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Funny gifts for frightening times: 8 DVD box sets

The Laughing Cure

Has the world ever been more ready for a jolly fat guy chortling “Ho, ho, ho!” in an effort to boost our broken spirits? I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping for some serious laughs this holiday season before we peer into the foreboding future of 2009.

That movie buff on your list may claim that he or she wants a copy of Satantango or Berlin Alexanderplatz, but that’s just because they’re too cheap to buy them. Instead, get them something they’ll actually watch and re-watch until the laser burns a hole in the DVD.

Note for note—and his band the City Slickers played a lot of notes—Spike Jones was the most hilarious musical parodist of all time. Touring the US in the 1940s and 1950s, Jones’ Musical Depreciation Revue was musical vaudeville that performed popular tunes with preposterous instrumentations and a rotating cast of comic personalities in the loudest checked suits imaginable. By the time he hit television in the 1950s, he had a repertoire of sharply honed performances and a crack band that could play swing and Dixieland with the best of them, even if they all looked like they were on the verge of total collapse. Spike was a direct inspiration to Frank Zappa, as well as PDQ Bach, the Bonzo Dog Band, Oingo Boingo, the 1970s Kinks, and the Beatles. No less than Thomas Pynchon wrote the liner notes for the 1994 CD compilation Spiked!

Assembled by his son, the four-disk set Spike Jones—The Legend features three hour-long episodes of the 1950s TV show (with the original commercials, many of which are done by Spike) along with a DVD of extras and a CD of previously unissued radio performances. I was expecting the set to contain the same performances that were on the four VHS tapes issued by Paramount in the early 1990s, but there’s surprisingly little overlap. Some of the topical comedy drags a bit, but the manic musical performances are timeless, both for the split-second timing of the gags, the sheer goofiness of the humor, and the undeniable chops of the musicians—there are times when rubber-faced banjoist Freddy Morgan’s right hand strums so fast it becomes a blur. The box set, which came out earlier this year, retails for $50, but you can find it online for under $20. You won’t be sorry.

That’s not the only comic bargain to be found in DVD boxset land. Those multiple disk sets you couldn’t afford to buy your giftee a year or so back are likely to have come down substantially in price, and they look just as impressive as long as you remember to scrape of the price tag. A few recommendations:

Preston Sturges—The Filmmaker Collection—Six comedy classics (and one oddball drama) made in an astounding four year run by the writer-director who burned out soon after. Having Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, Hail the Conquering Hero, The Great McGinty, and Christmas in July all in one set could only be more perfect if the box included Sturges’ funniest comedy, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. But given that you can find this for less than the suggested retail of $60, you can throw that in separately for another $10.

The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection—Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zepppo’s greatest hits, which is to say all the movies they made based on their live performances before Irving Thalberg reined them in and watered them down for mass consumption. Focus on the words “Silver Screen”—you don’t want to get suckered into buying The Marx Brothers Collection, featuring the Thalberg era movies, or the unrelated The Marx Brothers Collection documentary. The suggested retail price is $60, but Amazon and other sellers have it for $28. Duck Soup alone is worth that, and you also get Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, and The Cocoanuts.

The Three Stooges Collection—After years of haphazard releases, the Stooges are finally being done right. They’re up to volume four of this series that will present remastered versions of all 190 Stooges shorts, made between 1934 and 1958, in chronological order. They may not be significantly discounted, but the $25 suggested retail price is pretty low to begin with for two-disk sets containing nearly six hours of prime material (and you can expect to pay less than $20). Once again, there are a lot of other Stooge compilations out there, all of poorer quality, so make sure to get the ones released by Sony Pictures.

I always used to think it was ridiculous to buy television shows on DVD as long as the shows seemed to be everywhere in syndication. But with many older shows disappearing from the airwaves (err, cablewaves?) and significantly lower prices, it now makes sense to grab something like The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset (16 disks for under $60), or the Kids in the Hall Megaset (20 disks for around $70). The various volumes of the brilliant SCTV, which never sold as well as it was expected to (or deserved to) are going begging for well under $20. And the box sets of the first three seasons of Saturday Night Live, which include everything from every episode, and are worth seeing more for the weird stuff you’ve forgotten than the obvious stuff that got milked to death, are selling for a price that comes out to about $1 per hour.

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