This essay on Dave Thomas' & Rick Moranis' Strange Brew (1983) was written be Leo Rubinkowski, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Strange Brew will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Thursday, November 17 at 6 p.m.. The screening is one of two adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet presented in conjunction with the Chazen's presentation of the First Shakespeare Folio through December 11.
By Leo Rubinkowski
Here’s the short version:
Last week, Hamlet (1948): “Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
This week, Strange Brew (1983): “Take off, you hoser!”
If you don’t like it, take off, eh!
Here’s the long version:
From their first appearance in 1980 as hosts of SCTV’s fictional talk-show segment “Great White North,” the McKenzies were defined by genial irreverence. At the time, SCTV’s half-hour broadcasts to Canadian audiences included two extra minutes of programming compared to the broadcasts syndicated for NBC affiliates in the United States. Seeing an opportunity for cultural outreach, the Canadian Broadcasting Company required that SCTV devote the time to uniquely “Canadian content.” Seeing an opportunity for mischief, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas complied by inventing Bob and Doug, respectively, avatars of the Canadian spirit who spent their time frying back-bacon, drinking beer, eating jelly donuts, and discussing issues of national significance (like how to fit a mouse into a beer bottle).
The McKenzie sketches were bare-bones—two actors improvising two-minute bits back-to-back-to-back for an hour with a single cameraman after the rest of SCTV’s crew had left for the night—but they proved wildly popular, both at home and south of the border. (When SCTV occasionally ran short, network affiliates in the US made up the difference by running the longer Canadian version with the McKenzie bits.) In 1981, Moranis and Thomas released a comedy album as their alter-egos titled “The Great White North,” which charted in the US and Canada and earned the duo a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album in 1983. A feature film seemed like a reasonable next step.
At a glance, Strange Brew is very obviously based on Hamlet. (Why else would we have paired the two for a Cinematheque series?) In place of the Danish royal family’s estate, Elsinore, we get Elsinore Brewery. Rather than King Hamlet’s murder by his brother Claudius, who usurps his throne and steals his wife, Uncle Claude takes over the family brewery as a lackey of Brewmeister Smith, who murdered John Elsinore (Claude’s brother) to keep him from exposing a plan to take over the world through tainted beer. Instead of Hamlet and Ophelia, who both end up very dead, Pam Elsinore and one-time hockey great Jean LeRose save the day while very much alive. Finally, the comic relief: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original, and the McKenzies here. (Is there a Hosehead-Laertes connection I’ve missed? Oh! I forgot the play-within-the play, which is reproduced in minute detail as The Mutants of 2051 AD.)
If the correspondences look cursory, and if any perceived homages feel indelicate, that’s because they are. Taking Dave Thomas at his word, he and Rick Moranis faced a pair of problems in developing the McKenzies for the big screen, and Shakespeare solved both problems. First, their executive producer at SCTV had threatened to sue the pair for breach of contract if they wrote a movie using their “Great White North” characters, so they handed off the initial script-writing duties to Steve De Jarnatt. Second, Bob and Doug were products of improvisation; neither Moranis nor Thomas was fully prepared to develop a 90-minute script for two characters who spent their lives on a couch. Rather than leave De Jarnatt with nothing, though, they offered him Hamlet, saying “Why don’t you play with that structure. That’s at least a story that works.”
And that’s about as far as Shakespeare influenced Strange Brew (at least as far as I can tell).
With a script in hand, Moranis and Thomas had no trouble securing a distribution deal with MGM. At the same time, the two actually rewrote a good deal of the script, because they felt that their improvisational style hadn’t been adequately reproduced in the first draft. What could they add to Shakespeare? Basically anything that entertains despite (or because of) its cartoonish absurdity. Some portions of the script toward the end were re-worked (apparently, Hosehead couldn’t fly in the first go-around), but Dave Thomas points primarily to the first half of the film, when he said: "…the opening of the movie, if you look at it texturally, is quite different than the back half. The back half really locks into the story of the evil Brewmeister trying to take over the world, whereas [in] the beginning of the movie Bob and Doug present a little sci-fi with Rick as Charlton Heston at the end of the world…picking up a miniature Statue of Liberty and…then we’re in a movie theater watching our own movie and we release moths, cause a riot, and end up having to run out of our own movie premiere. The script was far more bizarre and conceptual in the beginning than it ended up being at the end. If we had been able to rewrite the whole thing, we would have made the whole thing like that probably, but we weren’t sure how far we could go with the studio."
When Strange Brew hit North American screens in late August 1983, Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it “a movie that’s barely there,” assuring her readers that the cost of admission “could buy enough beer for an experience at least as memorable as this one.” With all due respect to Maslin, she must not have been watching in the preferred 3-B. While allowing that the plot isn’t exactly air-tight (“Tunnel to the brewery? Take off! How convenient!”) and acknowledging that it lacks the emotional and psychological force of, say, The Merchant of Venice, viewers should also keep in mind that this isn’t Shakespeare. A better point of comparison, in fact, is offered right in the film: cartoons. In MGM’s Tom & Jerry shorts (to say nothing of the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes libraries owned by Warner Bros.), basic rules of logic don’t apply. The same goes for the universe inhabited by Bob and Doug; critical comparisons to the real world (or to basic standards of dramatic narrative) just get in the way. It’s easier to suspend expectations and be perpetually surprised at the antics of these two lovable goofballs and at the inarguable novelty of their adventures.