As a prepubescent loser growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey during the 1980s, my sense of humor was shaped by the kind of low-grade, teen sex comedies which aired on late night cable ad infinitum. Films with punny titles like Joysticks, Hardbodies, Private Lessons, and Losin’ It bore the equal amount of moronic humor and needless female nudity to appeal to a dimwit such as myself who was too afraid to actually speak to a girl, let alone watch one of these movies in their presence.
On the off chance I pass by one of these flicks in the present day while clicking through the upper echelons of cable TV channels, the overall buffoonery still makes me guffaw, but there’s no doubt the misogyny which floats these features hasn’t aged well and stands as testimony to the conditions many women have dealt with in the movie industry. Considering how culturally toxic these films could be received by today’s woke generation, what would possess someone to write an entire book about them in this day and age?
Ask Mike “McBeardo” McPadden, author of the recently published Teen Movie Hell: A Crucible Of Coming-Of-Age Comedies From Animal House to Zapped!, an encyclopedic tome which spans a 20-year history of these celluloid jiggle fests. Talking from his desk in Chicago, where he contributes as one of the editors for the true crime website Crimefeed, McPadden tells me the book was a project he started way back in the late 90’s. “I actually had a publisher for the book, but they ended up going under.” Although a resident of the windy city for a number of years, the accent from his native Brooklyn is as thick as a glass of Flatbush tap water. “I’m so glad that version never came out. I was 30-years-old and a complete jackass back then. It would have just been full of boob and dick jokes and I would be mortified today.”
When Mike decided to pick back up with the book a few years ago, he knew both the world and himself had changed in the intervening years. “Listen, I know I am a married 50-year-old white man” he states sternly. “These movies were made for me, so I can only come from that point of view. I could have went in there and continued on with all the boob and dick jokes, but haven’t we all had enough of that by this point?”
While weighing how to present this labor-of-love in the most honest and organic way possible during this time of callout culture, McPadden had a flash of practical revelation. “All of a sudden, I said to myself, ‘Hey schmuck! You know brilliant women who write about film. So have them enrich the book by contributing it.’”
By calling upon a bevy of female writers to bring their voice to the proceedings, Mike manages to bring unique takes of varying opinions to the usual sausage-party atmosphere of this genre. Kicking off the book in an appropriately irreverent style, Kat Elinger, editor for UK-based Horror film mag Diabolique, provides a hilarious and exhaustively researched rebuttal to a USA Today piece with the eye-roll worthy title “In The Era Of #Metoo Is It Still OK To Laugh At Animal House?” Deeper within the pages, performance artist Lisa Carver grafts in a crafty bit of praise for the current generation who are challenging cultural norms in her synopsis of 1983’s Night Of The Comet. “I may be the only human being approaching 50 who believes millennials and young SJWs are cool and necessary,” she declares. “They’re making their own revolution happen. They’re upending it all and that’s more than what we Gen X’ers can say at this point.”
Speaking with an authority akin to a college lecturer, Mike begins to give me an impromptu history lesson on the cultural phenomenon the book covers by lining up the three films he considers the progenitors for the genre: American Graffiti (1973), Animal House (1978) and Porky’s (1981). Gushing about the first film he lists, McPadden declares, “If you haven’t seen American Graffiti lately, I highly recommend it. It’s a work of genius and it’s probably the only movie in the book to which I would apply that title. It’s a force of life and a monumental cinematic achievement in that it’s poetic and artful but also about horny kids spending the last night in their hometown before going off to college.”
McPadden makes a point how all three of these films are based in 50’s and early 60’s America, a time perceived by many as nourishing and pure as a warm glass of milk wrapped in a cardigan sweater. “People have these ideas the early 60’s were the last moment of innocence for America before the assassination of JFK, the Beatles coming over or Vietnam. We’re led to believe this was such a wholesome time and all these movies destroy that concept by showing teenagers being horny and looking for the next good time.” Having made his point known, Mike sternly states, “So, the template is there: Nostalgia, teenagers, and frankness in terms of sexuality.”
When Porky’s became the fifth highest grossing movie in America for 1982 while also becoming the highest grossing film of all time in Canada (a title it still holds today) it sent every studio clambering to churn out as many of these teen sex flicks based in yesteryear as possible. While bandying back and forth the titles of films which abused this formula, McPadden and I both agree 1983’s Screwballs is the best of the worst. We both marvel at not only how director Rafal Zielinski miraculously squeezed 80 minutes worth of movie from the asinine plot of nerds and their convoluted scheme to see the most popular girl in the school nude but also the character names, which include Purity Busch, Bootsie Goodhead, Principal Stuckoff and my personal favorite, Melvin Jerkovski.
“These movies were made for me, so I can only come from that point of view. I could have went in there and continued on with all the boob and dick jokes, but haven’t we all had enough of that by this point?”
But when Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) and John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) piqued the interest of 80’s kids by bravely summoning their sexual trials and tribulations, it rendered the nostalgia format obsolete. “At that point, it was all about attracting contemporary kids to contemporary kid stories,” states McPadden. “Looking back, it was better for the boobies-and-bobby-sox stuff to fall by the wayside because a major attraction of these movies was wish-fulfillment and the time setting meant a lot.”
As the 80’s chugged on, a new age in moviemaking began as video rental spots and cable television began to flourish. Now, freed from the financial restraint of trying to get a feature film into theaters, enterprising directors began to bust out hundreds of cheaply-made, by-the-numbers, straight-to-video films with uninspired names like Bikini Carwash and Spring Fever USA, crammed with gratuitous nudity and fat slobs adorned in Hawaiian shirts. Although this era would be considered the golden age of teen sex movies and make up a majority of his book, McPadden can’t help but look back on the period bittersweetly. “Once the theatrical experience was removed, everything got cheapened in every sense. The studios no longer needed to keep your attention. Once you had a fast forward button, it was over.” Mike cites the bookend of this genre to be Richard Linklater’s 1993 film, Dazed & Confused, which used the nostalgia of teenage wasteland 1970’s America to the same effect director George Lucas employed in the early 60’s twenty years prior in American Graffiti.
As we while away the rest of our Friday afternoon, reminiscing on these films which warped our youth, I begin to ponder on the unabashed male chauvinism in these movies and the overall damage it certainly caused to our generation. McPadden immediately blurts out: “Oh! Believe me, I know these movies fucked me up” before letting out a hearty though uneasy chuckle. “I want to make that perfectly clear. Being obsessed with these films was a high-impact phenomenon we’re all just beginning to recover from.”
“But how will the youth of today learn about the hilarity of flatulence or the realities of class struggle without films such as these for guidance?” I ask. Mike breathes out a heavy sigh and earnestly states, “It seems today we have this millennial issue where adulthood doesn’t start until you’re 40-years-old. As a result of this, teenagers who were once perceived as sex-mad delinquents are now just considered tall kids. In the popular conscious now, there’s no difference between a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old and that’s made for a big change in movies and entertainment. And who knows? All of this could be for the better.” Letting out yet another weary sigh, McPadden surmises: “Maybe we’ll benefit by having less traumatized people like you and me out in the world.”