Movies

‘Porkys’ Made Multiplexes Safe For Raunchy Teen Comedies (For Better And For Worse)

In 1980, director Bob Clark earned the greatest acclaim of his career with Tribute, a well-received drama that earned Jack Lemmon the Best Actor prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and Best Actor nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Tribute looked like the culmination of Clark’s long ascent to respectability, one earned the hard way by first making low-budget horror films in the States and then working within the Canadian film system. It’s not everyone who can go from making Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things to directing Jack Lemmon in an eight-year span. Success earned Clark some creative freedom. Obviously, another, even more prestigious film seemed like the next logical leap. Clark had other plans. He knew exactly what sort of film he wanted to make next: Porky’s, a coming-of-age comedy inspired by his teen years in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Modestly budgeted and frostily received by critics, Porky’s would nonetheless become one of the most influential films of the 1980s, one whose mark on the movie landscape would prove long and lasting. In 1981, there was nothing else like it. Just one year later, the theaters flooded with teen-targeted sex comedies that would enjoy long afterlives on video store shelves and late-night cable. Clark drew from his past for Porky’s, which he’d had plans to make for 15 years and first attempted to script in the mid-’70s. But he couldn’t have calculated a better combination of elements to succeed in the early ’80s. Porky’s channeled the raunchy spirit of big-budget, star-packed comedies like Animal House and Caddyshack into a relatively low-budget film that counted Susan Clark and Alex Karras as its biggest stars. What it lacked in name recognition it compensated for with the ample nudity the relaxed standards of the era allowed, a fixture of the era’s horror movies just waiting to be plucked and applied to a different sort of teen-appealing genre.

It proved an irresistible combination for audiences, albeit one that almost never happened. On an audio commentary recorded for the film’s DVD release, Clark recalls Fox canceling the production shortly before filming was supposed to begin. The studio began funding the project again only when Clark kept making it with his own money. Though it might sound odd to think of a movie most famous for a scene in which a character has his penis painfully pulled from the other side of a peephole as a passion project, Clark treated it as such. Whatever its commercial prospects, he saw it as an attempt to recreate the early-’50s in a way that showed the less innocent side of the era, one that had become synonymous with squeaky clean suburbia.

Clark, who grew up poor among more privileged Florida teens, also saw it as a chance to layer in a little social commentary. That largely takes the form of a subplot about one character rejecting his anti-Semitism by befriending a Jewish kid he’d previously tormented, another detail pulled from Clark’s memories of the past. “Basically Fort Lauderdale was an anti-Semitic, racist place in the early ’50s,” he recalled. “It had signs on the beach ‘No Jews Allowed’ and [in] the clubs and things. That’s how outrageous it was.”

It wasn’t those elements that caught moviegoers’ attention, however, even if they didn’t go unnoticed. A 1982 TV spot better explains why audiences showed up:

Offering brief glimpses from the film, the ad promised a bounty of not-safe-for-TV images for those who made it to the theater. “This is only so much we can show you of the locker room scene,” the narrator intones over an image of a young coach (Boyd Gaines) embracing his co-worker (Kim Cattrall) while surrounded by dirty jockstraps. It ends with shots from the film’s centerpiece scene, showing some of the young male stars staring through a peephole into the girls’ shower. The poster, meanwhile, offered a glimpse from the other side with an eye leering at naked flesh.

The ads helped stir interest in the film. The film itself delivered on their promise. Nudity alone probably wasn’t enough to make it a hit, but it certainly helped draw in crowds in the first place. And though it’s hard to imagine now, in a moment in which the internet has put a bottomless array of pornography at our fingertips at all times, the mere promise of nudity had a powerful pull, particularly when it was available at the nearest multiplex (or, a little down the road, on VHS or television). That didn’t mean people didn’t also want to watch the movie around the nudity — or that they didn’t enjoy it.

It’s easy to see why. Though it would be difficult to make a case for Porky’s as a great movie, it’s an amiable one that aims low but hits its target as it leisurely galumphs from one scene to the next. It also, by depicting its protagonists as being in a constant state of arousal and sexual frustration, offers one of the more honest depictions of male adolescence put to film, one that owes as much to Portnoy’s Complaint as Happy Days. Clark doesn’t let his nostalgia for the ’50s lead him to idealize the era. But like other humorists of his generation, roughly the same generation that produced National Lampoon, he doesn’t make the imaginative leap to see the world beyond the perspective of his not-particularly-reflective protagonists, whose thoughtlessness largely goes unjudged. The eye leering through the peephole and the film’s point-of-view are pretty much one of the same.

Hence, an opening gag that revolves around hiring a local who looks like “an African Zulu man” to serve as the scary punchline to a practical joke (though two of the more relatively enlightened high schoolers chastise their friend for using a racial slur to describe him). Hence, a film in which Porky, the owner of an anything-goes Everglades roadhouse, is made a villain in large part because he refuses to hire out some Cuban-born dancers as prostitutes. Hence the sense the peeping tom scene is all in good fun and not a horrible violation of privacy (even without a long, cruel gag involving an actress who’s heavier than the others).

It’s never particularly fruitful to apply today’s standards to yesterday’s entertainment. But poke around and you’ll usually find that others took issue at the time. In a Chicago Tribune article that found him trying to figure out its appeal as it played to packed houses for weeks, Gene Siskel asked, “As one who loathed Porky’s for reasons that have nothing to do with comedy — I hated the way it used racist remarks as entertainment, portrayed women as nothing more than sex targets, and humiliated fat people — the obvious question is: Why? Why is Porky’s a hit?” His simple answer: people thought it was funny.

Siskel and others who objected to the film weren’t necessarily wrong, but the film’s amiable spirit helps paper over some of those issues. And, as Clark later argued, “The ladies are the ones who are in control here. They’re not the ones being made fools of by their sexuality. […] Only the boys are ever made fun of.” That claim might stand up to scrutiny in the particulars, but it’s true of Porky’s on the whole. The whiny Pee-Wee (Dan Monahan) may be the focal character, but the hunky Meat (Tony Ganios) is almost as hapless. Sex makes fools of us all.

Sex also served as the focus of a pair of other 1982 films: the great Fast Times At Ridgemont High and the bizarrely downbeat The Last American Virgin (a remake of a 1978 Israeli film). Both were made too close to Porky’s to bear its influence, but the films’ marketing emphasized their most Porky’s-like elements. The Fast Times poster, for instance, suggested it was mostly a film about Sean Penn being surrounded by scantily clad women. Then, 1983 brought a deluge of quickly would-be Porky’s: Spring Break, Private SchoolFor Girls, Screwballs, Joysticks, and numerous under-the-radar efforts like Troma’s The First Turn-On. Even films with loftier aspirations felt Porky’s influence. Martha Coolidge recalls producers giving her a wide berth when making her winning Romeo and Juliet-inspired comedy Valley Girl so long as she included the requisite number of bare breasts.

Most of what followed lacked Porky’s winning qualities. Screwballs strips the Porky’s formula down to its essence, with scene after scene that mixes crude comedy and nudity with little connective tissue. Spring Break has a wet t-shirt contest scene that seems to take up a third of the movie. Critics rejected them when they wrote about them at all. (The Boston Globe on the video game-themed Joysticks: “witless cinematic trash.”) But they made money, sometimes a great deal of money.

So the trend rolled on, and some of its worst tendencies came to the fore the longer it lasted. In Fraternity Vacation, spring breaking frat bros compete to bed the same woman using deceit and rigging a telescope to peer into her bedroom. Revenge of the Nerds is both a triumph-of-the-underdogs fantasy and a movie-long expression of perceived sexual aggrievement that culminates in a scene in which one of the heroes disguises himself as his object of desire’s boyfriend to have sex with her. Writing of the movie in 2019, critic Glenn Kenny noted “it’s almost shocking that streaming services still carry the movie. And yet they do. You can watch it on Hulu right now, as a matter of fact. And, in so doing, can readily discern that the movie condones rape. Recommends it, even.”

Putting aside extreme examples like Revenge of the Nerds, time has made it easy to be a bit nostalgic for that wave of movies, in part because of the darkness that followed. As the ’80s deepened, sex grew scarier. A breezy comedy could easily make jokes about herpes, but less easily about AIDS. Perhaps not coincidentally, movie sex shifted toward erotic thrillers inspired by Fatal Attraction, films that mingled sex and death in ways, say, Hot Dog… The Movie never attempted. Out went the notion of sex as fun. In came the idea that sex could kill you, and the wave of films that worked that idea lasted even longer than those that imitated Porky’s as Fatal Attraction gave way to Sea of Love which gave way to Basic Instinct and on and on through the end of the Clinton administration and beyond.

Clark made one sequel for which he later expressed mixed feelings, 1983’s Porky’s II: The Next Day, and much of the cast returned for a third, Porky’s Revenge, in 1985, by that point looking a bit too old to play high-schoolers. Most would soon fade from view, though Cattrall went on to great fame, most prominently via Sex and the City. (Where American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused made stars of its young cast members, Porky’s seemingly had the opposite effect for most of its stars.) Clark’s other 1983 film, A Christmas Story, would prove enduring in other ways, and his career would take him on a zigzag path that would include everything from the Dolly Parton/Sylvester Stallone flop Rhinestone to the Baby Geniuses. He was still working when he died alongside his son in a car accident in 2004. Among the projects he had in the works: a remake of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.

Porky’s cultural footprint is now both deep and almost invisible. The style it popularized went out of fashion almost as swiftly as it appeared and its moment had drawn to a decisive close by mid-decade, as films like Malibu Bikini Shop largely skipped theaters before settling into their natural home on cable. There’s little to champion in the films Porky’s inspired and it takes a lot of squinting to see real greatness in Porky’s itself. But its influence has persisted, surfacing in the late-’90s by way of the Porky’s-esque American Pie, which in turn inspired another wave of teen sex comedies. (Many were lamentable, but the mix also included Superbad.) But other aspects of its legacy are harder to get a handle on, like the way the sexual attitudes and those of the films it inspired shaped a whole generation raised on them, and the ripple effects that’s had on the generations that followed. In the world of Porky’s and its ilk, sex is silly, ever-present, and often treated as an entitlement of men who grow frustrated when they can’t obtain it — when they find themselves stuck on one side of the peephole looking in. After the mayhem settles down and as the credits roll, Porky’s ends with a character looking at the camera and shrugging. In some ways, we’re still figuring out what to make of it all.

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