By the mid-1990s cable hadn’t yet completely changed the way people consume television, and Saturday Night Live still held sway when it came to influencing the comedy we consumed. SNL’s cast was dominated by strong personalities who continued the trend of bro-ey comedy started by Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Bill Murray a decade and a half earlier. The breakout stars of that early-to-mid-1990s SNL cast were Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, and 1995 was the year they both blew up, with Billy Madison and Tommy Boy. Both movies were critically panned, both movies only barely made a profit in theaters, and both movies entered the comedy pantheon for teenagers (especially teenaged boys) in the 1990s. Today on 80s Baby I asked some friends to describe what Billy Madison meant to them when they were younger. I’ll start.
Stop Looking at Me, Swan
Between the ages of 12 and 21 I and all of my friends thought that the pinnacle of comedy was quoting funny lines from the movies we loved. Familiar was funny, and rather than coming up with something funny ourselves we were relying on something we knew worked. Trading movie quotes served a couple of purposes: it signaled to the other person that these were the pop culture references you enjoyed, essentially saying, “This is what we find funny. We have good taste.” It also took the place of conversation. On so many occasions lunch conversations, trips to the mall, and parties consisted of us quoting Billy Madison, Austin Powers, Tommy Boy, and other movies to one another. While we never really said anything we also never ran out of things to say.
When Billy Madison was released in 1995 it was a movie but it was also a repository of new quotes that my friends and I could recite to one another. The plot of the movie was simple and there were no real stakes; you were being asked to root for a man child who oh cool, he’s learning some basic sense of responsibility but also he’s been a pampered ass his entire life. He triumphs by doing the bare minimum all of the rest of us have always done without thinking twice about it. Had Eric gone on to control the company Madison Hotels probably would have been better off in the long run. None of that matters though, because you’re watching the movie for the bits. You’re there for Billy smashing his shampoo and conditioner bottles together in the bathtub, shouting “stop looking at me swan,” singing “back to school…,” and being told we’re all dumber for having listened to his answer. We’re here for “O’Doyle rules,” teenagers pointing at Eric’s weird looking balls, and “if peeing your pants makes you cool then call me Myles Davis.” Billy Madison became part of our vocabulary and remained there until we learned to actually talk about what we were thinking and feeling. Or at least until Anchorman came out.
By the way, 18 years later I started doing stand up comedy and learned that it turns out I was correct the entire time. Quoting movies actually is the pinnacle of comedy. Snoochie Boochies.
The “C” is Silent
I’ve lost track of the number of times I have seen Billy Madison. If you include half-viewings from catching it on Comedy Central multiple times during the week I feel confident guessing I’m closing in on 100. I, surprisingly, still enjoy Billy Madison! Considering how poorly most other comedies from that era have aged, Billy Madison doesn’t really feel dated and the jokes aren’t cringy relics of the 90s. That being said, some things about the movie have always perplexed me and now that I’m older, I’m still no closer to understanding them.
Ok, so, the Penguin is a hallucination, right? Only Billy can see the Penguin when he is drunk! But Billy also believes the Penguin is real even when he is not drunk, as evidenced by his asking if the Penguin put his father up to giving Eric the company. And no one seems to be really bothered by this. Then Chris Farley gets a handie from the Penguin at the end of the movie. I can only conclude that the Penguin is some kind of shared corporeal apparition that appears only to SNL alumni.
Billy’s dad makes this seem like a common occurrence, when Billy launches into gibberish at dinner. But it is the only time, in the entire movie, where he speaks in tongues. Eric references Billy getting the entire staff of Madison Hotels to speak in gibberish as a reason to not put Billy in charge. If this were an actual concern, shouldn’t he talk to Jack and Frank in his own language at least a few times? Maybe try and teach it to Miss Libby, the one person who would be receptive to learning a made-up language?
The Pickle Race
Why?! I don’t get it! Why waste perfectly good pickles in a pickle race without there being an actual prize for the winner? Was the prize lighting shit on fire? I don’t know! All I learned from that scene was that Billy considered banging 1975 Jack Nicholson over Meg Ryan.
I Thought I Was Your Snack Pack
I keep a list of the best compliments I’ve ever received. At a show once, a fellow comedian, a woman with perfect bangs and a witchcraft podcast, asked me the question everyone loves to hear:
“Do you know who you look like?”
“Well, I probably have some ideas,” I said, “but who?”
“You look like Veronica Vaughn from Billy Madison,” she said.
That was a few years ago, but that compliment maintains the number-one spot on my list. As a kid, I was fairly sheltered, so the only anomaly in my pre-pubescent cinematic canon is Billy Madison, which my parents let me watch with them when I was only five or six years old. Was I too young to see the movie? Yes! Did my elementary school teachers burst out laughing when I deployed choice quotes like “Stop looking at me, swan!” in the classroom? Hell yeah!
The whole movie played a major role in my personality development, but no scene so much as Billy’s redemption song, which I reference on a weekly basis (and which also drives many of my creative decisions subconsciously). Truly, what a great set of lessons to teach a kindergartener: any moment is the right moment for a musical interlude! When the people in your life really love you, they will rally around your goals, even if those goals seem silly! Brain hemorrhages are…fixable, sometimes!
No wonder I’m flattered by that comparison to a character in Billy Madison, a movie that is thrillingly absurd and uplifting even 25 years after its release. And I guess it helps, too, that Veronica Vaughn is one hot piece of ace.
Hattie Hayes is a comedian, writer, and actress in New York City. Check out her sketch team, Infinite Sketch, and follow her on Twitter.
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