Let me start by getting myself into a little trouble. I think the best comedy is offensive. I think comedy is, by definition, a kind of offense. Occasionally, people say to me, “I know of this really funny comedian. He’s not dirty at all. Very clean, but very funny.” I have yet to find this true. I’ve heard Brian Regan. I’ve heard Jim Gaffigan and Gaffigan is at his best when he’s saying something that’s going to offend a Southern Baptist. Or a Catholic. His Catholic humor is generally good. Right now, though, you’re just not going to find a comedian better than Louis CK, who, at his worst, is unwatchable and blasphemous and morosely foul, and, at his best, is nearly the prophet Jeremiah.
I say none of this to excuse the bluest vulgarities in, say, Patton Oswalt or Richard Pryor’s stand-up. There’s a difference between pointing a finger at the senselessness of the human ego and simply cheapening God’s image.
Comedy is a very controlled offense shared between friends. Comedy is an insult you want to hear. There’s an anarchy to good comedy which suggests the world is being turned upside down. Comedy can’t be accomplished among polite people. Comedy is impolite. Comedy marvels at the dual nature of man— immortal spirit, farting body. Comedy is always a mixture of high and low. Friendship and shame. Love and embarrassment. The punchline to the oldest joke in the book is a mockery of man’s desire to overthink and over-intellectualize everything. To get to the other side.
On that note, I don’t think it wrong to suggest that twenty years after it’s release, Dumb and Dumber has gained a cult following not simply because it is very funny, but because the humor is deeply conceived. The film is not just a hundred random jokes strung together, but one very long joke told a hundred different ways.
The show gets going by invoking a host of theologically weighty names. We’re on Hope Street in Providence and the hero is Lloyd Christmas. Any other script which began with such a thick barrage of Christian significance could be nothing other than seasonal Focus on the Family schlock, but Dumb and Dumber is one of those “low things” which “brings to nothing what the world considers important” (1 Corinthians 1:28, NLT). Lloyd and his roommate Harry are both chauffeurs, and while one drives humans around and the other drives dogs, the joke seems to be that little separates humans from animals, a point Scripture’s greatest comedian makes in Ecclesiastes: “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.” The idea is not to degrade human dignity (a la John Waters or endless American Pie sequels), as degradation lacks control and prudence, but to allow us to see the human condition from an outsider’s perspective. Comedy is about the body as Solomon or Aeschylus conceived it— the body as a point of intersection between man and beast. The juxtaposition of high and low (upon which comedy depends) often dwells on the fragility of the body, the suffering of the body, and suffering is that which tends towards death. On this point, comedy is often scatological. Scatology deals with what is within the body coming out of the body— the quasi-death like condition which rendered the Israelites unclean (ceremonially dead). And so, without overdoing it (in this critic’s opinion), Dumb and Dumber stakes a host of comedic moments on “bathroom humor.” I suggest the filmmaker’s don’t overdo it because the scenes which involve disgust tend to involve some situation the typical viewer in their 30s or 40s has lived through. When Lloyd bravely tells Harry to “Just go,” as the two ride to Aspen on a tiny motor scooter, I commiserate as a father who has reluctantly said the same thing to a small child just out of diapers while trying to negotiate a thick traffic jam. When Harry and Lloyd show up in Aspen with long streams of snot frozen to their wind-stung faces, Peter Farrelly is simply doing for realism what Larry Clark and Harmony Korine didn’t have the guts to do back in 1995.
The plot of the film borrows liberally from Some Like It Hot. Two numbskulls accidentally involve themselves with the mob, travel across the country to get close to a pretty girl, then end up fighting each other for her once they get where they’re going. After Lloyd and Harry are fired from their jobs driving dogs/people around town, Lloyd suggests they travel to Aspen where they can return a briefcase Mary (Lloyd’s last client) left at the airport and she can “plug them into the social pipeline.” What they don’t know is that Mary left the briefcase at the airport intentionally, and that it contains ransom money for the safe return of her husband. When Lloyd snatches the briefcase and tries to return it, the kidnappers who have come to collect it believe Lloyd has stolen it and is fully aware of its contents. When Harry and Lloyd arrive in Aspen, they accidentally crack the suitcase open and find it is filled with cash, which they immediately blow on fancy hotels, terrible suits, and a Lamborghini Diablo. Dumb and Dumber was released at a time when controversy over conservation of the northern spotted owl was reaching an all-time high; the Northwest Forest Plan was passed in 1994 and called for fewer trees to be harvested from National Forests (spotted owls would thus be saved), which meant jobs would be lost. Donning pastel black-tie wear, Harry and Lloyd go looking for Mary at a fundraiser for spotted owls. At the party, Lloyd pops a champagne cork which flies the length of the room and kills an owl.
The world that Harry and Lloyd occupy is not absurd; both idiots appear strange to most of the characters with whom they share the plot. The fundraiser is not presented as a laughable event and the high society types attending aren’t skewered for being self-important narcissists wasting their time on a laughable political cause. However, the death of the owl in the third act recalls the death of Petey the parakeet in the first act after Mental the mobster pops his head off. Two genuine thugs travel across the country to get their suitcase of money back, and Harry and Lloyd travel the country to give Mary her suitcase back— and in the tight structure of the film, Harry and Lloyd become accidental mobsters themselves. The film is a chiasm:
A: Lloyd pauses by side of the road, leers at beautiful woman.
B: Mary rejects Lloyd.
C: Dead parrot.
D: Boy scammed out of money/money spent.
E: Mental is poisoned.
F: Lloyd pees while in transit.
G: Exchange of vehicles: van traded in for moped.
H: Harry walks back to Providence/ Harry and Lloyd get back together.
F’: Hary pees while in transit.
G’: Exchange of vehicles: moped traded in for Lambo.
E’: Harry given laxatives.
D’: Kidnappers scammed out of money/money spent.
C’: Dead owl.
B’: Mary rejects Lloyd.
A’: Bus of beautiful women pauses by side of the road, women leer at Lloyd and Harry.
I’: Harry and Lloyd get back together/Harry and Lloyd walk back to Providence
The fundraiser only becomes absurd when Lloyd inadvertently kills the owl. The owl is treated as having no greater significance than the decapitated pet whom Lloyd sells to a blind boy back in Providence. Harry and Lloyd inadvertently (or quasi-inadvertently) become the mobsters they don’t know they’re running from. “Who are these people?” asks Mary in disgust after seeing a news story about the blind boy who was sold the dead parakeet. The mobsters have separated Mary from her husband, but by the end, Harry and Lloyd are both trying to keep one another from Mary. At the beginning of the film, Harry and Lloyd mistake Mental for “the gas man” (a man from the gas company come to collect on their delinquent bill), and Mental is surprised they know so much about him. “How the hell did they know that I got gas?” Later, when fantasizing about what life with Mary in Aspen might be like, Lloyd imagines himself as a “gas man” of sorts. In another fantasy, Lloyd sees himself shooting Mary’s husband in the same fashion gangster Nicholas Andre shot Harry in a previous scene. In a tragedy (like Aeschylus’ Oedipus), the horror arises from the characters unintentionally sealing their own fate— no one knows the true import of their words and deeds. In a comedy like Dumb and Dumber, much of the humor arises in the same way. Comedy is always a mixture of high and low: how the characters see themselves and how we see them. This is the single joke replayed and re-imagined a hundred different ways.
Obviously, a steady diet of films like Dumb and Dumber will have the same effect on a person that a steady diet of Swiss cheese will. At the same time, a steady diet of films like The House and Sand and Fog (which I’d give five fish if I could find something useful to say about it) would likely skew a man’s view of the world just as badly. It’s better to go to the house of mourning than the house of mirth, as Solomon says, but that by no means does away with the necessity for the house of mirth.