Issued in droves every year for the past 25 years, teen comedies are like new cars, perennially issued with the latest gadgets and gizmos to allure the consumer’s eye. Each promises the latest in teenage angst, romantic longing, social shame, and sexual desperation, along with camaraderie, bonding, and sexual hijinks. Inevitably, one teenage film resembles another in its generalities; the difference between the plots of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Mean Girls is not much difference at all. It is in the particularities — their efforts to bottle the essence of now — that the best of the teen comedies emerge from the pack. Saul Austerlitz, author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy” provides our readers with his personal take on the greatest teen comedies of the past three decades.
In honor of the latest entry to the teen-comedy genre, Easy A, which transforms The Scarlet Letter into the stuff of adolescent shame, here are the eight exemplars of the form since 1980. These films paint a portrait of the changing face of the teen comedy over the past 30 years, pushing ever-deeper into raunch while remaining much the same at heart.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
The boys of American Graffiti, George Lucas’ landmark 1973 teen comedy, may have been sex-starved, but it would have been difficult for them to picture their female successors in Fast Times at Ridgemont High practicing fellatio on carrots in the school lunch room.
Ridgemont’s adolescents are consumed by sex: worrying over it, finding it, having it, dealing with it. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High is more than just another raunchy teen film; it is a surprisingly delicate exploration of what it really feels like to be young, stupid, and horny. And in Jeff Spicoli, the blond-haired surfer played by Sean Penn, for whom every clock always reads 4:20, the film creates the stereotypical California beach bum, his every entrance further evidence of his dim-witted exuberance.
Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989)
Let’s play a little thought game, OK? Picture a contemporary movie about high school in which the prom queen chugs Drano, the stars of the football team die in a purported gay suicide pact, students make a habit of killing their classmates, suicide becomes the latest teen rage, and the school faces complete obliteration at the hands of an evil teenage mastermind, who blows himself up when his plot fails. Couldn’t ever be made, right? The screenwriter would be held for questioning at Gitmo before he had finished typing out the first scene.
Funny thing is — this film’s already been made, all the way back in 1989. They called it Heathers, and it remains the blackest black comedy ever made about high school. Heathers savages a world where cool rules; where teenage girls dressed like thirty-year-old divorced realtors set the rules for everyone below them; where children act like adults, and adults are little better than children — cranky, foolish, and easily distracted.
Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Heathers sought to predict the future, and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused reconfigured the past as a wonderfully mellow, motor-mouthed nostalgia trip. A retro teen comedy in the vein of American Graffiti (a 1990s director fondly remembering his knockabout 1970s youth), Dazed is an all-night bacchanalia on the very first night of summer 1976. No lives are permanently changed, no earth-shattering romances conceived.
Dazed and Confused is a mix tape of Linklater’s favorite hard-rock jams of the mid-1970s: Aerosmith, Foghat, Alice Cooper. These songs become the expression of hormonally charged youth, in all its agony and ecstasy. Dazed and Confused is a paean to youth as remembered in adulthood; its fondly traced remembrances are marked with the knowledge that the freedom of youth is irrevocably fleeting.
Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)
What could be further removed from comedy’s 1930s drawing-room heyday than high school? Sex-starved adolescents and their romantic angst hardly provide the raw material for a Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn film. And yet, director Amy Heckerling puts her idiosyncratic stamp on the ’90s comedy by retaining a certain ideal of suave, acerbic wisecracking lifted directly from the likes of Bringing Up Baby. Stars Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd dazzle each other with their wit as they trade carefully crafted insults. Heckerling is updating Austen’s Emma, but the results are closer to a mid-90’s Beverly Hills version of Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, where men and women express their secret love by slinging mud.
Can’t Hardly Wait (Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan, 1998)
For Can’t Hardly Wait, whose characters are plucked out of the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Teen Comedies, the point is in the profusion of perspectives: the garage band composed of mismatched parts; the party host who runs around in a state of ever-mounting hysteria over the state of her parents’ home; the science geeks who spend the night of the party on an adjacent rooftop, speculating about “UFO superhighways”; the villain’s sidekicks, who pay obeisance to his command to ditch their girlfriends, but find it difficult to resist their nubile bodies and all-too-attractive blandishments. Like the work of Preston Sturges, Can’t Hardly Wait lets its leading men and women function as straight men to a raucous supporting crew of walk- on performers.
American Pie (Chris & Paul Weitz, 1999)
What do guys do when no one is watching? Based on American Pie, they seem to mostly be interested in getting freaky with Mom’s freshly baked pies. And what do they talk about when there are no girls around? Sex again. Like infants who have discovered a new toy, or cats with their ball of yarn, these teenage boys are interested in little else. The combination of large quantities of bravado and meager amounts of experience is ideal for American Pie, which thrives on humiliating its characters. And humiliation is the one item on the menu that never runs out. Sexuality is a minefield — a booby-trapped no man’s land with unimaginable pleasures at the other end. These soldiers never seem to make it all the way to the other side; instead, they spend the bulk of the movie exploding in shame.
Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004)
Lindsay Lohan is a walking punchline now, to such an extent that it’s become easy to forget she starred in this wonderfully mouthy comedy, written by 30 Rock’s Tina Fey. The Heathers have become Mean Girls’ Plastics, defined by the rules they explicitly set for themselves (“On Wednesdays we wear pink”), and by their unquestioned rule over the slobbering masses of their high school. Mean Girls has a superb array of supporting players, including Lizzy Caplan’s sour teenage rebel and Tim Meadows’ harried principal, but it is Lohan — sunny and inviting here, if nowhere else — that gives this surprising movie its heart.
Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
At its best, Superbad is a reminder of why the rewind button was invented. Taking a page out of the screwball comedy, Superbad is a dazzling display of virtuosic talk, piled up in such profusion that one gem is no sooner unfurled than the next is exposed. Superbad lavishes the bulk of its affection on the tender bromance between stars Michael Cera and Jonah Hill. The pair lovingly bicker, break up, get back together, and have a fond night of amour before heading their separate ways. The film’s last scene is played like the final scene of Brief Encounter, with Seth and Evan renouncing each other eternally. The rest of producer Judd Apatow’s work, with its endless guy love, was a rejoinder to that very possibility, but the surprising bittersweetness of its conclusion gave Superbad a heft that it might otherwise have lacked.
© 2010 Saul Austerlitz, author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy
Saul Austerlitz’s work has been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Slate, and other publications. He is the author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes and Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.