If anything, the 20 years since the release of Election have only further cemented its place as one of the all-time great comedies. The root of comedy is surprise, and in a genre that’s so reliant on newness and topicality, any work that retains its humor beyond a few years is impressive bordering on the miraculous. Election, released in April 1999, is notably still funny. Really funny.
How does a comedy become timeless? Part of Election’s greatness is that it’s so irreducible. Almost every laugh is the sum total of composition, editing, performance, writing, music. Where so many other celebrated comedies over the years have marked the emergence of some great performer, or the comedic awakening of a particular generation, Election just feels beautifully designed, everything in it working just so.
I laugh as much at the framing, editing, and music choices — the iconic freeze frame of Reese Witherspoon’s nostril, the floating heads exhorting “fill me up, Mr. M” — as I do Chris Klein’s aw shucks delivery of voiceover lines like, “My leg wasn’t bugging me too much and the weather was so nice, and every day after school Lisa and I would go to her house to fuck and have a hot tub.”
With 20-year-old comedies, you often get a sense of “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” or “they’d never get away with this today.” Consider that another 1999 hit comedy released a few months after Election, American Pie, had an entire scene that revolved around filming the foreign girl changing and broadcasting it to the entire neighborhood (featuring a Blink 182 cameo). And when the video accidentally went viral, the filmer was shamed not for being a sex offender, but for ejaculating too early.
Election, by contrast, has a keen sense of morality and is only funnier for it. Probably because above all it eschews self-righteousness. It practically makes a fetish of eschewing self-righteousness. You don’t get the sense that it couldn’t exist today or that the jokes couldn’t be done, only that jokes today mostly lack Election‘s nuance and panache. Movies as thoughtful as Election are a rare commodity in any era. All of its characters are so flawed and so relatable, and they come together in ways that feel novel yet deeply true. It may contain the world’s only “hilarious admission of statutory rape” scene.
Stylistically, Election is a mix of retro and classic techniques — the freeze frames, the character theme music, the insets, the voiceovers — combined in ways that feel fresh. It’s about as close as it gets to a “symphony” in comedy movie terms. Election is a comedy that is undeniably Art, where we invoke art to explain the presence of laughs rather than a lack of them.
The High School Movie That Isn’t
Cue the part where I tell you it wasn’t appreciated in its own time.
That’s true, though only if we narrow “its own time” down to the few months following release. Tom Perrotta wrote the book on which Election was based, still unpublished when the film began shooting. He’d connected with a film producer who’d seen Perrotta at a public reading, who eventually read Perrotta’s manuscript for Election, and helped him get it optioned by MTV. As Perrotta told The Guardian, “It all looks like a very good career move in hindsight. The truth is, Matthew Broderick was in a career lull at the time, Reese Witherspoon had never had a hit movie, and although the film was a critical success, it was box-office death. No one ever did an R-rated teen flick again.”
Director Alexander Payne, fresh off 1996’s Citizen Ruth at the time, wasn’t even interested in it, initially.
“The novel came to Jim Taylor and me as a job,” Payne told me via email. “MTV Films, under the aegis of Paramount, had optioned this book and two recent friends of mine, Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, were producing. I put off reading it for a couple of months, because the last thing in the world I wanted to do was a high school movie. Finally, I read it and saw it was much more, and Jim agreed. I liked the humor, the banality, and the formal challenge of doing multiple voiceover.”