TIFF Throws A Toga Party For Comedies

A new series at the TIFF Bell Lightbox charts the evolution of cinematic comedy.

Will Ferrell finds out it's so good once it hits the lips in Old School. Image courtesy of the TIFF Film Reference Library.

  • TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
  • Wednesday, July 17–Thursday, August 29
  • $8.50–$12

When Animal House first turned the toga into suitable party attire in 1978, the landscape of the film comedy was forever altered. TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy, a new film series that kicked off Wednesday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, seeks to chart the changing comedic sensibilities that have occurred in the years since the film’s release. From big budget blockbusters, to libido-fuelled sex romps, to carefully calibrated exercises in nuance and timing, the selections in the program are some of the funniest films ever made.

To introduce the event on its opening night, Animal House‘s producer, Canadian director Ivan Reitman, was on hand for an in-depth conversation. Making the discussion especially unique was the fact that his interviewer was his own son and fellow filmmaker, Jason Reitman. After the two embraced and then sat down to chat, Jason couldn’t resist using the opportunity to address a lingering parenting oversight. “So where do babies come from?” he asked.

From there, Jason focused mostly on the three films that best exemplify his father’s progression as a director (all of which are screening as part of TOGA): Stripes (Friday, July 19, 9:15 p.m.), Ghostbusters (Saturday, July 20, 3:30 p.m.), and Dave (Sunday, August 18, 1 p.m.). While Jason at times conducted a traditional interview, the close relationship between the two allowed for some amusing anecdotes about Jason visiting his father’s sets as a child (he was the only kid with a real Ghostbusters gun), candid insight into the unpredictable nature of Bill Murray, and the way a film “lets you know what it wants to be.”

At several points during the talk, Ivan grew visibly emotional. While discussing the moment he first saw Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis walk down a New York street in their Ghostbusters costumes, he recalled, “I got this shiver. I still have this shiver right now.” It seemed then that the sense of nostalgia welling up inside him became too much, and Jason provided him a much-needed moment to collect himself. This happened again when he spoke of Dave being “a celebration of the common man.” Jason explained how the film’s story of an everyman becoming President of the United States resonates more for someone like his father, who had escaped to North America from what was then Czechoslovakia.

By the time someone in the audience asked Ivan about the special significance of holding these screenings at the Lightbox, considering the fact that his family had donated the land to TIFF, he could see where the question was heading. “I don’t want to start crying a third time,” he said, to a round of empathetic laughter. Over the weekend, he and Animal House director John Landis will be in attendance to introduce several of their films.

Here are other choice moments to keep an eye out for as the program continues.

With the Scary Movie franchise still kicking, it’s worth noting the influence Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker had with their 1980 hit Airplane! (Saturday, August 10, 1 p.m.). The movie emphasized broad gags at a breakneck pace, parodying popular culture—and particularly films like Airport 1975—while also showing off the comedic side of a Canadian actor previously known for dramatic roles: Leslie Nielsen.

Arguably the seminal (pun intended) work in a gross-out comedic subgenre, There’s Something About Mary (Tuesday, August 20, 9 p.m.) was also a watershed moment in the careers of Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, and its directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly. With scenes featuring a little dog named Puffy hopped up on speed, a singing narrator (Jonathan Richman), and a memorable substitute for hair gel, the gags are the kind that can make you fall out of your chair.

Though director Wes Anderson had made his debut a couple of years earlier with Bottle Rocket, it was Rushmore (Sunday, August 18, 7 p.m.) that really first put him on the map. Further establishing the storybook style that would become his trademark, it also marked the debut of Jason Schwartzman in the iconic role of troubled private school overachiever Max Fischer. The dry sense of humour and understated relationships help disguise a poignant coming-of-age story.

Judd Apatow already had two cancelled TV shows (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared) and cinematic flops like The Cable Guy under his belt when he finally hit on a winning formula with The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Thursday, August 22, 9 p.m.). Striking the right balance between humour and heart, he found the ideal person to play the awkward titular character in his co-writer Steve Carell. The film also helped make household names of supporting players Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and—in a glorified cameo—Jonah Hill.

It’s hard to believe that Jason Reitman had planned on becoming a doctor. With his feature debut Thank You For Smoking (Sunday, August 18, 4p.m.), he not only showed that a gift for comedy was in the genes, he also displayed a talent for potent social commentary. The techniques he learned making this story of a tobacco lobbyist with a silver tongue would serve him well in later award-winning efforts like Juno and Up In The Air.

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