Once in a while, a movie comes along that is too entertainingly weird to let pass without comment. When that happens, The Huffington Post‘s Mike Ryan and I jump on GChat and then post the needlessly detailed, necessarily joke-filled results for your amusement. This time, we’re discussing “Doctor Detroit,” the 1983 movie starring Dan Aykroyd as an nerdy college professor turned outrageous pimp. I’ve become slightly obsessed with “Doctor Detroit” since stumbling across it on Netflix Instant — so I convinced Mike to watch it too, and to join me for a conversation about whether it’s a cult film in waiting.
Here’s our conversation (and, as always in these sorts of Crosstalks, beware of SPOILERS below).
Mike Ryan: It’s funny, I could have sworn that I had seen “Doctor Detroit” before. But about 15 minutes in, it hit me: I have never seen this before in my life.
Matt Singer: I’m not surprised it sounded familiar. The nerdy, power-walking, short shorts-wearing college professor who moonlights as a deranged, metal-handed pimp is one of Hollywood’s oldest and most clichéd storylines.
Mike: I remember begging my mom to rent it for me once, but she refused because it “looked dirty.”
Matt: That’s hilarious — if you had rented it, you would have been disappointed. I mean, you would have been disappointed for a lot of reasons, but especially for the “dirty” stuff — this is probably the most innocent movie about hooking ever made. It makes “Pretty Woman” look like “Monster.”
Mike: My mom was convinced that Aykroyd was a “dirty” comedian. I almost didn’t get to see “Ghostbusters” because of that.
Matt: She let you see the right movie.
Mike: I know. I should call her right now and thank her.
Matt: I never saw it as a kid either; my first introduction to it was as part of a joke on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” In the episode “Mitchell,” Joel cracks “Doctor Detroit! With songs by Devo, Cutting Crew, and Haircut 100!” I had no idea what he was talking about, so I looked it up.
Mike: I actually thought it was about a doctor from Detroit.
Matt: Well, Doctor Detroit does claim to be from Detroit. And coincidentally, his last name is also Detroit. But that’s only like the sixth weirdest part about the guy.
Mike: But he’s not from Detroit. And the only doctor in this movie is Dr. Johnny Fever.
Mike: No one is from Detroit. Except Tom Selleck. Tom Selleck is from Detroit.
Matt: Okay, so you thought you’d seen it before, but hadn’t. So I have to know: what did you think of this movie?
Mike: I laughed once.
Matt: One genuine laugh! A new record for “Doctor Detroit!”
Mike: Is it a comedy?
Matt: I think it wants to be, but I’m not sure.
Mike: I only laughed because I laugh anytime a character yells “Gang way!” while running.
Matt: That’s a hallowed comic principle. “Gang way!” = funny. “Gang way!” yelled by a character artificially sped up by editing = (funny x 1000).
Mike: Shaggy did it all of the time, to great effect.
Matt: This movie does kind of operate along the logic of a Scooby Doo cartoon. Dan Aykroyd plays Clifford Skridlow, this stuffy college professor who, through a series of baffling plot contrivances, becomes a pimp as well. And then he dresses up as “Doctor Detroit,” this hard-ass crime boss with a robotic hand, a wig, pimp outfits, and curious accent. No one, of course, recognizes that Doctor Detroit is Skridlow. How would you describe Aykroyd’s Doctor Detroit accent, Mike? I was trying to figure out what he sounds like.
Mike: I was thinking about this, too. It’s kind of the sound the deer makes when Tommy and Richard discover that it’s still alive in the backseat of their car in “Tommy Boy.”
Matt: I would say it’s like Jim Breuer’s Goat Boy mixed with an evil witch and just a hint of Chief Wiggim. He’s such a strange character. And, of course, everyone accepts him at face value. “Oh, sure, this guy with a metal hand, and the outrageous clothes, and the ridiculous voice must be an all-powerful crime lord.”
Mike: You forgot that he also walks with a limp.
Matt: Except when he’s dancing.
Mike: Speaking of dancing, how far does James Brown roll over in his grave every time this movie is mentioned? A full 360 degree rotation?
Matt: Yes, James Brown appears in the flesh, to perform a song — ABOUT DOCTOR DETROIT — at the “Players’ Ball” that concludes the movie.
Mike: The Players’ Ball made zero sense to me.
Matt: That’s because you’re not a player, Mike.
Mike: So it was a hooker convention?
Matt: I… think?
Mike: And how did Doctor Detroit become so popular?
Matt: He walked down the street in Chicago that one time? And people enjoyed his kooky, light-hearted demeanor? That’s all I’ve got. But everyone already loves him so much they’ve written a song about him. And the other pimps know all the words and the choreographed dance moves that go along with it. When did everyone have time to learn this thing? The characters seem way too busy to practice a complicated dance routine.
Mike: All I know is that when the quality of a movie drastically changes for the worse once Howard Hessman leaves the scene, that’s a problem.
Matt: Which he does about 25 minutes in.
Mike: “Smooth Walker.”
Matt: Right. He sets up Skridlow to assume his place as the pimp of this stable of hookers. Which includes Fran Drescher, we should mention.
Mike: And Donna Dixon. Aykroyd’s future wife.
Matt: Smooth owes “Mom” — another local crime lord — a ton of money, so he claims he’s lost his territory to a new underworld figure named “Doctor Detroit,” cons Skridlow into taking over for him, and splits town, never to be seen again for the rest of the film. Or at least that’s “technically” what happens — I’m not sure he ever actually convinces Skridlow to become Doctor Detroit. One night Skridlow meets Smooth at an Indian restaurant and gets him drunk and high, and lets him sleep with all his hookers for free. And then next Smooth is gone and Skridlow is in charge, a fact he simply accepts.
Mike, are you surprised this isn’t more of a cult movie? Because I am. I feel like in an age where people have become obsessed with digging up strange, inexplicable crap of the past this might be the strangest and most inexplicable thing I’ve ever seen.
Mike: That’s a good point.
Matt: It was made the same year as “Trading Places.” It’s a year before “Ghostbusters.” And right in that period with all his biggest hits, he made something unbelievably terrible. And so bizarre!
Mike: But, for a cult movie, nothing really happens. I think that’s what’s missing. It needed to be even worse than it is. Or weirder.
Matt: It’s pretty weird.
Mike: It’s not bad enough though.
Matt: I think you need to give it more credit for its peculiar choices. Aykroyd plays a man who finds his true calling as a cartoon pimp! It’s written by Carl Gottlieb, the man who wrote “Jaws!”
Mike: I know, but nothing memorable happens. Even the big dance is boring.
Matt: Nothing memorable? What about Dan Aykroyd sword fighting a middle aged woman for the right to pimp his hookers around Chicago? What about Dan Aykroyd telling that same middle aged woman he’s going to cut off her head and shit down her neck?
Mike: But nothing happens! He said that, but he didn’t do anything but have her removed from the premises. If you were going to prove to someone just how crazy this movie is, what five minute segment would you show?
Matt: I would pick his introduction as Dr. Detroit. He solemnly quotes “Henry V,” and suits up in his yellow jacket, green slacks, blonde fright wig, disco glasses, and robo-hand (he claims he uses it as a chiropractor!) and then confronts Mom in a junkyard. He’s introduced like Superman, with this dramatic musical swell, and a quick series of shots of his robo-hand, his shoes, and then his face in this extreme low angle. But he’s not a super hero. He’s a pimp with a goofy accent. I’m surprised you’re lukewarm on this thing. It’s so amazingly odd. It’s a mainstream comedy that celebrates the redemptive power of the pimp lifestyle!
Mike: Lukewarm? I disliked it. I mean, even the text that explains what happens to the characters after the movie ends was lazy. Except one, I guess.
Matt: Was it “Smooth Walker lives with four Samoans and is now known as Mr. Pago-Pago?”
Mike: No, it was “Jassmine and Diavalo saved their money and bought a professional football team.” What does that mean?
Matt: It means hooking and being a chauffeur to a pimp are clearly far more lucrative professions than we’d been led to believe. When I tweeted about this movie a few weeks ago, Nathan Rabin, who wrote a really fun piece about this movie on The A.V. Club, said it’s “one of many films from the 1980s where cocaine should get a producing or writing credit.” Did you feel a coke-y influence?
Mike: Oh, yeah. But that’s the problem. They should have used a more creative drug, I guess. Manic influence is good, I guess, for something like late-70s “SNL.” But not “Doctor Detroit.”
Matt: I totally disagree! I like how batshit crazy the whole thing is. And whatever caused it, Aykroyd is REALLY manic and sweaty in this movie. Like unnaturally sweaty. My favorite example is in the scene where he has this horrific nightmare. And right before he falls asleep he’s laying in bed talking to himself. In frustration, he throws his hand and his pillow over his head. And his pits are just drenched in sweat. Like he just ran a marathon.
Mike: People get anxious before they sleep sometimes!
Matt: True. His double life as professor-slash-pimp was stressing him out.
Mike: Are you surprised that we never saw the Doctor Detroit Saturday morning cartoon?
Matt: If there was a Rambo cartoon — and there was! — there could have been a Doctor Detroit cartoon.
Mike: Was Aykroyd thinking franchise? Would Aykroyd be better off selling the world a “Doctor Detroit 2” instead of “Ghostbusters 3?”
Matt: The end does include a sarcastic tease for “Doctor Detroit II: The Wrath of Mom.” Wikipedia claims Aykroyd was already working on the script when the film flopped.
Mike: I gotta say, that was a very forward thinking joke. Who knew, then, that “Wrath of Khan” had such legs?
Matt: Stronger ones that “Doctor Detroit,” anyway. I guess I just find the movie so impossible to explain, that I kind of admire it as a result. No way this movie gets made today.
Mike: If it got made today, it would be a midnight festival movie and people would love it until it actually came out.
Matt: “Snakes on a Plane” syndrome?
Mike: “Get this motherfucking doctor out of motherfucking Detroit!” Oh, one quick thing. My favorite part was when Howard Hessman drugs Skridlow while convincing him to become Doctor Detroit. The pills are just floating on top of the drink. And Clifford gulps them down. It wasn’t like the pills dissolved into the drink. Just floating capsules! I found that very brazen.
Matt: When you drug people by slipping mickeys in their drinks, you’re a bit more subtle about it, eh? All right, I admit: that scene is unrealistic. BUT EVERYTHING ELSE ABOUT DOCTOR DETROIT IS LIKE A DOCUMENTARY. But don’t take my word for it! Just ask this robo-handed pimp, I just met!
Quick: guess Roger Ebert’s star rating for “Doctor Detroit.”
Mike: I’m going to guess three stars.
Matt: He said that “in the midst of all of this, Dan Aykroyd enjoys himself and brings along a certain mad detachment that suggests he knows it’s just a humble little screenplay, but he’s amused by its pretension.” The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby: did he like or dislike “Doctor Detroit?”
Mike: I’m guessing the man who DID NOT like “The Empire Strikes Back,” DID like “Doctor Detroit.”
Matt: He did indeed! He said “Mr. Aykroyd has a good, low-key comic personality that serves this sort of thing very well up to a point.” So, you see Mike, it’s not just me telling you this movie is ready for a reappraisal. It’s also the giants of American film criticism. Will you recant your testimony now?
Matt: Well I tried.
Matt: You did.
Mike: Anyway, my end thoughts on “Doctor Detroit” are, even though I participated in this retrospective of sorts, it’s best left forgotten. Unless you really find Dan Aykroyd funny.
Matt: I completely disagree. I think it is ripe for rediscovery. And also ripe in the sense that it stinks. How often does a major Hollywood star play a pimp? And a heroic, comic pimp at that? How often does a star talk like a stroke victim imitating Pimpbot 5000? How often are hookers treated like wacky sidekicks? Not often. “Doctor Detroit” is, if nothing else, one of a kind. It taught me that all a stuffy white guy like me needs to find happiness is his own stable of hookers. Words to live by, says I.
Watch “Doctor Detroit” on Netflix.