Monsters, Inc. vs. the Vulgarians

Monsters, Inc. is a good movie. I don’t mean “good” in the sense of “half way in between mediocre and terrific.” I mean good in the sense of completely, unqualifiedly wholesome. It is also a terrific movie.

These days, only movies made by Pixar seem to meet these dual criteria. Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were good movies. They were also terrific. You want to see them again, even if your children or grandchildren aren’t around.

The animation in Monsters, Inc. is better than the two Toy Story films. The attention to detail is spectacular. The fine hairs on the movie’s hero, Sulley (James P. Sullivan), are realistic. So are his eyes, and how they move.

The story line holds together, once you accept the fact that in the world of monsters, electrical power is generated by the screams of children. The monsters at Monsters, Inc. are specialists in going into children’s bedrooms through entry-way doors that are closet doors on the humans’ side of reality. They collect the screams in containers. It’s the free market at work!

The slogan at Monsters, Inc. is to the point: “We scare because we care.”

As with any profession, there are only a few at the top. Sulley is the champion. He is a good-hearted monster, and he does his job well. Through the doors he goes, day after day, and the canisters of screams pile up on the monsters’ side of his doors.

Sulley is played to perfection by John Goodman. The lip-synch with the cartoon is flawless. The emotional touches are just right. Billy Crystal does the voice of his side-kick. The script improves for his comic talents as the film progresses. But Sulley, as the straight man, is clearly the star. James Coburn’s sonorous tones fit the president of Monsters, Inc., who is worried about rising costs and falling profits.

Children will be watching this film in a hundred years. Their grandparents — our great grandchildren — will be watching it with them. It must be immensely satisfying for actors who get a role in a Pixar/Disney film. Their work will survive and still delight new viewers long after their remains are on the cosmic cutting room floor.

Think of Phil Harris (1904-1995), the voice of Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book (1967). Harris spent most his career as a touring band leader and then as a bit-part radio comic with Jack Benny. But through Baloo, he still entertains children who have never heard of Jack Benny, whose humor died with him. Harris recorded his share of songs, including the earliest song whose words I can remember (age 3), the now politically incorrect “Darktown Poker Club.” But “The Bare Necessities” has outlived them all.

There is not one foul word in Monsters, Inc. This is because, as a Pixar/Disney film, its producer deliberately positioned it as a children’s film. For over three decades, the G rating has been assumed by the public to be an identifying mark of a children’s film, which is why producers of non-children’s films insist on inserting at least one obscenity or profanity in order to gain a PG rating. For example, the marvelous film, The Princess Bride, has the boy who listens to his grandfather’s story utter one out-of-character profanity. The only post-1970, G-rated, not-entirely-for-children, bona fide cinematic masterpiece that I can think of is The Black Stallion (1978).

Another recent cartoon, Shrek, is beautifully done technically. The joint comic genius of Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers guarantees laughs. But both men have relied to some degree on vulgarity in their careers, and they did not resist the temptation to use scatological humor in what would otherwise have been a perfect child’s movie for adults, or vice versa. It is as if they have some sort of self-imposed dark calling to undermine what is close to flawless, to tell the public, “Yes, we will entertain you, but only on our terms. We will not allow you to get through this performance unoffended, without making you a little more insensitive to vulgarity.”

Steve Allen’s Final Book

Steve Allen died last year. His final book — he wrote over fifty — is Vulgarians at the Gate. It is a detailed examination of the decline of American popular culture, especially comedy. In radio and television, vulgarity has sullied humor. Vulgarity is now close to inescapable in popular culture.

Allen was a master of comedy. He invented the comedy talk show. He was the creator of the Tonight Show in 1954. On Los Angeles radio in the late 1940’s, he pioneered the live audience interaction format. His show was on too late at night for me to get permission to listen, but very occasionally, on Friday nights, I would tune in; I had a radio in my bedroom. I was seven years old, but I knew that this man was funny.

Allen was a political liberal and a humanist. Prometheus Books published Vulgarians — the same publishing house that published the two Humanist Manifestos. Allen was a defender of free speech. In the 1950’s, he supported the right of Lenny Bruce to perform his foul-mouthed comedy skits. But Bruce was an avant-garde performer in nightclubs. He was never part of popular culture. Today, in contrast, the most offensive words of Lenny Bruce are part of prime-time network television.

A lot of the great TV comedians in the 1950’s were survivors of the burlesque circuit: Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Red Buttons, even Abbot & Costello. But they left this aspect of their past behind when they came before the masses. Having honed their skills before adults-only audiences, they knew what to avoid, when, and why. What we see nightly on prime-time TV would never have been allowed on most burlesque stages. (This is Allen’s assessment.)

Redd Foxx was a foul-mouthed comedian who made his living with raunchy humor performed mainly in black ghetto nightclubs. His comedy albums in the mid-1950’s were “under the counter” items. I can remember selling an occasional copy; I worked as a clerk in a record store. But he made his fortune with Sanford & Son, which was part of the older sitcom tradition. He was a very funny man. He did not need a potty-mouth to make millions of people laugh.

Bill Cosby twenty years ago warned that comedians were using crude jokes to get laughs based on shock. He said he refused to do this, and with only a single one-line exception that I can recall, he never did. Cosby made a fortune in the 1980’s doing clean humor on his enormously popular family sitcom, but his legacy is dead today. His show was the last hurrah for decency in the Nielsen ratings sitcom wars. Vulgarity is getting worse on the networks. But the networks are steadily losing market share to home videos and satellite-cable.

Like Cosby in his early comedy albums, Jean Shepherd, New York City’s late-night raconteur, was a master humorist, who verbally reminisced about his childhood in Hammond, Indiana, not far in time or space from Cosby’s Chicago. He created a fictional world of characters who still survive in the delightful movie, which he narrates, A Christmas Story (1984). (Catch the PBS version of his Fourth of July for an additional tale.) I don’t dare read his short stories in a public library, for I still cannot keep from laughing out loud. There is nothing vulgar in In God We Trust or Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. But Shepherd, too, is dead.


Allen’s concern is that the American public, including children, is being cheated culturally. Comedians are deliberately appealing to the dark side of people’s instinct for comedy. This cultural phenomenon is getting worse, not better. Not that vulgarity is limited to comedy. It is widespread in the entertainment field, but the decline of good taste is most obvious in prime-time comedy.

There comes a time to exercise the right of the boycott, beginning with a boycott of one. I pulled the antenna on the TV set sometime around 1985. My children grew up without television. Now, as adults, they spend little time watching it. TV is a developed taste. It is best not to develop it. Time is our only irreplaceable resource. I refuse to squander it on the vulgarians.

But I intend to buy the video of Monsters, Inc. I would buy more videos if the studios would sell the airline versions of their movies, with the vulgar scenes removed and the foul words overdubbed. But they refuse. Too bad. I think there is a large market out there for “High Flying Films.” If there isn’t, then the vulgarians have won the culture war.

December 3 , 2001

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© 2001

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