Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #31 Pizza Man (1991)
Welcome to the latest installment in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site-and-career sustaining column where I give YOU, the lovely Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. If you’ve pledged before, as the wonderful human being who suggested the little-loved 1991 Bill Maher vehicle Pizza Man did, the price goes down to seventy-five dollars. At that price, you can’t afford not to participate!
I actually wrote about Pizza Man for the A.V Club feature Films That Time Forgot back in the day, and I remember it running on a constant loop on the Comedy Channel back in the day. I was once again reminded of its curious and unfortunate existence when Bill Maher just to shit on the memory of Stan Lee and his fans in the aftermath of the Marvel maestro’s death, when it just begged to be revisited in a way designed to bring much-needed shame to the seemingly shameless provocateur and bigot who starred in it.
As Maher can attest, so much comes with being a stand-up comedian. It’s an art form onto itself, of course, but it’s also an essential component of so many other art forms as well, like sketch comedy, late night television, sitcoms and movies.
Stand-up comedians act because it’s a wonderful way to make money and increase their fanbase and earning potential. Sometimes they even do it because they feel like they have something important to say and a passionate need to express it through television or film.
It seems safe to assume that’s not the attitude Bill Maher brought to his early starring roles in the motion pictures Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death and Pizza Man, both of which were written and directed by Pretty Woman and Under Siege J.F Lawton under a pseudonym. Maher was not quite so lucky. Maher wasn’t able to hide behind a fake name. Nope he’s front and center in the action, narrating Pizza Man and sleepwalking through the proceedings wearing jeans, sneakers and a tomato-red hat and shirt with the name of his employer on it.
When Maher sneered derisively at the cult of Stan Lee and the culture-wide mourning that followed his epic life and death Pizza Man’s ghost was there to remind him and a forgetful public that Maher hasn’t always favored brainy, highbrow fare over silly genre entertainment for the masses.
Before Bill Maher anointed himself HBO’s resident snarky, condescending, self-satisfied house intellectual and political brain he did the kinds of things comedians generally do, one of which is star in movies and TV shows regardless of budget, audience or quality.
Pizza Man is at once a thorough embarrassment, a skeleton rattling around in Maher’s overstuffed closet and weirdly on-brand for the controversial comedian, television host and all-around jackass. The film’s thin premise, which would barely support the lesser Saturday Night Live or Groundlings sketch it often resembles, involves making a hardboiled detective movie spoof with a fatalistic pizza man with a code of honor taking the place of a gumshoe and bad impersonators of prominent political figures filling many, if not most of the supporting roles.
Maher stars here as Elmo Bunn, a hardboiled pizza man who has never quite been the same since his pal and coworker Donny went out to deliver a sausage and anchovies pizza sometime in the early 1970s and never came back. When Elmo receives an order for another sausage and anchovies pizza from the same neighborhood he knows that he’s in for a dramatic night. He just has no idea how clumsily melodramatic.
Playing a shamus in the skin and corny uniform of a pizza delivery man plays to Maher’s strengths as a performer. What is the traditional hardboiled detective if not the smartest and the most smartass person in the room, a macho lady’s man who is always one step ahead of everyone, particularly the bad guys?
There are moments throughout Pizza Man when you can imagine Maher taking an alternate route and starring in movies as a Chevy Chase/Dennis Miller-style sarcastic wisenheimer slinging one-liners and getting the girl. Maher isn’t necessarily “good” here but his snarky persona fits the requirements of the genre and the tough guy detective archetype.
Pizza Man first needs to introduce its rogue’s gallery of piss-poor celebrity impersonators by having our hero recognize them by calling out their name in a way that suggests that he is shocked, yes shocked to see them in such a kooky and incongruous context before some stilted exposition about who they are, what they did and why on earth we’re supposed to be amused by them, then or now.
The actor playing Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, for example, shows up toting a machine gun (which is most assuredly not how you expect to see a big shot politician!) clumsily word-vomits, “Though left leaning on a number of issues, I’ve always been a supporter of business” just in case you don’t, for some reason know that the African-American politician is a Democrat.
Pizza Man works the local angle so hard with its Tom Bradley-themed quips that it becomes the film equivalent of a nervous comedian so eager to win over the crowd that they begin with ten minutes of stand-up so relentlessly local that it’s incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t live within a ten mile radius of the club.
It’s not just that comedy this local and geographically narrow doesn’t lend itself to film. There’s a reason people tend not to make comedies about current politics: it’s because politics, and political humor, ages about as well as a Dancing Ito routine or Harlem Shake video. That’s true of the big names in Presidential politics but it’s even more true of the lesser, more quickly forgotten names in Vice Presidential and failed presidential and Vice Presidential campaigns.
It’s insane to me, re-watching this movie in 2018, that Pizza Man thought it was a good idea to make jokes about Michael Dukakis, Dan and Marilyn Quayle, Geraldine Ferraro, Michael Miliken and Tom Bradley. Then again, it was insane that Pizza Man mocked these characters in 1991. Sure, Quayle was still in office when the movie was made and released but that doesn’t make the abundance of Dan Quayle-themed humor to be found in Pizza Man any less painful or painfully, instantly dated.
The makers of Pizza Man understood, like no filmmakers before or since, that even though Michael Dukakis resoundingly lost the 1988 Presidential campaign he nevertheless mesmerized and bewitched the American public to the extent that jokes about him would never go out of fashion or lose favor with the public. Heck, most of the gags in last week’s Saturday Night Live were about the Massachusetts Liberal and his famously milquetoast demeanor. We will never forget Michael Dukakis or, Geraldine Ferraro for that matter.
When our pizza-slinging hero encounters Ronald Reagan and Geraldine Ferraro in bed together he of course yells out their names for their benefit, and ours, and his own, I suppose, before the Gipper attempts to explain away their affair, stumblingly volunteering, “Miss Ferraro and I were simply discussing the Republican party’s stand on the woman’s issue!”
That certainly makes a lot of sense and is convincing. But what exactly is the “woman’s issue?” Pie-baking? Soap opera hunks? Gossip? Universal Home Economics?
The film’s faux-Ferraro’s explanation is even more convincing. She tells Maher’s Pizza Man, “And I was emphasizing the feminist position on child care!”
That just trips off the tongue as the kind of thing a human being might say in this particular universe but it’s also ‘hep” and suggestive, even leering.
Which do you prefer as a euphemism for dirty sex, “Discussing the Republican party’s stand on the woman’s issue” or “emphasizing the feminist position on child care?” They’re both hot, and redolent of boinking, and, like all great turns of phrase, originated in a Bill Maher vehicle from the early 1990s.
Needless to say, a femme fatale played by Annabelle Gurwitch of Dinner & a Movie fame really wants to discuss the Republican’s party’s stand on the woman’s issue and emphasize the feminist position on child care with the mullet-sporting delivery man. At a club they bust out moves that go beyond the raw, uninhibited sensuality of the Lambada, the “Forbidden Dance” in a dance number that’ll have you saying, “Yep, that’s a Bill Maher dancing. Huh.”
Bill Maher used to dance! He used to love! He used to feel emotions beyond smug disdain for the common folk and the ignorant superstitions of the faithful. He used to pretend to beat up a woman pretending to be Second Lady Marilyn Quayle!
What happened, Bill? When did you lose your smile and what do we need to do to bring it back and turn that frown upside down? What do we, as your adoring public, need to do to make you smile again? Have you thought about reading comic books? Some people think they’re just for kids but they’re actually a lot of fun, even for grown-ups.
What happened to the young man who, when presented with the screenplays for Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death and Pizza Man smiled like a kid who just found a shiny new bicycle under the Christmas tree and said, “YES! I want to go on a journey with these characters and take the audience with me. I want to use my craft to breathe life into these beautiful, beautiful stories” and then treated a group of orphans to ice creams sundaes?
In its own idiotic, Spitting Image but for grown-ups way, Pizza Man is self-satisfied and full of itself, a self-consciously “smart” and “political” romp that aspires to the shadowy menace and moral complexity of Film Noir but just ends up feeling badly lit and shot with a clumsiness that suggests Troma and not in a good way.
For all of the evildoing he uncovers, Elmo really just wants to get the fifteen dollars and twenty three cents he’s owed in a running gag that sounds a lot funnier and more inspired than it actually is. Pizza Man is a mildly amusing eight minute Youtube video sadistically stretched to 86 endless minutes, a cheapo political burlesque that prominently features Bill Maher beating up women, Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man style, and ultimately facing off against the big man behind all of the ugliness, a businessman and best-selling author we’ve come to know and despise with an intensity and fury that sometimes terrifies us named Donald Trump, AKA the “Donny” from the start of the film.
It’s a testament to what a sour, endless misfire Pizza Man represents that a climax that pits Bill Maher against a power-mad and deeply evil Donald Trump motivated by past grudges and a ferocious hunger to avoid paying people what he rightfully owes them has gained absolutely no additional resonance from, you know, the Big Boss at the end of this dumb-smart movie also being the Big Boss of the contemporary political and pop culture landscape.
Life did end up imitating art when the real Donald Trump ended up selling pizzas the indirect way by starring alongside Ivana in a commercial for Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust pizza in the 1990s.
And, the world being even stupider than the motion picture Pizza Man, Trump imitated the celebrity impersonation-based detective spoof his public persona factors very prominently in a second time when he starred in a Pizza Hut commercial again in 2005. Yes, you can’t make this shit up, even if you clumsily try to exaggerate the craziness and desperation of our political leaders to comic extremes as hard or as badly as this movie does, or if you’re as big a self-satisfied hack and blowhard as Bill Maher.
Somewhere up in heaven Stan Lee is laughing at Bill Maher and his hypocrisy and pretensions, and not the way Real Time host wants to be laughed at.
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