The end of the 20th Century brought with it a flurry of “Best of…” lists quantifying the upper echelon of every major cinematic achievement. Unfortunately, amidst all this frantic tallying, plenty of quality films got shafted.
Quality films like Back to School. Rodney Dangerfield gets no respect--not even when his star vehicle becomes one of the first comedies to gross over $100 million at the box office.
Back to School was the sleeper hit of 1986, a runaway success that was quoted and consecrated into the public consciousness. There wasn’t a comedy fan that didn’t affect an impersonation of Sam Kinison’s piqued Professor Turgeson or a kid on the high school diving team who didn’t attempt the Triple-Lindy. But within a few short years, Back to School was all but forgotten and forsaken, deserted and derided.
It’s a case of collective selective memory that has unfortunately slighted this hilarious film. In the pantheon of the greatest comedy films of the Eighties--the Airplane!s and the Ghostbusters and the Trading Places’ and the Spinal Taps and the Beuhlers and the Fast Times’ and the Diners, et cetera--Back to School is painfully absent.
So what went wrong? Back to School was co-written by WKRP in Cincinnati’s Steven Kampmann and Peter Torokvei and their Second City partner-in-crime Will Porter. It was even punched up by comic genius, Harold Ramis. Yet the film has all but been expunged from film geek quote-fests. How did this clever, joke-laden movie starring Rodney Dangerfield, Sally Kellerman, Sam Kinison, Oingo Boingo and even Kurt Vonnegut come to get such short-shrift?
Big happened. The release of the precious coming-of-age fantasy in 1988 altered the direction of comedy for almost a decade. No longer were films merely funny, they had to have a heart-of-gold--even when the heart-of-gold was crammed into an otherwise funny script. Don’t get me wrong, Big is both funny and heart-gilded, but its sweet-natured fun spawned a phalanx of films that mined similar territory and supped from the same trough of honey-covered humor. Some with results as wonderfully balanced as Big, most with mind-bogglingly insipid outcomes. The films that did attempt comedy-for-comedy’s-sake went beyond sophomoric to eighth-gradic. Remember watching Son-in-Law and laughing? Yeah, me neither.
Poor Back to School. Forever languishing in obscurity due to the anti-haha fallout, forgotten, flushed from memory like a bad idea baby alligator two weeks after the family’s return from Epcot.
I implore you to take a second look, remember the laughs, the chuckles, the guffaws and the hrumphs and go Back to School. Or in the words of Rodney, “Why don't you call me sometime when you have no class?”