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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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