By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 06, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

A joke that falls flat is usually an embarrassment — just think of that awful, gaping silence where the chuckles should be. You don’t have to be the perpetrator, either, to feel your cheeks turn red. When delivered with enough cocky gusto, a disastrously failed gag can make everyone feel like ducking under the table. I found myself wanting to duck repeatedly at So I Married an Axe Murderer and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, two botched cinematic burlesques in which laughmeisters of different generations — Mike Myers and Mel Brooks, respectively — demonstrate the comic equivalent of tone deafness. Anyone who attends either of these movies will see that few things are more frightening than an entire audience forgetting to laugh.

As much as any failed comedy that ever starred Martin Short or Chevy Chase, So I Married an Axe Murderer, a farcical thriller in which Myers sets aside his Wayne wig to play a lovestruck yuppie schmo, lays bare the inevitable catch-22 awaiting Saturday Night Live stars who graduate to the movies. These manic cut-ups become popular by taking on the entire grown-up world, reducing it to a series of mischievous satirical rim shots. With luck, they carry that brash, rebellious-scamp attitude into their first few pictures (as Eddie Murphy did in 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop and Myers did in Wayne’s World). But then it happens — the weight of celebrity sets in. Having scaled the comedy mountain, they now feel the need to aim for higher and sexier peaks. They want to be leading men, prime-time players. And so they turn themselves into the very earnest, ”likable” heroes they used to thumb their noses at.

In Axe Murderer, Myers is Charlie Mackenzie, a sweet, if hapless, San Francisco bachelor who commemorates each of his broken relationships by heading down to the local coffeehouse and reciting beatnik poetry (”Woman! Whoa, man!”). In addition to his unspeakable verse, Charlie has a way of dropping zealous one-liners and then blaring out an ironic ”Hell-o!,” as if he’d just told the greatest joke in history. That raised-eyebrow ”Hell-o!,” which gets more obnoxious every time you hear it (it’s like an imitation of a bad Billy Crystal routine), quickly becomes an emblem of the film’s overbearing confusion. In some perverse, self-destructive way, So I Married an Axe Murderer seems to be asking us to laugh at how not-funny it is.

Charlie falls for Harriet (Nancy Travis), a Pre-Raphaelite beauty who runs a butcher shop and shares a weirdly wicker-laden apartment — it looks like a Pier 1 outlet — with her crazy sister (Amanda Plummer). As Charlie edges toward commitment, more and more evidence points toward Harriet’s being the Weekly World News serial killer, who keeps axing her husbands during the honeymoon.

As the premise for a black-comedy thriller, this bludgeon-witted variation on Hitchcock’s Suspicion is neither funny nor thrilling; it’s more like something you’d see on a USA Network cheese-movie marathon. Axe Murderer reinforces that impression with its dumbly functional dialogue (the moment in which Myers gets to know Travis by offering to help behind the butcher counter is like something out of an Ed Wood film), strenuously zany scenes in which Charlie’s bellicose Scottish father (a heavily latexed Myers) sings Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart numbers, two — count ’em — love montages, and a romantic theme song that’s like a parody of wimpy power pop. Through it all stands Mike Myers, beaming his moonstruck demon-child grin. Except that now the joke’s on him, since it isn’t remotely clear what he’s grinning at (other than the pleasure of his own stardom). This time, at least, Myers has Wayne’s World II waiting around the corner; next time he may not be so lucky.

There are a few token chuckles in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, enough to remind you that the manic Yiddish-show-biz surrealism that Brooks brought to an insane pitch in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and (his masterpiece) Young Frankenstein remains one of the hallmarks of modern screen comedy. Men in Tights is like a senile rehash of those demented classics. Brooks’ humor now seems about as fresh as a Henny Youngman routine — it’s not just ancient, it’s Jurassic.

Skewering both the timeless Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood and the deadwood Kevin Costner blockbuster, Brooks has the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest swish it up in a mock-musical number, a joke that seems not so much politically incorrect as 20 years out of date. He gives us poo-poo jokes and naughty-sex jokes, turns clanging sword fights into lumbering slapstick, and has the Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) declaim his hissy-fit insults in a dyslexic blur. Oh, and yes, Brooks himself shows up playing…a Hasidic Jew in Sherwood Forest! Who performs cut-rate circumcisions! As Robin Hood, Cary Elwes doesn’t quite seem to realize he’s starring in a comedy. It’s sad to have to say it, but in Men in Tights Mel Brooks makes outrageousness itself seem desperate.
So I Married an Axe Murderer: C-
Robin Hood: Men in Tights: C-