Finn the Human and Jake the Dog somehow became Fiona the Girl Human and Cake the Cat. All four of us were legitimately excited for the ep to air (When does that ever happen? As Seinfeld once remarked, there’s no such thing as fun for the whole family). And it was totally as smart and funny as advertised. Adventure Time is a show that people will keep watching, even when they’re done writing new episodes. It’s just one of those shows.

Marceline the Vampire Queen

Judging by its prominence in Cartoon Network ads and the sudden emergence of merchandise at Toys R Us, Adventure Time is doing well—probably better than the producers even expected. This is a good sign. In the world of film, the ultimate indicator of success is box office receipts. This is why Adam Sandler keeps making movies like Jack & Jill—he knows he can expect one killer weekend before word gets out that the film isn’t funny. Whereas if he tried to make a more subtle, smart comedy, he might not find the same broad (read: lowest-common-denominator) audience. Look at the Mike Judge film Idiocracy, that was in about five theaters for about five minutes, despite being vastly smarter and funnier than anything Sandler has ever done. Sandler—and to a lesser extent Stiller—is choosing to maintain his brand, rather than actually produce a genuinely funny product. Which, given his ability, is a shame.

As a fan of comedy, I wish talents like Sandler and Stiller would stop listening to their accountants and just make funny movies—and I’m grateful that the Coen Brothers, like The Dude, abide.

Abide.

 

BONUS: Lines from movies and TV shows I know by heart. How many can you identify?

I’m stayin’. I’m finishin’ my coffee.

They seem to have an open-door policy for assholes, though, don’t they?

—Relax. I’m pre-law.
—I thought you were pre-med.
—What’s the difference?

You see this watch? This watch cost more than your car. That’s who I am—and you’re nothing.

—Do you play darts?
—Not professionally. Just, you know, in bars.

That’s easy for you to say. You’re Mr. White. You have a cool-sounding name.

We’re not just doing it for money. We’re doing it for a shitload of money.

—I came to Casablanca for my health, for the cleansing waters.
—Waters? What waters? This is a desert!
—I was misinformed.

I watched Matlock in a bar last night. The sound was off, but I think I got the gyst.

We do function in your absence, 007.

Individually I love you all with affection unspeakable. But collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation.

That’s the thing about high school girls. I get older…and they stay the same age.

—There was a choice…meat or fish.
—I remember. I had lasagna.

—Hey, nice beaver.
—Thanks. I just had it stuffed.

I was just about to say…”Eight o’clock?”.

Leave her alone, you pompous celibate.

It was just lying there. On the floor.

—Does it hurt?
—Only when I breathe.

Greg Olear

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller. He lives in New Paltz, N.Y.
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22 Responses to Watch Me Two Times

  1. Irwin says:

    After the first paragraph I was planning out how my comment was going to begin with ‘The Big Lebowski gets funnier with each viewing…’ It’s why it’s one of my all time favourites, because most comedy can’t pull that off. The joy of it is a lot like The Simpsons, you know exactly what’s coming but somehow it makes it funnier…

    Comedy is really hard to analyse. I spend most of my time immersed in comedy, either consuming it or trying to create it… and whilst it’s easy to understand why something is/isn’t funny, what makes a joke or a line funny over and over is almost random. Monty Python shouldn’t be funny, but they are. A lot of the best lines in The Simpsons are really, really stupid. There is no inherent wit in ‘these pretzels are making me thirsty’ but it’s a comedy catchphrase.

    Why can I listen to Bill Hicks do the same sets over and over, but other stand up material that makes me laugh out loud never has the same impact again? And how does Hicks actually get funnier?! I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care.*

    *And immediately I hear the voice of Kirk Van Houten’s boss at the cracker factory in my head. ‘Do single people eat crackers? We don’t know, and frankly, we don’t care.’

    I suspect it may have something to do with pyschological associations. The Simpsons is ingrained in pop culture, in our shared pop culture… it has had a profound impact on my life, in the sense that much of my knowledge and interest of comedy and pop culture comes from being a fan of that show… The same is true of The Big Lebowski… Seinfeld… Ghostbusters… Duck Soup etc etc.

    But another thing they all have in common is lovable, believable(ish) characters— or in the case of comedians, people. Stuff like ‘There’s Something About Mary’ features fairly one-dimensional characters with laughs coming from shock/surprise. Which is fine, and shouldn’t be dismissed. I don’t think all comedy has to have a noble aim above causing laughter.

    However, characters like Homer, Bart, The Dude, Walter, Venkman, Kramer, George, Jerry, and Elaine… the other numerous residents of Springfield, the whole Planet Express crew… as well as having superb writing behind them, also cause us to connect with them emotionally, identify with them, and enjoy spending time with them… we feel as though we know them, as though these poeple are our friends.

    Of course that doesn’t really explain why these particular shows become so dominant in the first place… except of course that a comedy that centres around indentifiable, real characters tends to be better than comedy that arises from situations.

    And now I’ve confused myself and starting making my brain hurt by trying to disect something I still don’t fully understand. I’m just going to shut up and watch The Simpsons… again…

    • Dr. January (Weeklings' Mad Scientist) says:

      Fine observations, Irwin. I’m reminded of a time my mother allowed me free roam of the carnival grounds as a child, with a pocket knife and fist full of quarters. As you know, any common carnival is besieged by insurmountable challenges, bottles that won’t fall when hit by cork balls, and BB guns altered to miss. But why did I keep coming back for more? For the glimmer of hope that ‘this time’ I’d get it right? Dr. January believes that a good work of art must appear to be solvable, but have no real solution. Unless you consider the advent of dynamite, which answers all questions with BOOM.

    • The Editors says:

      Irwin!

      I think you’re right, that at least some of it is a social thing. We used to watch The Simpsons in college in the big room, about a dozen of us, record it, watch it again, and then exchange quotes while we went out drinking afterward. I saw the South Park movie at 11am, alone in my apartment, on a TV the size of a shoebox, and I didn’t enjoy it.

      I like to watch comedies in the theater…I saw both BORAT and SUPERBAD in the theater in New Paltz, opening weekend, full house mostly of stoned college kids…totally added to the experience.

      But when I saw BURN AFTER READING the second time, I was alone in the basement, and that didn’t stop me from laughing out loud.

      • Irwin says:

        In my first university house there was only one other guy, and we hardly had anything in common. Pretty much every one of our conversations was made up of quoting Simpsons lines at each other.

        Later I lived with my brother, and my friend Alex and we had loads in common, but all we did was quote lines from The Simpsons and watch the show. I don’t know what the point of that story is.

        I haven’t seen the South Park movie. Isn’t it a musical? I only started watching it shockingly recently because I always got the impression it was a really dumb show. That’s how it was depicted in the media. When actually at it’s best it’s one of the cleverest shows on TV. It’s less lovable than The Simpsons though, less universal and more grown up. Kids can watch The Simpsons, but not South Park. Another aspect to the Simpsons— the older I get the more references I pick up on that the 12 year old me would have missed…

        I’m going to have to watch Burn After Reading again. I wanted to like it so much, because I love pretty much everyone in the film— J.K. Simmons is always hilarious, Brad Pitt and George Clooney don’t do enough comedy, and Frances McDormand… it took me a while to like any character she plays because she’s so annoying in Almost Famous. There was once I time when I didn’t like Fargo…

        The scene when Clooney reveals his ‘invention’ to her did make me fall off my chair laughing. Genius. I love the Coen Brothers. My favourite story about them is that whenever anyone ad libs in their films they do the scene again, asking that they stick to the script.’ I would to, if I could write dialogue the way they can…

        • The Editors says:

          I’m not a big South Park fan. I like them in theory, and I admire them as artists — especially because they crank those shows out in a few days, and they are amazingly topical — but I’ve never really dug the show.

          Watch BURN again. Clooney and his obsession with floor materials. Brad Pitt’s hair. My God. My God.

          • Irwin says:

            That’s almost exactly how I feel about South Park.

            However, they have made some absolutely brilliant episodes that work as satire, pure comedy, and as a story. Those are episodes that they tend to plan further in advance. There’s a two part episode attacking Family Guy, The Simpsons, and itslef to some extent. It is absolute genius.

            And the episode ‘Butters Very Own Episode.’ Very, very dark but very, very funny.

            The 2008 Obama election episode was impressive in that it was written and made in about 12 hours. It aired the day after the election.

            I hope we still have Burn on DVD. I have a habit of getting rid of things about a week before I decide I’d like to watch it again…

  2. Irwin says:

    Embarrassed by how few of the lines I got.

    Especially as I missed a Lionel Hutz line when I have spent literally all day e-mailing Lionel Hutz quotes back and forth with my brother.

    Got 007 completely wrong, which I think constitutes an act of treason…

    • The Editors says:

      The best thing about the 007 line is that M says it.

      • Irwin says:

        That was the original M as well. Bernard Lee. He was great, but Judi Dench is probably the best M. I think she’s now who you picture when you talk about the character. I actually assumed the line would be from one of her films because I can imagine her delivering it so well…

        The second Q has a lot of great lines as well (the second Q being the one from From Russia with Love to The World is Not Enough, not Ben Whishaw. Although he is damn good in Skyfall…)

        • The Editors says:

          I don’t care for the new films. Bond should always be set in the early 60s, when cell phones were high tech, and M should be a grumpy old man.

          • Irwin says:

            Largely in agreement. Casino Royale was so good because it could almost have been set in the ’60s, and Judi Dench could almost have been a grumpy old man.

            I still believe Brosnan to be the worst Bond, with the fewest good films (zero. GoldenEye feels like a parody of the Roger Moore era).

  3. With a few exceptions, all of the Coen brothers’ hold up to repeated viewings. Even the lesser ones are still fascinating. But, seriously, how does one even BEGIN to pick favorite lines from The Big Lebowski? Maude’s “The story is ludicrous.” probably sticks pretty close to number 1 for me.

    • The Editors says:

      You want a toe? I’ll get you a toe. I’ll get you a toe by 3 o’clock. With polish.

      • Dr. January (Weeklings' Mad Scientist) says:

        The chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT… Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.

  4. Don M says:

    OK. Lebowski, yeah. Now I’m going to pimp my friend Michael Morgulis’s Lebowski prints. They’re nicely done and Lebowski fans need them.

    http://mmorgulis.artspan.com/large-multi-view/Bowling%20With%20Lebowski/1928959-1-165257/Bowling%20With%20Lebowski.html#.UMeSLejy-A8

    Each print has a quote from the film.

  5. Quenby Moone says:

    I love my son! I love my dead, gay son!

  6. Phat B says:

    I didn’t pick up on Clooney’s love of hardwood flooring until my 4th viewing. “Is this white plank pine?” I love details like that. little character quirks.

    • The Editors says:

      Exactly. And there’s also the meta angle…that Joel Coen wrote a movie in which his wife gets to have sex with George Clooney.

      Tilda Swinton also gets better and better the more you watch. When we finally find out what she does for a job, it’s a riot.

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