Originally created 05/26/05

'Stripes' shows that military comedy is timeless



Comedy is rarely classic right out of the gate.

A film comedy requires time, a fermentation period, before audiences accept and understand that the gags are indeed timeless and worthy of merit.

Such is the case with Stripes, available on DVD on June 7.

It's impossible to say when this 1981 military comedy ceased to be a slight, silly and mildly gratuitous product of its time and became a classic example of style and sense of humor that typified an important moment in American comedy. But that's what it has become.

Stripes marks the moment when the generation quietly reared on the sharp satire of Saturday Night Live and Second City came of age and entered the mainstream. It's a warning shot, or laugh perhaps, heard in a thousand development meetings that announced that the new accepted style of comedy was no longer Bob Hope, The Smothers Brothers or even Woody Allen. Comedy from that point was defined by the post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan comics who brought improv and social satire to the forefront of film comedy.

But this makes Stripes sound more rife with moments of social significance than it is. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What makes Stripes a classic is its self-aware nature, its understanding that it's a small, silly movie with no other goal than making an audience laugh.

Still, there is a genius to Stripes, evidenced in sequences that have long-since become part of popular culture. The parade scene, the EM-50 urban assault vehicle, even John Candy's racy mud-wresting bout, have become moments that define this period. Aside from Animal House, no comedy film of the era carries the same sense of timeless import.

Much of the success of Stripes can be attributed to its stars - the anarchic Bill Murray and his able foil Harold Ramis. It's a pairing that seems to understand that Stripes is a comedy that will live and die by their ability to properly pace each comic situation. They understand that humor is dynamic, and allow it to ebb and flow so that laughs happen naturally and moments of absurdity reach their zenith without ever becoming over the top. Yes, there is an RV bristling with guns and James Bond-ready barreling through the Iron Curtain, but it's a situation that is given just enough sense of peril that the idea of a missile-launching camper becomes not only funny but also accepted as a real possibility.

And that's classic comedy.

Home screening

Title: Stripes (Columbia TriStar, $19.94)

The verdict: HHHH out of HHHHH

DVD EXTRAS: A commentary by the director and producer and interviews filmed a couple of years ago. An interesting fact - despite the rather cockeyed view Stripes takes of the American military, the movie was made on a working U.S. Army fort, with the full cooperation of the Department of Defense.