Whether it is a gritty tale of espionage or a more light-hearted tale of cat and mouse, there is no cooler genre of thriller than the spy genre. Which is why comedy spies are frequently some of the best of all…
After all, what could be funnier than an impeccably dressed, impossibly suave super-spy who is a complete klutz? Or a total fish out of water shoved into a world of intrigue he doesn’t belong in? Or, in the case of Archer – one of our franchises in this month’s ROLE MODELS crate – a total narcissist and general pain in the butt, but darn it he’s still pretty cool. We thought we’d take this week’s Friday Five to shine a light on some of our other favorite titles with secret agents whose adventures maybe aren’t as SRS BSNS as all that. (At least, the ones we think deserve a revisit the most; when you think “comedy spy” you probably think Austin Powers first, no? Yeah, we’re leaving him on the bench for that reason. Sorry, Mike!)
All things considered, the movie remake of this 1960s spy spoof classic starting Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway was actually fairly decent. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a disaster at all – and yet, for fans of the original it did make us long for those days in the early 1980s when Get Smart! was still in syndication on TV frequently. For many of our generation, the screwball adventures of Maxwell “Agent 86” Smart (Don Adams) and his beautiful partner Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) were one of our earliest and most treasured introductions to super-spies-as-comedy. The humor is sweet and tame by today’s standards, certainly compared to something like Archer. But it’s still a crackerjack lesson in punchlines and comic timing. (As it should be; the legendary Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created the darn thing!)
Wild Wild West
Remake notes again: Sure, if your only exposure to this franchise was the Will Smith remake in the 90’s, we can see why you might find it funny… for all the wrong reasons. (We’re guessing even Sir Kenneth Branagh would probably admit now that the big damn steampunk spider wasn’t the best idea.) If you’ve ever had the chance to check out the original Wild Wild West series from the 60’s, though, you know what a treat it could be. For the most part it was a straightforward scifi/western mash-up (maybe the first of its kind!), with heavy spy elements woven throughout. And yet, much of the tone was so campy and wonderful that it tread a fine trajectory toward comedy a lot. Here’s a neat reel featuring some of the hammier villains from the show’s run, including Victor Buono, Boris Karloff (!) and Ida Lupino. (Blink and you’ll miss a very young Richard Pryor cameo, too!)
Straight up, this is my favorite entry in this sub-genre and it probably always will be. All hail Nick Rivers (a young and impossibly handsome Val Kilmer), a singer-slash-movie star who somehow manages to get himself caught up in a massive espionage plot and counter-revolution while he’s on tour in communist East Germany. A sendup of both Elvis Presley movies as well as Cold War spy thrillers, 1984’s Top Secret! was the follow-up to the Airplane! movies from Zucker Brothers and partner Jim Abrams; on its release, it was a box office disappointment and languished in semi-obscurity until home video brought it the cult favorite fandom it so richly deserved. (Plus, the cameos – Omar Sharif! Peter Cushing with a GIANT eyeball!) Kilmer would squeeze in one more cult favorite (Hi, Real Genius, my favorite 80’s movie ever) before Top Gun put him on the path to stardom.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Seven years since its release, The Artist is probably the Oscar best picture winner most likely to be a difficult Trivial Pursuit question before you know it. A silent movie starring a French guy about a movie star in the 1930’s? It took a lot of flack at the time, and since (except for the dog – everyone loves the dog) although truth be told it is pretty good if you’re not a cynical movie watcher. (The lone scene with sound is a masterpiece.) All of THAT said… this is about comedy spies, and as it turns out prior to The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius made two pretty damn funny spy spoofs in his native country (one which, let’s be honest, isn’t always known for broad comedy though there are some hysterical folks over there. I see you, Gad Elmaleh.) Leading man Jean Dujardin, though his Best Actor Oscar didn’t lead to much more in the States, is still a massive star in France and aesthetically, his Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (hell of a moniker) is probably the closet to Sterling Archer. Less crude, let’s be fair… but still a devastatingly good-looking goof. Both OSS 117 films are available on Netflix, BTW!
In recent spy-parody circles, you’re going to be hard pressed to find any title with as dedicated a fan base as Chuck. And with good reason; for five seasons on NBC, Zachary Levi lead a terrific cast in this rip-roaringly fun and heartfelt comedy about a computer science whiz stuck in a dead-end electronics store job who, virtually overnight, becomes a human database in the middle of a tug-of-war between the CIA and the NSA. The comedy came fast and furious (see the clip above for a late-in-the-run example), and Levi was the kind of everyman who could seamlessly transition between hapless and cool-as-hell. (Though let’s be honest, it took Chuck a little while to get there…) while the roller coaster plotlines gave this often light-hearted romp real stakes the likes of which underlined why so many nerds connected with it so deeply. We all have our ships in shows, but man if you weren’t rooting for Chuck and Sarah, what were you even doing? (Awesomesauce geek alert: Let’s not forget that Chuck’s parents were played by Scott Bakula and Linda Hamilton! Amazing.)