Trailer Park Boys in the Tradition of the Comedic Criminal
This is the tradition of Robin Hood, who first appeared (in rhyme) in 1377 C.E. He remained a popular figure in Scottish lore, appearing in ballads and in plays (many lost to time).
But it took over a century of adventuring for Robin Hood to begin his most famous practice, his saving grace; stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
It was in Elizabethan England’s 1600s that Robin became a noble thief, returning Norman plunder to the good English people of British sovereign Sir Richard the Lionheart, then abroad on crusade. Around this time Robin also took on the moniker Sir Robin.
Robin made his first appearance in published print in 1838 and remained popular through more serialized adventures, where Maid Marian entered the legend. More English novels followed. Howard Pyle’s 1883 The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire, is considered a classic children’s book.
Robin remained the star of page and stage until he became the screen hero we imagine today. The first Robin Hood short was released in 1908. Five more had been produced by 1914. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. virtually owned the character with his 1922 hit Robin Hood until the classic 1938 Warner Brothers film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn. Flynn was so effective and beloved as Robin that later productions presented The Son of Robin Hood or other related characters instead of recasting to replace Flynn.
None of this indicates a comic tradition. Robin Hood is an adventure character, not a comedic character, his vehicles are not considered comedies.
But when you look at the tradition of the comedic criminal, time and again you see a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. This is because everything about the Robin Hood stories works in the comedic world: A likable but imperfect fellow who thwarts a corrupted power system; an antiestablishment rebel who is a criminal by virtue of his stance against the corrupt system, not because of any innate evil or personality flaw; a rascal who delights in overturning the status quo of the rich and beautiful, happily doling out justice on behalf of the common man or woman who, without him, would have no way to overcome.
As we will see, comedic stories about criminals are Robin Hood stories virtually without exception.
But let’s not be so fast to cast Robin Hood off as a character without vast comedic possibilities. Daffy Duck played Robin to superb comic effect; portraying him as a lazy, pompous bungler, while Porky Pig’s Friar Tuck did the heavy lifting.
In the 1970s, Disney made an animated Robin Hood film, presenting him as a wily fox to outwit Peter Ustinov’s idiot Prince John. Comedic, if not exactly comedy gold.
One of the rare instances of a situation comedy with a criminal as the central character is the Mel Brooks-created When Things Were Rotten, starring Get Smart’s Dick Gautier and Bernie Kopell as Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.
Robin Hood returned to television in a Canadian hour-long fantasy drama, which has little place in our discussion of comedy. It wasn’t Robin’s first stint as a dramatic lead on television. The 1950s black-and-white The Adventures of Robin Hood was directed squarely at kids. The half-hour adventure series was a popular format with kids, including the hit shows Superman, Sky King and many others.
Thereafter society’s favorite outlaw hero has enjoyed several big-screen adaptations. One great modern Robin Hood film is Robin and Marian, featuring James Bond Sean Connery, Breakfast at Tiffany’s Audrey Hepburn and Jaws’ Robert Shaw as the aging Robin, Marian and Sheriff of Nottingham,.
Mel Brooks took a second swipe at the Robin Hood legend, giving it a big-screen parody treatment with 1993’s Men In Tights to unspectacular artistic and commercial success.
But to find a comedic retelling of this paradigm, one needn’t go directly back to Robin Hood, only indirectly.
Let’s take a look at a few stories in the tradition of the comedic criminal and see if the Robin Hood legend doesn’t lay just beneath the surface.
As a control, here’s the Robin Hood story in a nutshell: Good-hearted outlaw Robin Hood, with his lady love Marian and his band of Merry Men, enlists the peasants of Sherwood Forest to thwart the evil schemes of invading Norman Prince John and his local representative, the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Here’s director Alan Parker’s 1976 musical comedy Bugsy Malone: Good-hearted gangster Bugsy Malone, with his lady love Blousey and his allies Fat Sam and his boys recruits the down-and-out depression-era denizens of the city to thwart the evil schemes of invading gangster Dandy Dan.
Here’s John Landis’ 1980 film comedy The Blues Brothers: Good-hearted musicians Jake and Elwood Blues, with their band, recruit the help of colorful musical characters to raise money to save their childhood orphanage and to thwart the invasive schemes of the police, Illinois Nazis and others.
Here’s the classic George Roy Hill-directed 1969 comedy Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid: Good-hearted outlaws Butch and Sundance, with the help of Sundance’s lady love and their allies, the Hole in the Wall gang, recruit the assistance of various colorful frontier types to help them escape the evil schemes of (pursuit by) invading lawman Sheriff Bledsoe.
Here’s the recent Oceans trilogy, necessarily vague enough to include all three: Dapper, good-hearted thief Danny Ocean, with his lady love (perhaps) and his closest allies, recruit the assistance of various rebel criminal types to steal money from invading millionaire gamblers and tycoons.
The even-more comedic take on the Oceans films, 2011’s Tower Heist, directed by Brett Ratner and starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, lends an even-more Robin Hood-esque element. Hundreds of innocent people lost their life savings to Alan Alda’s ponzi-scheme millionaire criminal. Returning the money secures the Robin Hood legend beneath this comedic premise.
Not even in the Robin Hood control example is stealing from the rich and giving to the poor included in the summary. These modern criminal characters are all generous with the little people they encounter. But they generally have personal stakes that have to find resolution. The giving to the poor part is secondary to the stealing from the rich part, but as much giving to the poor as can be done, the better.
Take a look at some of these films and see if these modern-day Robin Hoods aren’t constantly giving to beggars on the street, stepping up to defend the downtrodden in all kinds of little ways, to help us empathize with their criminal activity. But for most modern audiences, stealing from the rich is noble enough. The simple act of stealing from the rich does give to the poor; it gives them revenge.
The 1980 Robert Scheerer comedy How To Beat the High Cost of Living featured Susan Saint James, SNL’s Jane Curtin and future Academy Award winner Jessica Lange who conspire to steal a promotional cash display worth a fortune. To put it in our terms: Good-hearted ladies Jane, Elaine and Louise enlist their families to help them steal some promotional (insured) money to thwart the high prices of invading oil companies, insurance companies and other corrupt social institutions. They’re not intending to give all the money away. But these likable gals are pushed by economic necessity (not any flaws in their own characters) to become criminals. And when they strike back at the economically oppressive institutions, they strike a blow for everyday people everywhere, stealing from the rich the thing they deserve least and giving to the poor that which they deserve most; justice.
This is a story in the tradition of comedic criminals even though the characters are not criminals in the beginning of the story. Robin Hood wasn’t born a criminal, he becomes one by virtue of the evil of the establishment he must challenge. These ladies must become criminals in order to survive in unfair conditions. It is a crime comedy, even if these characters are not criminals by nature.
Going In Style, the 1979 Martin Brest-directed comedy featuring the legendary George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg is a great crime comedy. The three play old men who rob a bank to lash back at a society that has shunted them to the sidelines, emasculating them. Society has robbed them of their dignity, so they decide to even up the score. And by the stories’ end the money has found its way into the needy and deserving hands of what amounts to the good people of this particular story’s Sherwood Forest. Criminal comedy, Robin Hood paradigm.
One of SNL star Bill Murray’s less commercially successful but most artistically satisfying films is 1990’s bank robbery comedy Quick Change. Three average New Yorkers are pressured by urban decay and social blight to rob a bank and escape to a tropical retirement. They employ costumes during the robbery, then take off the costumes to make their escape, if they can get out of the crowded city which inspired their desperate move. This sharp and well-paced comedy was co-directed by Murray and Howard Franklin (Hollywood lore has it that Murray fired Franklin midway through shooting and directed the rest of the film). It stands as one of the great crime comedies of its era.
In 1961, Italy gave movie audiences Divorzio all-italiana, in which Marcello Mastroianni’s Sicilian baron attempts to instigate a crime of passion so that he can justifiably murder his wife. It is his love for a young beauty and the abusiveness of society’s strict (and unfair) laws against divorce that drive the otherwise harmless baron to these criminal extremes.
Another Italian comedy, Un borghese piccolo piccolo (1977) from Mario Monicelli, tells the story of the titular average little man whose only son is killed in an armed robbery. The meek, middle-aged gent (Alberto Sordi’s Giovanni Vivaldi) takes justice into his own hands.
Oyster Farmer is the acclaimed Australian comedy written and directed by Anna Reeves and starring Alex O’Lachlan as career thief Jack Flange.
In Polish film comedies Vabank (2002) and Vabank II (2006) director Juliusz Machulski presented one character as both an average person who becomes a criminal (banker Gustav Kramer) who later seeks revenge (as a now-experienced criminal) against the men responsible for his incarceration.
These are stories of average people forced into criminal activities by cruel or otherwise insurmountable social establishments. But the paradigm also works for comedies in which the central characters are not simply mainstream figures pushed beyond endurance. They are criminals or at least they are rebels with rebel lifestyles. They are already fully formed, they have staked their place on one side of the thin blue line or the other. If they were ever innocent, and probably were, that was long before their contemporary adventures began.
Much of The Blues Brothers movie presents the hallmarks of the comedic criminal. They are rebellious but humane. They are only criminals because of the machinations of the world against which they must rebel, and to which they are morally superior. Since the story line of that first, brilliant film is to raise money for an orphanage, the Blues Brothers truly are giving to the poor, even if they’re not necessarily stealing from the rich.
The Dukes of Hazzard, on TV and in film, gave us dual Robin Hoods leading their colorful rural brood in an ongoing campaign to thwart the schemes of corrupt authoritarian Boss Hogg.
We’re No Angels (the 1955 version) follows the three good-hearted Devil’s Island escapees (Peter Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray) who forestall robbing a dress shop in order to defend the kindly family who manages the shop against the schemes of the shop’s owner. The three may be convicts and escapees, but this shop owner is much more dastardly and despicable. The young love between the manager’s daughter and the shop owner’s nephew is a sweet romance, but Basil Rathbone’s despicable shop owner, Andre Trochard, is determined to squash that love. When the criminal three decide to kill this horrible man in order to protect the family, they do so with the audience’s sympathy, nay, its approval. The comedic criminal always deals justice to the more criminal among them, even when these are socially-acceptable establishment characters (especially when they are). They give stability, love, happiness back to the poor family; riches enough for any goodhearted peasant characters such as these.
Then the three crooks, having vanquished the villain and saved the innocents, decide to return to prison, further negating any previous bad deeds and preserving their (relatively) spotless characters.
The 1989 Robert De Niro/Sean Penn film comedy of the same name has little in common with the original. In this piece, two prison escapees struggle to cross in international border to freedom but are mistaken for priests during a religious festival. The third escapee, a dangerous psychotic who is much more criminal by comparison, arrives to complicate matters. This is still a story in the tradition of the comedic criminal, still presents its morally ambiguous heroes as relatively virtuous. But there is little about the establishment forces in the story that is wicked, corrupted or evil. Nor do these antagonist bishops deliberately conspire against the escaping heroes’ crossing. These vaguely drawn characters ignore much of the Robin Hood mythos (while retaining its bare essence) and this may have resulted in the relative commercial and artistic failure of this film.
Other film comedies with fully fledged criminals in the central protagonist role include: Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973); both versions of The Longest Yard; any version of The Great Train Robbery; Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie (1966); George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973) and others.
The French film comedy Les tontons flilngueurs (1963), a wry parody of that nation’s crime thriller sub-genre, features a retired gangster Fernand Naudin who inherits money, a young woman and a passel of enemies from a fellow mafia figure, recently deceased.
From Italy, 1958’s I soltiti ignoti (from director Mario Monicelli) delivers the story of four inept smalltime thieves and their bungled burglary of a local pawnshop, a classic of the tradition of the comedic criminal.
There is one tantalizing exception to this paradigm, a criminal comedy that breaks the rules to extraordinary (if slightly disturbing) effect. The Remy Belvaux-directed 1992 Belgian satire Man Bites Dog is a mockumentary about an independent film crew following the exploits of a serial killer.
In this film, the central character is Benoit Poelvoorde’s Ben. He is not likable. He is not good hearted. He is not innately decent (the opposite seems to be the case). He’s not even a rebel, as he acts with a kind of sociopathic purposelessness. He has no love. The friends he enlists are the independent film crew, and they are bystanders for most of the action. Ben has no emotional ties. Instead of thwarting the schemes of more evil establishment forces, Ben kills innocent people, old people. He kills indiscriminately, without bringing justice to himself or anyone. Anything he steals, he keeps. And he’s not the least bit funny.
This satire directs society’s attention to its own desensitized, voyeuristic nature. Worse than being disinterested in the suffering of others, we are amused by it. What’s worse, we are complicit in the evil by virtue of our watching and thus endorsing it. It’s a powerful film.
One-hour television series with criminal heroes include: It Takes A Thief, Switch, Jake and the Fat Man, Alias Smith and Jones, the New Zealand hit drama Outrageous Fortune, Leverage. All are hour-long programs, none of them considered comedies no matter how light-hearted they may be.
To find this paradigm in the half-hour comedy, one returns to the Robin Hood sitcom When Things Were Rotten. Even would-be contenders for inclusion in this rarefied tradition, TV series McHale’s Navy (starring Ernest Borgnine) and Sgt. Bilko (starring Phil Silvers) anchored by lovable characters fulfilling every other criteria for the tradition but one: They’re not criminals. They’re schemers, they’re rebels, but they work for the U.S. Navy and the U.S, Army respectively. They are con artists but not criminals.
U.K. sitcoms that incorporate this paradigm include:
Only Fools And Horses: This popular sitcom ran for over twenty years in the U.K. a success by any estimation. And it follows the quick-money schemes of Derek and his brother Rodney, good-hearted everyday chaps with strong emotional ties to those around them. But are they criminals? Unlike some examples of the criminal comedy film, the comedic criminal in a TV series must be fully formed, already on one side of the criminal line or the other. Scheming is perfectly amusing comedic fodder. for hero and villain alike. Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden always had a get-rich-quick scheme, but he was never a criminal. Lucy Ricardo was a schemer par excellence, but never a criminal.
Set in Slade Prison, the mid-70’s British sitcom Porridge documents the life of Norman Stanley Fletcher, a habitual criminal. Fletcher is smart, witty, cunning and lovable. His cellmate is Godber, a first-timer whom Fletcher mentors. Slade is run by the strict Scottish ‘screw’ Mr Mackay who has help from the gullible Mr. Barrowclough (whom Fletcher exploits).
Bread follows the struggles of a Liverpudlian family as they scheme and contrive their way through one poverty-stricken day to the next. This one leans more toward the tradition of comedic poverty than the comedic criminal.
So while there may be one or two out there, the television comedy that casts the criminal in the central role is a rare thing indeed.
There just aren’t that many shows willing to take the risks Trailer Park Boys was; in this tradition even more so than the others. And the boys aren’t simple Robin Hood figures, they’re pet assassins (in the black-and-white pilot anyway). And they still got a TV show!
But before we step away from this tradition, let’s make sure that our TPB heroes fit the Robin Hood paradigm, the criteria for the tradition of the comedic criminal.
Good-hearted Julian, Ricky and Bubbles are criminals not by virtue of their own personalities but because of the corrupt nature of the society they rebel against. With the help of Ricky’s lady love Lucy and their allies, J-Roc and the Roc Pile, they enlist the aid of the peasants of Sunnyvale (among other colorful allies) to thwart the schemes of Trailer Park Supervisor Mr. Lahey. In so doing, they return the spoils of wealth, property ownership, dignity and humanity to the poor at the expense of the rich. LIke so many of the Robin Hood types (and so many comedic heroes) they are cagy, funny, quick to outsmart their more-powerful, better-educated and more-dimwitted establishment adversaries. They have strong emotional attachments to the people around them. They are well-drawn characters with consistency and the capacity for growth. And they are funny.
And let us not step away from the Robin Hood ethos without a few glances at the boys in top form, standing tallest when they stoop to help those in need. In the second episode of the first season, Fuck Community College, Let’s Get Drunk and Eat Chicken Fingers, Julian gives Ricky the Shitmobile, which leads to his getting back together with Lucy. It is an act of unsolicited generosity, of brotherly love and a sense of responsibility. The sixth season closes with Gimme My Fucking Money, or Randy’s Dead! During that season, Randy is the associate trailer park supervisor and embarks on a spree of evictions, including J-Roc, Tyrone and their “Baby Mommas” as well as kindly old stalwarts Bill and Alvena. Also during that season, Julian is working a plan to buy old trailers, renovate them, and sell them at a profit. The trailers he winds up buying formerly belonged to his friends. He improves the trailers and sells them back to their original owners at a price next to charity. It’s a classic Robin Hood move.
In the last act of Countdown To Liquor Day, Julian gives Lahey a roll of large bills, which gets him to Cuba. It is true that Julian gives Lahey the money to shut him up, to buy his calm exit out of the bank. But Julian’s still a thief stealing money from a rich, insured bank and giving it to the poor.
Ricky returns Julian’s earlier kindness by giving him a car to live in early in the second episode of the fourth season, A Man’s Gotta Eat. In the third season’s first episode, The Kiss of Freedom, Ricky spends the last of his Freedom 35 money on a set of encyclopedias for his daughter Trinity. In this case he gives to his own daughter (hardly an act of charity) but he does give his last dollar away to help someone he loves and keeps nothing for himself. That is the Robin Hood ethos, that is the tradition of the comedic criminal.