In Which These Head Movies Make Our Eyes Rain

Going Full Retard

by Alex Carnevale

Tropic Thunder

dir. Ben Stiller

107 minutes

The Ben Stiller Show came on FOX in September of 1992 and went off the following year. In light of the massive success of Tropic Thunder and the massive failure of Stiller’s television debut, an enterprising producer should shoot sketch comedy series with all up-and-comers before they go all Anchorman.

Stiller’s humor then and now focused heavily on parody. He was a sharp observer and a talented comic actor. Although we can’t remember exactly why Stiller’s popularity exploded, it was probably eventually due to his epic scene with Owen Wilson in Zoolander and a blackmail plot between his father, Jerry Stiller, and Sumner Redstone. Still, the show won an Emmy and then was promptly canceled.

The Ben Stiller Show parody of A Few Good Men is the best thing the show ever did. It’s now hopelessly dated and been re-imitated a million times. As is the entire sensibility it has spawned.

It’s no surprise this sensibility played better in film than on television. When you have eight to ten good jokes, you might as well put them in a movie as opposed to 8 hours of a series. The Ben Stiller Show had a terrific cast, though, and Bob Odenkirk wrote a ton of genius material for that show, a lot of which is discussed in Bob’s wife’s awesome oral history of Mr. Show, Mr. Show: What Happened?

Tropic Thunder is basically a Hot Shots remake, but with smarter jokes. Stiller got the idea for it while filming Steven Spielberg’s 1987 J.G. Ballard adaptation, Empire of the Sun. Using the talents of a litany of mismatched comics, its goal is to satisfy the following SAT analogy:

Family Guy:South Park::Hotshots:________

Charlie Sheen retired to television in 2002, living on set at a Malibu beach house and acting during his hangovers. Stiller avoided a similar fate as a sketch writer, a talent that was evident in the salad days of Pig Latin Lover:

In addition to Odenkirk, Stiller and Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick was funny for a six-month period in 1992. This is the only known time he was funny.

apatow’s classic Undeclared, how was James Franco not in this?

Stiller’s partner in The Ben Stiller Show was young Judd Apatow, not yet Leslie Mann’s designated purse-holder. The exact same humor evidenced by The Ben Stiller Show is in Tropic Thunder, except it is now within our cultural mainstream for Robert Downey Jr. to act in blackface.

The victim of satire in Tropic Thunder is the acting profession. According to this film, actors truly are the lowest form of parasite on earth, except for lawyers, agents, and politicians. The film is even complete with an Oscar parody that entertains and humiliates all the right people. (See Tristram Shandy and State and Main for even sharper Hollywood jokes.)

The actors in these films are crossing over at such a frenetic pace that I think McLovin’ was a Vietnamese rice farmer in this movie. I’m actually surprised that David Cross’ illegal new girlfriend isn’t here in some capacity.

so gross and yet so hot: David Cross and Joan from Arcadia

Matthew McConaughey replaces the suicidal Owen Wilson as Stiller’s maniacal agent, a role created by Ben for himself on The Ben Stiller Show.

He’s not quite Owen, but he complements the glorious performances of Cruise and SNL schlub Bill Hader nicely. I guess he’s another reason the film cost over $100 million.

it’s a lot funnier than new york magazine said it was

Yes, we’ve come a long way. Jokes about twittering and TiVo are now profoundly disturbing cultural capital. I hear the Obama campaign is considering an outreach program to teach senior citizens to Twitter like Zach Galifianakis.

But hey, that’s the essence of the Stiller formula, and ultimately it’s where he and Apatow diverge. Where Apatow’s comedy led to sensitivity and actual learning as in the sentimental and nostalgic Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks, the point of Stiller’s comedy is purely to entertain as spectacle.

Usually that means ignoring the finer points of the joke. Along those lines, there’s been a strong reaction from the disabled community towards the film’s depiction of Stiller’s fictional performance in Simple Jack.

The Arc and various other disability awareness groups have protested the film, evidently for making fun of actors who use roles in which they act disabled to win Oscars. It’s even spawned an editorial by a young man with down syndrome.

“I came out feeling like I had been assaulted,” said David C. Tolleson, executive director of the Down syndrome group who saw the movie.

That the film’s writers, Stiller and Justin Theroux, hammer their ‘important’ point about Hollywood home by having Stiller enact scenes from Simple Jack before a Vietnamese labor camp audience might be rubbing it in, but essentially the film’s portrayal of this issue satirizes the right people.

Mr. Tolleson and Peter V. Berns, executive director of the Arc of the United States, said on Sunday that they could not recall a similar coalition of disabilities groups forming against a film. Mr. Berns noted that some people had objected to the use of the word “retarded” in “Napoleon Dynamite,” a comedy released by Fox Searchlight and Paramount’s MTV Films unit in 2004.

“But there’s really been nothing near this magnitude,” Mr. Berns said.

“I happen to disagree with them in regards to our film,” actor Justin Theroux, who co-wrote the screenplay, tells “It’s a shame that they are out there, and I hope that when it comes out, they will actually see the jokes for what they are – a deep cutting satire of Hollywood and the stars.”

Says co-star Jack Black: “Everyone has the right to protest. It’s a free country. Anytime that anyone feels that they are justified in their heart, more power to them.”

sean penn

I am the Christopher Hitchens of this particular debate. When I Am Sam, a movie playfully referenced as an example of ‘going full retard’ in Tropic Thunder, came out in 2001, I was easily the most offended person in the free world.

The essential offense caused to the disabled community is largely, in their words, over the prevalence of the word ‘retard’ in the film.

Look at how the film’s producers bent over backwards to satisfy potential objections from the African-American community, they argue.

“Everything is up for satire,” Downey Jr. has responded. He speaks the truth: have you read his GQ profile?

“I just think that the movie speaks for itself, and it’s amazing. I stand behind it, and I am so proud of this movie,” said Jack Black. “It’s the best movie ever and my favorite movie of the year. That’s my comment.”

As a devotee of semiotic theory (not really) and a devoted reader of Deleuze and Guattari, if not Fredric Jameson, I view Tropic Thunder as a non-climatic field. That’s my comment.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


“The Geeks Were Right” – The Faint (mp3)

“Rock You Like a Hurricane” – The Faint (mp3)

judith butler

“Get Seduced” – The Faint (mp3)

“Fulcrum and Lover” – The Faint (mp3)

fredric jameson

“It Fit When I Was A Kid” – Liars (mp3)

“Drums Gets A Glimpse” – Liars (mp3)

claude levi-strauss

“A Visit to Drum” – Liars (mp3)

“Let’s Not Wrestle Mr. Heart Attack” – Liars (mp3)



redefining the Die Hard parody for a whole new generation:

grateful dead insurance salesman:

And finally, Ben’s classic U2 parody:


Danish introduced you to Rocktober.

Anthony Minghella disgusted and appalled us.

Blogging’s tough work.

5 thoughts on “In Which These Head Movies Make Our Eyes Rain

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