There’s a running joke amongst a few of the staff and writers here at Audiences Everywhere about how I am magnetically attracted to sad films. I write best about cinematic tragedy, anxiety, fear, and despair. If you were judging by my writing, you would get a pretty clear impression that I’m a straight up humorless guy.
And while a quick search through my last year’s history of posts would confirm that conclusion as the only logical conclusion to draw based on the evidence, I’d like to think the same perpetrators of that joke would agree that the evidence is lying. I’m generally a positive guy who at least tries his best to be funny. Off the page, I enjoy joy and comradery and, most of all, laughter.
I like laughing.
That’s why one of my most memorable experiences in a theater occurred a decade ago. The Akiva Schaffer-directed Andy Samberg vehicle Hot Rod premiered on this date in 2007.
I didn’t know who Lonely Island was back then. I never really watched Saturday Night Live (I swear, I’m funny!), so I didn’t know Samberg, either. I didn’t even pick the movie. No point in lying about it. I think I even objected.
There were maybe 25 other people in the theater.
So, it was somewhat astonishing when I realized that I, your favorite sullen crisis writer, was the only person heeing and hawing breathlessly for pretty much the entire runtime of the scrappy comedy. I may have been the only one laughing at all. I don’t know for sure. I was laughing too hard to take notice.
I still contend that Hot Rod, which I’m only just now discovering is still rather maligned according to Rotten Tomatoes (40%), Metacritic (43%), and even sort of IMDb (6.7 is a low rating!), was inventing a contemporary structure of cinematic comedy. Or at least transposing a tone made popular by other mediums—YouTube, Funny or Die, and late night sketch shows—onto a traditional plot-driven comedy.
The throughline is basic: Rod Kimball (Samberg), an aspiring small town stuntman who performs locally on his Tomo moped, and his ragtag crew conceive of a plan to save the life of Rod’s ailing stepfather so that Rod can finally kick his ass (How, how, HOW is this movie not a classic?!). The construction of that plot is another thing altogether, mostly just a series of viral-like vignettes strung together to resemble that story. “Cool beans,” the taco fighting the grilled cheese, the punch fighting pratfall, all of it works with or without the story, the way that senseless online videos do. But, providing viral videos in the framing of the story with the same performers moving from skit-to-skit allows for characterization to heighten the comedy.
Broken down and separated, none of these parts are new. The basic manchild character outline upon which Rod, Kevin, Rico, and Dave are drawn is as old as comedy itself. The collective of manchildren came shortly thereafter in story history and is maybe now in a post-Anchorman age, even more popular. The element of sucker punch non-sequitur was nothing new—by 2007, it’d been nearly a decade since Will Ferrell, the box office king of screen comedy through the 2000s, had said back-to-back lines that had any direct relation to one another. And everything else was just an echo of the 20-90 second clips being forwarded through emails and instant messages in the mid-2000s.
But Hot Rod kind of marks the first intersection of all of that, an intersection constructed without speed limit signs. And it’s all punctuated by the soft goofiness of an underrated comedy genius whose victimless brand of comedy has largely struggled to find its footing in a satire shifted world.
Look, I know, I don’t want to do this either. Nothing is more tedious than dissecting why a thing is or isn’t funny, but such an analysis becomes even more painstaking when applied to a comedian as toothless as Samberg. It’s like giving a rabies test to a newborn puppy for gumming at your fingertips. Most of the time, the Lonely Island approach to making people laugh is one wholly without malice. Samberg most typically makes his own goofy characters (including his non-fiction self) the butt of his joke setups. Any satirical target is attacked with the most plastic of humorous knives. And if film history is any indicator, from Chaplin to Brooks, we can estimate that there is something timeless about this benevolent sort of comedy.
So it’s not that I don’t want to express my appreciation for this troupe’s offering. I do that all the time. I still order a “hwiskey” at a bar and chuckle to myself anytime I’m a little more than buzzed. I once recorded Bill Hader saying “Hi… My name is, uh, Dave and, uh… I like to party” and used it as the intro to my voicemail box. Occasionally, I’ll yell “HOOBASTANK!” when I wake up. And I like to shout about green tea and demons and stolen hats every time I beat someone with a plastic trash can.
I want to express my love for Hot Rod, one of my singular favorite comedies of all time, but I’d rather do that by watching it and laughing at it.
That’s the real problem with critiquing comedy sometimes and maybe that’s why I lean toward writing about more dramatic or heavier films. To write about comedy, you have to make a case that the movie either is or isn’t funny, and, whether your answer is yes or no and whether you’re wrong or right, you’re still interrupting the laughter. Who wants to do that?