The public sometimes has trouble distinguishing reality from comedy. And while the best comedy has some basis in reality, that doesn’t seem to be what the comedians were going for in the following cases.
10Jesus Christ Endorsements
Photo credit: Tricia/Flickr
The 1978 monster movie parody Attack of the Killer Tomatoes has acquired a reputation as the worst movie ever made. In terms of plot, production value, and humor, it’s more or less a 1970s Saturday Night Live sketch stretched out to feature length, for better or worse. It managed a surprising three sequels, a television spinoff, and a rerelease by Disney in the 1990s (a remake was announced in 2008 but fell through).
At one point in the movie, a marketing firm is hired to assuage public fears about the genetically modified tomatoes. The head of the firm proudly shows “the greatest commercial ever made” to demonstrate the company’s prowess. In the unseen commercial, the words “Jesus Christ for Technitron” are heard, and the presidential press secretary watching the commercial reacts in horror. Evidently, a commercial claiming that Jesus endorses a product or service was supposed to be in shockingly bad taste back in 1978.
A few decades later, in May 2013, one Anna Pierre of Miami claimed that Jesus Christ had endorsed her candidacy for mayor. She said she’d been endorsed by the religious figure because of her constant prayers for guidance with every decision she made. Ultimately, it didn’t work out very well for her, and the people elected her opponent.
When she lost, Pierre claimed that the public had chosen Satan over Jesus in the election. An endorsement from Satan doesn’t sound like the greatest commercial ever made, but it wouldn’t be the worst.
Photo credit: Fox
In the history of the extremely long-running, still highly rated The Simpsons, one of the sillier episodes was “The Trouble with Trillions,” which aired in 1998. The episode reveals that the United States funded European reconstruction after World War II by printing a single trillion-dollar bill, which wound up in the hands of nuclear energy tycoon Mr. Burns. The sum was absurd (America’s entire GDP in 1945 was not even one-quarter of $1 trillion), but far more ridiculous was the idea of assigning that value to a single currency note. Nevertheless, come 2012 and 2013, politicians and economists began seriously debating whether the US should mint a trillion-dollar coin.
The government’s budget when running a deficit is normally limited by the sum that Congress lets the president borrow. In 2013, the government repeatedly came close to hitting this debt ceiling and finally even had to shut down for over two weeks. Laws prevent the government from sidestepping the debt ceiling by just printing unlimited money, and similar laws ban the Treasury from minting unlimited gold or silver currency. But the Treasury can issue platinum currency of any value, thanks to a 2000 law regarding commemorative coinage. The Treasury could produce a coin worth $1 trillion and deposit it at the Federal Reserve, giving the government $1 trillion more to spend without permission from Congress.
The solution wouldn’t help the US economy, but it would bypass the artificial political barrier of the debt ceiling. In the end, however, the Treasury and the Fed agreed that they weren’t going to choose this particular nutty route.
8A War Of Distraction
Wag the Dog was a popular, critically beloved political satire, noted by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American comedies of the 20th century. In this 1997 film, the sitting president is embroiled in a sex scandal. To distract the public from this development in preparation for an election, the government stages fake military actions against Albania.
On January 21, 1998, news organizations began covering President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The case soon became as famous for the media’s overzealousness as it was for the president’s actions. Later that year, America pursued military actions against the Balkans, Sudan, and Iraq. Unlike in Wag the Dog, these were real operations, not staged. But they were all at one point (rightly or wrongly) interpreted as the Clinton administration trying to distract the public from the sex scandal.
Some even think they see a photo of Clinton and Lewinsky featured in Wag the Dog—which would be remarkable, since the public hadn’t heard of Lewinsky when the movie was filmed. (There isn’t one. It’s an image of the movie’s characters.)
7A Blood-Spurting Billboard
Photo credit: Fox
Here’s another example from The Simpsons. In the 1993 episode “The Itchy and Scratchy Movie,” a billboard advertising a film sprays large amounts of fake blood in two directions. The foolishness of this design is immediately illustrated when blood falls into a passing car.
In 2008, to advertise a broadcast of Kill Bill Vol. 1, a billboard in Auckland, New Zealand showed blood spraying off Uma Thurman’s sword. To strengthen the image beyond what most ads are capable of, the billboard splattered paint along a wall, on the sidewalk and street, and even on a couple vehicles. It was a surprising degree of commitment for a television broadcast of a film already half a decade old, but it brought a goofy old joke back to life.
6Turning A Disaster Into A Hit
Manos: The Hands of Fate from 1966 is notorious as the worst movie ever to receive theatrical distribution. Among the innumerable problems it had was a shortage of professional cast members. All the voices were done by three people, and in numerous scenes, the characters stood still staring at each other. Director Hal Warren literally made the movie on a bet that anyone could make a film and get it into theaters.
During its premiere in El Paso, Texas, most of the cast and crew was too embarrassed to stick around till the end. That left director Warren in the frame of mind where he joked, “If we dubbed movie with new dialogue, we could sell it as a comedy.”
In 1993, the movie was dubbed with mocking commentary for Mystery Science Theater 3000, a comedy program that ran for 10 years on Comedy Central. It became one of the most popular movies featured on the program. After decades of obscurity and only playing in a couple theaters during the year it was made, the movie became beloved enough that it played in hundreds of theaters nationwide. And all because of something its creator accidentally prophesied while wallowing in failure.
5 The Dumbest Musical
During one writing session for the cult ’90s cartoon The Critic, writer Mike Reiss asked, “What’s the stupidest thing to try to make into a musical?” In the resulting episode, a couple of characters go to a family-friendly Broadway musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After all, with Hunchback’s tragic content and complex plot and characters, it would be like doing a happy musical version of The Grapes of Wrath.
But as Disney fans well know, this show was a couple years early in parodying the animated epic The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Critics indeed bashed the movie for failing to capture the spirit of the book in favor of more generic content and a lightweight tone.
The prediction became even more accurate in 2013, when The Hunchback of Notre Dame was actually staged on Broadway, based on the Disney movie. As writer Al Jean says in the commentary for the episode, “It doesn’t even sound like a satire anymore. Just like something they’d do.”
4The Onion Dictates Gillette’s Product Line
Photo credit: Gillette
The Onion is the most famous parody newspaper in the world, but there are still numerous examples of people being publicly humiliated for sharing it as if it’s a legitimate news source. One of the better known cases of this was Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana believing in plans to make a $6 billion mega-clinic for abortions.
So you’d imagine that anyone who believed a February 2004 article about a Gillette razor with five whole blades would have been regarded as a fool. At the time, the three-bladed razor was already thought excessive.
A year and a half after The Onion published their joke, Gillette released both a manual and an electric razor with five blades. Their competitors at Schick had produced the Quattro blade by then, so Gillette was practically goaded into this decision. Since then, even this over-the-top razor design was exceeded by the Titan 6 in 2010.
3Restaurant Grease Energy
Kentucky Fried Movie is a hit sketch comedy film from 1977 written by the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, the group best known for the movie Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. It’s also notable as the earliest hit of John Landis’s career.
Early on, the film features a sketch about a company called Argon using oil from teenagers’ faces as an alternative energy source. The sketch then escalates to what it considers increasingly absurd sources of oil, including the combs of Italian men and then fast food like fried chicken.
A few decades after the film came out, biodiesel became a legitimate energy source. By 2008, waste grease and vegetable oil from restaurant fryers was being stolen from restaurants to be used for greener energy, which was a pretty good indicator of the demand for the stuff. This was no mere fad. Legislation against stealing grease from restaurants was introduced in California in 2014 since it was allegedly costing restaurant owners millions of dollars in potential sales to green energy companies.
2Suicide Machines, On Schedule
In the 1999 pilot for the cartoon Futurama, set in the year 3000, a device appears to be a telephone booth but turns out to be a suicide machine. A recorded message refers to the manufacturer as the most trusted source of suicide booths “since 2008.” At the time, Fox executives had issues with the notion of including suicide machine jokes in a network TV show, but it went on to be a recurring gag.
In our 2008, a real self-service suicide machine was announced. Since it was a serious-minded German medical apparatus by a Dr. Roger Kusch, it naturally wasn’t nearly as elaborate as the array of sharp and destructive implements shown in Futurama. Instead, it was a modified breathing machine that pumped poisonous gas into the patient.
Dr. Kusch wasn’t alone in inventing suicide machines in 2008. Dr. Philip Nitschke of Australia announced a design for a supposedly undetectable suicide device that could be assembled out of household products. He claimed that by having a painless, reliable tool for killing themselves at any time, customers might feel enough control over their lives that they would be discouraged from killing themselves. It’s an idea so ironic that it likely would have been written into a Futurama episode if one had ever focused on the ethics of suicide booths.
1Dr. Strangelove Writes Soviet Nuclear Strategy
In this 1963 absurdist nuclear comedy classic, “Plan R” lets generals at air bases order nuclear strikes because a preemptive Soviet attack might cut off communication with Washington. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union in the movie has created a secret doomsday device—if a nuke hits anywhere in its borders, all their own nuclear weapons will automatically detonate and cause an intentional nuclear winter. But by keeping the device secret, the Soviets invalidate it as a deterrent, as ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove notes (“The premier loves surprises”).
In the real world, in 1983, due to tensions caused by their invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union created a computer system called “Dead Hand” that would automatically fire the USSR’s nuclear weapons. Part of the rationale was the possibility that sites might lose communication with high command in the event of a preemptive nuclear strike by the Americans. So Dead Hand was a mash-up of what both the Americans and Soviets were doing in Dr. Strangelove—complete with being kept a secret in its day.