Is it perhaps a bad portent that I’m about to kick off my entry in Grumpire’s “Gen-X Essentials” series by quibbling over semantics? No matter. I’ve never let those stop me before. And in this case, there’s no way around talking about what “essential” means in this context. Because for many, both in and outside the generational cohort marked by the big scary letter, the 1985 teen comedy Better Off Dead was decidedly non-essential. It didn’t make a lot at the box office. It didn’t get great reviews. Leading lad Jon Cusack famously hated how it turned out. And writer/director “Savage” Steve Holland didn’t go on to have the most illustrious of careers.
So what do I mean when I call Better Off Dead…essential? Well, it stands out from the crowd, for one thing. The ’80s were, by almost any measure, the golden age of the teen comedy, and kids of Generation X grew up with plenty of movies aimed at capturing their experience on celluloid, perhaps more than any generation had before. If you were a kid in the ’80s, you could choose between seeing your age group depicted as a parade of warm-hearted goofs as in the Meatballs series, as a down-to-earth docudrama like Fast Times At Ridgemont High or the Brat Pack films, or as a series of absurd sexual misadventures a la Weird Science or the Porky’s series. It’s no mean feat to distinguish yourself in such a crowded market, but Better Off Dead managed to do it.
The protagonist of Better Off Dead is Lane Meyer, hapless, gormless, and, ten minutes into the movie, hopeless. He has a busy life with a full slate of hobbies: cartooning, playing the saxophone, fixing up an old rust-bucket Camaro so he can finally win a street race, the school ski team – but none more all-consuming than his beautiful but cold girlfriend Jenny, with whom he is obsessed to a worrying degree. After being cut from the ski team by his asshole captain Roy Stalin, Lane is further humiliated by Jenny breaking things off with him to be with Roy instead. He decides the only course of action is to end it all, but this losing streak is so strong it intervenes in his every suicide attempt. Stubbornly alive, Lane has no choice but to try to win Jenny back by beating Roy Stalin in a race down the K12, the deadliest peak in town.
On paper, it sounds like any number of movies before or since. Even the naughtiness inherent in a comedy about teen suicidality isn’t exactly unique in this era (see: Heathers). What it lacked in raunch, sweetness, or emotional honesty, it made up for in vibes. Seen from the rearview mirror, Better Off Dead, perhaps better than any of its contemporaries, captured the feel of Generation X. By choice or by chance, the movie found itself on the fault lines of a pop-cultural vibe shift still in its early stages. To define “essential” more broadly, it contains Generation X. It has the essence of Gen-X in it. Its specific style of humor is uniquely reflective of both the direction that comedy would take in the years to follow and the broader sociopolitics that would come to characterize Gen-X.
So, since I’m arguing that Better Off Dead’s comedic approach is essentially Gen-X (there’s that word again!) what do I mean by that? What are some characteristics of Gen–X humor?
It was hyper-mediated. It’s hard for us in the internet era to imagine just how much of the cultural life of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s was mediated by television – and I do mean television as in that stuff that television studios produce. Gen-X grew up in the glowing flicker of a cathode ray tube. They were the “latchkey kids” babysat by television while their newly-liberated moms were at work. They came of age in the era of reruns, the proliferation of cable channels, and the rise of home video. They had reruns. They had old movies. What they lacked, from a modern perspective (certainly not from theirs) was agency over the flow of material being piped into their eyeballs. Without streaming, Gen-X was locked into the tyranny of the broadcast schedule and the local video store’s inventory; without the guiding hand of an algorithm, or internet-enabled access to worldwide fan communities, they had more trouble deciding what to watch. So the viewing habits of the Gen X-er were a lot more catholic than we millennials and Zers are used to. Most often, the things they watched, they watched just because it was on TV.
Better Off Dead is clearly the product of minds steeped in the type of stuff that your average Gen-Xer would’ve seen a lot of growing up: domestic sitcoms, teen docudramas, and farcical sex comedies. The visual ensemble of the movie drips with nostalgia. Lane’s mother dresses and acts like the well-meaning if dippy mother in a hundred ’50s and ’60s sitcoms. Lane’s house looks like it jumped right out of The Brady Bunch. Lane’s school has an oddly dated and soundstage-y look to it that recalls not only the classic depiction of high school in the Boomer era but also the nostalgic recreations thereof in ’70s properties like Happy Days, Grease, and American Graffiti.
A lot of these cultural allusions are in a similar vein – they’ve already reached the ’80s several times over. Such was the nature of a lot of the visual culture of Gen-X. Smarter minds than mine have written about how these successive waves of re-appropriation are the result of the widening divorce between reality and its depictions. What is most germane here is the paradoxical fascination that Gen-X had with the depiction of whitebread suburban life of the generation that came before it. They knew it wasn’t real, but they were obsessed with it in itself. Partially because it was all they knew. Partially because they felt savvy at being able to spot its fakeness. Partially because part of them envied Boomers’ privilege of interpreting the TV in such a surface-level way. And partially because they thought it was so darn funny. Regardless of their motivations, an ironic fascination with the suburban Americana of the midcentury came to be a defining feature of Gen-X media: TV shows (The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, Get a Life, Strangers With Candy) movies (The Truman Show, Pleasantville, much of the ’80s and ’90s work of David Lynch and John Waters), and too many music videos to name (Weezer’s video for “Buddy Holly” comes prominently to mind).
It was absurd. Not only the look, but also the content of Better Off Dead is rooted firmly in the tropes of a million teen comedies that came before it. It has all the character archetypes down pat: the lovesick teen, the doting but ditzy mother, the overbearing stick-up-his-ass father, the precocious kid sibling, the asshole jock, the sexually liberated foreign exchange student, the wasteoid sidekick, the hapless fat nerd. The movie trots all these out for a laugh, but the focus of its satire is diffused. Rather than “subvert” these tropes, as millennial comedy is wont to do, Better Off Dead breaks them. They find each trope on the mixing board and push the slider up until it clips. In this cracked-out family, our relatable teen protag pours cat food into a bowl and eats it like cereal, wears his socks in the shower, and dries them off with the hair dryer afterwards. His mother neurotically experiments with recipes that turn into blue glop and scurry off the plate. His father is locked in a deadly struggle with a sociopathic paperboy determined to break every window in his house. The younger brother never talks, builds deadly weapons, and picks up several “trashy women” for a New Year’s Eve party under his parents’ nose after reading a how-to book whose title promises exactly that. The local wasteoid is so hard up for drugs in this sleepy village that he’s reduced to snorting Jell-O and snow for whatever buzz that gets you. And the beautiful French exchange student improbably obsessed with Lane is equally improbably an expert mechanic, and has a mean pitching arm on her to boot (though supposedly obsessed with baseball, she believes the Brooklyn Dodgers still exist).
The world of Better Off Dead operates on an anarchic sense of cartoon logic (cartoons being a medium that would become increasingly popular among Gen-X, and which comprise several memorable segments of Better Off Dead itself). This kind of absurdism is another feature of the postmodern environment in which it arose. In an age increasingly mediated, increasingly unreal, or hyperreal, there is ample room for satire and parody to operate (which, to be clear, it does a lot in Better Off Dead) but the power of parody is reduced in the face of all this fracturing media landscape eroding the cultural and linguistic norms that have to be there in order to have something to mock. As I mentioned before, this is second- or even third-hand parody. They’re making fun of stuff that was already making fun of other stuff. The essential activity of satire is exaggeration, but what happens when what you’re making fun of is already exaggerated? The only thing you can do is shoot for the moon. The only meaningful statement left to make is one of pure nonsense.
And Gen-X loved the strange stuff. Comedy was in a weird place in this era. The prevailing comedic sensibility this attitude produced tended to the bizarre, the self-deprecating, and the mordant. Gen-X-ers liked stand-up comedians like Mitch Hedberg, Norm MacDonald, and Neil Hamburger, who experimented with odd, offhand wordplay, bizarre anti-jokes, and rambling stories that only occasionally flirted with a punchline. They liked stream-of-consciousness sketch comedies like Mr. Show, The State, and Kids In The Hall. They liked the jokeless cringe comedy of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, and The Larry Sanders Show. This sort of envelope-pushing humor was born out of widespread dissatisfaction with traditional comedy premises, traditional joke structures, and traditional comedy voices. Another consequence of hyper mediation: all these comedy devices were tired, having been iterated earnestly a thousand times and in many cases again as parody. It had simply all been done. There was nothing left to say with them. These humorists assumed you, the viewer, had seen all the same comedy they had, and were just as bored by it as they were. It focused not so much on what was being joked about, but on how we were joking about it. It played off the viewer’s familiarity with how comedy is supposed to go. And it veered off into gonzo, surreal gags because it was felt that was the only way to effectively satirize satire itself.
It was chaotic and lightning–quick. Better Off Dead is a work of pastiche already – interpreting the teen comedy through the gag-a-minute lens of the Airplane! movies (whose creators would parlay it into great success with the Naked Gun series a decade later, and spawn countless imitators). It is replete with blink-and-you’ll-miss-em sight gags, often in the background, often not even really gags but just deeply strange images thrown in for the hell of it – a threat to the students written on the chalkboard, a squirming tentacle emerging from Mom’s cooking pot, a student standing in line for lunch with knife and fork already in his balled-up fists. Additionally, some of its funniest lines are complete non-sequiturs delivered in such a quick and blasé manner that you scratch your head and wonder whether he really said “I’m gonna activate your denim!” Where Airplane! et al. drew your attention to its jokes, Better Off Dead almost wanted them to squeak by your notice.
This was in keeping with the media environment of Generation X. It was an age when the pace of TV was increasing in order to grab the attention of those flipping around their 57 channels. At times, Better Off Dead seems to be catering to the decreasing attention spans of its audience, with its rapid-fire gags, chopped-clean editing, wildly oscillating tone, and willingness to introduce and drop characters and plotlines without warning. At other times, it seems to bait viewers into further interaction using the newly widespread home video technologies. A lot of these jokes wouldn’t be for much were it not for the ability to rewind and catch what you missed, or watch the movie again and pay attention to what slipped past on the last viewing. And a lot of Better Off Dead‘s splashier setpieces were very reminiscent of music videos, one medium that Gen-X inarguably perfected.
It was dark. As hinted at in the title, Lane of Better Off Dead spends the bulk of what little there is of his character arc in a state of suicidal depression after his girlfriend coldly dumps him, and he in fact attempts suicide several times. His luck being how it is, this is more than Lane can accomplish, which only adds to his frustrations: he drives the car through the garage door while trying to asphyxiate himself, he falls into an open garbage truck while trying to jump off a bridge, and the jar of primer which he means to immolate himself with is stolen out of his hands and mistaken for liqueur by the thirsty next-door neighbor (who burns her GI tract after lighting a post-drink cigarette). Though the movie’s confused tone makes it hard to interpret as such, we get the definite sense that Lane’s mental state is perhaps not the steadiest – we’re treated to several animated segments that are the product of his stressed-out mind. In keeping with the reducto-ad-absurdium approach Better Off Dead takes with its tropes, the plucky downtroddenness of your normal teen movie protagonist is overdriven to extremes. No one seems to care all that much about Lane. His suicide attempts are met with blasé unconcern by his best friend, and his family doesn’t even notice.
Above all, Better Off Dead distinguishes itself from other teen movies by its near-total cynicism. The movie keeps itself at a studious distance from anything that could be seen as an emotional core. There is no moral to the story and nobody learns anything. All the beats in Lane’s character arc are either complete accidents or accomplished for him. His French paramour fixes up his car. He only wins the ski race because he’s being chased by his sadistic paperboy. The climactic showdown in which he wins the girl’s love is enacted not against the snobby ski captain, but against the pudgy nerd who’s never been a real rival to him. The sunny hugging-and-learning moments from other teen comedies of the time are played off for ironic mockery.
That kind of humor would famously catch on with the famously disaffected Gen-X, a generation that was highly suspicious of any kind of emotional earnestness. They’d seen the sunny sentiments of the ’60s fail to stop deindustrialization, crack, AIDS, and Starship. Real wages were decreasing. The ozone layer was widening. All the counterculture heroes of the previous generation were 45-year-old zillionaires who sold soft drinks. Gen-X wasn’t willing to make an emotional investment that they knew would just be repackaged and sold back to them as harmless novelty. The only way they could win was not to care. Better Off Dead prefigured shows like The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, and Titus in making light of the dysfunctional family whose members emerge through horrifying domestic ordeals without emerging one bit the wiser.
If we were operating off more conventional definitions of the word “essential,” I’d be rounding out this piece by concluding that Better Off Dead is a Velvet-Underground style unappreciated-in-its-own-time-but-hugely-influential movie which sneakily injected its DNA into the pop culture gene pool. It’s often lumped into the cult film category, and it did go on to garner a home video viewership of respectable but not overwhelming size – however, one implied corollary of the label “cult film” is that it grew to influence other films later, and there’s just not a good argument that Better Off Dead did that. It had many fans, but few imitators. Its seeming prescience, the fact that it’s the first movie that really feels like we came to expect Gen-X-era movies to feel, seems to have been a pure happy accident. Its anarchic, wildly inventive student-film vibes just happened to prefigure the next decade like that proverbial monkey that wrote Hamlet. It struck big by goofing off. What’s more essentially Gen-X than that? ★