What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is also part of a more somber series called “RIP.” But frankly, I’ve been writing about too many of my idols dying lately, so I wanted to do something a bit different to mark the recent passing of comedy genius Buck Henry.
Perusing his IMDB page is an exercise in comic excellence, particularity when it comes to parody and satire. For my money, “First Family” is one of the best examples of that.
“First Family” is for my money one of the greatest bits of political satire ever written.
The story centers on President of the United States Manfred Link; who came to office barely winning an election against rivals killed in a car accident three days before the election. He now finds himself in the run-up to re-election and facing some daunting obstacles.
The first is despite what the media tries to tell you, he’s obviously very unpopular.
Secondly, President Link is surrounded by staffers and politicos who resemble the “Cantina” scene from “Star Wars.” There’s the nebbish Vice President Shockley (played by Bob Dishy), the human leak-machine Press Secretary Bunthorne (played by Richard Benjamin), the WASPy elitist U.N. Ambassador Spender (played by Harvey Korman), a prototypical politician in Presidential Aide Feebleman (played by Fred Willard), all capped off by the quasi-racist war-monger General Dumpston, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (played by Rip Torn).
In the meantime, Link also finds himself immersed in the foibles of his family. First Lady Constance Link (played by Madeline Kahn) is never far away from a cocktail, and their 28-year old virgin daughter Gloria is hungry for cock, but isn’t allowed to date for the sake of appearances.
The guts of the plot involve Link’s administration and it’s dealings with the small African nation Upper Gorm. Despite it’s size, Upper Gorm is important for for an upcoming vote in the United Nations and because it is abundant in needed natural resources. The problem is they can only find one American who knows how to speak Upper Gormese. This is complicated by the fact the Gormese ambassador has no comprehension of English, and even if he did, the two languages do not translate to each other very well.
This leads to a series of comic misunderstandings; fans of Monty Python will be reminded of the Hungarian Phrasebook sketch. To me, the funniest scene in the movie is where the Gormese linguist (played by Austin Pendleton) tries to explain to President Link a subtlety in Gormese that can turn a noun into a future-tense verb. This leads to the President’s admission that he flunked two years of high school Spanish exclaiming “My God, even Mexicans know how to speak Spanish!’
The denouement comes as President Link discovers President Kalundra of Upper Gorm (played by John Hancock) speaks perfect English as he was educated at the University of Miami. Of course, this discovery is the pinnacle of impolitic and awkward. It happens as Link asks his entourage “Which one is the head boogeyman?” and Kalundra responds “I am the head boogeyman. Which one of you is the chief turkey?”
If by this time you hadn’t noticed the ràison d’être of “First Family” is being a pointed commentary on race and politics (two subjects guaranteed to make people uncomfortable), then Kalundra’s final proposal to Link should remove all doubt. In exchange for their vote at the U.N. and to give America access to Upper Gorm’s natural resources, President Kalundra wants a number of white Americans sent to his country so that like “every good developed country,” they can have an oppressed minority.
In all honesty, “First Family” does limp across the finish line with and ending that seems a bit slap-dash; it just doesn’t cap off 95 minutes of satire of the thickest order. For even more honesty, if you’re one of those people who can’t get over themselves and needs to be offended by everything, skip this movie…it will piss you off in spades. But if you dig satire which is a bit overly intellectually and brutally honest, “First Family” is worth 100 minutes of your time.
As an aside, if you want a perfect example of how this movie was ahead of it’s time, just look at the scene when the Chinese and the Americans are racing to romance the Upper Gormese, then look at what is happening in sub-Saharan Africa today.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Let’s cut through the guano here. If you do a web search for the reviews of this movie, you’re going to find them running in the 9 out of 10 range saying it’s awful. For 9 out of 10 people, I think that may very well be true. That’s because “First Family” is satire on a seriously intellectual level. As mentioned, there are times you will be reminded of Monty Python at their highest brow. It also delves into the depths of racism, sexism, and every other “-ism” you’d care to be offended by…for the sole reason that all great satire sprouts from the seeds of truth.
Americans have a strange relationship with all things considered entertainment; sports and movies being part of that spectrum. The entirety of Dubsism is a monument to that; much as it’s slightly twisted nature is a mirror of it. But no matter which way you take that, there’s an even stranger consistency in America. Even in this era of the inverted McCarthyism known as “political correctness,” you can get away with a lot of stuff if people are expecting it. It’s when you give Americans a big dose of something they didn’t see coming that you can end up in deep water.
It was almost twenty years ago today when ABC hired comedian Dennis Miller to be part of the broadcast team for Monday Night Football. Miller’s acerbic wit, his obscure yet spot-on references, and his proclivity for a good old-fashioned rant were the stuff sports television gold was made of. The division in the broadcast booth among Miller’s partner’s was a microcosm of the reaction of the American sports fan.
Besides being a legendary broadcaster, Al Michaels is known for his quick wit, so he quickly picked up what Miller was laying down. But Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts was the epitome of clueless. The problem was among the Monday Night Football audience, 9 out of 10 people agreed with Fouts. Apparently, one cannot make an analogy between the House of Plantagenet and the Dallas Cowboys (yes…Miller actually did that) and keep the attention of the average American football fan.
Dennis Miller found out football fans weren’t ready for jokes about a royal house from Anjou, France, and Buck Henry discovered audiences didn’t necessarily like their belly laughs with a gut-punch of reality.
But I loved them both.
The Moral of The Story:
RIP, Henry Zuckerman. You were ahead of your time in a world today where “political correctness” would have slaughtered your talents. Edgy and brilliant is an amazing combination…no wonder you were a comedy hero to a guy who got kicked off “Jeopardy!”
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