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10 Great Bit Parts in Road Comedies

10 Great Bit Parts in Road Comedies

“Paul,” opening tomorrow, is a road movie. It’s a sci-fi twist on the genre, of course, but at the core it’s a journey narrative, and that means it comes with the best part of any trip comedy: surprising and delightful minor characters. “Supporting pit stops” these roles can be called, layovers on the way for the errant protagonists that are not simply hilarious on their own but also add to the plot. In “Paul” these are Blythe Danner and Jane Lynch, entirely unexpected actresses in entirely ridiculous situations. So here’s a list of my ten favorite supporting turns in road comedies:

John Goodman as Big Dan T, in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

An adaptation of the first great journey tale, “The Odyssey,” this Coen Bros. film gives us John Goodman as the Cyclops-inspired Bible salesman/con man. He uses big words to talk Everett and Delmar up the hill and a big tree branch to knock them out, before driving off with their cash. For a role like this, brief but crucial to the plot and tone, Goodman is the perfect choice. He works a balance of jolly charisma and unexpected brutality, creating one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

The clip and the rest of the list, after the jump.

George Carlin as Cardinal Glick in “Dogma”

He and his church have accidentally created the circumstances necessary to bring about the end of existence, without having the slightest idea. In New Jersey no less. Carlin’s blessed golf clubs and the Catholicism Wow campaign add quite a bit of fun to an already hilarious movie, and the Buddy Christ is one of the funniest pieces of cinematic blasphemy of the last 20 years.

Christopher Walken as Clem in “Joe Dirt”

Ok, so the quality of “Joe Dirt’”s screenplay isn’t exactly on the level of the above two films. Thankfully, this meandering sophomoric comedy is exceptionally cast, and there’s no role better acted than Christopher Walken as the janitor in the witness protection program, Clem. This clip of him dancing around and then insulting a fire extinguisher, while the hall fills up with poisonous gas, is further proof that the eccentric actor and his distinctive manner of speaking should be in every movie.

Sharon Stone as Laura in “Broken Flowers”

The comedy in “Broken Flowers” is far cry from the ribaldry of “Joe Dirt,” and Jarmusch has you laughing simply do to the extraordinary strangeness of his characters. Sharon Stone’s character is the first on the list for Don Johnston (Bill Murray) to visit, and perhaps the most unsettling. The character sits on a fine line between humorous and unsettling, and Stone does a great job leaving us just as lost as our traveler.

Neil Patrick Harris as Neil Patrick Harris in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” and “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”

The beauty of this particular part is that it takes a pretty standard cameo role (the celebrity appears, makes a joke or two and disappears), and turns it into a plot-driving moment that even comes back in the sequel. NPH is hilarious, and the idea of having him play an alternate version of himself could have been stupid, but ends up fitting the tone of the movie perfectly.
Note: clips of the actual movie are on youtube but can’t be embedded, so this is from the special features for the “Guantanamo Bay” DVD.

Kathy Bates as the Squirrel Lady in “Rat Race”

This is more of a cameo, I acknowledge that. But she does certainly have an impact on the plot, sending poor Whoopi and her daughter (played by Lanei Chapman) off a cliff. Kathy Bates is hilarious, and it’s the only scene of the movie that has stuck with me 10 years later.

John Cusack as Caspar in “Roadside Prophets”

In a role unlike anything else he’s done, John Cusack forces as much food as possible into his mouth in the space of three minutes. Hilarity ensues, obviously. It’s a movie with appearances by Arlo Guthrie, Timothy Leary, Don Cheadle and David Carradine, yet somehow Cusack manages to pull off one of the funniest and weirdest scenes on this list.

Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda as Mary and Richard Schlichting in “Flirting with Disaster”

The cast of characters in this movie is something else. Ben Stiller is on a nationwide trip to find his biological parents, and every person he encounters is progressively stranger. Scandinavian Confederates, weird and violent truck drivers, gay ATF agents; the first two thirds of the film are a tough act to follow. Thankfully, the final destination is Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda as LSD-driven old hippies who are brilliantly funny and extraordinarily strange.

Unfortunately, only the trailer is available to watch online. However, it’s a great movie, and if you haven’t seen it that is a shame.

Aretha Franklin as Mrs. Murphy in “The Blues Brothers”

Ok, so these last two are really just wonderful extended cameos without much to do with the plot of the film, but I can’t resist. Aretha is perhaps the best musical moment in an epic comedy filled with fantastic songs and guest performances, no small feat.

Steve Martin as Insolent Waiter in “The Muppet Movie”

“One of the finest wines of Idaho.” This movie, filled to the brim with hilarious cameos by famous actors, comedians and musicians kicked off a love affair between puppets and celebrities that would bring us “The Muppet Show” and five more theatrical releases. Here’s hoping Jason Segel’s newest project lives up to the success of Muppet movies past.

What did I miss? Sound off in the comments.

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