High Art: The Subversive History of Stoner Comedies

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It's a Very Harold & Kumar Christmas continues the Cheech and Chong project of getting laughs with loopy humor while also challenging society's norms

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At a time when most moviegoers are still polishing off their Halloween candy, Hollywood—like thousands of shopping malls across the nation—is making its bid to start milking the Christmas cash cow as early as possible. Tomorrow sees the very unseasonal release of the year's first Yuletide film: It's a Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.

To be fair, an unseasonal release date feels fitting for an unconventional Christmas movie. It's a Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is the third entry in the surprisingly durable Harold & Kumar franchise, which stars John Cho and Kal Penn as the titular potheads. For viewers who can't stand the idea of another heartwarming holiday comedy, It's A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is a godsend—joining hard-R comedies like Bad Santa and violent shoot-em-ups like Die Hard on the "naughty" side of the Christmas movie list.

But IAVH&K3DC also belongs to one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated subgenres: the stoner comedy.

Marijuana was unofficially paired with cinema for decades before the stoner-comedy subgenre existed. 1936's hysterical anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness has been viewed as an unintentional-comedy classic for decades. Collegiate stoners across the nation have attempted, with varying success, to sync Pink Floyd's seminal Dark Side of the Moon with 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Occasionally, Hollywood studios actively pandered to the stoner crowd; Stanley Kubrick's surreal sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was not-so-subtly promoted as "the ultimate trip."

It's easy to see why generations of stoners have embraced cinema: Movie theaters sell munchies galore, require nothing but sitting still, and offer countless options for the easily entertained (a former roommate, who shall remain nameless, unironically told me that a stoned screening of 2009's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was one of the greatest experiences of his life). And obviously, for marijuana aficionados, the appeal of a stoner comedy is watching it stoned. It's A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is openly hawking this appeal; in a recent interview with The A.V. Club, John Cho suggests that viewers, "Drink what [they] want, smoke what [they] want," before going to see it.

But even sober, there's an appealing loopiness to the stoner comedy: a genuine sense, increasingly rare in cinema, that anything can happen. Even failed stoner comedies tend to fail while daring greatly—by, say, including a superfluous, incomprehensible five-minute musical interlude in which the main character hallucinates a meeting with Sasquatch. In 2004, when America's top-grossing comedy was a stunningly bland sequel to Meet the Parents, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle offered a scene in which its two lead characters smoke marijuana with a cheetah before mounting it and galloping off into the forest. It's a Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas carries on the franchise's proud legacy of anything-goes comedy: Harold shoots Santa Claus, Neil Patrick Harris meets a hard-partying Jesus Christ, and the film briefly segues into Rankin/Bass-esque claymation. And that's just in the film's trailer.

While they may not have the obvious social heft of the somber documentaries and self-serious Citizen Kanes of the world, there's a brilliantly subversive streak to the stoner comedy. Look at Harold & Kumar: This is a successful, mainstream Hollywood franchise, playing in more than 2,000 theaters across the nation, that stars two non-white leading men. John Cho can joke about being the "best Korean-Indian stoner comedy duo in cinematic history" because there's never been a Korean-Indian duo, stoner comedy or otherwise, in cinematic history.

There have been other unprecedented heroes in the stoner genre, though. Cheech Marin—who, along with Up in Smoke costar Tommy Chong, is one of the undisputed patriarchs of 420 cinema—starred in four movies (three of them marijuana-centric) at a time when Mexican-American leading men were virtually unheard of in Hollywood. And the first entries in the early-'90s renaissance of the stoner comedy genre—Friday, Half Baked, and How High—offered leading-man roles to black actors like Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Method Man, and Redman. Even comically, the Harold & Kumar franchise has consistently confronted contemporary racial issues; in White Castle, both men are antagonized and arrested by a racist police officer, and they're sent to Guantanamo Bay in the film's sequel after a fellow airplane passenger turns them in as terrorists.

But the stoner comedy genre has done more than broaden the racial dynamics of Hollywood; it's also reflected a shift in public opinion toward marijuana itself. The stoner comedy renaissance of the '90s was accompanied by a dramatic uptick in support for marijuana legalization. That change has continued to the present day; a Gallup poll released last week revealed that for the first time in American history, a majority Americans support the legalization of marijuana. The entertainment industry has rapidly (and lucratively) adjusted to this shift in public opinion: In 2008, the stoner comedy Pineapple Express made more than $100 million at the global box office, a box office take that would have been unheard even a decade early.

And what of the genre's future? Though the vast majority of marijuana-centric films are still shaggy-dog comedies, there are signs that the genre is beginning to diversify. In 2007, comedian Doug Benson (whose "Marijuana-Logues" have made him the cause célèbre of the stoner world) released Super High Me, a documentary adapting the model laid out by Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me to determine the effect that 30 consecutive days of smoking marijuana would have (as it turns out, very little). And 2008's intelligent dramedy The Wackness, which stars Josh Peck as a young pot dealer, showed that marijuana use can be central to the plot of a film that isn't broadly comedic.

It's A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas will undoubtedly draw legions of loyal stoners (and, perhaps, a few very confused Christmas-loving families) to theaters. But the stoner genre is more than mindless marijuana fodder—it's one of the last places you can find groundbreaking, subversive comedy in contemporary Hollywood. It's something worth admiring if you can see through all the smoke.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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