My recent scathing review of the unfunny comedy Nacho Libre compelled several dear readers to launch attacks against my sense of humor. To those addlebrained special people who called into question what I find funny, all I can say is pull my finger and take a deep whiff—that should be good for a laugh or two. To the rest of you, wondering what it is I do find funny, look no further than Robert Downey Sr.'s 1969 classic Putney Swope.
Re-released this week on DVD, complete with a new commentary track by Downey, Putney Swope is a subversive comedy that tracks the rise to power of token black advertising executive Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, with Downey providing the voice). When the president of a powerful ad agency suddenly dies, the board of directors must elect a new president. The only catch is that no one can vote for themselves, so everyone votes for the black guy, thinking no one else will vote for him. As the head of Truth and Soul Inc., Swope ushers in a new agenda of surreal advertising committed to honesty. The bizarre commercials produced by Swope's agency are laugh-out-loud funny lampoons of the ad campaigns used to peddle all manner of products.
In an era when sitcom-style jokes drive much of what passes for comedy in film, Putney Swope is a reminder of a time when intelligence outweighed flatulence in the pursuit of humor. Thirty-seven years after its initial release, Putney Swope remains a hilarious tale of integrity and corruption infused with the racial politics of the day, making Downey's biting satire one of the funniest films of all time.