By Peter Hummers on April 22, 2021
Did you ever wake up with them bullfrogs on your mind? / You’re gonna wake up laughin’, laughin’ just to keep from crying. (“Bullfrog Blues,” orig. William Harris)
So, death! Not a funny subject, in fact, precisely the opposite, one which is not comfortable even to entertain—but there it is. Humans, maybe the only animal to conceive of the end of their own existence, have a built-in mechanism which persists even as we near the inevitable event: we subconsciously think, against all knowledge, that it won’t happen to us. But is it wrong? Epicurus wrote, “of all the evils that give us more horror, death is nothing to us, since [while] we exist as ourselves, death is not, and when death exists, we are not. So death … has nothing to do [with us].”
So let’s have some laughs!
“I do and say what the **** I want. And when it all gets too much, I can just kill myself! It’s like a super power!”
Regardless of Epicurus, those left behind are true victims of death. Ricky Gervais (The Office) came up with an unusual situation for a sitcom: Nice-guy Tony Johnson (Gervais) is devastated after the death of his wife from cancer. He contemplates suicide, but instead decides to punish the world for his wife’s death by saying and doing whatever the hell he wants.
It opens with Tony on his bed watching a video on his laptop computer. His late wife, from her hospital bed, had recorded it, calling it a “guide to life without me,” in which she reminds him of the security code on their alarm system, when to put the trash bins out, the difference between garbage and recycling and so on, as he is “useless” around the house.
He seems not upset but wistful, and when his dog comes into the bedroom and barks, he closes the laptop in the middle of the video and gets up, which tells us that it’s been a while since he lost his wife. He revisits this and other recordings periodically throughout the series, and it’s practically the only time we see him smile.
He tells his incompetent therapist that the only reason he didn’t kill himself was because he remembered his dog needed to be fed.
This morning, looking for the dog food, Tony finds two cans in the otherwise empty cupboard and says to the dog, “Well, no dog food! It’s either baked beans or vegetable curry.” After the dog’s reaction, he pours one into its dish, and says, “Well I guess it’s vegetable curry for me, then…” and proceeds to drink it from the can.
Tony’s wife, in the video, had mentioned how nice and sweet he was, but now, as he is playing with his dog in the park, a bystander says, “You know, she’s meant to be on a lead.”
Fixing the leash to his dog, Tony acts as if the dog spoke to him, and says, “What? He is not a fat, hairy, nosy ****! Bad girl, Brandy!” before turning to the interloper with a smile and saying, “Sorry about that! See you later.” On the way to work, Tony delivers some hilarious passive-aggressive and brutal rejoinders to rude people he encounters. No more Mr. Nice Guy!
This series is next-level TV, gracefully moving between very funny black comedy and throat-catching pathos. And, as Ricky Gervais said in his notorious Golden Globes monologue (in which he does a good impression of someone who just doesn’t care any more), there are more seasons coming. “So obviously, he doesn’t kill himself.”
In the credits, we see that Brandy the dog is played by “Anti (good girl).” Season 3 has just begun production (April 2021). 75% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes; I would rate it much higher.
Thorne Smith (1892-1934) worked alongside James Thurber at The New Yorker magazine (and probably drank with him at The Algonquin). He became known for humorous supernatural fantasy fiction involving sex, drinking and ghosts.
His two “Topper” novels, about an uptight banker who becomes involved with partying ghosts, were made into three movies (the first starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett), a radio series, and this TV series.
Sophisticated but stuffy Cosmo Topper (Carroll) is the vice president of City Bank, married to sweet but clueless Henrietta (Lee Patrick). They live in a Los Angeles house they bought from the estate of a young couple, George and Marion Kerby (Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys), who died after being swept away by an avalanche. A St. Bernard, Neil, who attempted to rescue them also died with them. Topper discovers his new home is haunted by the ghosts of the former occupants as well as Neil. Strangely, he is the only one able to see or hear them. Neil, the St. Bernard, loves the brandy that he used to carry on his neck (which was a thing) and a running gag is the invisible dog lapping up the drink. The Kerby’s spend their time trying to get Topper to loosen up, and occasionally, with a twinkle in his eye, he succumbs, causing consternation among his companions. Other times, he has to explain on the spot why a bouquet or some such is floating in air.
The pilot episode and ten other in the first season were co-written by Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story) and George Oppenheimer (The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races), and the scripts reflect this—very funny and smart, with the occasional exceptional gag.
The special effects on the pilot episode are quite crude and today, a little distracting, but with a few episodes were worked out nicely. There are scenes when the ghosts are invisible to us (we and Topper can still hear them) in which objects move, scenes when the gosts are visible (still, to only us and Topper), and scenes where the ghosts transition from solid to invisible and vice versa, often interacting with the other actors, all done transparently (I’ll take the pun).
Topper is an obscure gem, albeit in black and white (I hear there are broadminded individuals who will still watch black-and-white video, bless their hearts!). Unsurprisingly it’s not on Rotten Tomatoes, but Internet Movie Database users have given Topper a score of 8.3/10.
Next time, Twisters: a pair of suspense movies in which the resolution is followed by a revelation, No Way Out and Fallen.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)