"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 June 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Caddyshack Culture

When the American Film Institute released its list of the top 100 funniest films, close observers of American life were left scratching their heads. How could a bunch of movies about cross-dressing beat out a comedy so oft-quoted, so influential, and so attuned to the roll and the lay of a post-Gerald Ford land that it's been the source of all subsequent U.S. culture since its release twenty years ago? Buried on the list at a par-for-the-course but barely noticeable 71, Caddyshack got lost in a desert of Doubtfires. The AFI may find men in women's clothing the supreme achievement in yocks; Robin Williams in a frock, however, can't compete with the sartorial burlesque of Rodney Dangerfield in golf togs. To claim otherwise on the nation's official list of cinematic funniness is nothing short of unAmerican. When did cross-dressing become the hallmark of hilarity here, anyway? What is this, England? No, our comedy looks to the kilts of Scotland: There's nothing funnier than golf.

The irresistible rise of the unflappable Tiger Woods and the backslap culture of new mags like Maximum Golf prove that the message amid the laffs in Caddyshack can undergo countless Dorf-like mutations and still come through loud and clear. Nothing shuts down the snobs as surely as a Zen-like attitude and an unbeatable game, especially on a field where everyone is dressed funny and lugging around thousands of dollars in new equipment. These days — rich or poor, black or white — every man's a bumbling President Ford hoping to luck into a hole-in-one. A nation of Chevy Chases has Whipped Inflation Now, and the country (club) floats along like a Titleist bouyed by a graphite driver and a bad pun. And if they laugh at your slice but not your joke, you can always fall back on your Bill Murray impression.

Like Citizen Kane — the top American unfunny movie according to the AFI — Caddyshack was the first film of a man acclaimed in the theater and made famous in a rival broadcast medium. Harold Ramis made his mark as a member of the Second City comedy troupe and on their groundbreaking TV series before he got called, despite having no prior film directing experience, to helm what has become an indisputable American classic. The subsequent career of Ramis merits study in its own right, and will be treated in a future installment of Suck. But as was the case with Orson Welles, no matter what Ramis has done since or what he may do in the future — no matter how many Groundhog Days or Analyze Thises he makes — his first film will always loom ominously, unsurpassably, over his career. Maybe if he had gone to Europe, as Welles did, he could've put Caddyshack behind him and developed as an artist. We'll never know.

But the societal repercussions of Caddyshack haven't been lost on the American public or on the film's stars. Lacey Underall is lingua franca in this country, and comedy has capitalized on it nonstop since 1980, the first year of the Carl Spackler dynasty. The list of lines from Caddyshack that jobholders are expected to know isn't just the glue that binds golf magazines together. What percentage of water-cooler conversation do they make up, now that every profession is a golf-loving profession? If there's one thing that links the 98% of Fortune 500 CEOs who list golf as their favorite sport to the guys on their loading docks who are saving up for a new set of irons, it's their mutual ability to reference Caddyshack every time they see a Baby Ruth in the vicinity of a swimming pool. Chevy Chase's "Be the ball" is as entrenched in the language firmament as a perfectly replaced divot, but not less securely than Dangerfield mots like "Now I know why tigers eat their young"; "Whoa — the dance of the living dead! I tell ya, I never saw dead people smoke before"; and "That kangaroo stole my ball!" Bill Murray Spackler-speech like "So I got that goin' for me, which is nice"; or "Licensed to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations"; or "Big hitter, the Lama"; is recalled as often and as gleefully as Ted Knight's weird exeunt, "How about a Fresca?" They're now the stuff of a million rounds of a college

Ramis at least hasn't made a career for himself as the Golf Comedy Guy like so many others have in this post-Caddyshack world. The film's stars haven't been shy about it. From Bill Murray's golf memoir Cinderella Story — need it be added that the book takes its title from a Spackler line? — to Rodney Dangerfield's mock instruction video, the Caddyshack dream team still plays through. Only an untimely death kept Ted Knight from getting in on the action, and Caddyshack is probably the only reason Chevy Chase hasn't been murdered. In the bargain bin at the pro shop, there's Tim Conway's unsettling Dorf work; Leslie Nielsen, who had comedy greatness thrust upon him, stars in a golf video series that even in its titles can't decide whether it's stupid or merely bad. From movie knockoffs named with just-barely-double entendres like Golf Balls, to the transcendent stylings of zodiac-song-killer Harvey Sid "I Am the God of Golf" Fisher, the supply of caddyschlock is unlimited. The bad-pun culture of the links replicates itself on countless Web sites. Bad golf jokes aren't new, but Caddyshack gave them the illusion they're hip. At their worst, they've still got a post-SNL pedigree. Kind of like Adam Sandler.

Happy Gilmore, however, has a leg up on male-weepie mythmaking like Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance. Featuring Will Smith as caddy to Costner-manqué Matt Damon, it's a sports dramedy in the Redford sports tradition aimed at golfers looking to feel better about the restrictions black players endured for decades (cf., the 1998 made-for-TV Tiger Woods Story, in which Keith David, playing Earl Woods as a cross between Carl Spackler and Leslie Nielsen, laments, "Three tours in 'Nam and still my son has to go through this!" after young Tiger hears the n-word at a driving range). The awkwardly entitled Bagger Vance is a Feel Better Movie. The arrival of Redford — next to Costner perhaps the least funny man this country has ever produced — indicates a new level of anti-comedic respectability in the game, the kind that comes from being dull. The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal have shown up in their gray flannel, too. They're cross-promoting themselves in your city with virtual golf booths strategically placed in business districts. It's not miniature golf, it's putting into a glass moved to street level. They should've called it candlepin golf. Who cares? These are throwbacks to the pre-Caddyshack establishment represented by Ted Knight in the movie. They're guaranteed not to appeal to the would-be Ty Webbs they're aimed at.

It's Ty Webb, the presidential impersonator played by Chevy Chase, who paved the way for Bill Clinton. The First Womanizer is a product of 1980, not the '60s, as so many men of his generation would have us believe. Golf taught him to weather any storm and then whoop it up at the 19th hole. It's not something he learned at Yale or through a Rhodes Scholarship. When political pundits like the writers at Maximum Golf predict that George W. Bush will beat Al Gore because W. golfs and Gore doesn't, they misunderstand the message of their central text. Caddyshack is about the way a new establishment replaces an old one, it's not about the long tradition of golf. In this scenario, George W. is the WASP retard Spaulding ("Are you gonna eat your fat?"), grandson to Ted Knight's patrician George Senior character. The country club in Caddyshack is named Bushwood, after all. If the golf course is the site of important American rites of passage (most of which involve getting drunk or having sex there after hours), George W. is just the owner's son — the Dangerfield line about tigers eating their young is directed at him — a vague embarrassment who gets dragged along on these outings because the groundskeepers have to kowtow to him.

When Bill Murray blew up the gopher holes and destroyed the old golf course, he blew open the doors for everyone to come in and play on the new one. The thing in Caddyshack that annoys even the most devoted fans is the gopher puppet, but the film couldn't exist without it. Carl Spackler, the hapless servant of the Ted Knights of this world, triumphs in the film because his attempts to destroy the gophers are really a desire to unloose them. Hence Murray's confusion in the movie between the words Gopher and Golfer. When Carl isn't fantasizing about his success on the PGA Tour, he's putting himself in the gopher's place and trying to think just like it thinks. And he fantasizes about caddying for the Dalai Lama. Who's really more Zen, Murray or Chase? Who went on to make The Razor's Edge and who limped through the cinema in old-establishment-bolstering vehicles like Deal of the Century and Spies Like Us?

That golf is a multimillion dollar industry that supports countless magazines devoted to it is due in no small part to Caddyshack. An economy that can support golf magazines so specific that they're aimed at aging golfers, aging women golfers, x-treme golfers (at least in their attitude), and golfers who golf in Cape Cod or Arizona is an indicator of health. How's the economy? Just go to a newsstand and tally up the golf titles. When Bill Clinton leaves office, he should have a special screening of Caddyshack at the White House, a big party with Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, and the guy whose hand was in the gopher in attendance, with a portrait of Ted Knight on the wall next to the one of Ronald Reagan. Dress up the interns in Lacey Underall's golf outfit and have them serve drinks as Kenny Loggins warbles a Clintonian "I'm alright, nobody worry about me./Why you got to give me a fight?/Why can'tcha just let me be?" History picks a convenient symbol to stand for the achievement of each civilization. For Egypt, it's the pyramids; for Greece, the Parthenon; for England, Shakespeare. America, in the depths of its soul, knows itself as the country that produced Caddyshack. It begs to be known as a land where laughter truly is par for the course.

Courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath

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