Reel Good

Have you ever noticed how many BAD movies have the word GOOD in the title? That made us wonder… which films rank as the all-time BEST “good” movies?

The Good Earth 1937

Drought and famine push a Chinese farming family to the brink in the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s moving novel. Luise Rainer and Paul Muni portray their characters in heavy makeup, with Rainer winning an Oscar for her unforgettable work as O-Lan. MGM originally wanted to make the movie in China with an all-Chinese cast, but Chiang Kai-shek and his wife got involved in the negotiations and the studio ended up shooting everything in California, with a mix of Asian and American actors.

 

Goodbye, Mr. Chips 1939

Sam Wood directs Greer Garson and Robert Donat in the story of an English schoolteacher who recalls his tragic romance with a feisty suffragette and endures the horror of the First World War, which annihilates many of his former pupils. Garson charmed audiences on both sides of the ocean, while Donat gave a jaw-dropping performance that earned him an Oscar as Best Actor. Garson was also nominated but lost to Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlet O’Hara that year in Gone with the Wind.

 

In the Good Old Summertime 1949

Basically the musical version of You’ve Got Mail (and The Shop Around the Corner), this version is set in turn-of-the-century Chicago, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson playing anonymous pen pals who end up working side-by-side in a music store. Sharp-eyed movie buffs will spot a very old Buster Keaton and a very young Liza Minelli in this film.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 1966

A masterpiece of the Spaghetti Western era, Sergio Leone’s film followed two other successful Clint Eastwood flicks: A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Eastwood (aka The Man with No Name) plays the “Good,” Lee Van Cleef (a Jersey boy!) the “Bad” and Eli Wallach the “Ugly.” Ignored by critics at the time, it later made Time’s list of 100 Greatest Movies.

 

The Long Goodbye 1973

Elliott Gould stars as detective Philip Marlowe in the motion picture version of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 book, which was moved to 1970s Hollywood. Dan Blocker (TV’s Hoss) was supposed to play one of the leads, but died of a heart attack before filming started. He was replaced by New Jersey-born Sterling Hayden. Jim Bouton and Arnold Schwarzenegger also have small roles in this Robert Altman film. Gould’s acting style proved perfect for the updated version of Chandler’s iconic detective.

 

The Goodbye Girl 1977

Neil Simon’s romantic comedy was the first to surpass $100 million in ticket sales, thanks to flawless, relatable performances by Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss —playing two flawed entertainers struggling to relate. Simon is generous with his punchlines, which helps 10-year-old Quinn Cummings nearly steal the whole picture.

 

Looking for Mr. Goodbar 1977

Diane Keaton stars in the film adaptation of Judith Rossner’s sexual thriller, which was inspired by the murder of New Jersey schoolteacher Roseann Quinn. The movie is a lurid snapshot of nightclub life in the 1970s, but all these years later it is still Keaton who steals every scene in what many consider to be her best-ever performance. A trio of future stars—LeVar Burton, Tom Berenger and Richard Gere—got their first quality roles in this flick.

 

Good Morning, Vietnam 1987

Director Barry Levinson unleashes Robin Williams in one of the funniest movies of the 1980s. Improvising most of his scenes, Williams conveys the absurdity, pain and hypocrisy of America’s strategy in Southeast Asia as Adrian Cronauer, a wacky DJ assigned to the Armed Forces Radio operation in Saigon. Bruno Kirby, Forrest Whitaker, J.T. Walsh, Robert Wuhl and “Uncle Floyd” Vivino are brilliant in supporting roles, while Williams earned a Golden Globe for his unforgettable performance.

GoodFellas 1990

This Martin Scorcese mob epic follows Henry Hill’s rise and fall from the 1950s to the 1980s. Lots of New Jersey actors scored key roles, including Ray Liotta as Henry, Frank Vincent as Billy Batts and Joe Pesci, who absolutely hijacks the movie as Tommy DeVito. Nominated for six Oscars, with Pesci winning Best Supporting Actor.

A Few Good Men 1992

Jack Nicholson is sensational as keg-of-dynamite USMC Colonel Nathan Jessup, with Tom Cruise and Demi Moore playing JAG lawyers lighting his fuse. When Jack blows (“You can’t handle the truth!”) it makes for one of history’s most-quoted lines. Nicholson was nominated for a Supporting Actors Oscar in a movie featuring outstanding performances by Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Pollak, Noah Wylie, J.T. Walsh, Michael DeLorenzo and Christopher Guest.

As Good As It Gets 1997

Jack Nicholson plays a famous author with crippling OCD, who is teased out of his shell by a waitress (Helen Hunt), a neighbor (Greg Kinnear) and Verdell, the neighbor’s dog. The quirky, complex and unpredictable story was a huge hit, grossing more than $300 million worldwide, with Nicholson and Hunt winning Academy Awards and Kinnear earning a Best Supporting nomination.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997

Kevin Spacey and John Cusack make for an unlikely pairing in Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the popular book by John Berendt about the seamy side of life in Savannah, Georgia. Jude Law is very good in one of his first big roles—and yes, that’s James Gandolfini playing a cook—while several real-life characters from the book portray themselves on-screen, including transgender performer Lady Chablis. The movie bombed at the box office but earned a devoted cult following.

Good Will Hunting 1997

The breakthrough movie for both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck—who co-wrote and co-starred with Robin Williams—the story follows genius janitor Will Hunting as he comes to terms with his friends, his past and his future. Williams won a Best Supporting Oscar while 20-somethings Damon and Affleck took home statues for their screenplay.

Good Night, and Good Luck 2005

David Strathairn is brilliant as Edward R. Murrow holding the line against Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953. George Clooney co-wrote and directed the moody, black-and-white film, which also features Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels and Robert Downey, Jr—and a killer soundtrack recorded by Dianne Reeves. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay. EDGE

Scorchers

Twenty memorable movies to take your temperature by.

 

Is it getting warm in here, or is it just that a semi-normal summer seems within reach? After a year of bread-making, diet-busting and binge-watching, it’s hard to know what’s hot and what’s not anymore. If you’re looking for a new thread to tug on, we suggest working your way through this collection of unforgettable films.

 

Ball of Fire • 1941

Gary Cooper plays against his brooding film hero persona in a movie about a group of musty academics grappling to understand contemporary slang as their decade-long encyclopedia project reaches the letter S. Barbara Stanwyck lived up to her billing as a ball of fire, while Cooper displayed remarkable comic timing.

 

 

White Heat • 1949

James Cagney transforms a low-budget gangster flick with a six-week shooting schedule into a masterpiece with a tour de force performance. His character, Cody Jarrett, was one of the first to draw a line between mental illness and criminal behavior

 

 

 

The Flame and the Arrow • 1950

Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo co-star in this 12th century swash-buckling drama. Warner Brothers offered $1 million to anyone who could prove that Lancaster didn’t do all of his own stunts—and someone took them up on it!

 

 

 

 

The Big Heat • 1953

Glenn Ford stars as a police detective who takes on the mob in a moody and visually captivating story directed by the great Fritz Lang. Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s older sister) played Ford’s wife and a young Lee Marvin was excellent as a psychopathic gangster.

 

 

 

The Long, Hot Summer • 1958

Paul Newman plays a Deep South drifter in a film that marked the return of director Martin Ritt from the blacklist. Newman, who was named Best Actor at Cannes, married co-star Joanne Woodward during production. Orson Welles, Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick, Richard Anderson and Tony Franciosa make up a remarkable supporting cast.

 

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof • 1958

Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman play Maggie and Brick in the toned-down film adaptation of the controversial Tennessee Williams drama. Williams and Newman were both disappointed that studio censors cut out key parts of the play, but the film still earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress.

 

 

 

Some Like It Hot • 1959

Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe are brilliant in this gender-bending screwball comedy. Writer-director Billy Wilder never imagined the luminous Monroe would take the part, but to her enduring credit she saw how playing a ditzy “straight man“ to the inspired lunacy of Curtis and Lemmon would make the film great.

 

 

 

Fahrenheit 451 • 1966

Francois Truffaut directs a chilling adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s tale of a dystopian future in which “firemen” are tasked with destroying all literature; Julie Christie plays a schoolteacher who convinces a fireman to read the books he’s burning. A 2018 remake starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon lacked the oomph of this earlier production.

 

 

In the Heat of the Night • 1967

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger originate the roles later occupied by Howard Rollins and Carroll O’Connor on the TV series of the same name. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Steiger took home the Best Actor Oscar.

 

Body Heat • 1981

Kathleen Turner and William Hurt are at their smokey, sexy best in a drama inspired by film noir classic Double Indemnity. Body Heat marked the film debut of Turner—who was best known for her role on TV soap The Doctors—and featured a supporting cast that included soon-to-be stars Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke.

 

 

Chariots of Fire • 1981

Of all the movies on this list, the story of two English runners at the 1924 Olympics easily has the most memorable score. It also won Best Picture. The title was inspired by a poem by William Blake, who borrowed the idea from passages in the Bible.

 

Streets of Fire • 1984

An utterly original retro rock musical, Streets of Fire is full of holes and weaknesses, yet it helped launch the movie careers of Diane Lane, Willem Dafoe, Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, Bill Paxton and Robert Townsend. A little known fact is that it also inspired the Street Fighter video game franchise.

 

 

St. Elmo’s Fire • 1985

This “Brat Pack” classic stars Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Andie McDowell, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy and Mare Winningham. The film, an attempt at a Big Chill meets Breakfast Club vibe, did well at the box office but did not win over the critics. Amazing that no one made it into a TV series.

 

 

 

Mississippi Burning • 1988

Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe co-star as FBI agents investigating the disappearance of three freedom riders. Hackman and Frances McDormand earned Oscar nominations, and the film was up for Best Picture and Best Director.

 

 

 

 

Hot Shots • 1991

Charlie Sheen stars in this Desert Storm era spoof a la The Naked Gun. The superb comedic timing he demonstrated a dozen years later on Two and a Half Men is on display in this popular farce.

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire • 2005

The fourth installment in the Harry Potter series, Goblet of Fire shows a more mature side of Harry and his Hogwarts friends. The film killed at the box office and featured teenagers Robert Pattinson and Katie Leung, who played Harry’s first love interest.

 

 

 

Mad Hot Ballroom • 2005

The lone documentary on this list, Mad Hot Ballroom introduces us to the ballroom dancing program in the unlikeliest of places: the NYC public school system. Fifth graders tango and fox-trot their way into our hearts as they converge on the citywide finals.

 

 

 

 

Hot Fuzz • 2007

Loveable goof balls Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star in an inspired send-up of the action film genre. Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, Stephen Merchant, Cate Blanchett and Olivia Colman make up one of the all-time great supporting casts.

 

 

Burn After Reading • 2008

Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand play a pair of moronic gym employees who become hopelessly entangled in an intricate spy plot. George Clooney, John Malkovich, J.K. Simmons and Tilda Swinton co-starred in this screwball comedy penned by Joel and Ethan Coen.

 

 

 

Hot Tub Time Machine • 2010

John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke and Rob Corddry pass out after downing Chernobyl, a Russian energy drink, and wake up in 1986—with a stern warning from a hot tub repairman not to alter the future. A cast of likeable actors and a relentlessly ridiculous script make this movie difficult not to enjoy.

 

EPHOTO CREDITS

Ball of Fire • Samuel Goldwyn Productions

White Heat • Warner Bros. Pictures

The Flame and the Arrow • Warner Bros. Pictures

The Big Heat • Columbia Pictures

The Long Hot Summer • 20th Century Fox

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof • MGM

Some Like It Hot • The Mirisch Corp.

Fahrenheit 451 • Anglo Enterprises/Vineyard Film

In the Heat of the Night • The Mirisch Corp.

Body Heat • The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Chariots of Fire • Allied Stars/Goldcrest Films/The Ladd Company

Streets of Fire • Universal Pictures/RKO

St. Elmo’s Fire • Columbia Pictures

Mississippi Burning • Orion Pictures

Hot Shots • 20th Century Fox

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire • Warner Bros./Heyday Films

Mad Hot Ballroom • Nickelodeon Movies

Hot Fuzz • StudioCanal/Working Title/Big Talk

Burn After Reading • Focus Features

Hot Tub Time Machine • MGM/United Artists/New Crime Prod.

Laughing Matter

A serious look at fish-out-of-water comedy.

By Luke Sacher

There is nothing remotely amusing about a fish-out-of-water experience. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, ill-equipped to cope with unfamiliar circumstances or unpredictable people, is at best deeply unsettling and, at worst, totally harrowing.

Unless, of course, it’s happening to someone else. In that case it’s hilarious.

My first boss out of college, a TV commercial director, advised me one day: “There are no small jobs, only small people.” I sardonically replied: “What about big jobs and big people? Or small jobs and big people? Or big jobs and small people?” He glared at me and said, “Okay, philosopher… now go pick up my dry cleaning.”

That small job led to bigger and better things, so his observation was sound and his point well made. Since then, I have adhered to my own version, which is when a window of opportunity opens, jump through it…just make sure you’re on the ground floor when you do. Needless to say, there is an entire genre of fish-out-of-water workplace comedy that runs counter to this kind of career advice. It’s the first of five I invite you to explore.

  1. The Patience of Job

In My Cousin Vinny (1992), Joe Pesci plays a street-smart personal injury attorney from New York City who finds himself in a Deep South courtroom defending his young cousin on what looks to be a slam-dunk murder charge. Vinny has three major problems: near total incompetence, absolutely no trial experience and a severe case of cultural tone deafness—which collectively earn him the contempt of the judge, played by Fred Gwynne. Vinny finally gets a grip on his situation when he begins listening to the movie’s other fish out of water, his girlfriend Mona, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Marisa Tomei.

In Spy (2015), Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a dowdy, 40-something CIA desk analyst who is thrust into the role of field operative after super spy—and love of her life—Bradley Fine (Jude Law) is neutralized in a plot involving black market nuclear weapons. Imagine Moneypenny stepping in for James Bond. Or better yet, a ribald mix of Homeland, The Sum of All Fears, the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. Like Vinny, “Coop” finds a way to avert disaster and make us laugh while figuring out what separates an amateur from a pro.

Jerry Lewis, whom I knew and with whom I worked, starred in The Patsy (1964). When an A-List Hollywood pop and movie star perishes in a plane crash, his parasitic flunky managers, agents, producers and writers lose their meal ticket, and need to groom a replacement fast. Enter Stanley Belt, a bellboy at their hotel. The film has four unforgettable scenes: the singing lesson, the barber shop, the recording session, and Stanley lip-synching his hit song “I Lost My Heart in a Drive-In Movie” on an American Bandstand-style dance show. The final scene would do Fellini proud.

  1. Boys Will Be Girls

In the world of fish-out-of-water comedy, the best man for the moment is often a woman. After all, how hard can it be? Slap on some makeup, don a few glad rags, slip into a pair of heels, raise the pitch of your voice…and you’re good to go. What could possibly be the downside? Just don’t ask Michael Dorsey (aka Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie), Daniel Hilliard (aka Euphegenia Doubtfire) or Joe and Jerry (aka Jospehine and Daphne in Some Like It Hot).

In Tootsie (1982), Dustin Hoffman’s out-of-work actor finds fame and fortune disguised as a soap opera diva. The charade creates profound chaos in Dorsey’s personal life, but he learns valuable lessons about feminine empowerment and winds up a better man for it. In Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Robin Williams masquerades as an over-the-top Scottish nanny in order to stay in the lives of his children after a messy divorce. It is difficult to imagine any actor other than Williams pulling off such a ludicrous character; in fact, Mrs. Doubtfire herself has a hard time keeping it together, both literally and figuratively.

Saving the best for last, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Some Like it Hot (1958) features Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as a pair of jazz musicians who witness a Chicago mob rubout. They save their skins by joining an all-female orchestra (featuring Marilyn Monroe) headed for a winter gig in Miami. Once in Florida, Curtis’s character pursues Monroe by impersonating an heir to the Shell Oil fortune (employing a spot-on Cary Grant impersonation). Meanwhile, Lemmon’s Daphne is romanced—with a disturbing degree of success—by an actual millionaire, played by Joe E. Brown. It all works out in the end, sort of—I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it yet.

For the record, pretty much every modern (post-Shakespeare) gender-bender comedy—from Victor/ Victoria (which is based on an early German film) to TV’s Bosom Buddies to Big Momma’s House—traces its origin to Charley’s Aunt, an 1892 British farce by Brandon Thomas, which has been adapted for the screen no less than 13 times and remains a staple of repertory theater.

  1. Out of Body Experiences

We’ve all had those odd moments when we don’t quite feel ourselves. But imagine finding yourself one fine morning transplanted into an entirely different body? That brings us to our third genre or fish-out-of-water comedies. The one we all grew up with was Freaky Friday, which features a petulant teenage daughter and her mom swapping bodies for 24 hours. Mary Rodgers’s award-winning 1972 children’s novel has been adapted and updated for stage, screen and TV five times—and has starred Jodie Foster & Barbara Harris (1976), Gaby Hoffman & Shelley Long (1995), and Lindsay Lohan & Jamie Lee Curtis (2003). One of the first—and best—was Goodbye Charlie (1964), the story of a Hollywood screenwriter and notorious lothario Charlie Sorrell. Charlie is murdered by the producer husband of one of his trysts…and comes back to life as “lotharia” Virginia Mason, played to the nines by Debbie Reynolds. Goodbye Charlie began as a Broadway play starring Lauren Bacall, in 1959. Switch, the 1991 Blake Edwards film starring Ellen Barkin, was essentially a remake.

One of the big hits of Spring 2019 was the out-of-body comedy Little, the story of a bullying executive who wakes up in her own 13-year-old body and must return to the school were she was originally bullied. As with Freaky Friday, a lot of the comic burden is shouldered by a young actor—in this case, Monai Martin, who is brilliant.Little also works because its title plays off the champion of out-of-body fish-out-of-water films, Big (1988), the Penny Marshall classic starring Tom Hanks. After a humiliating “too short to ride” experience at a traveling carnival, 13 year old Josh Baskin gets his wish to be “big” from a fortune telling machine, and wakes up as a 30 year old man, who must flee his own home after being mistaken by his mother as the kidnapper of her son. Josh’s childlike imagination and honesty brings him instant success, wealth and romance as a toy industry executive, but after a few weeks of grownup fun, he realizes that being big isn’t quite the picnic he thought it would be…and longs to be a kid again.

The movie’s iconic scene is Josh’s “chopsticks” duet with his boss (Robert Loggia) on the giant keyboard at FAO Schwarz. But perhaps the one that best depicts the essence of man-child humor is when Hanks shows up to an office party in a ridiculous rented tuxedo and gags on a “sophisticated” hors d’oeuvre. I detested caviar and quail eggs when I was 13, and still do. And no one’s going to make me eat them ever again because I’m big now.

  1. City Mouse, Country Mouse

The reversal of fortune, whether positive, negative or a mixed bag of both, is a time-honored device for putting characters in places they are ill-equipped to navigate. When those characters move from the city to the country, or vice-versa, we find that their strengths become weaknesses, their weaknesses become strengths and, of course, comedy ensues. One of the biggest hits on Netflix right now, in fact, is the Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek, which relocates ruined video-store tycoon Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) and his formerly jet-setting family to the last piece of real estate he owns: a no-tell motel in a backwater town of the same name. Newhart (1982–90) found famed how-to author Dick Louden (Bob Newhart) running a moreupscale establishment in a picturesque Vermont town, but dealing with an even loopier cast of characters.

Although countless film comedies have featured reversals of fortune—Trading Places (1983) being perhaps the most successful—television, it turns out, is an especially welcoming medium for this fish-out-of-water genre, seeing as it allows for the quirkiness factor to develop over many seasons. One of the first shows to really get it right was Green Acres (1965–71), in the mid-60s. One day, attorney Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert) looks out from his Manhattan penthouse, declares to his glamorous and eccentric wife Lisa (Eva Gabor) “I hate it!” and drags her unwillingly to a farm in Hooterville. There he is plagued by a parade of unforgettable idiots, including conniving junkman Mr. Haney, the childless Ziffels (who have raised their pig Arnold as a child), farming expert Hank Kimball (who can never finish a thought), and the brother-sister home renovation team of Alf and Ralph (who can never finish a home renovation). The underlying gag in the series is that everyone in Hooterville thinks Oliver is a dope—something he can never quite wrap his mind around.

Green Acres was the brainchild of CBS producer Paul Henning, who simply flipped the script of his earlier hit, The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71). After Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen) accidentally strikes oil on his dirt patch in the Ozarks, he moves his family to California’s most exclusive address, a neighborhood of “swimming pools and movie stars.” They live next door to the Drysdales, an obsequious banker who will do anything to prevent the Clampetts from moving their deposit to a competitor, and his wife, who detests them. Though utterly lacking in guile and sophistication, Jed, Granny, Ellie Mae and Jethro end up outsmarting, outlasting or repulsing the endless stream of con-men and -women who arrive at their mansion hoping to separate them from their millions. Jethro (Max Baer Jr.) and Granny (Irene Ryan) do most of the comic heavy lifting in a series that was the #1 show on television twice and in the Top 20 eight years out of nine.

  1. You’re Not From Around Here

Imagine how much fun you’d have if you could shed the constrictions of time, space and the laws of physics. That kind of thinking produced classics classic tales such as Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Rip Van Winkle. It has also engendered some of the funniest films and television series in history. Too many even to mention, in fact. From this idea came the inspiration for the hit sitcoms My Favorite Martian (1963–66), starring Ray Walston and Bill Bixby, and Mork & Mindy (1978–82), starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber—as well as the Conehead family (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin), who debuted in a 1977 SNL sketch. I should probably add to this list the 2000 Star Trek send-up, Galaxy Quest, where a group of hammy human actors find themselves beamed onto a real alien spaceship. The rule of thumb in each case was that casting, not costuming, is crucial to pull off a fish-out-of-water comedy about extraterrestrials.

That certainly accounts for the success of the NBC series 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996–2001), which starred John Lithgow, Kristen Johnston, French Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They play a quartet of aliens living in a Cleveland suburb, tasked with observing the inhabitants of an insignificant planet called Earth. Not quite comfortable in their human skins and never blending in as well as they think, the characters rarely miss an opportunity to hold a slightly cracked mirror up to American culture. Actually, it was Gore Vidal who broke important comic ground in this category with Visit to a Small Planet, first written in 1956 for television, reworked as a Broadway show in 1958, and then as a 1960 feature film starring Jerry Lewis—worth watching just for the scene in the beatnik night club with Buddy Rich.

In addition to the extraterrestrials there are the “supernaturals,” whose extraordinary powers make them a tricky fit for civilized society. Among the funniest of these fish out of water comedies was Hancock (2008), the story of a destructive, alcoholic superhero played by Will Smith who needs a PR flack to burnish his image. The original comic supernaturals, of course, were America’s 1960s sweethearts, Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden, who played more familiar mythological characters: a witch and a genie.

Bewitched (1964–1972) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965–70) featured pretty much identical plots. A beautiful blonde witch meets and marries a mere mortal advertising executive and a beautiful blonde genie is found by a NASA astronaut whose capsule splashes down near a desert island. Ignoring the fantasies of virtually every mid-century male television viewer, both men feebly lay down the same ground rule…no hocus-pocus.

The similarities did not end there. Both shows used every state-of-the-art technical trick to push the envelope on the time-honored rules of visual comedy: Make something larger or smaller than it normally is, make something do what it normally doesn’t, put something where it normally isn’t. The genius of these shows is that Samantha Stephens and Jeannie were essentially the straight men, while Darren Stephens (especially the first one, Dick York) and Tony Nelson barely kept it together executing the big physical comedy. And then there were the supporting characters, some of whom were in on the joke and others who weren’t. You had to feel for poor Gladys Kravitz, who kept seeing inexplicable things next door, and whose husband Abner thinks that she’s been swallowing too much mouthwash. Or poor Dr. Bellows, the NASA psychiatrist, who is made to doubt his own sanity so often that he almost takes it in stride: “Major Nelson…it’s snowing. On your house. Only on your house. In Cocoa Beach. In the middle of July.”

Often at this point in a feature story, the writer begins a paragraph with “In conclusion…” I don’t think one can when discussing this topic. First of all, I could write an entire book (or shoot a two-hour documentary) about fish-out-of-water comedies and still barely scratch the surface. Second, and perhaps more important, doesn’t all comedy originate in one way or another from this construct? Think about the book or film or TV show or play that never fails to make you laugh…my guess is that the humor originates from a character finding himself or herself in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place. A good writer knows when to stick to the basics—and how to grab an audience and activate its funny bone.

I’m more than a bit biased by my personal affection for fish-out-of-water humor, but to me, its sheer immensity demands an entire book or a two-hour documentary to be covered adequately. Here, after 2,500-plus words, I’ve just scratched the surface. Perhaps it’s best to end by asking What have we learned today? Something that I discovered researching and writing this article is that virtually all comedy originates, in one way or another, from a fish-out-of-water situation—dating back to ancient Greece.

Think about the book, film, TV show or play that never fails to make you laugh…my guess is that the humor originates from a character finding himself or herself in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place and, against all odds, emerges both triumphant and a better person for the experience. Pakistani-American comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani, a fish out of water himself, might have said it best when he observed that “being a fish out of water is tough…but that’s how you evolve.”

Extemporals

Transport wacky characters through time and you may strike fish-out-of-water gold. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), the fate of the future world hinges on the ability of two bone-headed Southern California teenagers—played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves—to complete a show-and-tell project for their World History class. With the help of George Carlin and a time-traveling telephone booth, they fetch Beethoven, Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Lincoln and Socrates for a grand spectacle in the school auditorium.

Lost in America

Fish-out-of-water comedy works particularly well when characters find themselves out of their element, yet still close to home. In Lost In America (1985), Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty play David and Linda, successful Los Angeles yuppies who respond to a sudden professional setback with a bold stroke of dementia: they cash out of their house and hit the road in a Winnebago to find themselves “like in Easy Rider.” Who could have predicted that, at a stop in Las Vegas, she turns out to be a degenerate gambler who loses their entire nest egg at the roulette wheel? Lost In America does a superb job of holding a mirror up to American society from top to bottom, as David and Linda suffer the endless indignities of a minimum-wage existence.

Out of Africa

Unless you are a Native American, chances are good that you are descended from someone who was the ultimate fish out of water: a stranger to North America. The actual U.S. immigrant story is not inherently funny (especially not these days)…unless of course, you decide to mine it for humor. Think about Crocodile Dundee or Moscow On the Hudson or Borat. The humor doesn’t come so much from the awkward struggles of the newcomer as it does from the Americans who are trying to make them feel welcome (or unwelcome). Perhaps the best example is Coming to America (1988). Eddie Murphy stars as Akeem, an over-pampered African prince who leaves his homeland of Zamuda and arrives in outer-borough New York, where he and his best friend Semmi (Aresneio Hall) must rough it while Akeem searches for a suitable wife. “What better place to find a queen than the city of Queens?” The logic turns out to be unassailable.