The Most Underappreciated Comedic Actor of Our Time? Yes He Is.
A warning up front up – this might start reading like a love letter to Anthony Michael Hall. It isn’t, I’ll tell myself everyday. If the name isn’t setting off your familiar-meter you’re either younger than 25 or deprived of the most spirited period in comedy film history, neither of which are an issue. You’ll read plenty about him.
I’m not some weirdo. I value comedic actors and find myself easily hypnotized by the charm of characters, thus emotionally invested in them.
It’s a lot easier to love a character you’ve only seen through a window of 90 minutes on film than it is a real person, which is why we hold comedic actors so dearly. Their performances give life to the funny flicks we treasure in our hearts and revisit on a lonely evening, depressed, bombed, or both.
We all have a favorite all-time comedic actor, or several, and our lists of most beloved likely overlap. Certain names arise in discussion more frequently than others, like Gene Wilder, Jim Carrey, or Steve Martin to name a few. Some serve their years in the spotlight and fade away, while others continue on with time, starring in funny roles for the majority of their lives.
The 80s were a standout decade for light and silly comedies; a heyday for slapstick snobs vs. slobs ventures and stories of family vacations gone array, and a span of time in which a lot of the funniest films ever came to be. Naturally, a laundry list of funny legends entered our lives throughout these years, or were at least at their busiest.
Many of comedy’s most notable names were in fullest form from 80 to 89: Tom Hanks. He’s had an incredible career beyond the 80s, but the better part of his most delightful performances were the driving force in breezy 80s efforts like Big, The Money Pit, Bachelor Party, and The ‘Burbs.
Eddie Murphy had his fair share of comedy smashes with Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, and Coming To America. John Candy delivered us his charming classics Uncle Buck, Summer Rental, The Great Outdoors, and a tear-jerking, laugh-riot of a performance in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. Even Bill Murray was at the height of his game in the 80s, though more cultured people would say the 90s or 2000s. Plus he’s more relevant than ever for galavanting about, crapping into wishing wells, or whatever he’s up to (he hasn’t actually pooped in a well, I don’t think.)
Regardless of what people want to say about Chevy Chase- stuff along the lines of he’s a mediocre comedian or generally despicable person – he was a staple of hilarity in the 80s, and even his more underseen efforts are timelessly funny romps worth the occasional revisit (i.e. Funny Farm or Fletch Lives.) Call me blinded by a chemical imbalance that leads me to believe 80s comedies hold the importance necessary to position a frame of reference, but I see the good in Chevy and think he’s more talented than Johnny Carson’s corpse would tell you he is.
Think of your favorite comic actors, include them with those just mentioned, and there you have the extent of names that come up in the “best comedic actors” conversation. One brilliant underdog is always left out. He’s a guy who ate up one lovably fun role after another in the 80s; had some of the funniest lines in history’s most near and dear comedies, and still doesn’t receive his credit as one of the greatest comedic actors ever. That man is Anthony Michael Hall.
If you’ve watched at least a few of John Hughes’ best films, you’ve seen a performance from Hall that lands somewhere between endearing and uproariously funny; often a bit of both. He was an integral part of several 80s heavyweight comedies, supplying a mixture of heart, innocence, and snark to flicks that wouldn’t be so memorable without him.
Hall waltzed into comedies in the early 80s with a kind, all-american look, like the personification of what’s depicted in a Rockwell painting – blonde, gentle eyes, not remarkably attractive but pleasant in appearance. He looked exactly like who he was in films, an insecure kid with good intentions who carried the witty, sarcastic edge of someone who suffered too many reminders they weren’t popular or enough of a certain something. His characters resonated and still do with the teen guys and young adult men wandering confused and unsure outside standard social circles; those who aren’t classically handsome enough to draw attention from the “hot girls,” or guy’s guy enough to befriend the athletes. Hall’s characters not only speak to these crowds, they offer hope to them.
Though all of his most prominent 80s roles were some variation of dweeb, one even simply being named “The Geek,” Hall’s characters weren’t one-note dorks. Beneath the beaten-down, nerdy exteriors were sharp, funny guys who recognized their worthiness but had been programmed to suppress confidence. In their moments of self-belief, though, we saw surprisingly smooth, enigmatic individuals. Hall paired a swagger with his vulnerability. A sharp wit with his naivety. His dishonesty, bred from a lack of confidence, was always followed with eventual truth. He came armed with memorable one-liners to match the rejection he grew to expect, all delivered with his unique, fed up with bullshit dryness. Hall exuded dorky likeability, exhibiting an unmatched blend of real heart and cut-up dickishness.
His introduction to the mainstream came in 1983 with National Lampoon’s Vacation, in which he starred as Rusty Griswold. The film remains a widespread favorite today, especially amongst your dads, as it tells the all-too-relatable tale of a well-meaning yet klutzy and emotionally immature father who drags his family along for a trip full of mishaps. Rusty, a sheltered pre-teen, has the good nature of a kid from a decent home, but the edge and inclination to more mature thinking of a child whose goofy dad can’t relate, and whose mother has been driven to exhaustion by a screw-up, unfaithful husband. Though Hall mostly plays the straight man to Chevy Chase’s lunacy, he delivers his matter-of-fact remarks with impeccable timing, and shows all the signs of a funny young prodigy. It goes without saying he’s still the best Rusty Griswold.
The following year came Sixteen Candles, featuring what a large crowd might call Hall’s funniest performance in his role as “The Geek.” The Geek isn’t your run-of-the-mill, socially inept loser. He’s the unfortunate result of a late puberty, and the snarky sort of prick one needs to be when they’re small, skinny, and still without a single armpit hair in the heat of society’s most ruthless popularity contest. The Geek has all the arrogance and bravado of a chiseled ladies’ man, despite his social standing and outward appearance. A guy as compassionate and complex as The Geek can’t uphold that facade for long, though.
He’s a creepy little pervert with enough social intelligence and heart to make the sleaziness feel innocent (and funny.) When he drops the guard he’s loveable and misunderstood. The Geek may request a pair of your worn panties, but he’ll be candid about why he’s doing so. Hall plays a wonderfully funny delusional horndog. He embodies The Geek and every layer that character requires to be more than a sad, sex-crazed dork. He has a few of the film’s most hysterical lines – “Nice ma – nice manners, babe?!” His nervous screeches seem to derive from a hilariously genuine place. His self-aware transitions from embarrassing behavior to playing it cool are the brilliant maneuvers of a funny person who understands how to be authentically funny. The Geek is forever thanks to Hall. Sixteen Candles, though racy by today’s standards, is a sincerely funny mild classic that isn’t met with enough praise.
The Breakfast Club arrived a year later, showing the downright freakish work ethic and consistency of writer/director John Hughes. It was another opportunity for Hall to bring his comedic sensibility to Hughes’ writing, this time with a more subdued character in Brian Johnson. Johnson’s a sweet soul. A shy guy without a mean bone in his body. Hall isn’t given much of a chance to serve mean-spirited jokes, as Johnson isn’t acting out as a response to low self-worth. Regardless, he’s easy to feel for and fun to watch. He’s insanely believable as Brian. It may just be his most recognizable role. Brian, just like Rusty and The Geek, IS Hall. He might not be manic or over-the-top in The Breakfast Club, but he’s lightly funny and eerily representative of someone we’ve all known and cared for.
Soon after came Hall’s shot at a starring role in Weird Science, a deceivingly hilarious gem that’s almost as underappreciated as Hall’s run throughout the mid-80s. It’s not one of the more spoken of Hughes classics, due largely to how it’s aged. 2 geeks design their ideal woman with a computer. That was fairly inventive in 1985, but today the campiness is hard to look past. Some relish in the cheese, myself included. Others don’t share that same strange love for corny special effects; thus knocking Weird Science out of the running for “Funniest Comedies.” Hear me out- It most certainly is one of the funniest films ever, and Hall’s at his most hysterical in it.
Hall plays Gary, you guessed it, a dork who isn’t exactly killing it with the ladies. His career trajectory would look tiresome on paper, but Hall brings a special something, like unique range, to all of these dorks, making them anything but generic. Gary and his buddy Wyatt create a real, in-the-flesh beautiful older woman with Wyatt’s computer. She’s ready to help the 2 dweebs transform into hip, social guys, but matters get out of hand in their pursuit to earn the envy and acceptance of their classmates. Gary’s your textbook bad influence friend whose heart is in the right place. He masks insecurities with an onslaught of jokes. It’s a spot in which Hall thrives. He’s at his most sarcastic in Weird Science. It’s where he exhibits his most notable range in funny – from subtle quips to goofy physical comedy.
The bar scene, in my stupid opinion, is (maybe) the funniest scene ever on film and where Hall truly shines. Gary gets hammered drunk at an all-black jazz club and tries his best to fit in, reminiscing on past failed relationships and dropping knowledge on the art of attracting women. He’s eventually carried out and driven home in a convertible by Wyatt, who can’t legally or properly drive.
A description can’t do it justice. Hall summons his best drunken suburban white kid, desperate to think he can relate to mid-50s black jazz musicians. He plays along that fine line between blacked out/unable to speak and conscious enough to assume an embarrassingly fake identity. There’s never been a funnier inebriated white guy appropriating culture. In my drinking days I did tend to think I could freestyle rap, which I’m deeply ashamed of to this day, and perhaps Hall just speaks to me here. But we all know the white guy who’s suddenly from the hood when he’s drunk. This may be mid 1980s, but Hall’s performance is hilarious and pertinent today.
Several years after Weird Science, Hall took on a different role in a particularly divisive film, Johnny Be Good. Alright, maybe it was more reviled than divisive. Hall was pushed out of his comfort zone, from the shy geek who’s bullied by jocks to the jock himself. He stars as Johnny Walker, one of the most sought after high school football players in the country. College coaches will go to any length to attract him. He’s treasured in his hometown. He has a popular girlfriend whose cop father hates him. Johnny’s the envy of everybody. Despite being a die-hard Hall Monitor (Anthony Michael Hall Fan, I promise to never say it again) I can admit it doesn’t work. I’ll still defend this film; not passionately, but I’ll put up a timid, almost indifferent fight.
It’s odd to see Hall as the big man on campus, yet he provides a softer side and more complexity to the stereotypical all-american athlete, which I do find compelling. The movie has a handful of good lines, and a couple enjoyable characters. Paul Gleason, for one, is quite funny as Johnny’s coach Wayne Hisler. He’s a deceitful, overly macho douche, and Gleason can make that work. Uma Thurman is delightful as Johnny’s girlfriend, Georgia. Aside from everything just mentioned, there isn’t much to write in its favor.
The weight of the humor in Johnny Be Good doesn’t fall upon Hall, and that’s a detriment. Audiences in 1988 maybe weren’t fully comfortable seeing him transition from outrageous dork to a below surface-deep jock whom we’re supposed to empathize with as “more than just a beloved athlete.” Having said that, he’s still a delight to watch on screen as a more serious character in a mediocre satire. A true testament to his presence. Though the film wasn’t a box-office disaster, it’s sitting at a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes (not good,) and Roger Ebert once wrote, “The people who made this movie should be ashamed of themselves.”
Still, Hall’s career was far from over. He’s maintained an outstanding and consistent life in acting despite my writing sounding as though I’m eulogizing a deceased person. The man’s alive and well. He’s played varying levels of roles in dozens of great films over the last 30 years, like Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of Silicon Valley, and The Dark Knight. Anthony Michael Hall always has been and always will be a talented thespian, but the end of his time in Hughes’ films signified the end of an era; one in which he was a monumentally funny and key part in some of the most cherished comedies we’ve ever seen.
Hall making the gradual progression from on-screen goof to more refined actor wasn’t a downfall, nor was it a reflection of his ability as a comedic powerhouse. He simply got older. Hall only suffered due to aging, and by suffered I mean “outgrew clownish teen parts.” His distancing from classic comedies wasn’t his fault. It was Hollywood’s fault. They stopped casting him in roles where he could flex his silly chops. It was audiences’ fault. They grew too accustomed to seeing him as a gangly and awkward jokester. Hell, it’s possible he chose to move forth from geek roles. Hall was unusually gifted comedically quite young, which can be a curse for some. When people see, recognize, and love you for being a goofy kid, it isn’t easy coming to terms with you aging.
Luckily for the great Anthony Michael Hall, his growing older wasn’t a sudden end to acting. Luckily for us, the timeless, pleasing comedies of which he’s a quintessentially hilarious part are still available. It’s that Hall I’m making a case for. Yes he went a more serious route, but Hall as a teenager was one of the funniest people in film. He had the comedic arsenal – delivery, a likeable look, spastic movements, and a brilliant balance of dorkiness and smoothness which he fluctuated between with greatness. Hall made all-time great comedies infinitely funnier. He also brought heart to them, and in the process instilled a little more confidence in shy nerds worldwide. When we list off “best comedic actors ever,” the name Anthony Michael Hall should be mentioned. Signed, a skinny dork who peaked in his teens.
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