More Comedy Than Crying
In Friday the rap star Ice Cube and the stand-up comic Chris Tucker play best friends Craig and Smoky, and though Ice Cube doesn't sing in the movie he and Tucker have something like the rapport of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the unhurried crooner and the antic joker. The picture has a generic, coming-of-age comic melodrama plot but the pair come off particularly well because the movie plays as a loosely constructed variety show, which they emcee from the porch of Craig's parents' house in the South Central district of Los Angeles.
The movie takes place in a single day, which starts with that marvelously foul-mouthed nightclub survivor LaWanda Page as a Jehovah's Witness who wakes the household up and doesn't take kindly to being turned away from the door. What follows is a series of classic suburban interactions among neighborhood characters, who come by on foot, on bikes, or in cars, or pass on their way to or from their cars, or who telephone. There's John Witherspoon as Craig's fatuously bossy dad; Anna Maria Horsford as his mother, especially good with her invidious "friendly" morning greeting to the too-sexy neighbor lady, who is later surprised by her husband's return in the middle of the day; the guy who's prissy about his lawn; the kid who knocks over garbage cans; our two guys dealing with the girls they have and the girls they want. Some people Craig and Smoky just watch and laugh at, others accost them. Craig has a violently jealous girlfriend he can't shake; she calls all day to check on him, and then comes over, swishing her weave-ins and pointing her press-on claws as she threatens him. Some low riders drive by and rag Smoky about the time they slipped him a joint laced with PCP, which leads to a trippy flashback. Later a regrettable blind date docks in front of the house to hook up with Smoky. Even the most innocent-seeming of suburban vehicles holds a surprise: the ice cream truck is manned by Worm, a drug dealer Smoky owes for a stash of pot he smoked instead of selling.
Life isn't much less crazy inside Craig's house. His family is responsible, working-middle-class, but crawly all the same. We see his mother cook up a huge breakfast and eat it all herself--she needs fuel for work, unlike her son who was fired the day before, on his day off. His father is a dog catcher who hates dogs, and the buggy way Witherspoon overplays him he could be the regular foil of a cartoon canine. The father's most memorable trait is his insistence on having a serious talk with his son without getting off the toilet. The movie features a burlesque of family intimacy, the sunny side of why kids can't wait to leave home.
There are aspects of the setting--crack addicts, a drive-by shooting--that we're used to seeing treated seriously, as symptoms of the devastation of L.A.'s African-American neighborhoods. But here they shade right into the comic melodrama centering on the neighborhood bully Deebo (Tiny Lister), a gigantic criminal who gets around on children's bikes he's stolen, a character type anyone familiar with Keystone comedy will recognize.
Ice Cube and his co-scenarist DJ Pooh based the script on their experiences 1 growing up in these neighborhoods, and it was shot on the block where the movie's director F. Gary Gray grew up. 2 Explaining why comedy "was a natural choice for his first film project," Ice Cube said that it was "a big part of the neighborhood. When we grew up, we had more good times than bad. More comedy than crying." 3 In this way the movie is far saner about the insanity it shows, both within the family and on the suburban streets, than Ice Cube's 1991 gangsta rap solo release "Death Certificate" with its post-apocalyptic, last-stand mentality. And even as a cartoon Friday isn't less subtle than John Singleton's amateurishly diagrammatic melodrama Boyz n the Hood. (Boyz opens with a drive-by killing that leaves a young boy wailing, "They shot my brother!" We see helicopters with only a percussive beat on the soundtrack and then we cut to a STOP sign, which Singleton zooms in on. A dead man couldn't miss the point.)
Ice Cube was the only performer with any charisma in Boyz n the Hood. His scowling, wide-set eyes, under architectonically poised eyebrows, are classic early movie star gangster eyes, like James Cagney's, and they added perfectly to the underclass story, showing the character's disgust both for his surroundings and for what he'd let those surroundings make of him. However, Ice Cube doesn't have the actor's flair for anger or the urban snap of, say, Wesley Snipes. That is, he doesn't have the performing temperament to turn his physical attributes into those of a tragic hero. He's too physically laid-back in a suburban way, which is why Friday may be a better vehicle for him than any crime melodrama. He's languid, he watches and reacts, and though his personality dominates it dominates without any push. In Friday his eyes lend intensity to the porch-sitting comedy and are effective for him to play against. They make him look as if he's waiting for his circumstances to be appropriate to his natural ease. Not surprisingly for a pop singing star, he has adolescent authority--he's waiting for something better because, he can tell us, this can't be it.
Straight Dude, Crazy Dude
And Ice Cube, who referred to the comedy team pairing as "Straight dude, crazy dude," 4 mismatches up well with Tucker. Unlike Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis they do seem like the kind of opposites who would be friends. Martin and Lewis play man and boy; the teaming of Ice Cube and Tucker is tighter because they're both adolescent types, Craig the one trying to be responsible (despite the recent employment set-back) but feeling unappreciated, and Smoky the one who's unregenerately irresponsible. Likewise, the two stars' styles are well-balanced extremes: the granitic Ice Cube against the paranoid pothead Tucker.
As Smoky, Tucker gets to you by being freakier than you expect a major character to be and with no thought of ingratiating himself to anybody. He's the kind of friend parents glare at as a bad influence, and they're right, but he's also a pain in the ass to his best friend. (Like Dean Martin, Ice Cube can absorb his partner's shocks.) A petulant sponger, he's always yowling, demanding, bitching, ragging. His eyes glower over a twitchy, suspicious pout, as if he's sniffing the air for impending let-downs, and he rips into Craig's whole family for having Kool-Aid but no sugar, and then complains about their "cheap-ass phone" when he uses it to make a date. And he has a classically berserk sense of no-account male formality, for instance, his instructions to Craig on how to share a joint: "Puff, puff, give! Puff, puff, give!" (Cheech & Chong movies are among the moviemakers' acknowledged influences. 5 )
The movie is totally relaxed about Smoky's amoral fecklessness, because it has Craig to learn the climactic lesson about fighting like a man against Deebo, with his fists rather than a gun (though bricks and bats are okay when he's losing). Smoky on the other hand kneels over the fallen villain and vaunts in his face with the same phrase that he'd earlier hollered in the face of one of Deebo's victims, though he hasn't defeated or defended either man. The filmmakers don't meretriciously try to make Tucker's character "worthy" in some way. He's thoroughly self-interested, even after he's made a solemn promise to do better in the future. And Tucker, whose showy style exaggerates the comic bravura of black male street life, the liberating confidence that permits a man to play the fool in public, runs with the freedom from moralizing melodrama.
In Friday, and even in something as flimsy as his Jackie Chan co-starrer Rush Hour, Tucker has come up with the first fully imagined African-American comic personality in movies since Richard Pryor. In Rush Hour he plays an L.A. cop who shares with Smoky a self-serving shamelessness impossible to catch out. When Tucker's cop reminds a man of the favor he'd done him, "Didn't I turn my back when you were buying that bag of weed?" the man exclaims, "I was splitting it with you!" and Tucker comes back with, "Didn't I give you the bigger half?" Tucker is original but within a classic character type, as we can see by comparing this scene in Rush Hour to this exchange from The Merry Wives of Windsor:
Falstaff: I am damned in hell for swearing to gentlemen my friends you were good soldiers and tall fellows; and when Mistress Bridget lost the handle of her fan, I took't upon mine honour thou hadst it not.
Pistol: Didst not thou share? Hadst thou not fifteen pence?
Falstaff: Reason, you rogue, reason: think'st thou I'll endanger my soul gratis? 6
Tucker has the popular appeal of the delinquent who acts out our fantasies of refusing all responsibility while allowing us to laugh satirically at that aspect of ourselves. Skinny and swift as Peter Pan, he also has the realistic faults of a guy who refuses to grow up, amplified and played one tic faster than our receptors are used to responding.
Of course, Tucker's persona doesn't have the novelistic breadth of Pryor's impersonations. In Tucker's act there's definitely less than met Pryor's eye. But Pryor was opening up African-American life as a subject for blessedly unsanitized mainstream comedy (rather than as a "reliable" source of material for stereotyped racial jokes, little changed between plantation days and the 1960s), and that gave him a broader scope as well as more authority. Tucker doesn't need to do that kind of work because Pryor has done it for everyone. He can instead create a character who may well prove more adaptable to non-performance movies than Pryor's (whose best movie by far is the 1979 Richard Pryor Live in Concert.)
With his electric spark impulses, sometimes suspended between firing and fritzing, Tucker's Smoky is probably more like Flip Wilson's drag character Geraldine, in which the outrageous impersonation had startling qualities of control, zest, rage. But exciting as Geraldine was, she was limited to sketches because she was always in part a stunt (even if the fullest stunt of her kind recorded). Tucker by contrast can play his caricature more nearly in character. Or at least in the kind of adaptable, general character appropriate for comedy careers. Tucker is thus unlike Eddie Murphy in whose movies the focus is always on the star who wows us by slipping in and out of sketch characters. Tucker has created a reusable set of characteristic responses and attitudes that surprise us within a readily recognizable range, which is also how Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton and Langdon and Stepin Fetchit and Joe E. Brown and Jerry Lewis worked in the movies. And he's especially well-suited to the movies because he has something close to Lewis's vocal power.
Despite Tucker's furious energy, Friday is more balanced than Martin and Lewis movies probably because the straight man rather than the comic co-wrote the screenplay. (Martin and Lewis movies suffer because Lewis, the comic, worked on the scripts, loading them in his own favor, while his unassuming, and unsuspecting, partner played golf.) Ice Cube as screenwriter can favor his own character in terms of the plot because he has correctly assumed that Tucker will take care of himself by cutting up. Ice Cube understood the constraints on the formula of teamwork: "Put two funny guys together [they'll both try] to get the laugh. I don't want the laugh. I give that to ... Chris Tucker. Because if you laugh, we both look good." 7
In addition, more than any other movie, Friday has successfully brought to the screen the raunchy comedy of the so-called chitterlings circuit (an unassociated route of low-profile nightclubs where African-American talent performed for African-American audiences from roughly the '40s until the '60s), which fostered the careers of such earthy jokers as Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, and LaWanda Page (Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son). Ice Cube has said, "I always like what people might call ... tasteless humor," 8 and has offered this marvelous justification, "It feels a little uncomfortable, but you know you're alive in there, man." 9
The conventions of middle-class family entertainment, begun in the 1880s as a way for popular theater entrepreneurs to expand their business by censoring material so that men would attend with their wives and children, eliminated scatological and openly sexual humor from mainstream theater, and eventually movies, nightclubs, radio and TV programs. Arguably no performers had been freer in their range of material than the African-American comics who worked in the chitterlings circuit. But even when these performers appeared in "race films" (B movies aimed at black audiences) those movies
generally avoided the risqué elements of black humor as well as its more biting satirical overtones. ... Although their targeted market was black, most producers of race films were unwilling to risk bringing more controversial elements of African-American humor to the screen. ... By the late forties and early fifties, black public humor--at least on stage--had begun reflecting the cynicism and frankness that characterized black street humor. Mainstream America was not prepared for that type of assault on its morality and national character, as such comedians as Lenny Bruce and, to a lesser extent, Redd Foxx would soon discover. 10
This lasted until the 1970s, a decade in which Richard Pryor had to walk away from a career in Vegas and step down to underground clubs to become the kind of comedian he wanted to be, and then on the basis of his new routines became a movie star.
It's notable that in the past thirty-five years many of the people who pushed uncensored scatological and sexual humor into the mainstream--comedians like Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, with Lenny Bruce behind them; revue-style moviemakers like Mel Brooks and the early Woody Allen; more realistic comic directors like Paul Mazursky with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Robert Altman with M*A*S*H; and recently the Farrelly Brothers and Keenen Ivory Wayans--have been Jews, blacks, or Catholics, all groups out of the traditional ethnic mainstream of America. This makes special sense in light of what Northrop Frye has written about low humor:
Social convention means people parading in front of each other, and the preservation of it demands that the dignity of some men and the beauty of some women should be thought of apart from excretion, copulation, and similar embarrassments. Constant reference to these latter brings us down to a bodily democracy.... 11
Jokes about bodily functions and sex thus have a particular social dimension as well as a general human application. They're funny because of our discomfort with our bodies (it's an incredible release to see someone else exposed to shame we hope to avoid), and they're popular because bodily functions and urges are democratic. You can imagine that such jokes would prove irresistible for minority ethnic groups because shitting, for instance, is a form of commonality your "betters" can't deny. Hypocrisy about shitting is impossible, or, rather, the only form hypocrisy can take is an absolute prohibition of the topic.
For black comics in black clubs, low-down comedy was a way of being real with their audiences, of openly acknowledging what everybody knows about carnality and to experience the liberation of breaking taboos in a society in which political taboos specific to their group had totalitarian force. (Long after emancipation, the propriety of "tasteful" mainstream entertainment was inseparable from the "propriety" of racial separation.) But scatological humor is actually more broadly human than polemics. Slapstick is based in our frustration over physical existence, and so the excremental functions, among all the physical aspects of life those that most people universally would gladly relinquish, are natural subjects for it.
Now everybody can put it in their movies if they want, but though scatological humor is grounded in universal feelings, it still bothers people you'd expect to get it,
Jerry Lewis, for instance, who said of the fart jokes in the Eddie Murphy remake of The Nutty Professor, "When comics get in trouble, they go to the toilet." 12 Lewis misses the point: comics "go to the toilet" because we all go to the toilet. Similarly, you'd have to be awfully prissy to chide audiences, as Spike Lee has done, for going to movies like Booty Call but not John Singleton's Rosewood (about as rickety a leg to make a stand on as I can imagine). 13 Lee is particularly misguided to despise Booty Call. Like Friday's, its disreputability is enjoyable in an honest way, and both movies are more sensible and no less intelligent than Singleton's body of work.
- based the script on their experiences: Hilburn 7. (return to text)
- it was shot: Robbins B3. (return to text)
- was a natural choice: Smith 11. (return to text)
- Straight dude, crazy dude: Smith 11. (return to text)
- Cheech & Chong: Hilburn 7. (return to text)
- Merry Wives: 50 (II:ii:8-15). (return to text)
- Put two funny guys together: Smith 11. (return to text)
- I always like: Smith 11, 13. (return to text)
- It feels a little uncomfortable: Smith 13. (return to text)
- race films: Watkins 359. (return to text)
- Northrop Frye: 235. (return to text)
- Jerry Lewis: Kaplan 60. (return to text)
- Spike Lee: Dauphin 51; Lee 23. (return to text)