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'Clifford' for Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club: All hail the Martin Short classic. You heard me: classic!

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http://ewpopwatch.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/clifford-martin-short_l.jpgComedy tastes are deeply held, yet wildly subjective. Some people love Seth Rogen, and some wish him ill. Many people think Larry the Cable Guy is the funniest thing since Jeff Foxworthy; others think that’s as faint praise as saying, “body odor is a better smell than rotten eggs.” And yet even as we might objectively realize that we all have different tastes, and we should laugh and let laugh, etc., don’t we all have certain cherished movies that make us growl, “If you don’t like this film, we have nothing to say to each other”? One that, if someone else says, “Oh, I hate that movie,” you think less of them? Clifford, this week’s Pop Culture Club assignment, is one of my lines in the sand. (Incidentally, my apologies: This movie was harder to find than I realized — there is no justice! It should be handed to all babies upon their birth! — but for those still looking, it’s available as a rental through Amazon’s on-demand streaming video.)

Clifford was released in 1994 to mediocre reviews, very little business, and my undying love. I knew right away that it was made for me, as it had Martin Short and Charles Grodin doing precisely the respective shticks that I love them for. There is no “stretching” in this film. Grodin is all slow burns building to whiny, hand-waving apoplexy, a wind-up that I’ve adored in everything from The Heartbreak Kid to Midnight Run. And Short, who I love the way Ed Grimley loves Pat Sajak, brings us on a guided tour of his top moves. He’s rarely as funny in the movies as he’s been in sketch comedy, because his exaggerated characterizations feel jarring when put into a “normal” world. But having him play a ten-year-old boy is the perfect use of his talents. It immediately sets us in a surreal situation, a comedy wonderland where a little boy can hogtie himself and claim that someone “tried to touch my no-no special place,” and it’s not perverse, just stupidly hilarious. (Incidentally, I forgot to mention the other comfort-food benefit of this movie: Dabney Coleman playing another smarmy, jerky boss! I think this might have been Coleman’s 100th boor; did he win a free pizza or Supertramp tickets for the milestone?)

Clifford is like a concentrated blend of all of Short’s top sketch characters: He mugs like Jackie Rogers Jr., and dances and spouts oddly formal line readings like Ed Grimley (“Are you out of your tree, sir?”). And there’s even an homage to Short’s MVP talk-show-guest anecdotes. When Clifford abruptly hugs Grodin’s Uncle Martin around the waist, saying, “I’m gonna go big!”, it’s the same “low hug” embrace that Short has told David Letterman that he once gave an uncomfortable and stiffening Bob Hope. Plus, Shortophiles (Martoholics?) will recognize the SCTV sensibility born from Short’s earliest TV days. (Clifford was directed by Short’s old cohort from that show, Paul “brother of Joe” Flaherty.) The beginning of the film features one of the most common SCTV gags: When little Roger (Ben Savage) jumps from a window, an obvious rag doll of a dummy is substituted for the plummeting boy; then, after landing on old-age Father Clifford, Savage bounces back up into frame. Okay, it’s funnier to see than to describe, but it’s SCTV 101.

Okay, at this point in my comedy-nerd thesis, I feel like I could be losing you. (But I haven’t even gotten to my 8,000 words on the sexual symbolism of Short’s Three Amigos character, Ned Nederlander!) So I’ll cut it short and ask, am I alone in my love for this movie? If you liked Clifford, did you come to it as a Grodin/Short fan, or did you warm to it on its own merits? Or did you hate every last toy-dinosaur minute of it? (In which case, why are you so wrong?) Also, what comedy do you judge people harshly for disliking?

Okay, before we argue comedy (and be warned: anyone who mocks Martin Short risks making me cry), here’s the assignment for next week. Why not dip our toes into the horror pool with a little movie called The Orphan? Summer is a time for growth, so it seems metaphorically apt to see a movie about a seed. Even if she is a bad one.

I leave you with this last taste of Clifford:

addCredit(“Clifford: Everett Collection”)

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