It’s interesting to me that audiences in general are more willing to go along with comedies centered on the end of the world than on natural disasters (of course, the end of the world may be a result of a natural disaster, and I’m not completely certain that there are all that many to make comparisons to, regardless). I think this is largely due to the fact that we have no real world frame of reference for the destruction of the Earth (or at least crossing the finish line of our time upon it). Sure, we know all about what happened to the dinosaurs, and we can define an extinction level event, but outside of this, it’s entirely what’s in our imaginations. By contrast, we have seen quite clearly what avalanches, volcano eruptions, tidal waves, et cetera look like, and we have seen the havoc wreaked upon the lives of their victims. Thus, we can have some fun with apocalyptic concepts, like in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or It’s a Disaster, while actual disasters tend to be confined to films like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno (or seemingly everything Irwin Allen ever put his hand to). You could say that films like Airplane! are successful disaster comedies, and to some degree or another that’s true. But Airplane is more a sendup of the disaster film tropes, specifically those developed in films like Airport (astonishingly not produced by Allen) than something making light of aviation tragedies (and that’s another point: the difference between focusing on the events or the characters). At any rate, it’s the devastation of a 9.7 magnitude earthquake that forms the backdrop for Rowby Goren and Chuck Staley’s sketch comedy film Cracking Up, and it’s also a fairly good example of why this setting doesn’t work one hundred percent (but it does work a little).
After the above mentioned quake, intrepid reporters (wait for it…) Walter Concrete (Phil Proctor) and Barbara Halters (played in drag by Peter Bergman) saunter around Los Angeles, interview survivors for their stories (read: skits), and pause often for commercial breaks (read: more skits).
I do not know the complete backstory of this film, but if I had to guess, I would say that it’s a collection of sketches by different comedy troupes (you can tell they’re disparate because the same groups of actors tend to appear in their own individual scenes) that were thrown together around a flimsy wraparound concept. Another thing that points to this is that the quality of the visuals varies quite drastically between segments. In fact, it appears to me that either some of these scenes were recorded on video and transferred to film, or they were recorded onto film from a video source (but I’m no tech expert). Nonetheless, it’s not the visual aesthetics for which we come to this film but the jokes, and as with almost every portmanteau film and/or book I’ve ever encountered, some of the separate sequences kind of work and some of them are dead on arrival. For example, in an early voiceover we are informed that “the damage is approximated at nine-hundred-billion dollars, plus tax and license.” Sister Simple (Edie McClurg) uses some chump to unwittingly bolster her televangelism ministry (one of the better scenes). A greasy spoon diner has a maître d’, an emcee, and a floor show complete with bad comedian, worse psychic, and eyeroll-inducing songs. There’s even a variation on the classic Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First?” bit, featuring Harry Shearer and David L. Lander (the Squiggy of “Lenny and Squiggy” fame), which centers on the bands, The Who, The Guess Who, and Yes (I’ll let you parse out the syntax).
A lot of the comedy is quite politically incorrect, with one sketch involving people with neurological disorders and one advertising a little something called the “Nigger Bopper” (and, in fairness, the “Honky Stopper”), to name but two. So, if you’re the sort that gets offended by things like that, Polish jokes, Irish jokes, jokes about “Orientals,” and homosexual jokes (which showcases the great Stephen Stucker as Bruce “Tushy” Smith), you’ll find a lot to be offended by herein. For myself, I don’t particularly mind off color humor all that much. A lot of it doesn’t necessarily give me side stitches, and it’s not the sort of thing I gravitate towards by nature, but if I hear a joke about an Italian, a Rabbi, and a horse walking into a bar (or whatever), I also don’t instantly hit the righteous indignation button. Still and all, I was more letdown by Cracking Up for the dearth of actually funny material in it than the content of the material that is present.
***The following paragraph contains an old man rant***
The film does point to the rapidly approaching twenty-four hour news cycle which, in my humble opinion, has done terrible damage to journalism in general, and has helped shorten people’s attention spans, has conflated and confused entertainment with reporting more than it already was, and has augmented (my own personal) distrust of the fourth estate for the volume of non-, half-, and disinformation which is regularly doled out as gospel truth (despite any apologies that may come later on, which are always in much quieter voices if they come at all, the damage already having been done and accepted as actuality, never mind pesky things like facts). Further, the focus on minutiae so popular now emphasizes current over events (with hours of drudgery feeling like televised closed circuit feeds from a parking garage of a mall scheduled to be demolished) and devalues the function of journalism, I believe. The news is supposed to provide the receiver with facts, not try to sway the receiver toward a point of view or preach to a particular choir (those would be editorializing, which has its own place, but to interchange the title of one for the other only harms both and does a disservice to the public. End rant.
Being based ostensibly around television culture and the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of news reportage, the film does make some points about the hypocrisy of not only the American media but also of systems of American society (religious, political, et cetera) in a way which is far more biting and insightful (if not necessarily sophisticated and humorous) than we see often today. Walter claims he’s looking for survivors to interview for the show, but when a bloodied victim approaches him and Barbara, he’s beaten back and kicked aside like a bum. Most of the dialogue in the news scenes is one-liners (some groan-inducing). The reporters don’t care about the people involved in this disaster. They want to get some juicy stories and sell ad time (evinced by the faux commercials interspersed throughout). Yet, none of it makes any logical sense, since we’re set up to be based in the here and now. Nevertheless, the stories that people tell invariably cut away to the sketches that we naturally read as flashbacks, which, of course, can’t be filmed by a television crew from someone’s memories, so it breaks the conceit of the film (not that it’s all that strong to start off). Is this asking too much of a sketch comedy film? Probably, but I was consistently drawn out of the film by this practice.
Another odd aspect is the various non sequiturs inserted at random moments. Take, for example, the two naked women who just pop out of a building and go streaking down the street (we’ll see them again with just as much build up and payoff later on). Or the montages of victims lurching around the rubble, set to the strains of light-pop songs like What Do You Want from Life. It feels as though sometimes the filmmakers wanted to connect the film in some kind of flow, and sometimes they didn’t, and they really couldn’t be arsed to differentiate between the two approaches (but, hey, it was the Seventies). It’s like piling your plate at a buffet with everything all at once rather than using separate dishes: the food mingles together, and that can be a good or a bad thing, but you won’t know until you take the next bite.
MVT: There is an enthusiasm at work underneath the film’s surface. These guys REALLY want to make you laugh. You may find that charming, or ingratiating, or both.
Make or Break: The Polish talk show segment, featuring Lander and Michael McKean (the Lenny of “Lenny and Squiggy” fame) is particularly funny without being especially insulting to the intelligence (unless you get insulted at Polish and Irish jokes). I mean, it’s no Cheech and Chong, and your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for ethnic stereotypes, but it worked quite well for me.