02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Hilariously Tasteless Birth of a Notion

Watching Carl Reiner's Where's Poppa? (1970) when it aired on Turner Classics recently, it struck me that this film -- and a couple of others released between 1968-70 -- represented kind of a mini-golden age for outrageous comedy, with roots in Sid Caesar's TV shows of the early 1950s.

Consider: Mel Brooks' The Producers was released in 1968, Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run in 1969 and Reiner's Where's Poppa? (perhaps the most gleefully vulgar of the three) in 1970.

Watching them now, they're all still exceptionally funny: still oddball and off-kilter in ways that influenced filmmakers for years to come. From the distance of 40 years, given the way mores and attitudes have changed, they seem almost quaint by today's standards.

Yet I'd argue that, without these films, we wouldn't have had the Farrelly brothers, the Judd Apatow machine or a lot of other comedy that's fairly commonplace today.

Consider Where's Poppa?, which, at the time, was considered scandalously foul-mouthed and taboo-breaking. It's the story of a Jewish lawyer, Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal), who is trapped in a sprawling Central Park West apartment with his increasingly dotty mother (Ruth Gordon). She's so obstreperous that he has trouble keeping a home-health aide for very long -- and when he does fine one whom he not only likes but want to marry (Trish Van Devere), his mother tries to drive her away.

Gordon wants to kill his mother -- because he promised his late father that he'd never put her in a home. He can't even pronounce the world "home" without becoming a quivering, stuttering mess. But he can verbalize his anger; at one point, having lured the new nurse up to the apartment for dinner, he brings his mother to meet her, telling her under his breath, "If you blow this for me, Ma, I swear -- I'll punch your fuckin' heart out."

"Such a good boy, Gordon," the unhinged mother coos.

It's a movie filled with weird, transgressive humor. Ultimately, like the films of Brooks and Allen, its roots are in the same Borscht Belt school of comedy that was so prevalent on the Caesar show (on which all three were writers) and its off-shoots.

But Where's Poppa? took it all a step farther -- freed, as it were, by the kaleidoscopic cultural upheavals of the late 1960s.

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