I'm quite fond of this daring, adventurous little picture, and it always makes me laugh when I'm flipping TV channels and there it is - Martin Short
My enjoyment of Clifford
is genuine. It's considered a terrible movie by most people so it's easy to assume I'm being ironic when I preach my love for it. Anyone who knows me somewhat well or follows me on various forms of social media knows that I prop up and defend Clifford
on a regular basis which might come off as silly or disingenuous. But let me be clear that there’s no ironic “it’s so bad it’s good“ bullshit fetishism over here (liking things ironically is destroying fandom & certain lanes of criticism because you can no longer tell if people genuinely
like things anymore).
doesn’t get the respect I believe it deserves so I only feel it’s right to try and even the playing field by being somewhat overly
protective of it...
What we have here is a suitable case for deep cinematic analysis. I'd love to hear a symposium of veteran producers, marketing guys and exhibitors discuss this film. It's not bad in any usual way. It's bad in a new way all its own. There is something extraterrestrial about it, as if it's based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe. The movie is so odd, it's almost worth seeing just because we'll never see anything like it again. I hope. - Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert (R.I.P.) wasn't completely wrong. He may not have realized it when he shared his thoughts on Clifford, but there’s an ultimate compliment embedded within his venomous review. He’s essentially saying there’s nothing like Clifford and I’m inclined to agree. That means something when a legendary critic/cinephile says that a film is pretty much unlike anything he‘s ever seen before (think about how many movies Roger Ebert had seen over the years). At the time of Clifford’s release these words didn’t help. Negative reviews have certainly helped a movie’s popularity but that wasn’t the case here. Clifford was a bomb. But almost three decades later you’re sitting in front of your laptop (or phone screen) reading the analysis that he was speaking of.
It makes sense that Clifford left most folks scratching their heads since it was essentially birthed from the minds of the Second City comedy troupe. Their brand of humor doesn’t always connect with everyone. Martin Short wasn’t the only sketch comedy/Second City alum behind this misunderstood gem. Clifford director Paul Flaherty (brother of Joe Flaherty) wrote for SCTV, The Tracey Ullman show and has an extensive history of working with Canadian comedy legends like Short (The Martin Short Show, Jiminy Glick, etc) & Second City legend John Candy (Who’s Harry Crumb). These are the minds we’re dealing with when it comes to the humor in Clifford.
One thing that made SCTV so unique is that they never tried to really compete against stuff like Saturday Night LIve. If SNL was doing a skit impersonating a famous recognizable celebrity, SCTV would pay homage to someone like Ingmar Bergman instead...
Some Second City skits weren’t even funny. They were just sometimes brilliant & oddly unique. Like I already said - Second City's humor doesn’t always click with everyone. Martin & Orloff , Neighbors
(1981) & Brain Candy
are just a few examples of Second City-based movies that bombed or fell flat upon their initial releases.
Now...Second City certainly has a nice share of successful brands (the Christopher Guest movies, Schitt’s Creek, etc). I don’t want to downplay their impact on the comedy world.
Unfortunately Clifford doesn’t get a place in the pantheon of successful sketch/improv comedy-based movies.
I’m cringing at the term I’m about to use but I am a fan of the style of comedy that some have labeled as “anti-comedy” or “alt-humor”. Stuff like Andy Kaufman, Tom Green, Tim & Eric, Eric Andre, etc. There are a million ways to define anti-comedy or alt-humor. If we tried to get to the root of the definition we’d never actually get to the movie of discussion so we’re not going to make this about that. But one common term/phrase that links/connects every possible definition of alt-humor is "deconstruction". Guys like Andy Kaufman, Tim Heidecker & Eric Andre are all about dissecting typical comedy tropes and exploring what really makes things funny. It's similar to abstract art or various forms of noise music or circuit bending. That’s essentially what Clifford is to me. It travels down the same lane as "traditional" movies & tv shows like Dennis The Menace or even Zazie Dans La Metro - the pairing of a wild untamed child (the comic relief) and the “straight man” (the co-star who usually catches the brunt of all the gags & mishaps).
The deconstruction aspect of Clifford is Martin Short (a grown man) playing the part of a little boy. In the film he's sent to stay with his uncle Martin (Charles Grodin) to give his parents a much-needed break.
There’s a lot to be explored about the relationships between uncles & nephews on film. It's a unique relationship in that Uncles & Aunts aren't exactly parents but they're still authority figures. They're just usually the "cooler" more lenient authority figures (in terms of traditionally functional family relationships). Clifford is definitely one of the more unique uncle/nephew stories in that they go from being awkward & unfamiliar with each other, to hating each other (which is an understatement if you've seen the movie), to eventually becoming friendly in the end.
Even if you haven’t read a review or watched a trailer for Clifford you still kind of know what to expect before going in. It’s an adult playing the part of a child. That's the (odd) selling point. So before you even start the movie you know you’re about to watch something absurd, overly silly, somewhat surreal & slightly detached from reality. It’s real easy (and cheap) to dunk on a movie with a 10% rotten tomatoes rating (like Clifford) when there are so many other “critically acclaimed” movies that deserve the same type of harsh criticism that Clifford got. Pop culture has given us everything from talking horses (Mr. Ed) to talking dogs (Family Guy) and we’ve accepted it. Is a grown man playing the part of a child (with the idea that the audience is “in the know”) that far removed from all the other odd-sounding storylines we’ve accepted on television and in film over the years? I certainly don’t think so. For 30+ years we’ve suspended disbelief and allowed ourselves to be entertained by a serial killer trapped inside of a child’s doll in the form of the Child’s Play franchise. I know those movies aren’t for everyone but they’ve been successful enough to spawn countless sequels. Child's Play is just as absurd & silly as Clifford when you really think about it.
Look at Saturday Night Live or The Kids In The Hall. We never questioned when adults like Mike Myers or Bruce Mcculloch played children. Clifford is no different. It’s essentially a long comedy sketch (Martin Short has an extensive background in sketch comedy as an alum of both SNL & Second City). I completely understand that the idea of a long-form sketch comedy movie isn’t for everyone but it’s worked before. Why didn’t it work for Clifford?
Perhaps people’s problem with Clifford
is the comedy and/or the overall execution. That’s understandable I guess. But at the same time, some of Martin Short's movements are a callback to folks like Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx and even Jean-Paul Bel Mondo...
|The Cook / Clifford|
|A Day At The Races /|
|Breathless / Clifford |
What’s also interesting about the execution of Clifford
is that director Paul Flaherty took things a step further by making Clifford/Martin Short the actual villain of the story. The tone of the film would have you believe that Uncle Martin’s evil boss (played wonderfully by Daphne Coleman) is the bad guy but it’s really Clifford. The character of Clifford transitions from a lovable funny precocious child to an evil saboteur. Throughout the film Clifford frames his uncle for ped0philia, sabotages his work and almost gets him killed. That's funny to me. The humor here is dark and somewhat fucked up. But it’s legitimately funny! It may not be funny to everyone
but I know lots of people who find the scenarios laid out in the movie to be funny.
Perhaps an understanding of silent films and old-timey humor could help one appreciate Clifford
a little better. I see a lot of the wacky physical comedy & goofy facial expressions in Clifford
as a callback to folks like the Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. Those guys are just as goofy and absurd as Martin Short.
I picked these specific moments from Clifford
(below) to highlight my point. I intentionally made them gifs instead of videos without audio to hammer home the idea that these facial expressions come right out of an old silent movie. Everyone in Clifford
acts "big". Almost like they're theater actors performing for the people in the back row instead of the folks in the front...
And Charles Grodin is no novice to these types of performances & facial expressions as he had the same energy in the Beethoven movies (which is interesting because the basic premise of Beethoven is very similar to Clifford)
certainly has it’s share of jokes that are somewhat corny & cheap (there’s no denying that). Some stuff is downright cringe-inducing. But - going back to the deconstruction element for a moment - those particular jokes are SO
corny and SO
over the top that it feels like the movie is aware of that and is almost taking things a step further by poking fun at that style of wacky goofball comedy. I could
be reading too much into things tho...
Movies like this usually go on to find a cult audience...
Poor box office, bad studio karma, critical excoriation...all the prerequisites for a cult hit. Which is indeed what Clifford has become - Martin Short
Now...with all due respect to Martin Short, I don't think he understands that a lot of people who claim to like Clifford do so ironically.
Today, anyone twenty-five year and under who approaches me in public only wants to talk about Clifford. Some of them tell me that when they and their friends get nostalgic for their early years of childhood, they get stoned and watch Clifford in their dorms - Martin Short
But who am I to tell Martin Short what he knows or doesn't know about his own movie? Perhaps I'm out of touch and unaware that there is a genuine cult of Clifford fans. It's just the idea of having to get stoned to watch it bugs me. Almost like you need to get high in order to laugh at/with it. I can attest that weed can make some things funnier, but Clifford is funny on it's own. It's twisted yet sweet sense of humor should be enough!.
Please understand the point of me writing this isn’t to change everyone's mind or to convert everyone in to liking this movie. I just think some people took the movie at face value and decided they were going to dislike the premise before actually watching it. We’re all guilty of doing that. But one of the many great things about film is that you can revisit something with a different frame of mind later in life. I urge some of you with an open mind to maybe take some of what I’ve said and go back and revisit Clifford. Or, for those of you that dismissed it from the jump and never gave it a chance in the first place - GIVE IT A CHANCE!