Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
It didn’t hit me until Sarah Holcomb’s topless scene that I was probably too young to be watching Caddyshack. And the reason it didn’t hit me is because it wasn’t like the other grown-up movies I would routinely dismiss after catching only quick glimpses on our living room television — this one was funny. At eight years old, I found something very special in the VHS copy of Harold Ramis’ directorial debut which had come into my possession that evening in the mid ’90s gratis of either my Saturday Night Live-loving father, or golf-obsessed uncle. It wasn’t even the first time I had seen Caddyshack — I had at least caught most of it in parts — but it was this particular nighttime viewing that would solidify my lifelong favor of the cacophony at Bushwood. It was the first time a real movie made me laugh.
I would laugh at the red-faced exasperation of Ted Knight, who I knew from Mary Tyler Moore Show reruns (I had taken more quickly to adult sitcoms than movies, either because they were more conducive to my youthful attention span or because laugh tracks gave me helpful hints as to where the comedy was). I would laugh at the zany bravado of Rodney Dangerfield, who I knew primarily via impersonations by cartoon characters. But most of all, I cherished every second we spent with Bill Murray, slurring dopily out of the side of his mouth as he harassed the country club caddies and sought the pelt of a charmingly pesky gopher. I had no idea that adults could revel in this kind of silliness — these people were acting more like cartoons than human beings. And I loved it.
Warner Bros. via Everett Collection
Obviously, I didn’t get most of the jokes. I adored Chevy Chase’s deadpan swagger and rhythm, but a good deal of his dialogue flew over my head. Dangerfield’s benign sexual cracks were gibberish to me. And as for the plot? To its credit or detriment (you decide), the film plays more like a series of tenuously connected hijinks than a coherent narrative. So it didn’t really seem to matter that Danny Noonan’s quest for a college scholarship skirted my eight-year-old attention. I was far too giddy over Al Czervik’s cockeyed brass and Carl Spackler’s maniacal mutterings to worry that I might be missing something carrying through. Again, it wasn’t until stumbling upon a sex scene that it dawned on me that this might be considered entertainment for adults. How could I have missed so much? There was too much funny to fit anything else in!
In the 18 years since, I have watched Caddyshack more times than I can say, picking up on new layers of comedy with every revisit. In middle school, I upped the ante on my appreciation for the comic value in Judge Smails’ perpetually ruffled feathers. In high school, Ty Webb’s playful linguistics won my nerdy heart. And in college, I returned again to my love of that big-dreaming assistant greenskeeper, trading impressions with my roommate and fellow fan of all things Bill Murray. As my two decades wading back and forth among these performances have helped me realize, the movie is a menagerie of disparate types of comedy. Deadpan, slapstick, blue, highbrow, naturalistic, wacky, farcical, surreal. And somehow, all of it lands. One movie manages to deliver a winning satirical send-up of the moneyed class, an ultra-memorable Jaws parody about human excrement, and an offbeat conversation about the benefits of breeding one’s own hybrid species of Bluegrass.
It works because Caddyshack seems to operate by one rule only: the rule of funny. Abiding not by genre, audience, or even its own original conceit (Caddyshack was originally only about the caddies, with Chase and Dangerfield’s characters playing very minor roles), Caddyshack is able to regard humor alone in its execution. The result is something unusual. No, unprecedented. Hell, really damn weird. You can’t credit a movie that features a love triangle, a pregnancy scare, a super-intelligent rodent, and an extended non sequitur chapter about a bishop losing his faith after being struck by lightning during a stormy golf game with a reverence to the rules of a specific reality. But Ramis seemed to understand that it was the cooperation of these entities that made them all so damn hilarious.
Warner Bros. via Everett Collection
He understood that the buttoned-up justice of the peace was hilarious because of how humorless he was, especially when at odds with a human joke book running amok on his golf course for no ostensible reason other than boredom. Another movie might have used Smails as a brick wall opposite the wiles of the bawdy Czervik, but Ramis found some of Caddyshack‘s best comedy in his aluminum straight man. He offered cool, collected Ty as a way to smirk knowingly at the absurdity of the goings on at Bushwood, but jumped delightedly into that same absurdity with the mentally harangued Daffy Duck that was Carl Spackler. Still, as profoundly effective as this equation might be, Caddyshack exists beyond the confines of any formula or mathematical law. Once again, there is only one rule to which Ramis seemed to have devoted himself with Caddyshack. And luckily, he understood “funny” enough to be able to pull this off.
It’s the reason why I can find the movie as funny at 25 as I did at eight — this full, non-discriminating commitment to laughter. The devotion to the idea that humor itself is a genre, that a single audience isn’t limited to the margins of any specific style of comedy. Ramis showcased this in each of his movies, but in Caddyshack most impressively. Few movies like it were being made back in 1980, and even fewer are now. So beholden to traditional comic beats and story structure, the industry is not likely to find itself trusting an anarchical, id-friendly movie like the one Ramis delivered back at the dawn of the ’80s. But the beauty of Caddyshack is its ability to refresh its sense of humor with every viewing — to deliver a new sheath of comedy that you weren’t paying attention to last time, because you were too affixed on a separate string of gags altogether. We can go back to Caddyshack every year, every five years, or every decade, finding ourselves laughing the most at a different character each time. The one guarantee: each time, thanks to the brilliant sensibilities of Ramis, we will find ourselves laughing.
So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.