A People’s History of the NYPD: Howard Zinn, The Other Guys and the Cinema of the Unsung

Howard Zinn’s 1980 bestseller, A People’s History of the United States, wasn’t the first history book to suggest that the stories of average men and women were as important as the stories of the great men and (occasionally) women who dominate most history books.   It was, however, the first such book to sell millions of copies.

While a number of contemporary reviewers panned Zinn’s history, thinking it too biased in its focus on the oppressed and the underdogs in some of America’s great fights (Native Americans, slaves, women, workers, etc.), it has become one of the most influential books in recent years, often used as a supplementary textbook in classrooms around the country.

 

Print this image. Cut it out. Tape it to the front of the Twilight novel you're currently rereading. Now you're ready to go back to that trendy coffee shop where they used to laugh at you.

One of the reasons that the book is so successful and such a good read is that Zinn lets the subjects of his work speak for themselves.  Instead of the Gettysburg Address or the Adams/Jefferson letters, Zinn lets our previously unknown forebears tell their stories through speeches, diaries and letters in a way that’s so compelling that Ken Burns subsequently made a whole career out of it.

As you may imagine, with its focus on the little guy, Zinn’s book is considered pretty liberal.  Zinn’s own affiliations with civil rights and anti-war organizations (he was a WWII vet who was present at the one of the first uses of napalm against human beings), seem to bear this out.   It’s so liberal and so successful that  Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen felt the need to write The Patriot’s History of the United States, an unabashedly conservative large-print counterpoint that Glenn Beck has helped push onto the bestseller lists.

Given those liberal credentials, is it any wonder that Hollywood has embraced A People’s History?  AJ Soprano read it.  Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen sang about it. Marge Simpson read it. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck featured it in Good Will Hunting.

And when we saw the trailers for the Will Farrell/Adam McKay film The Other Guys, it seemed that Zinn’s book had graduated from prop to inspiration.

The trailers for The Other Guys suggested that this was the story of the unsung, the cops who don’t get movies made about them.  Samuel L. Jackson and Duane Johnson play the usual larger-than-life heroes, the Tango and Cash, Gibson and Glover, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith supercop characters we’re used to.  Farrell and Wahlberg play the office losers, the workaday schlubs who don’t get the girls or the glory, but who get the job done – the people of whom Zinn writes.

 

It's kind of like looking in a mirror, isn't it? At least on the right-hand side of the image where the big guy is buying a burger.

Throwing these Ordinary Joes into the kind of over-the-top situations that cinematic police face every summer looked like a fantastic comedic premise.  Given the success of the film’s opening weekend, millions of Americans thought so too.

But that’s not what the film is actually about.

There are a few scenes, most of them in the trailer, that hew to this premise, but the movie largely ends up being about the incredible sexual gravity of Will Farrell, the Hulk-like rage of Mark Wahlberg, the immortal lyrics of TLC, and a financial genius who makes the incredibly poor decision to run a Ponzi scheme on Nigerian drug lords.  Like a lot of Farrell/McKay productions, this movie hinges upon Will Farrell being weird in a very amusing way.  As a character study of a lunatic, it works extremely well.  As a show about the unsung, it fails completely.

And that’s because we, the unsung working schlubs of the world don’t really want to laugh at ourselves.

I’m a huge fan of a People’s History, but even I will admit that it’s anything but funny.  The first few pages about the systematic destruction of the native people of Hispaniola by Columbus and the Spanish force the reader to imagine a nightmare barely conceivable to those who grew up in modern America.  But even amidst America’s general affluence, most Americans identify with Zinn’s subjects because we see ourselves as underdogs put down by a system that rewards the rich and famous.

Given that viewpoint, is it any wonder that we don’t want to see and laugh at people like us?   We’re biologically programmed to laugh at home video of people falling off of things, but in fictional situations, we don’t want to see normal people made a laughingstock.

We much prefer to laugh at our social superiors getting a kick up the backside (as Downey Jr.’s Chaplin put it in that great scene with the dinner rolls) or at characters so exaggerated that it’s impossible for us to see them as surrogates for ourselves.  In the former instance, all of the Real Housewives/Kardashian/Jersey Shore shows let us feel superior to those with larger incomes while the new Comedy Central sitcom Big Lake lets us watch a failed investment banker routinely embarrass himself.  In the latter case: John Belushi, Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Steve Martin, Larry the Cable Guy, et al.

So sure, we’ll laugh if you give Will Farrell a back story as a pimp, but a film about two normal, not-former-pimp cops forced into extreme situations would be tragic, tense and overwhelming.   Actually, it would be The Wire.

 

Rule of thumb: take any excuse you can to post photos of Omar Little.

I know there are certain Wire taboos on this site, but the Dickensian perspective of that show is the best example I can think of in which the stories of the average person are told as the A-story.  The other great example of recent vintage is Breaking Bad.   And while the writers of both shows include the occasional laugh-line to relieve the tension, both shows are mired in tragedy.  That they’re considered two of the best shows ever made goes to show that Zinn was right—the story of the rest of us is certainly worth telling, but won’t get you many laughs.

The writers of The Other Guys must have figured that out somewhere during the process, which is why their movie quickly abandons its supposed premise and becomes another very funny opportunity to watch Will Farrell do the Will Farrell thing.  While it was certainly fun, I do wish we’d gotten to see the movie that the trailers sold us.  I doubt we ever will.

Addendum: As I put this story to bed, an example came to mind that, for a moment, completely destroyed my argument: Date Night, in which an ordinary couple (Tina Fey and Steve Carell) flees from gangsters after a case of mistaken identity.   It’s damn funny and features ordinary people in a horrible situation.  I’ve come to the conclusion that Date Night works because the film is basically a marriage comedy with a different backdrop.  Marriage joke standards, like the gag about Carell being threatened by a shirtless Mark Wahlberg, or lines like “I don’t want our kids to live with your mother.  She’s awful!” would have worked as well at a grocery store as they do in the gritty underworld the film depicts.  Thoughts?

Are there great comedies out there that feature realistic and average people?  Sound off.

15 Comments on “A People’s History of the NYPD: Howard Zinn, The Other Guys and the Cinema of the Unsung”

  1. Jared E #

    David Simon was fairly adamant when The Wire ended that his work is not Dickensian. He preferred a comparison to Tolstoy, and i think his reasons for rejecting the Dickens comparison are parallel to the reasons the Lost finale was a cop-out.

     
  2. Valatan #

    I think you tend to not have comedy when you have realistic people in realistic situations. Date Night was funny because it featured realistic people in an absurd situation. You’d have trouble making that movie funny if you were watching them struggle with the economy, and gradually lose their house, for example.

    Unless they decided that they needed to throw one last mega-party to raise money to save the house, and this caused them to regress to their college persona, but then, you have realistic people in a ridiculous situation again.

     
  3. Ed #

    Comedy = realistic people in an absurd situation, or absurd people in a realistic situation.

    Tragedy = realistic people in a realistic situation.

    Fantasy = absurd people in an absurd situation.

     
  4. Robert Q #

    I agree with the above comments. I think you were right in your point that real + real does not equal funny, but Date Night is not an exception. I haven’t seen the movie, granted, but a “real” couple would, upon realizing they were chased by gangs, is skip over to the local PD and file a report, probably spend the night in a holding cell, while the cops perused the neighbourhood for the thugs that the couple had just described to a face-drawer-person. Meanwhile the gang would report back to their bosses, and upon discussion of the events would realize the two were not who they wanted, and move along. Hi….larious. I don’t know what it is exactly Carell and Fey do, but I’m sure it ain’t that.

     
    • Richard #

      I haven’t seen either movie (so I’m uninformed) but I’d like to leave a comment anyway because my opinion is of such interest (to me).

      Oh yeah, that’s right, I did see Date Night and the thugs are crooked cops so they can’t just go to the police.

       
  5. Rain #

    haven’t seen “Date Night” yet either . . . but it struck me as being a grown-up version of “Adventures in Babysitting”.

     
    • renniejoy #

      Yes, it was that comparison in a review which told me that I had to see “Date Night”. :)

      I don’t think it was actually a “romantic comedy” at all – it was a comedy where the main couple were married. It also struck me as very similar in tone to “The Blues Brothers”.

       
      • Richard #

        Is “romantic comedy” defined as narrowly as “single boy meets single girl and they get together”?

        This married couple is in a rut and drifting apart. They rediscover their love for each other through the adventure.
        Is that not romantic?

         
  6. Jonh Ingham #

    One of the most popular British TV comedy series of the 90s was called The Royle Family and consisted almost entirely of the said family sitting on sofas and chairs in front of the telly and talking to each other and at the TV. Unusually for such a mundane setting and situation it was usually funny and sometimes very funny. It didn’t move from the living room. There was not even plotting on a Seinfeld or Frasier level. It was all talk and observation.

    So as an addendum to the comment above, comedy = realistic people in a realistic situation plus absurd dialogue.

     
    • Timothy J Swann #

      And Gavin and Stacy is very much its heir, although perhaps both of them show that realistic people are people are always, in fact, absurd.

       
    • Valatan #

      All in the Family sort of fits this mold, too.

       
  7. rtpoe #

    Pretty much anything with Buster Keaton. “The General”, for example.

    But then, he was Buster Keaton….

     
    • stokes #

      Fantastic movie! But is it really a good example? Keaton plays an ordinary guy, whose job is to stay home and keep the trains running while the heroes go off to fight in the war, yeah. But then he ends up going on a wacky quest, saving the day, and becoming a hero himself. To be the “cinema of the unsung” McNeil is looking for here, the whole movie would need to focus on Keaton’s character quietly and efficiently repairing a train.

       
  8. DISILLUSIO #

    Farrall???? it’s ferrell FERRELL FERREEEEEElllllLL!!!!!!!!!!

     
  9. zinnian #

    zinn was not a liberal, but rather an anarchist or libertarian socialist or what have you… definitely not a liberal though