Comedy sequels: best, worst, weird

With the release of “Grown Ups 2” this weekend (review here), Adam Sandler enters rare territory: this is the first-ever sequel for quite possibly the most bankable comedic personality of his generation. Other actors would have found a way to continue the saga of “The Waterboy” or allowed a triumphant return for “Happy Gilmore,” but Sandler, until recently, has built his career on savvy choices and (debatably) original characters and stories.

Of course, maybe Sandler realized the real truth: the history of comedy sequels is pretty disappointing, and in some cases horrifying. Everyone wants the band to get back together after a successful first film. But unlike in action, sci-fi or standard dramas, you can watch a comedy sequel and understand that the only reason anyone returned was for the cash. Comedies rely on their power to surprise, with audiences laughing at the unexpected but the idea of a comedy sequel is practically an announcement that “You Will Laugh!” Not exactly a charming recipe for entertainment.

At The Playlist, we wanted to compile a list of strong comedy follow-ups, limiting it to part II’s. But the pickings were so slim, and the number of outwardly terrible comedy sequels was so intimidating, that we decided to balance it out. On another level, there were a series of comedy sequels that just seemed strange, with no real purpose to exist, that were terrible in all new ways, or used the story of the first film as a Trojan horse to take audiences to a bizarre, totally surprising different place. There’s the sense that Hollywood still hasn’t solved the “formula” of a comedy sequel, but perhaps it’s for the best: sometimes you need a “Zapped Again!” to appreciate the good stuff.

Here are five good ones, with good in some cases being a generous term...

A Shot In The Dark
“A Shot In The Dark”
The “Pink Panther” series has undergone several permutations, but few know that “A Shot In The Dark,” the second film in the series following “The Pink Panther,” was never intended to feature the audience favorite Inspector Clouseau. The first film was actually designed around David Niven’s cunning thief, who attempted to steal the Pink Panther diamond that guided the plot. However, Peter Sellers’ bumbling inspector won favor so strongly with director Blake Edwards that he and William Peter Blatty re-wrote the stage play “L’Idiote” to accommodate him, placing Clouseau in the middle of a murder mystery where he was the main character. “A Shot In The Dark” helped set the table for all the elements of the “Pink Panther” series we know today, including his violent man-servant Kato and the near-homicidally angry boss, Commissioner Dreyfus. While Sellers was more of a straight man to Niven’s antics in the first film, he is front and center in this sequel, and Sellers’ is less hammy (as Steve Martin was in the latter-day “The Pink Panther”) and less imbecilic (as Roberto Benigni is in “Son Of The Pink Panther”) than he is endlessly distracted, a man lost in his own head. Like all great Sellers performances, it’s distinctly him, but you can also see shades of Chauncey Gardener in “Being There” in Sellers’ Clouseau, who would inevitably become a bit broader over a series of sequels.

Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey
“Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey”Even fans of “Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure” would have to admit that Stephen Herek’s surprise hit comedy felt like more of a fluke. The charm of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as the brain-dead teenage duo who just wanted to “party on” carried that film a long way, buttressing the wackiness of a ludicrous time travel plot with a dollop of lunkheaded sweetness. Finding an excuse to get the pair back into the phone booth would have just seemed strained, but somehow, Peter Hewitt’s gonzo follow-up manages to maintain the charm of the first effort while going even weirder. The set-up is fairly flimsy, involving a villain from the future returning to the past to kill the duo before their rock saves the universe. It’s after Bill and Ted are actually killed when the film begins to showcase it’s naughty wit, allowing for an extended riff on “The Seventh Seal.” Instead of chess, Bill and Ted clash with an evil Death (William Sadler) in a series of board game matches that represent only a portion of their underworld journey back to the land of the living. While the original film benefitted from moving the spotlight away from Winter and Reeves to emphasize a cast of various time travelers, here the emphasis is on the chemistry of Reeves and Winter, and while it doesn’t necessarily prove a case study of why these two were preferable to analog matches like Beavis and Butthead and Wayne and Garth, it still charms and entertains in equal doses.

“Hot Shots! Part Deux”
“Hot Shots! Part Deux”
Most of the success of comedy sequels comes from a preference of gags over characters, so it’s no surprise that “Hot Shots! Part Deux” seems entirely divorced from the continuity of the first picture. While the first film was a nearly note-perfect mockery of “Top Gun” and macho eighties romances, the sequel uses the Gulf War as a jumping off point for a goof on the excessive, oiled-up Cannon-era fodder produced by superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris. Following the events of the first film, pilot Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen) has retired to a monastery, which has not prevented him from developing a brutish action figure physique. This tips the audience off with the sly acknowledgement that these films pay insincere tribute to the idea of living in peace when the audience is there to see bloodshed, and that’s further emphasized by the amusing casting of “First Blood” star Richard Crenna as a kidnapped general. The best moments of 'Part Deux,' which can be argued as superior to the original, bring back the spirit of “Airplane!” coming from that film’s co-director Jim Abrahams. With a savvy topicality that today reminds us of the dubiousness of the early nineties Middle East conflict, it’s a sequel that never fears going silly enough to provide an action sequence with a running death toll, marking “Robocop” and “Rambo II” as benchmarks to pass in order to reach a certain violent legitimacy. Probably the very last gasp of the “Airplane!” gang, though the legacy they left was considerable.

OSS 117: Lost In Rio
“OSS 117: Lost In Rio”Before there was “The Artist” there was OSS 117,” a two-film series that teamed Oscar winners Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin. But even before there were these two films, there were a series of films in the '50s and '60s based upon novels by Jean Bruce. Considered to be a character similar to James Bond, the hero of Bruce’s 88 (!) “OSS 117” novels was a dashing, heroic French secret agent. But Hazanavicius and Dujardin opted to take the character on a different path, using “OSS 117” as a brand to explore an era-appropriate spy spoof that puts “Austin Powers” to shame. Looking like a young, dashing Sean Connery in a suit, Dujardin is a dim dreamboat who, fires first, and asks questions later, usually of a racist or sexist nature. The two films don’t lean on stereotypes as much as they explore certain biases held yesterday and today within this genre of films and of the spy genre’s own enabling of xenophobia and paternalism. The second film, which is slightly sillier and funnier than the earlier effort (though both are breezy summer viewing), involves OSS 117 battling his own hatred of Arab customs by teaming with the Mossad to bust an escaped Nazi scientist hiding out in 1950s Rio. Hazanavicius’ period details are immaculate, and Dujardin’s smiling, oblivious charm epitomize moviestar mystique even as he’s playing an idiot blowhard. 

Back To The Future Part II
“Back To The Future Part II”
No, the magic of the original picture can’t be replicated. But in shooting two back-to-back sequels to a landmark in eighties pop cinema, director Robert Zemeckis was really pushing the limits of what we knew to be the ingredients to a successful follow-up. While the first film balanced slapstick action with rose-colored nostalgia, the direct follow-up takes us into the distant future, where Marty must save his family line from intertwining with the villainous plots of the Biff Tannen family, his contemporary bully turned elderly suburban antagonist. The future sequences are carried by loads of smaller, more abstract gags (some of which are no longer funny due to their modern day accuracy), but the picture really takes off when it folds in on itself, and Marty lands back in 1955. In a gamble not seen before, Marty finds himself interacting with the events of the first film, almost as if he’s climbed back inside the narrative of the previous movie, all while trying to avoid his time-traveling counterpart. The picture doesn’t have the laughs of its predecessor (in fact, the laughs mostly take a backseat to the effects), but Zemeckis still keeps the pace whizzing by, creating a unique science fiction adventure that keeps commenting upon itself as the narrative spins into new, improbable directions.

HONORABLE MENTION:Going back into history, “Father’s Little Dividend” finds Spencer Tracy adding an extra gear to his exasperated dad act in “Father Of The Bride,” one that Steve Martin couldn’t find in the remake and its own sequel. “Addams Family Values” certainly has its fans, going darker and weirder than the first picture. One could argue “Jackass Number Two” outdoes the first film, though “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” suffers when compared to its own follow-up, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” While it’s not a patch on the original, there are a lot of laughs in “The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell Of Fear” to match some of the best of the Zucker-Abrahams body of work, while “In Like Flint” did the goofy swinging superspy thing decades before “Austin Powers.” And while we purposely excluded children’s films from the list, we’d be remiss in not mentioning the strange, wonderful “Babe: Pig In The City” being an unforgettably strange and sweet detour from the first movie.