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'Meatballs': Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club goes back to camp and sees if it's still funny

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http://ewpopwatch.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/meatballs_l.jpg

http://ewpopwatch.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/meatballs_l.jpgWere you ready for the summer? Were you ready for the good times? Were you ready for the short shorts and William Katt-like ‘fros? This week, in honor of camp season, the Pop Culture Club watched Bill Murray’s first hit, Meatballs, which is now — bye bye, youth! — 30 years old.

First off, I should have known that outrageous comedy does not always age well. What (or who) was considered the funniest, most raucous thing ever will — after a couple of decades of comedy being either pushed farther or made subtler — make you wonder what all the laughter was about. Comedy evolves. I loved Mel Brooks in his day, but the deadpan, fast-paced lunacy of the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker Airplane! school of parody rendered much of his stuff obsoletely vaudevillian. I recently caught High Anxiety on cable, and cringed as Brooks left large pauses for huge laughs after each gesticulated joke. Laughs which didn’t come nearly as often as they used to.

So it’s difficult judging a comedy as beloved and old as Meatballs. I remember roaring at it when I was a kid: Murray was anti-authority! Kids swore and made out! Pants were pulled down! Rebels offered to shake hands with bullies, and then at the last minute pulled their hands up over their heads, proving them too slow, Joe! And yet in 2009, the snobs-vs.-slobs thing just feels trite. You have to keep reminding yourself that these jokes and characters were fresh in 1979, they only turned into clichés later. It was painful watching Spaz run around with tape on his glasses (he’s a dork, get it?), and Larry the fat CIT play basketball while clutching a chocolate bar (he likes food, get it?). And yet, if you listened to the DVD commentary (yes, I go all out for the Club), you heard director Ivan Reitman reveal that putting tape on the glasses was the idea of the actor who played him, and Reitman describes this inspired character choice as if it was Marlon Brando showing up to Apocalypse Now with a shaved head. Spaz wasn’t just another movie spaz to have tape on his glasses, he was the first: He is Nerd Zero.

And then there’s Bill Murray. When he emerged as a comedy superstar, the smirky, hip comic persona of the Saturday Night Live era was something new. Watching him slouch and leer, cracking wise about virgins and sticking it to the dopey bossman was hilariously novel and anti-authority at the time. But now I found it smug and self-satisfied: That long scene when he dances in place (making Batman eyes, etc.) at the camp social was excruciatingly self-indulgent. I felt like I was watching a guy who, if this were real life, I’d pray would just shut up and cut out the shtick. This may sound weird, but he came off like somebody doing a bad impression of Bill Murray in Meatballs. Since I remember him as the ultimate cool guy, seeing him act this way jolted me into cognitive dissonance, so I convinced myself that the movie was wrong, not my memory.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t now hate all old Bill Murray. While I enjoy his current minimalist Wes Anderson/Lost in Translation-era deadpan work, I also love him when he used his broad comic superpowers to play a pain in the ass or a grotesque, like in Kingpin, What About Bob?, or Groundhog Day. (Although, to be fair, I haven’t seen those movies in a while either: I can’t bear to fact-check that opinion.)

But before I come off as a complete hater, here’s something. When I watched Meatballs as a kid, I only cared about watching Tripper schmooze girls and abuse the camp director; the whole subplot with Tripper and Chris Makepeace’s Rudy seemed treacly to me. But now, it was those bonding scenes that really worked for me. I make no secret about how obsessed I am with my own summer camp days, and Murray completely captured the cool counselor who can make a lonely kid’s summer without coming off like he’s doing charity work. As he slyly nudges Rudy to try new things and be more outgoing, Tripper acts like his friend, not a superior, which makes Rudy feel all the better about himself. I had a counselor just like that, which is why, as I write this, I am weeping softly and humming my camp song.

What did you think about Meatballs? Did it hold up for you, and do you think I’m just being a grump? Or were your laughs more out of nostalgia than actual amusement? (Okay, that was a leading question.) And do you have a counselor or teacher whom you are now bawling about in a similarly mawkish way? All right, go rent Dead Poets Society and get it out of your system.

Okay, before we discuss, let’s get to next week’s assignment: Wipeout. Wednesday at 8 p.m., on ABC. But I’d like to approach this from a philosophical angle: Is a wipeout still funny if it’s been engineered, and the wiper outer knows it’s coming? Doesn’t the humor in a wipeout come from its very unexpectedness? Watch the show, and then test your theory like so. First, trip a friend. Then, tell that same friend that you are going to push him down the stairs, and then do so. Compare and contrast. Science!

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