This post was originally published on June 24, 2016.
I’m such a child of the 1980s that I can still vividly recall the smell of a fresh VHS cassette tape: bright, sharp, exotic. When I was very young, my parents had a TV store and because of that, we owned one of the very first VCRs. It was a top-loader and it was built to last goddamn forever. Seriously—I think it probably still works. Anyway, I adored video stores. Some part of me always will, but that probably has more to do with the tidal wave of nostalgia everywhere I turn (hi there, Pac-Man suit and Jaws shoes).
There were only a couple of video stores in Sandusky, Ohio when I was growing up. They were very far removed from a Blockbuster Video: they were dark, odd, and tucked away into random strip malls. Each one was better than a trip to the library, though. There were walls and walls of movies offering to take me someplace else. I remember holding each box, turning it around in my hands, studying the cover art and reading the descriptions with fascination. I also can’t articulate the thrill I had when I saw that a video was actually “in” so that we could rent it. Today, this seems like such an absurd, caveman existence: the idea of waiting for anything doesn’t compute with my alcoholic brain. I can’t imagine having to wait for a new release. And if you can’t remember what VHS quality looks like, I recommend watching this music video by Caitlin Rose. It’s a good song and way better than hauling out your old Gremlins VHS.
It’s hard to not overstate the indelible sway 1980s movies have on me. I’m sure there’s an endless parade of scenes from Back to the Future, Cloak & Dagger, The Never-Ending Story, The Empire Strikes Back, The Karate Kid and Romancing the Stone looping in the back of my brain. But it’s pretty interesting to see what 1980s movies got away with and how much a reflection of the times they were. The next time you watch Ghostbusters, ask yourself if you remembered that much smoking before. 1980s movies have an air of anything-goes that just doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t imagine that drinking and drug use was more commonplace then, but it’s funny to think about how 1980s movies—especially the comedies you’ve seen a bazillion times—casually reference drugs. Here are 10 comedies that reference drugs so openly that it’s easy to miss the joke entirely.
“Be the ball.” “You’ll get nothing and like it!” “So I got that going for me—which is nice.” “Thank you very little.” This 1980 golf comedy probably has a higher ratio of quotable lines to scripted dialogue than any other film on the list. In this regard, it’s the movie that keeps giving. In fact, I’m pretty sure my friend Jeff and I have communicated in nothing but Caddyshack quotes for the past five years. The movie also does a great job conveying the cavalier attitude the 1980s had towards drugs in their movies. From the scene when Bill Murray’s groundskeeper offers Chevy Chase a “Bob Marley joint” to, later, when Chase asks a young caddy if he does drugs (“Every day, sir” is the reply), the rampant alcohol and drug use among almost every character is pretty amazing.
Sadly, a musical comedy about a giant alien plant that eats people isn’t something we’re prone to see anymore. We also don’t see much of Rick Moranis, either. There’s a suggested subplot in this 1986 gem about Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello and his addiction to laughing gas. It’s played for laughs, literally and figuratively, but it made going to the dentist seem scary and compelling at the same time. Nitrous oxide seemed almost…fun.
Nearly four decades old, this parody of 1970s airplane disaster movies still holds up. At the 3:20 mark of this montage, you’ll see the classic Lloyd Bridges “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit…” gag. The harried air-traffic controller has lots of personal addictions, apparently, with each one worse than the next.
This classic about Saturday-morning detention was the first “deep” comedy I remember seeing. I remember thinking it had Something Important To Say. Still, this scene always stood out in the wrong way. When Emilio Estevez smokes a joint and, seconds later, does cartwheels down the hallway, I remember thinking: “This is not how someone who smokes marijuana would act.” And I was 10. It seemed as ridiculous then as it does now. What’s supposed to be a liberating moment for Estevez’s pressured jock Andrew comes across as absurd (he punches an American flag, for God’s sake). For a movie all about breaking stereotypes, it does no favors to stereotypes of the effects of drugs. It’s one of the most tone-deaf moments in an otherwise insightful film. Don’t forget about the awesome Simple Minds theme song, either.
At the center of this Cameron Crowe-scripted comedy is the perpetually stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). Spicoli has such an air of simple-minded earnestness about him that it’s hard not to think of him as the genuine hero of the film. When he’s not dreaming of winning surf competitions, he’s collapsing out of a cloud-filled VW van. The movie seems to suggest that Spicoli is the only character who really understands who he is, too. In the end, a title card reveals that history teacher Mr. Hand believes everyone is on drugs. When it comes to 1980s movies, Mr. Hand isn’t necessarily wrong.
I knew kids exactly like Cousin Eddie’s kids. Not “kind of like” them. Exactly like them. They were always furtively talking about “dope” and how they’d seen their parents smoking weed. It sounded so dangerous and dark, but never alluring. It just seemed sad. These kids weren’t exactly vying to be astronauts or anything—I just remember how excited they were. I was 9 or 10 when some neighbor kid showed me his dad’s big bag of weed, hidden in a sock drawer. This memory had slipped my mind until seeing the scene where Cousin Eddie’s kids casually introduce Audrey to marijuana. I lived that moment.
These movies couldn’t be more unrelated, but they have everything to do with the terrible power of best friends. While one film is about a teenage werewolf who becomes really good at basketball, the other is about a high schooler who becomes a pimp. Both are, of course, very believable premises. In Risky Business, Joel (Tom Cruise) gets high with his best friend Barry. In Teen Wolf, Stiles employs werewolf Scott (Michael J. Fox) to buy a keg of beer and use his wolf-heightened senses to locate a lost stash of weed. Ah, the real struggles of high school.
Despite the presence of Bill Murray, I might be one of the few people who really doesn’t like this soulless spin on A Christmas Carol. It’s as cold-hearted a comedy as Scrooge himself. Instead of Ebeneezer Scrooge, though, Murray plays shrewd CEO Frank Cross who forces his entire crew to work on Christmas Eve. Throughout the movie, when Frank isn’t drinking at virtually every turn, drugs are punchlines. And let’s not forget that the lead singer of the New York Dolls is the Ghost of Christmas Past here—a cigar-chomping taxi driver who likes to snatch bottles of booze while driving.
This is how I first learned about cocaine. Not even joking. I learned about it from a goddamn Paul Hogan movie. This is one of those countless movies where it was note-perfect family entertainment, save that one scene. My parents would sigh heavily whenever they had to explain something (which reminds me of the time they had to fast-forward through the Top Gun sex scene—and in the VHS era, you couldn’t just ‘jump’ to a scene). This was no different. Everything was going great until the scene where the Australian bushwhacker ruins an NYC partygoer’s cocaine party of one. Hogan was like me as a child, asking why anyone would do coke in the first place.
10) Better Off Dead
And then there’s the 1985 John Cusack comedy where everything rides on him winning a ski competition. One of the running gags is that his buddy Charles (Curtis Armstrong) can’t find actual drugs so he resorts to snorting everything else he can, including Jell-O. At one point, Charles finds himself blown away by all the “pure snow” at the top of a mountain, wondering aloud what the street value of it all is. It’s a joke only the 1980s could allow.