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A Shout-Out to the Silent Sidekicks

A Shout-Out to the Silent Sidekicks (photo)

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They say in every successful relationship, there’s a flower and a gardener — a star and an extra — and that people gravitate toward those who’ll let them inhabit their instinctive roles. A similarly symbiotic dynamic is often set up, in film and comedy, between a main character and his or her silent sidekick. The silent sidekick is a somewhat exotic species, but there are enough of them and enough similarities in the function they have played in some famous films and infamous comic pairings, that we decided to take a closer look on the eve of “The Brothers Bloom,” which opens on the 15th, and which features Rinko Kikuchi as a bomb-making expert named Bang Bang who speaks, literally, three words of English (or any other language). Below are some of our favorites.


Ben Doyle in “Lightning Jack”

Ben Doyle (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is mute, but he’s not deaf, and he’s not dumb. Sick of the way everyone in the Old West treats him like he’s inferior, Doyle sees his kidnapping by “Lightning” Jack Kane (Paul Hogan) in the middle of a botched bank robbery as an opportunity. Doyle convinces Kane to teach him how to be an outlaw, a decision the movie seems to argue is justified given how badly society has behaved toward him. But if local prejudice drove him to a life of crime, one wonders what illegal course of action Doyle might have taken if he ever saw this movie, where he goes from the butt of a small town’s jokes to the butt of an entire multimillion dollar production’s jokes.

The whole movie revolves around gags that show how inexperienced and ill-equipped Doyle is for a life as a bank robber. When Kane gets bitten by a snake, he’s the one who’s got to suck the poison out. When he and Kane are chased through the desert by Native Americans, he falls off his horse. When he’s being taught how to use a gun, he’s so inept at hitting his target that he’s given a pistolized version of a shotgun that can’t miss. Then, when they go to rob a bank, Doyle shoots himself in the foot. Director Simon Wincer plays the entire scenario for laughs, all of them at poor Cuba Gooding Jr.’s expense. Apparently it’s wrong for Western rubes to laugh at a mute, but it’s okay for a movie audience to do the exact same thing.


Bill Murray’s pocket-sized sidekick in “Rushmore”

With his baleful glare and skinny, swaybacked stance, the little kid who seems to appear unbidden in several scenes from “Rushmore” has the striking but understated physical impact of a good silent sidekick. Most often seen gravitating to the side of Bill Murray’s dejected businessman, Herman Blume, his most notable moment occurs at the birthday party held for the Blume twins, Keith and Ronnie. As Blume nurses his highball, chucking golf balls into the slime-slickened backyard pool, the little kid in a red Speedo and goggles strapped to his head walks up, grabs a golf ball and walks away. Then Blume climbs the high dive in his Budweiser trunks and does a cannonball right into the mire. Retaining the cannonball/fetal position underwater, Blume remains static as the little kid swims into frame and the two share a brief moment, suspended there, and the kid swims away. He’s like a perfect, malnourished, mute personification of Blume’s diminished id.


Madge Allsop in “Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch”

Dame Edna Everage is the best-known creation of Barry Humphries, an Australian comedian who rode a lavender wig, cat’s eye glasses and a serious love of gladiolas to enduring fame. Humphries began performing as Dame Edna as far back as the mid-’50s, though it wasn’t until he got Edna her first TV series, “The Dame Edna Experience,” in 1987 that he brought in a silent sidekick. Conceived of as a “bridesmaid” to absorb all manner of abuse from the imperious Edna, she was called Madge Allsop and played by New Zealander Emily Perry, who started in the role at age 79. Wide-eyed and petite, she had the look of a sweet, blank, gnarled little old lady, but the antic, stubborn habits of a sulky child. Game for just about anything, she also provided Edna with the ultimate in visual punchlines, as evidenced in this clip from Edna’s second TV show, “Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch,” where Madge performs as an “alluring” game show presenter. Perry retired at age 96, and died in 2008, at the age of 100.


Teller in “Penn and Teller Get Killed”

Like a dapper, more dignified version of Harpo Marx, Teller, of the ’80s heyday comedy duo Penn and Teller, also controls most of the situations he’s in with a cool confidence somehow made even cooler by the goofiness he enjoys so much. Teller, born Raymond Joseph Teller, looks like an accountant and seems to find language somewhat beneath him. His partner, Penn Gillette, is brash and ponytailed and never shuts up. In this scene from “Penn and Teller Get Killed,” their first and only feature film from 1989, Teller sets up his partner for trouble at the airport security gate, slipping a small silver ball into Penn’s coat pocket, which leads Penn to become increasingly annoyed as he is forced to pass through the metal detector again and again. As Penn’s clothes are thrashed off one by one, Teller becomes gradually more clever and effacing in planting the silver ball until he finally just slides the ball alongside Penn’s feet through the metal detector. Silence gives Teller a kind of power of invisibility, one he uses, more often than not, to get exactly what he wants.


Piccolo/Ojo in “The Flame and the Arrow”/”The Crimson Pirate”

Nick Cravat had such a thick, unmaskable Brooklyn accent that he often ended up playing mute characters out of necessity — he’d have sounded jarringly out of place in period pieces were he to speak. He acted in nine films with his childhood friend and former trapeze performing partner Burt Lancaster, and played a silent sidekick in the two best known, swashbucklers “The Flame and the Arrow” (1950) and “The Crimson Pirate” (1952). The short, swarthy Cravat stood in sharp visual contrast to the tall, blue-eyed Lancaster, and while the latter wooed the ladies, Cravat performed effortless (and sometimes joyously unnecessary) feats of acrobatics, Loyal to a fault, and generally saddled with some kind of whimsical name (Piccolo, Ojo), Cravat’s characters in the two films had the air of something slightly elfin and otherworldly (not to mention vaguely ethnic) — see the way Lancaster lists his capabilities in “The Flame and the Arrow,” noting he’s “got ears that can hear ahead of the rest of us, like lightning before thunder,” that he’s able to “see things you and I can’t, track a deer by the smell,” and on, as if his lack of speech were the natural outcome of so much excessive awesomeness.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.