These days, with the spate of studio comedies that are marched ad infinitum into theaters, it becomes entirely possible for moviegoers to become numb to the experience. This is especially true when the comedies exist as part of a franchise or series featuring the same cast of characters. The latest American Pie was a sad testament to the irrelevance and ever-present expiration date of that franchise. The core cast of this series, as well as the Adam Sandler/Happy Madison crew and other SNL regulars have essentially become comedy troupes who are interchanged and utilized in various fashions for various projects. However, there are positive examples of still-active cinematic comedy troupes: one being Broken Lizard.
One of the crowing achievements for this group, comprised of Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Erik Stolhanske, is 2001’s Super Troopers. The film achieved a cult following for its off-the-wall characters and its endlessly quotable dialogue. Since then, Broken Lizard has produced four additional feature films: Club Dread, Beerfest, The Slammin’ Salmon, and the soon-to-be-released The Babymakers. But a quick revisit to Super Troopers on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service will remind us all why these guys just plain get funny.
A majority of the jokes in Super Troopers are not necessarily what one would deem... highbrow. Point of fact, there are some rather juvenile shenanigans unfolding. So why do the shenanigans in Super Troopers work while the shenanigans in something like American Reunion fall flat? There is never a point in Super Troopers where the gags define the film. That may seem odd praise to offer a comedy, but the fact is that when you remember the pratfalls and the gross-outs more than the film itself, that’s a failure. The characters are well established to be pranksters and goofballs, but their hijinks are in service of their characters as opposed to a constant quest to push the envelope as far as it will go. There are sex jokes and coarse language, but there are also inoffensive, still hilarious gags like syrup-chugging and one cop repeating everything the other says. This is what prevents the humor from seeming desperate or excessive.
What really works in Super Troopers, what sets it apart from a lot of comedies of the same ilk, is the relationship between the characters. Broken Lizard started as a sketch comedy team at Colgate University. These guys already knew each other; they were members of the same fraternity. Their history together feeds into the dynamic between the officers in Super Troopers. It’s not simply a matter of timing and artfully playing off one another (which, admittedly, they do very well). We actually like these guys. We care whether their station gets shut down. And that emotional content, however slight, allows for more resonant laughs.
The other benefit of Broken Lizard’s longstanding collaborative history is that it completely obliterates the possibility of ego as a driving factor. When you watch one of the Happy Madison projects — especially the ones of particularly subpar quality — you get the impression that nepotism trumps reason. Those who arguably not in the business of making quality movies continue to do so because of well-placed Hollywood friends, namely Sandler, giving them license to do what they please. In Broken Lizard, there is no real hierarchy. Jay Chandrasekhar may have directed Super Troopers, but each member of the team is vital as more than just a cameo or a one-note sight gag in human form. They continue to work as a team because their chemistry is so formidable.
Broken Lizard, as previously mentioned, began life as a sketch comedy troupe. One of the most famous sketch comedy shows in the world is Saturday Night Live; currently enjoying its thirty-seventh season on the air. So why is it that, with very few exceptions, the SNL sketches that are adapted for the screen fail? It’s about sustainability. If the Broken Lizard guys had simply written a series of one-off goofy-cops-pulling-people-over jokes, that would have struck as dull a chord as The Ladies Man or It’s Pat. The story at the heart of Super Troopers is both comically absurd, and fully realized. The jokes are therefore byproducts of the plot points and not the other way around.
If upon this revisit to the Spurbury Highway Patrol, you find yourself longing for more Broken Lizard shenanigans (someone is about to get pistol whipped), be on the look out for The Babymakers. Once again, the guys demonstrate their commitment to characters and story first; many of the jokes, gross-out or tame, grow organically from the situations. It may be their most studio-flavored comedy to date, but there is no mistaking their trademarks.
[Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight]