High Art: The Subversive History of Stoner Comedies

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.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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