One of my earliest memories is of pissing myself because of a movie.
The specifics are vague. I’m sitting in the third floor of my childhood home in Belmont, Massachusetts, a former farmhouse that existed well before the doctors, lawyers, and professors of Boston expanded beyond Cambridge and Newton and filled acres of surrounding farmland with homes and families. It wasn’t quite a Levittown, but it was close enough, and my house I grew up in was the rare exception to the architectural symmetry that came to comprise my neighborhood. My house’s age and design meant that we had an attic, with a carpet and worn chairs and a tortured couch where I learned to play and romp and watch television and do things that young children do. It was there that I learned how to laugh until my sides hurt and my bladder gave out. For this, I have my father to blame.
More accurately, I suppose, have Stanley Kramer to blame. ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, the manic epic comedy directed by Kramer, premiered in 1963, when my father was seven. The film’s plot is relatively straightforward: "Smiler" Grogan, the prime suspect in a tuna factory robbery 15 years before, recklessly passes a number of vehicles on a twisting road in Southern California while evading police, eventually careening off a cliff and crashing his car. Five motorists from four of the passed vehicles stop to assist. Before he dies, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 cash buried — under a big 'W'"— in Santa Rosita Beach near the Mexican border. After two detectives arrive and interrogate the crash witnesses, the motorists drive away from the accident site before engaging in an all-out madcap race to reach the buried cash first. This is one of my father’s favorite movies, and it soon became mine.
For his generation, my father explained years later, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ is something of cultural touchstone. The ensemble cast featured every major comedian from the 50s and 60s, including Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, and Jim Backus. The original cut of the film ran for 210 minutes, including a four minute opening animation produced by the legendary Saul Bass. The general release 35 mm version ran 154 minutes, with overture and exit music excised, complete with a brief intermission in the middle of the film. The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, all related to production (it won for sound editing) and was the highest grossing film of 1963. Studios literally do not make movies like this anymore.
As a piece of cinema, ‘Mad World’ is virtually unfeasible now. Film critic Dwight Macdonald wrote that ‘Mad World’s “small army of actors—105 speaking roles—inflict mayhem on each other with cars, planes, explosives and other other devices . . . is simply too much for the human eye and ear to respond to, let alone the funny bone," calling it "hard-core slapstick. "Now, the movie exists as a memory for my father’s generation, circumscribed by IMDB and Wikipedia and ‘Rat Race’, a condensed knock-off with a similar ensemble cast that hit theaters in 2001 to poor reviews.
It’s as though my life before ‘Mad World’ was a span of suburban mundanity, instantly forgettable and unmarked by distinct experiences. And my earliest memory of being conscious — not just doing things, like eating or playing, but thinking or feeling — comes from ‘Mad World.’ I can see myself in the third floor of that old farmhouse on School Street, with the rain rushing down our windows, my father roaring with laughter, near tears. I remember my sides aching, my face flushed and red, my brother rolling on the floor, my pants soaked with urine. It’s my first distinct memory of pure, unadulterated, impossible laughter, the type of laughter that crushes your lungs, seizes your muscles with lactic acid, and tightens your innards into knots.
Slapstick — and especially ‘hardcore slapstick,’ as Macdonald described it — is easy to digest,especially for children. The tendrils of slapstick permeate virtually all comedy, especially television serials, where physical gags are often subsumed in the arena of the ‘absurd and freewheeling’ pioneered by The Simpsons (as Charles Bock writes at Harper’s) and pushed to its creative and cultural extremes by the likes of Family Guy, South Park, and Archer.
But the beauty of ‘Mad World’s’ pioneering brand of slapstick is that the physical comedy is gloriously understated and instantly believable, if barely. ‘Subtle’ would be too generous a description for both the film’s brand of slapstick and its impact on how I approach humor — although I realize now that my taste for Old Fashioneds comes from watching a hapless Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett attempt to fly a plane while a hungover Jim Backus whips up cocktails — but the absurdity of each actor’s predicament, couched just within the pale of disbelief, makes each moment of utter disaster, spurred on by maniacal greed, the equivalent of a comedic seizure. I cannot, with every atom of my being, imagine Jonathan Winters trashing a California gas station without feeling tremors of laughter rumble through my whole body. It’s only appropriate that the Three Stooges, the kings of slapstick, make a cameo appearance near the middle of the film as stone-faced firemen: in ‘Mad World’, the eye-poking is unnecessary.
This is how I learned what funny was, rolling on the floor, soaked in my own piss: born in mundanity, in the simplicity of people’s basic idiosyncrasies and flaws. No need for cut scenes, infinite rakes, or the gratuitous intertexuality or cultural references. ‘Mad World’ tells you what you’re getting in the first minutes of the film, when ‘Smiler’ Grogan, played by the legendary Jimmy Durante, literally kicks the bucket. “That guy’s dead,” sighs Jonathan Winters. “You’d better believe it.”