Scrooged (1988) from Johnny Web and a reader

The group of humorists loosely defined as my generation have already lost possibly the two greatest comic geniuses from their ranks.

Back around 1970, a bunch of Harvard Lampoon guys wanted to try out their comic wings in the commercial world, so they took lampooning out of the Yard and into the marketplace as the National Lampoon. The driving comic genius from the Harvard side was Doug Kenney. He and co-editor Henry Beard also brought some non-Harvard people onto the team, the most important being Michael O'Donoghue, the upstate New Yorker who was a master of comic sadism and erudition. You probably know who he is, even if his name is unfamiliar. He's the condescending, aesthetic guy who was known as Mr Mike in the early years of SNL.

Kenney and O'Donoghue are both dead now. Kenney fell off a cliff in Hawaii when he was 32, before he could ever become a nationally recognized figure. By then he had already co-written the comedy classics Caddyshack and Animal House. O'Donoghue's brain kind of exploded on him in 1994. At that time, he had been out of the limelight for many years, his genius acknowledged only by a small group of illuminati. (Quentin Tarantino was a great admirer.) Mike had attacked so many people in show business so viciously that he made himself a pariah. Everyone loved Mike's attacks on their enemies, but Mr Mike spared no one, so eventually he managed to offend just about everyone worth offending.

The two geniuses had much in common. Kenney lacked O'Donoghue's streak of sadism, but in both cases their best work is characterized by vast erudition in matters both popular and arcane, as well as the ability to master other men's writing styles for comic effect. Kenney co-wrote a hilarious parody of Lord of the Rings called Bored of the Rings. O'Donoghue did so many styles so well in the pages of the Lampoon that it's difficult to pick one. He could parody Raymond Chandler, Stan Lee, and Immanuel Kant with equal facility.

Although these two men didn't write that many things you would recognize, their influence on the humor of the past thirty years is unquestionable. The Lampoon spawned some radio shows and theatrical reviews which starred guys like Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Chris Guest (who could impersonate men's voices as uncannily as O'Donoghue could mimic their verbal styles). These theatrical revues, in turn, transmogrified into Saturday Night Live, for which O'Donoghue was a writer. The National Lampoon also lent its talent to some movies over the years, of which Animal House and Vacation are probably the most widely admired.

O'Donoghue created some brilliant written works. He was the author of Evergreen Review's famous Phoebe Zeitgeist series, and later wrote much of the material for and edited a brilliant compilation called National Lampoon's Encyclopedia of Humor. These works are largely forgotten now, except by those of us who read them when they were first published. Except for his eccentric appearances on Saturday Night, Mr Mike did only one thing that would probably be remembered by the mainstream, and that is the script for Scrooged.


There is a medium shot of one of the Scrooge dancers with her nipples falling out.

Scrooged is not an especially great movie, but it has great elements, and those come directly from O'Donoghue. The film begins with promos for the Christmas line-up of a TV network. A heavily-armed Lee Majors defends Santa's Workshop from terrorist attack. Robert Goulet sings his Cajun Christmas songs while being pursued through the bayou by gators. Exactly the type of crap that Mr Mike hated and loved to explode with his sadistic exaggeration. We are told that the climax of the network's Xmas programming will be a live musical presentation of "Scrooge" on Christmas Eve, starring Buddy Hackett, narrated by John Houseman.

I have a good feeling that people like Goulet and Houseman probably had no idea that Mr Mike really felt contempt for them. They thought he was just kidding around. You can bet he wasn't. In the script somewhere he even has the head of the network refer to Houseman as America's best loved tedious old geezer. That's really close to the bone, and that's Mr Mike speaking from his heart. Houseman, always the pro, veteran of some of the greatest acting companies ever assembled, including Orson Welles's Mercury Theater, played along and ridiculed himself beautifully. Of course, he didn't have to work very hard at being a tedious old geezer.

The Scrooge show itself is more of Mr Mike's attack at the jugular of TV's pop culture. Tiny Tim is played by gymnast Mary Lou Retton. It's not enough that she throws off her crutches, but she then proceeds to go through several athletic moves that no mortal should ever attempt. The show also features the Bob Cratchit dancers, who are wearing hot pants and exposing their nipples.

The head of the fictitious network is played by Bill Murray, essentially acting as Mr Mike's surrogate voice. He is coarse, condescending, insensitive, brilliant, obsessive, blunt, and the perfect modernization of Scrooge in every way, as was Mike himself.

This movie started out as if it would be one of the greatest comedies ever made, but things didn't stay at that level. The director for the project was Richard Donner, and he was just the wrong guy for Mr Mike's dark concepts. As visceral as O'Donoghue is cerebral, Donner believes that humor resides in frenetic movement and banana peels. He's the kind of comic director who loves to see characters tripping, hitting each other, walking into ladders, and other staples of the nyuck-nyuck school of comedy. Mr Mike is more a member of the Franz Kafka school of comedy, and that really doesn't blend well with physical schtick. Donner let the ghosts do physical schtick (especially Carol Kane, who kept doing it and doing it until you just want to strangle her), and then he ruined the movie's quietly redemptive ending by letting Murray do the final speech - "Christmas lets us all be the people we hoped we would be, if only for a time" - in the manner of a caffeine-crazed lunatic, thereby stepping on the comedy and the credibility simultaneously.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic, 1.85

  • no meaningful features

That's a shame, because Murray is hilarious in the funny moments, always rising above the sappy moments of the final script or the Stoogesque antics of his co-stars. It could be argued that he's the funniest comic actor ever. He could have done the serious speech well, too, but he needed some correct direction, and got none.

Many people love the film as is, although Roger Ebert gave it one star. I think it should have been a great movie, but ended up being an OK movie with flashes of greatness offset by lackwit pratfalls and Murray's hyperactive finale.

That's a shame, because the mad, dark genius, Mr Mike, deserved a better legacy. 

A reader comment:

Danny Elfman wrote the musical score to "Scrooged." This is the same guy who scored "Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Spider-Man," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and "Edward Scissorhands." His music is very beautiful and very haunting, which probably explains why his best work is usually done in collaboration with Tim Burton.

There have been CDs released featuring samples of his movie and television work (he also did the theme for "The Simpsons") entitled "Music for a Darkened Theater" vols. 1 & 2. In addition to sampling some of his work, the liner notes include his comments on the various projects.

Here's his comment on "Scrooged":

"The original tone of this film, as you can hear in the music, was much darker than what ended up on screen. Although the score was a pleasure to write, it was pretty much buried in the final film. Another one of 'life's bitter pills'...Oh well."

Upon hearing this work (which I don't believe is available elsewhere), I got chills. Like most of his music, it is very beautiful and is very haunting, but this also mixes some traditional Christmas-type music (e.g., a children's choir). When you hear this music, you can hear shades of "Batman Returns" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas," two other Elfman scores that feature haunting Christmas themes. Unfortunately, instead of hearing some of the best music Elfman has ever composed we get "Put A Little Love In Your Heart" by Annie Lennox and Al Green.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two stars. Ebert 1/4, BBC 4/5


The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: domestic gross $60 million.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. Very, very funny in stretches, dumb slapstick in other scenes, overacted elsewhere. The serious, sentimental side had some credibility problems. It cudda been a contenda, but wasn't.

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