Thursday, October 8, 2015

Throwback Thursdead: Better Off Dead 30th Anniversary Live Read

This beats that time I went to see Eek! the Cat on Ice.
Usually on Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the stub and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. This Sunday will be the 30th anniversary of the wide release of Better Off Dead, which began on October 11, 1985, so today, instead of drawing some random stub, I'm intentionally pulling out the stub that says "Better Off Dead 30th Anniversary Live Read."

David Wain's They Came Together is a hilarious rom-com spoof I recommend to anyone who longs for a spoof movie that actually doesn't suck. The most worthwhile of its Blu-ray extras is the complete footage of the 2012 live read of the They Came Together screenplay at SF Sketchfest in San Francisco, back when the film was just a project Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter had trouble getting off the ground at Universal, and their silly screenplay, a vicious skewering of--as well as an affectionate homage to--rom-coms, sat quietly in a cabinet until the day Wain, Showalter and their friends from the alt-comedy world unleashed it on stage.

A lot of the gags from the 2012 draft of the screenplay actually made it into the final cut, so the only major differences between the live read and the movie are the absence of a framing device, a few different bits of casting (for instance, Wet Hot American Summer star Marguerite Moreau doesn't appear in They Came Together, but she had a role in the live read) and the sight of actors like Paul Rudd constantly laughing while playing their roles. They were cracking up because they were encountering Wain and Showalter's odd lines--particularly "Oh God, Bubby, I wanna fuck you so bad"--for the very first time, as they were reading them on stage (this was also why They Came Together cast member Bill Hader kept cracking up as Stefon on Weekend Update: then-SNL writer John Mulaney always replaced portions of Hader's cue cards with newly written lines Hader had never seen before).

Despite the shitty video quality of the Sketchfest live read footage, I was so entertained by that They Came Together live read that it caused my largely agoraphobic ass to travel up to Sketchfest for the very first time in its 14-year history and watch a similar live read at the Marines Memorial Theatre. This time it wasn't an unproduced screenplay that was being read by actors on stage--it was the screenplay for Better Off Dead, my favorite '80s teen flick.



To celebrate the 30th anniversary of his film, writer/director Savage Steve Holland got a few original cast members--Curtis Armstrong, Diane Franklin, Amanda Wyss and Kim Darby--to reprise their roles during the live read at the Marines. Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder and Kevin Pollak took over the roles that previously belonged to John Cusack and David Ogden Stiers, respectively, and a bunch of Sketchfest regulars like Paul F. Tompkins, Steve Agee and festival co-founder Janet "Korra" Varney filled in for other roles from the film as well.

Why is Better Off Dead--Holland's semi-autobiographical story of a teenage cartoonist with an overactive imagination who attempts to kill himself after he's dumped by his girlfriend Beth (Wyss), but he keeps failing at every suicide attempt--both my favorite '80s teen flick and the one I've watched more times than any other? It's due to the surrealism of it all.



During a classroom scene, the hair on the heads of all the students is seen standing up when their ears are subjected to the sound of chalk screeching down a blackboard. Mute supergenius Badger (Scooter Stevens), the little brother of Cusack's Lane Myer, orders a book about how to attract trashy women and then is later seen arm-in-arm with a bunch of them. Ultra-dorky Ricky Smith (Dan Schneider, who later made a fortune as a producer of Nickelodeon sitcoms, which are also where Holland has spent most of his directorial career after co-creating the '90s Saturday morning cartoon Eek! the Cat) makes a grand entrance to the sound of lightning at a school dance. Lane becomes the Bugs Bunny-ish target of a psychotic paperboy (Demian Slade) who won't leave without the two dollars Lane owes him for his delivery. Those are just some of the many examples of how Better Off Dead is a live-action cartoon, in the same way that Raising Arizona is basically the Coen Brothers bringing to life a Road Runner short--or the same way that many Joe Dante movies are influenced by the Warner Bros. animated shorts Dante adores.



But the uniqueness of Better Off Dead as a live-action cartoon is due to Holland working with traditional '80s teen flick tropes--whether it's a scene at a typically boring and unfulfilling after-school job or a romance with the girl next door (who, in this case, is French)--and taking them in as surreal a direction as he can go. The movie even contains animated interludes that bring to mind Woody Allen's brief transformation of Annie Hall into Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (in fact, Wyss once described Holland's work as "like a punk Woody Allen"). It would be inane to react to Better Off Dead with "Badger can't pick up women like that in real life! That's impossible!" Either you sit back and roll with the cartoonishness--and let it reduce you to laughter--or just watch something else. You prefer your movies to be completely laughless and devoid of either larger-than-life storytelling or inventiveness, right? I have the item just for you. It's called the entire filmography of Kirk Cameron.

Holland's film also chooses to take the pain of teenage heartbreak and emphasize the absurdity of that pain rather than go all emo on us and wallow in the pain. Whenever your love life doesn't go the way you want it to, doesn't it feel like the whole world's having a laugh at your expense? No other movie has captured that strange feeling quite like Better Off Dead has. Even something as innocuous as a Flintstones rerun becomes threatening and somehow annoying when you're deep in misery after getting rejected, and in Better Off Dead, that's exactly what happens when Barney Rubble suddenly addresses Lane from the TV screen and asks Lane if he can date Beth too.

Sketchfest's Better Off Dead live read didn't quite nail the surrealism that makes Holland's film unique--it's impossible to do so in a live read--but seeing Armstrong, Franklin, Wyss and Darby reprise their roles and hearing Franklin speak in her French exchange student character's accent again on stage both made the live read the type of enjoyable extra Better Off Dead has always deserved on disc and has never gotten since both its DVD and Blu-ray editions have been disappointingly light on extras. You know how Anton Ego immediately flashes back to being a boy comforted by his mom's home cooking after he takes his first bite of ratatouille? When Franklin finally spoke up at the live read for the first time as Monique in that accent (if you forgot, Monique doesn't speak during the movie's first half), I similarly flashed back to being a little kid watching Better Off Dead for the first of many times on cable in the '80s and thinking, "Who's this French actress? She's funny."

I wasn't aware of the existence of Franklin's prior movies, the R-rated Last American Virgin and the equally R-rated Amityville II: The Possession, at the time because I wasn't allowed to watch those kinds of movies on my own at that age, so I always thought Franklin was French. When I later saw her play Corey Parker's thoroughly American stepmom in Holland's How I Got Into College in 1989, I was surprised to find out she's actually American. That's how effectively Franklin embodied this French character. In fact, I Was There Too host Matt Gourley thought Franklin, whom he recently interviewed about her role in Better Off Dead and how much she loved playing Monique, was French in real life too.



"[Wyss] did her character reading exactly like she did in the film," said Franklin to Gourley about her enjoyment of the Sketchfest live read. "I was closing my eyes thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm watching the film.'"

I thought the same thing too while I was at the live read. Even E.G. Daily's "One Way Love (Better Off Dead)," Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some!!," Rupert Hine's original songs from the film and my favorite Howard Jones track (simply because it appears in Better Off Dead), "Like to Get to Know You Well," all popped up in the speakers at the Marines at the same exact points they did during the film to make me feel like I was back inside the crazy universe of the film again.





Wow, my pictures of the live read came out beautifully.

SF Sketchylookingfest
The few, the proud, the Marines.

I'm the next Ansel Adams.
Terribly photographed by Jimmy J. Aquino.

Oh yeah, audience members weren't allowed to snap pictures during the live read, so the only pics I could take were ones after the performance. If you squint, you can actually see Kim Darby still in her seat at stage right.

Meanwhile, none of the live read performers are the size of a gnat in Entertainment Weekly's photo gallery of the live read.

The entire cast of the 2015 SF Sketchfest's Better Off Dead live read (Photo source: EW.com)

Savage Steve Holland, Curtis Armstrong and Kim Darby

Armstrong, Darby, Amanda Wyss and Diane Franklin

Franklin and Jon Heder

Heder, Kevin Pollak and Paul F. Tompkins

Steve Agee and Janet Varney

Cole Stratton, Paul Brittain and Annie Savage

The audience at the Marines


Although I haven't seen One Crazy Summer, the 1986 Cusack/Holland movie where Cusack and Holland reportedly didn't get along while filming it because Cusack was bizarrely angry with Holland about how Better Off Dead turned out, I've always preferred Holland's teen comedies over the late John Hughes' teen comedies. What I'm saying is fuck John Hughes. He was racist towards Asians in Sixteen Candles, he was racist towards black folks in Weird Science and he thought Ally Sheedy was prettier after a makeover wiped away all traces of her personality at the end of The Breakfast Club. When not even Sheedy herself agrees with that makeover, that's how fucked-up most of your teen movies were, Hughes.

Tichina Arnold's How I Got Into College subplot as a hard-working black student hoping to get accepted by the school of her dreams doesn't make me cringe like how Weird Science's black blues club scene makes me cringe, and Yuji Okumoto's Japanese drag racer character who speaks like Howard Cosell never makes me cringe during Better Off Dead like how Gedde Watanabe's Long Duk Dong character makes me cringe throughout Sixteen Candles (that's also partly because I grew up overhearing Cosell on Wide World of Sports, so I have a fondness for Cosell impressions, especially stand-up comic Barry Sobel's old impression of Cosell at the World Series, during the night Cosell couldn't stop bringing up Houston Astros outfielder Buck Jackson and the death of his mother). In a film where everyone in the cast, including Cusack, has a weird role, I've always been relieved that the weird role that went to the Asian guy was a Cosell soundalike (Rich Little dubbed in all of Okumoto's dialogue) instead of a totally offensive role like Long Duk Dong. The worst thing about the '80s is the racism of that decade, and Holland's lack of that shit is why, in addition to the surrealist humor, Better Off Dead continues to hold up 30 years after its release--even during a live read with only some of the original cast.

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