On Mon­day, Saul Auster­litz wrote about his recent author tour. He will be blog­ging all week for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Council’s Jew­ish Vis­it­ing Scribe.

In writ­ing my book Anoth­er Fine Mess: A His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Film Com­e­dy, I spent a lot of time con­cen­trat­ing on the great­est films in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can com­e­dy: your City Lights, your Shop Around the Cor­ners, your Annie Halls. But often, the most plea­sur­able films I watched over the course of research­ing my book were the ones that were sur­pris­ing­ly decent. The mediocre films that turned out to be pret­ty fun­ny; the sup­pos­ed­ly ter­ri­ble movies that I found myself, to my sur­prise, enjoying.

In their hon­or, I’d like to sin­gle out five pleas­ant sur­pris­es from among the ranks of Amer­i­can come­dies. These might not be movies you’d want at the top of your Net­flix queue, but you might find your­self pleas­ant­ly sur­prised if you hap­pened to come across them, anyway.

5. Teacher’s Pet
Instead of being part­nered with sec­ond-tier stars like Gor­don MacRae, or Rea­gan, by the late 1950s Doris Day was star­ring oppo­site Clark Gable in 1958’s Teacher’s Pet. Direct­ed by George Seaton, Teacher’s Pet estab­lish­es the tem­plate for the Rock Hud­son films to come. Day is a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism attempt­ing to recruit crusty news­pa­per­man Gable to guest-lec­ture to her class, not know­ing he is already enrolled as a stu­dent. Gable is a bit elder­ly for the role — you can see his hands shake when he thrusts a news­pa­per at Day — but the two work up a nice com­ic rou­tine, with Day ide­al­is­tic and sun­ny, and her foil can­tan­ker­ous and vine­gary, lov­ing women with­out respect­ing them: You mean to tell me that now they’ve got dames teach­ing unsus­pect­ing suckers?”

Gable is most believ­able at his most crabbed; when he melts for Doris, the moment is hard­ly in keep­ing with the role, or with Gable him­self, who nev­er met a dame he didn’t want to push around. Day, mean­while, strug­gles to main­tain the appro­pri­ate dis­tance from her stu­dent, but phys­i­cal con­tact, like the kiss Gable snatch­es in her office, leaves her a lit­tle woozy, and gasp­ing for breath. We know Doris has sex on the brain because she spurns the advances of Nobel Prize-win­ning sci­en­tist and author Gig Young (this film’s Tony Ran­dall equiv­a­lent), pre­fer­ring some­thing in a more dash­ing cut.

4. Hard­ly Work­ing
JER­RY LEWIS IS HARD­LY WORK­ING,” reads the title card to Hard­ly Work­ing (1980), and the announce­ment is a sup­pressed howl of out­rage at his career set­backs — how could I not be work­ing? —and a cap­sule sum­ma­ry of the film. His char­ac­ter — an unem­ployed clown with a famil­iar­ly Lewis-esque pro­cliv­i­ty for court­ing dis­as­ter — is ush­ered into a series of ill-fit­ting jobs (gas-sta­tion atten­dant, bar­tender, Japan­ese chef), each of which ends calami­tous­ly. The dia­logue was ris­i­ble, only rarely ris­ing above the insipid, but some­thing — per­haps the time away — had made the old Lewis rou­tines charm­ing once more.

Lewis was script­ing his own tri­umphant return, on his own terms. I’m not a clown,” his Bo Hoop­er tells a friend. Not any­more.” Lewis wants it both ways; he is the clown no longer, but Hard­ly Working’s tri­umphant con­clu­sion has him don­ning the white make­up once more, deliv­er­ing the mail to an ador­ing crowd. Nev­er the sub­tlest of artists, Lewis was hav­ing his midlife cri­sis onscreen, and script­ing his own hap­py ending.

3. ¡Three Amigos!

Steve Mar­tin co-wrote ¡Three Ami­gos! (1986) with Sat­ur­day Night Live pro­duc­er Lorne Michaels and singer-song­writer Randy New­man, and starred along­side Chevy Chase and Mar­tin Short. The three­some are silent-era stars, pam­pered, sis­si­fied actors giv­en to play­ing swash­buck­ling Span­ish noble­men in their films. Fired by their stu­dio, they are sum­moned to the Mex­i­can vil­lage of San­to Poco to take on the evil El Guapo and his hench­man Jefe. The actors are con­vinced they have been hired to put on a show, in which they sym­bol­i­cal­ly over­come the local tyrants. Instead, they have been hired to fight, in entire­ly non-sym­bol­ic fashion.

What ¡Three Ami­gos! lacks in focus, it makes up for with the enor­mous­ly grat­i­fy­ing chem­istry between its three stars, and a script that, what­ev­er its nar­ra­tive faults, is over­stuffed with deliri­ous word­play. There are some trade­mark Steve Mar­tin moments, plumb­ing the depths of his fee­ble-mind­ed­ness. Not so fast, El Guapo, or I’ll fill you so full of lead you’ll be using your dick for a pen­cil!” he announces, putting on his most offi­cious white-man voice. What do you mean?” El Guapo asks puz­zled­ly. Mar­tin paus­es, and admits the truth with­out sac­ri­fic­ing an iota of his emp­ty-head­ed inten­si­ty: I don’t know.” ¡Three Ami­gos! has a gid­dy, rol­lick­ing silli­ness that is catch­ing. Nei­ther a great movie, nor a par­tic­u­lar­ly good one, ¡Three
is a tran­scen­dent, end­less­ly rewatch­able mediocrity.

2Blades of Glo­ry
The bad-boy out­law fall­en on hard times was Will Ferrell’s bread and but­ter, with Ron Bur­gundy and Ricky Bob­by fol­lowed in short order by Chazz Michael Michaels, whose reign atop the world of com­pet­i­tive fig­ure skat­ing is brought to an unfor­tu­nate con­clu­sion by a brawl on the medal plat­form at the Olympics. Banned for life from men’s fig­ure skat­ing, he is matched with neme­sis Jim­my MacEl­roy (Jon Hed­er), form­ing the first-ever all-male pairs team. Fer­rell is the star here, but the rhythms are most­ly Heder’s; much of the dia­logue sounds as if it had been excised at the last minute from Napoleon Dyna­mite.

In case the men’s fig­ure skat­ing angle had not alert­ed you, Blades of Glo­ry(2007) is unend­ing­ly amused by the homo­erot­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties of its plot. The skat­ing sequences man­age to squeeze ref­er­ences to every pos­si­ble per­mu­ta­tion of gay sex into their brief rou­tines. Ladies, don’t be alarmed; Chazz is no queer, but rather a sex addict with a rag­ing libido. Are you an offi­cial here?” he asks Olympic medal­ist Nan­cy Ker­ri­g­an (prac­ti­cal­ly the only Amer­i­can skater who doesn’t cameo in Blades of Glo­ry is Tonya Hard­ing). Because you’ve offi­cial­ly giv­en me a boner.”

1. Nor­bit

Nor­bit (2007) was both proof of Eddie Murphy’s dimin­ish­ment, and a reminder of his still-for­mi­da­ble com­ic gifts. For his mul­ti­ple roles in the film, direct­ed by Bri­an Rob­bins, Mur­phy gar­nished a record haul of awards, tak­ing home prizes for actor, sup­port­ing actor, and sup­port­ing actress. Pity, then, that his were cour­tesy of the Razz­ies, ded­i­cat­ed to hon­or­ing the worst per­for­mances of the year. Revis­it­ing what by now had come to be a famil­iar trope, Mur­phy is both the neb­bishy, unhap­pi­ly mar­ried, Jiff-like Nor­bit, and his demon-bride, Rasputia. Mur­phy was in an abu­sive rela­tion­ship with him­self, dom­i­nat­ed by his over­weight, tyran­ni­cal, undy­ing­ly crass wife. With its relent­less bar­rage of racial and gen­der stereo­types, wield­ed with all the deft­ness of a polo mal­let to the skull, Nor­bit sin­gle-hand­ed­ly sets the cause of civ­il rights — nay, the cause of com­bat­ing stu­pid­i­ty — back by two decades.

Rasputia in par­tic­u­lar is a nox­ious cre­ation, the anti-Sher­man Klump. She is, as we first see her, an over­grown child, intent on hav­ing her way in all mat­ters: shoot­ing at ter­mi­nal veloc­i­ty down a water-park slide, leap­ing hun­gri­ly onto Nor­bit in a deft­ly ren­dered series of bed­room encoun­ters. Her cor­pu­lence is tak­en as sym­bol­ic proof of her nefar­i­ous­ness, each undu­lat­ing rib­bon of fat com­ing in for its own indi­vid­ual rib­bing. And yet, accept­ing its bla­tant­ly obvi­ous flaws, Nor­bit is, at times, a sur­pris­ing­ly fun­ny film. Mur­phy may not be work­ing with his most vivid­ly ren­dered mate­r­i­al, but with Rasputia (“How you doin’!”), he is at the height of his pow­ers of Nut­ty Pro­fes­sor-esque inven­tive­ness. She is an untamed rap­scal­lion, and Mur­phy (who co-wrote the film’s sto­ry with his broth­er Char­lie) loves her unques­tion­ing­ly, polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness be damned.

Anoth­er Fine Mess: A His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Film Com­e­dy is now in stores. 

Saul Auster­litz is the author of four pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing Just a Shot Away and Sit­com. His work has been pub­lished by The Boston Globe, The New York Times Mag­a­zine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Slate, and the Los Ange­les Times. He is a grad­u­ate of Yale and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is an adjunct pro­fes­sor of writ­ing and com­e­dy his­to­ry at NYU.