I will sing the praises of Caddyshack until the end of time. It’s one of my all-time favorite comedy movies. I say that not thinking it’s a particularly laugh out loud comedy.
That strikes some people as odd, as Caddyshack‘s reputation is more based on its jokiness than its quality. When I talk up Caddyshack to friends in my age range, the general consensus is that it’s dad comedy, not nearly as funny as it was in 1980, sloppy, and overrated. I very rarely laugh when I rewatch Caddyshack. But I smile watching it more than nearly any other movie I’ve ever seen. I don’t think Caddyshack is a particularly funny movie. I think it’s a great movie.
I have two reasons for feeling this way, and two reasons alone: Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield.
Chevy Chase, notoriously an asshole, has rarely held a job in his life for more than a couple of years (Community was actually the exception). He was the breakaway star of the first season and a half of Saturday Night Live, but with the exception of Foul Play, the 1978 movie that received mixed reviews, he had languished in the four years in between leaving SNL and Caddyshack. His turn in Caddyshack, however, may be his masterstroke.
The late 1970s/early 1980s was the beginning of the “snobs vs. slobs” era of comedies that has become a running trope ever since. It began with Animal House, a movie that’s often considered a rival to Caddyshack as the definitive comedy of its era. I’d argue that no performance or character embodied the class divide of its era better than Ty Webb.
Ty comes from the snobs. He was traumatized by that world. Most of Chase’s schtick as Ty is contexualized with the shadow of Vietnam:
Ty: I brought most of that stuff back from Vietnam.
Lacey: You were in the war?
Ty: Uh…no….Homo. Much better now though.
Whether or not Ty actually went to Vietnam is somewhat ambiguous here. But he’s likely joking; he was likely drafted in Vietnam. His behaviors (which are consistent with PTSD), resentment of the ruling class he was born into, and his general distrust of authority, were reactions America as a culture experienced in the wake of Vietnam. Chevy Chase’s usual subtle, physical silliness is tinged with sadness and mourning in Caddshack more than any other role he performed.
By 1980s, Jews were allowed in most respectable country clubs in the countries. But it took until the late 1970s to accomplish this, and country clubs weren’t happy about it. In fact, there were many scandals, bombshell newspaper articles, lawsuits, and legislation aimed at allowing Jews in country clubs. The effects of this predujice were felt long after 1980, arguably continuing to this day.
My grandfather was a state politician in Massachusetts in the 70s. At the time, Jews were not allowed into the Brookline Country Club. My grandfather told me the story of forcing the club to allow Jews in by threatening to revoke their liquor license.
Suffice to say, even the clubs that had to let Jews in were not happy about it. There was a lot of pressures on Jews to behave in line with country club values. And Jews in country clubs felt this. Dangerfield’s Al Czervik recognized this tension in his very first line of significance in the movie to his Asian caddy “Wang”:
I hear this place is restricted, Wang, so don’t tell ’em you’re Jewish, okay?
This line sets the framework for what Czervik is facing. And every move he makes after that in the movie is designed to absolutely obliterate every expectation of what he is supposed to be.
The dining room scene in Caddyshack became one of the movies most iconic moments, and introduction of Dangerfield to the zeitgest of pop culture:
From a pure funny point of view, the jokes don’t really hold up. If you show that clip to anyone these days, it appears dated and schticky at hell. But for what they mean in the context of the story, a Jew in a country club openly trouncing every expectation, owning his boorish, out of place sensibilities and doubling down on them when facing a repressed, culture that resisted every level of inclusivity, it’s a rebellious move. A slob among the snobs. Impossible to deal with.
This all culminates in the climactic golf scene at the end. The gopher scene. The “hey everybody, we’re all getting laid” scene. But my favorite scene in the movie is the set up to the climax, when Webb and Czervik, both in with the snob camp, align themselves with the slobs once and for all:”
Judge Smails: Can I have a word with you? In private.
Ty: Sure thing, Judge.
Judge Smails: Your father and I prepped together, went to war together, played golf together. We built this Club, he and I! Let’s face it. Some people simply do not belong. Let’s not…cave in too easy. What do you say, Ty?
[Ty and Judge Smails laugh]
Ty: Let’s make it $40,000.
Ty: My dad…never liked you.
This is class warfare through golf, gophers, girls, and general horseplay. It’s a defining generational statement of its era. And it shakes me to the bone every time I watch it. Even if I don’t laugh a lot.