Caddyshack, And The Reasons We've Watched It Fifty Times

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of Caddyshack, the movie I may have seen more than any other. There were attempts to correct this along the way: a streak of Citizen Kane viewings from 13-14, a vague number of Friday screenings (memories of Friday are, for some reason, fuzzy,) and its closest competitor Three Amigos, which HBO drilled into young heads every day in the afterschool hour. I'm still prone to saying "A sweater!" every time we open a gift no matter what it is, because I like to keep my jokes 1986 fresh. 

All efforts failed. I have probably watched Caddyshack somewhere in the range of fifty times, and can recite most of the dialogue in sync with the film. (And twice over if you count memorizing the clean and dirty versions.)  On this, its thirtieth anniversary, let us salute its five enduring charms: 

1. Golf is largely irrelevant to the movie. It's mostly an excuse to discuss the film's principal themes of class conflict. This is a large part of why my Dad and I could watch it together: it was a golf movie, and therefore relevant to his life, and it contained female nudity and profanity, and therefore pertinent to mine. 

This may be part of its enduring charm, in that it's supposed to be a film about golf, and then quickly ditches the pretense of it having anything profound to say about the game itself in the first fifteen minutes in favor of complete improvisation by the cast. In fact, saying the film was "written" in any sense is a stretch: though three writers are credited, much of the film is completely improvised. 

This is true of what may be the most golf-centered scene in the film: Bill Murray's turn as Carl Spackler fantasizing about winning the Masters'. Most golfers have memorized the speech in part, at least, because it betrays the essential truth that most golfers have that though they have no prayer of making a tournament, they at least consider it in their most closeted and ambitious tee-time fantasies.

If you want golf romance, go to The Legend of Bagger Vance. Caddyshack is, like Caddies' Day at the Bushwood pool, amateur hour open to all.  

2. Ted Knight's performance is the most underrated in the entire film. Ted Knight is given an absurdly difficult role in Caddyshack: a completely unlikable and irredeemable snob and blowhard, Judge Smails. It's a role ninety-nine of one hundred actors would blow, but Knight is given the freedom to give Smails the little details that matter: alternately deluded, narcissistic, bombastic, insecure, and arrogant, Smails is the WASP antipode to Rodney Dangerfield's self-made Al Czervik, hitting false notes and awkward corners wherever he turns. 

The scene after the jump illustrates all of this perfectly. The one part not improvised? The choice of Fresca as the beverage of choice. The writers decided it was the funniest-sounding beverage, and they were right. 

It takes a great actor to say "Are you my pal, Danny?" and instantly make you realize that you do not, under any circumstances, want to be his pal. 

3. Planning is overrated if you're brilliant. The film is largely improvised and is best enjoyed with a complete inattention to plot. Yeah, Danny poor guy scholarship rich country club etc; inserting bizarro Chevy Chase in the first ten minutes urinating on the course and instructing Danny about the virtues of taking drugs and not going to college lets you know the framework is just an excuse for Chase to drop non-sequiturs. ("Sonja Henie's taken,") Rodney Dangerfield to trot out some of his finest standup material ("Yeah, wanna make fourteen dollars the hard way?",) and for Bill Murray to launch into the Dalai Lama speech.If you hadn't heard it all four thousand times, you'd find it brilliant, but that's the price of having endless access to good media: you will burn it out, and then hate it, and then appreciate it, and then hate it again, and so forth unto eternity. 

Caddyshack is mostly done off the cuff, and with little attention to motivation, characterization, or method, because funny, brilliant people in form can do this without too much nannying or structure.  (See Major League for another example of this in a sports movie. Half of the funny scenes involve Charlie Sheen just looking hilariously hung over, dangerous, or oblivious with no dialogue whatsoever.)

4. Kenny Loggins and Journey. Do I like the soundtrack because I'm bathing in deep ironic affection for Kenny Loggins and Journey, or do I actually like it? Or am I saying I like it because I like the irony of liking it? Am I in a Hipster Runoff loop of self-conscious tastemaking? You're damn right I am, but don't let that overshadow how much funnier it is in 2010 that Rodney Dangerfield rips off the hidden panel on his golf bag and Journey blasts from the radio. 

 

5. Ironically enough, one of the guys who made it was suicidally depressed and out of his mind on cocaine and alcohol. The driving force behind Caddyshack, Doug Kenney, influenced what you think is funny whether you know it or not by founding the National Lampoon, writing Animal House, and being one-third of the writing team that produced it. Though the film was profitable, negative reviews, drug use, and Kenney's deteriorating mental state contributed to his death by negligence/suicide

The director, Harold Ramis, joked about Kenney's death in a fall off a Hawaiian cliff: "He probably slipped while looking for somewhere to jump from." The people who made this movie took nothing seriously, and as cold as this may sound, that determination to let no sacred cow go unslaughtered is one of the reasons large swaths of the movie are still funny thirty years later. 

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