Cracking Up

Director: Rowby Goren & Chuck Staley                           
Fred Willard, Michael McKean, David L. Lander

With this review, The Unknown Movies ends its coverage of a comedy era. That's because after I talk about Cracking Up, this site will have talked about every movie to be found in the small sketch/parody genre. You almost certainly know about the more famous movies in this genre - They're laughing at YOU, dear viewerThe Groove Tube, Kentucky Fried Movie, Tunnelvision, and Amazon Women On The Moon. In the past, this site has mentioned and/or reviewed the lesser-known movies in this genre - The Sex O'Clock News, Flicks, Hey! There's Naked Bodies On My TV!, Outtakes, and Prime Time. Now all that is left to look at is Cracking Up. Oh wait - there's Viewer Discretion Advised, though that never made it to the video stores in my city, so I can't review it. And I forgot about American Tickler and The Boob Tube, though since the latter is really one long soap opera parody (with a few comic commercial breaks), I'm not quite sure if it belongs with the other movies in this genre. But just to make sure I'm thorough, I'll review it right now for the record: It sucks (and so does American Tickler). Now that there's nothing else in the genre I need to cover(*), I can now move on to Cracking Up.

Cracking Up was created in a different way than all of those other known and unknown sketch/parody movies. Instead of one or a few screenwriters working on the entire script, what was basically done was that some movie producers approached a number of improv comedy troupes that were active in the '70s (The Credibility Gap and Ace Trucking Company among them) and said, "Hey, wanna appear in a movie? Come by and just perform the routines you guys have been doing on the stage." Young and hungry for money and a chance to strike it big, the answer would certainly be "Yes" in almost every case - an ingenious way for the producers to cheaply put together a movie. And some of the people involved in Cracking Up did go on to bigger and better things - you'll see Fred Willard here, "Lenny" and "Squiggy" from Laverne & Shirley (Michael McKean and David L. Lander), and one of the voices on The Simpsons, Harry Shearer. 

So you might now be thinking questions like, "So if Cracking Up has some now-famous people in it, why isn't this movie better known? If it was made by the same people who were behind the cult classic Tunnelvision, why hasn't it been embraced with the same kind of cult? Why was it only released on video this year?" The answer: It sucks. It's been said that there is nothing worse than an unfunny comedy, but that's not quite it. A badly done comedy is bad enough, but what is even worse is a bad comedy like this one, where it is crystal clear that everyone involved thinks that the garbage they are writing and acting is hilarious. It's one thing to see an actor clearly suffering while doing some particularly lame schtick - you can't help but feel some sympathy - but when they think it's funny, you can't help but feel like it's a direct attack against you. It's like they are laughing at your suffering. Needless to say, this is the kind of comedy delivered in this movie. In hiring these writer/actors, the producers were so obsessed in saving a buck that it seems that they weren't careful to examine if the material they got would make a buck.

To add insult to injury, the saving-a-buck attitude also seems to have gone in the The notorious Ace Trucking Company - their comedy is dangerous to your healthproduction value department. The cheapness of the movie is evident almost from the word go. After stock footage of various areas of Los Angeles, a rumbling is dubbed into the soundtrack and the frame is jiggled around to suggest an earthquake. Then after stock footage of shelves collapsing and speeded-up scenic footage of California taken far above the ground from an airplane (with a corner of the airplane that carried the cameraman usually visible in one of the corners of the screen), the opening animated credits sequence starts. Actually, the only credit to appear in this animated sequence is the title of the movie - the rest of the opening credits don't appear until after the sequence is finished! Perhaps they blew so much money into telling us the name of the movie that they had little money for the rest of the credits and the movie. Whatever the case is, there is still some blatant cost-cutting here - one big animated sequence of California cracking into pieces and sinking into the ocean is shown more than once. It is fitting that both times the sequence is shown, the sound of a toilet is heard - it's a warning that we'll repeatedly see s**t moving around before us.

Afterwards the movie jumps back to showing us the results of the 9.7 earthquake. For the next few minutes we see the aftermath of the earthquake, with dead people lying around the wreckage of the city, bloodied and limb-broken people crawling through the debris, and people trapped under overturned cars. (Hilarious, huh?) We get our first taste of comedy here from an overheard radio announcer, and it's not promising - he says such witticisms like, "24 million fatalities - some of them serious" and "The Red Cross is speeding out packets of Rolaids and Alka-Seltzer to bring relief to the 168 known survivors."

We shortly afterwards meet the device in this earthquake aftermath footage that is used to introduce the skits. It comes in the form of two idiot television reporters, "Walter Concrete" and "Barbara Haulters", the latter of which is played by a guy in drag. During the course of the movie, when not directly covering the aftermath, they either take breaks for commercials or ask the earthquake survivors, "What were you doing when the quake struck?" - both of which make excuses for the comedy teams' routines to be played before our eyes. A clever linking device, eh?  Who cares if the "What were you doing..." skits clearly take place not just during the day, but at night? After all, earthquakes can go on for a long time - right? Goofs like that I could easily look over in a better movie, but when the experience is this painful you can't help but lash out at even the tiniest flaws the movie has to offer. 

The biggest flaw that keeps coming up over and over again during the running time is that the movie is so damn unfunny. Take the first sketch, performed by the lovable (as in only a mother could love) members of Ace Trucking Company. A job hunter goes to the office of a wrecking company for a job interview. While he waits for the vice president of the company to interview him, the man on reception gives him some advice: The vice president has "a nervous twitch", so please don't pay attention to it. But ha ha, whadda know - the guy at reception has a nervous twitch as well, so the poor job seeker is always wrong when deciding if the receptionist is having a He's wearing a hairnet so that his brains won't leak outspasm or indicating with his head to come closer! When the vice president comes in - hey, how did you guess that he keep banging his head on the desk? Then when the company's president comes in - hey, how did you guess that he is the most spastic of the three? And how did you guess that at the end of the sketch, all four of them are stumbling around the room twitching and banging into walls and file cabinets, all the time making funny noises? If you can guess how predictable this is, you can probably guess how bad it is as well. If not, imagine that this sketch was written and performed by any Saturday Night Live cast members from the last five years or so... using a rough draft to perform off of... rehearsing this draft for the first time... and chaos in the control room. That's how bad this sketch is.

The problem facing most of the sketches in this movie is that the central ideas behind them are ill-conceived or just plain stupid. Because of that, it's tough to imagine even the greatest comedy writers managing to successfully mine the premises for comic gold. Here are some additional examples of sketches that result in "this is supposed to be funny?" reactions instead of laughs:

  • A televangelist has a "saved" guest on her show, a guy who was afflicted with crooked teeth and wore braces for 25 years. When she pronounced him "saved", he went to the dentist the following week to get his braces removed, and his teeth were miraculously straight

  • A commercial where a jive-talking black guy offers white viewers a device known as a "N____r Bopper" (read: a baseball bat.) "Say you see a black dude walking down the street with a white girl," he tells us. "BAM! Hit him with the N____r Bopper!" He also offers black viewers a "Honky Stopper" (read: a gun.)

  • A Phys-Ed teacher gives a lesson to youngsters about proper care and cleaning of the penis, using a small stuffed bird as a prop. "Wash it thoroughly, especially near the beak," and "Don't play with it too much, or it will vomit," are two of his insights.

  • A District Attorney and his assistant, preparing for the day ahead, decide to... do some drugs! When a policeman comes in unexpectedly... he joins them! When a secretary comes in unexpectedly... she joins them! When a judge comes in unexpectedly... you know what to expect by now, I think.

  • A blatant rip-off of the old Abbott and Costello routine "Who's On First?" This time, the confusion isn't about the names of baseball players, but the name of rock groups - specifically "Yes", "Guess Who" and "Who". No, that wasn't a double typo - "The" is left out of the names of those last two groups because hey, the joke wouldn't work if the full and commonly known names of those groups were mentioned, right?

  • An advertisement showing a credit card for homosexuals. (Imagine a homosexual actually using an ordinary credit card! Yuk yuk yuk....)

The cast tries hard to put life into these routines - every actor puts in so much effort into their performances, you've got to admire their hard work at acting. But their written material is just so awful, it becomes kind of pathetic seeing them trying to wring a laugh out of material that doesn't contain a drop of humor. Even the few actors who survived this debacle and went onto receiving acclaim for their comic talents (besides Willard, McKean, Lander, and Shearer, you'll also see Stephen Stucker, who played "Johnny" in Airplane!) just aren't funny here. The only actor who manages to differentiate himself (and in a good way) from everyone else is Willard, not for doing anything funny, but because of some natural charisma.

Not only are these routines tough to sit through because of the awfulness of the writing, but of their shoddiness. Phony or just plain non-existent sets are just another instance where the producers saved a buck. But the most blatant example of the producer's cheapness comes not from the sets, but in the filming of the skits. Actually, I can't use the word "filming" when it comes to the skits; though In other words, screw youthe wraparound footage was shot on film, the sketches themselves were cheaply shot on videotape, then transferred onto film afterwards. The skits as a result look horrendous, with colors looking washed-out and details blurred or fuzzy. To make matters worse, it appears that the skits were videotaped in one take with several cameras running at the same time. Not only did this prevent multiple takes, but there are awkward results such as when the actors seem to be positioning themselves to face one camera, but the director in the control booth has switched to another camera.

In this disaster more devastating than any 9.7 earthquake, one laugh can be found. Yes, despite all the strikes against this movie, it managed to amuse me one time. That was during another (oh no!) appearance by the members of Ace Trucking Company. It's a sketch set at a greasy spoon diner, where a patron comes in just for a hamburger. Despite the kind of restaurant, and the fact the patron is the only customer there, the staff of the restaurant treat him as if he was in a fancy jacket-and-tie supper club. Not long after he's seated, the three staff members begin a show for their customer, singing a song and encouraging their audience to sing along. The absurdity of putting on such a big show for one patron plus the absolutely stunned look on the patron's face made me laugh.

However, come to think of it, I don't think that laugh counts. You see, several years ago I went to a restaurant with my mother, and we were about the only ones in the restaurant. During our meal, the restaurant's entertainment started, which was a guy playing the piano and singing. Despite the restaurant being almost empty, he kept pleading for his almost non-existent audience to sing along (and not getting any results.) It amused my mother and I greatly, and I still smile about it today. Since that sketch had a good chance of reminding me of that personal amusing incident, I don't think that laugh can count. So the movie remains laugh-free. Unless you have had a similar experience at a restaurant (as well as similar experiences with televangelists, phys-ed teachers, D.A.s, etc.), there is no way that you'll find anything in Cracking Up remotely funny. I never thought I would ever come across a sketch/parody movie worse than Outtakes, but you learn something new all the time. 

UPDATE: "Vermin Boy" sent this in:

"Hey, just read your review of Cracking Up, and thought you might want to know that the Credibility Gap and the Ace Trucking Co. aren't the only notable comedy teams in it. Barbara Halters and Walter Concrete were played by Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor, half of the legendary Firesign Theatre, who at that time had a fairly successful solo (er, duo) career. They did do better film work a year later, with the much-sought-after, What's Up Tiger Lily-like movie, J-Men Forever.

"Great review, BTW. I couldn't make it through it, myself-- Once I had seen Proctor, Bergman, Willard, and the Gap, I realized I really didn't need to be there anymore."

UPDATE 2: I received this letter from director Rowby Goren:

"A little update on the film Cracking Up, or should I say some history behind the movie.

"I was the Director of the film, along with Chuck Staley. Neal Israel had a relatively big hit with his film Tunnelvision, of which I was also involved. Tunnelvision led to a deal for Neal with 20th Century Fox for a film which later became called Americathon. That film was in very early pre-production. However there was a demand from theaters (and American International Films) for a film to come out before Americathon, and that film was Cracking Up. (BTW Its working title was Comedy Jam.)

"And we had very little time to produce it. As I recall I was asked by Neal and Joe Roth to direct it -- and we started shooting 2 weeks later!

"What worked for Tunnelvision was assumed would work for Cracking Up. Tunnelvision was originally conceived by Neal not as a film but 3 or 4 television sets on-stage showing video sequences between comedy/improv groups at a theater called The Pitchel Players (which is now the famous Improv). For Tunnelvision we video taped a series of sketches over a couple of weekends in a small studio in Hollywood, off La Brea. (Some shooting was done at at the County Office building in downtown Los Angeles.) The resulting videos were really funny -- and Neil Israel teamed up with Joe Roth (who ran the Pitchel Players) to turn the videos into a theatrical movie. For the rest of the shooting schedule the video cameras were replaced with film -- and that is why when you see Tunnelvision there is that mix of video and film.

"But enough about Tunnelvision, since this email is in response to the review of the film Cracking Up.

"For Cracking Up we decided to use what worked for Tunnelvision. We asked improv comedy teams/groups to recreate sketches which did well on stage to considerable laughs. We shot a weekend or two on a sound stage a bunch of sketches back-to-back. We had only the vaguest idea of how we would tie them all together -- even at that point we hadn't finalized on the earthquake theme. The sketches were pretty much shot as they appeared on stage elsewhere, with little modification. We shot these with perhaps two cameras, I don't remember.

"A few weeks later we went to the old MGM back lot in Culver City where some of the greatest films were made, for the "earthquake wrap around". The sad note is the MGM back lot had been sold and condominiums were scheduled to be built on some of the most famous movie streets ever shot. I saw the overgrown-with-weeds Andy Hardy Street. The famed Meet Me In St Louis section. The remains of the train station where Judy Garland sang. All in terrible disrepair. The previous movie that was shot there was the Dino De Laurentiis version of King Kong. All over the place were brownish-hard foam pieces of the Kong Monster laying around. We turned those broken pieces of foam into the earthquake rubble which is seen in Cracking Up.

"Over a 2 day weekend we shot the wraparounds, featuring Walter Concrete and Barbara Halters. We also brought in the cast of the sketches previously shot and had them do their wraparounds.

"It was pretty exciting considering the last film our production team did (Tunnelvison) had hardly zero budget. I mean Cracking Up even had makeup artists and a Production Manager -- and a real helicopter! So there we were working hard, certain we were making a film even funnier than Tunnelvision. Cracking Up was probably the last film to be shot on the famed MGM back lot.

"It was a great time and I will always have fond memories of Cracking Up!"

* I seem to recall there was a follow-up called The Boob Tube Strikes Back, but I haven't been able to determine if it's an in-name-only sequel or follows the same format. Well, it probably sucks as well, so who cares?

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Flicks, Outtakes, Prime Time