There wasn't much funny about life in the U.S., circa 1980: a nasty recession, the Jimmy Carter-led Moscow Olympics boycott, a divisive presidential campaign, the Iran hostage crisis and the murder of John Lennon didn't exactly make for big laughs.
But recent days have yielded a spate of comedy anchored in a sometimes-bleak period that's become retro fodder for some satisfying – if decidedly silly – humor. From Adam Scott and Paul Rudd’s awesome "Bosom Buddies" tribute video last week to IFC’s "The Spoils of Babylon" to "Anchorman," some comedy makers are taking a time-warp detour.
Scott was in diapers and Rudd was in grade school when the cross-dressing sitcom “Bosom Buddies” debuted in late 1980, giving Tom Hanks his first major exposure. The level of detail in Scott and Rudd’s shot-for-shot recreation of the show’s opening sequence is astounding – no more so than in the overflowing pile of crumbled balls of paper accumulated by would-be writer Henry, originally played by Peter Scolari and filled in for by Scott.
The video debuted last week on Adult Swim’s “The Greatest Event in Television History,” Scott’s forum for paying similar obsessive homage to other shows from the period, including, “Too Close for Comfort,” “Simon & Simon,” and “Hart to Hart.”
The “Bosom Buddies” salute followed the debut on YouTube this month of an oddly appropriate mash-up of the theme from the sitcom “Benson,” which debuted in 1979, with scenes from “Mad Men,” a far more serious show with a different kind of yesteryear appeal (hat tip to The Huffington Post).
We’ve been enjoying both videos, along with “The Spoils of Babylon,” the campy takeoff on late 1970s big network TV mini-series like “Rich Man, Poor Man.” Among the producers is Will Ferrell – who deserves most of the credit (or blame) for the 1980-set comedy mini-boom.
In “Spoils,” Ferrell serves as a post-genius Orson Welles-like narrator – basically a pompous, wine-swilling glutton. Ferrell helped summon the circa-1980 humor zeitgeist nearly decade ago with the first “Anchorman” flick, a goofy comedy that slowly crept into the collective pop-culture psyche with the subtlety of a Ron Burgundy jazz flute solo. His recent weeks-long, in-character promotional campaign for “Anchorman 2,” helped the movie gross about $125 million since mid-December.
Some of us – who, like 46-year-old Ferrell, were impressionable adolescents in the age of the real Ron Burgundys – get the references amid childhood flashbacks. But as he proved with the “Anchorman” movies, you didn’t have to live through those years to appreciate the jokes. The twisted nostalgia for the era extends to “American Hustle,” which, like the similarly serious-meets-breezy “Argo,” takes an at-times sardonic look back at events some 35 years past.
So why does this period inspire funny folks and possess a seemingly growing hold on audiences? Though it’s not cited as frequently as the turbulent 1960s, 1980, at least in retrospect, represents a turning point of sorts. The U.S. edged into the transformative Reagan years. AIDS was soon to surface as the scourge of the decade and well beyond. The spread of cable TV brought MTV and CNN, sparking a communications revolution that, in the current Internet age, seems almost quaint.
Or maybe it’s just that porn star mustaches and big hair are inherently funny.
Whatever the reason, we’re glad to see some latter-day humor come out some tough years. As the team behind “America Hustle” waits to see whether it can muster some “Argo”-like Oscar magic and we brace for next week’s final installment of “The Spoils of Babylon,” check out the “Bosom Buddies” and “Benson” spoof videos below. Please note the video below contains strong language and expletives:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.