Max Savage Levenson
Okay, everybody, it’s high time that I come clean about something embarrassing and – especially as someone who writes about weed for a living – pretty shameful: until last weekend, I’d never seen Half Baked.
I know, I know.
I recognize that this error veers pretty close to being a cardinal sin; if you decided to stop reading this scrap of internet content right now, shaking your head in disgust and cursing me for all eternity…I’d understand. The film is, after all, a touchstone of stoner culture and a milestone in the career of one Dave Chappelle; anyone with more of a grasp on American culture than, say, this guy, knows that.
There were a couple of reasons that right now felt like the right time to finally watch the movie. For starters, it’s hot as hell outside, and it’s only getting hotter; for many people, it’s downright unsafe to be out of doors…in other words, an optimal time to hole up in the basement with a gallon of water, aim a fan directly at your face and get high and watch (or rewatch) this stoner classic.
And seriously, we all need something to laugh about right now. It’s rough out there.
I also wanted to see how Half Baked has held up more than twenty years after its release, in 1998; not just the jokes and the acting, but how a stoner comedy translates in a world where the consensus on marijuana has changed and continues to change, rapidly.
For any other Half Baked novices out there (closeted or otherwise), let’s catch you up to speed: the film, directed by Tamra Davis, stars Dave Chappelle as Thurgood Jenkins, a janitor (or, in his words, a “master of custodial arts”) who works at a scientific laboratory in New York City that’s studying the medicinal effects of marijuana. Soon enough, Jenkins’ roommate and childhood friend Kenny (Harland Williams) feeds a diabetic police horse named Buttercup all of the munchies he had purchased for human consumption, resulting in its gaseous death; he’s soon convicted and sent to jail as a “cop killer.”
Thurgood and his other two lifelong pals/roommates Brian (Jim Breuer) and Scarface (Guillermo Díaz) eventually snap into action and make a plan to raise $100,000 for Kenny’s bail, saving him from the malicious whims of a fellow inmate, Nasty Nate (Rick Demas). They land on a wild and lucrative idea: selling the lab’s high-potency medical weed, re-branded as Swedish Chiba. As their delivery service, Mr. Nice Guy takes off, they inevitably ruffle the feathers of the city’s resident weed kingpin Samson Simpson (Clarence Williams III), whose in-house squad of sexy, leather-clad female bodyguards responds with dramatic aggression.
While the entire ridiculous cast is a delight to behold, and the film’s cornucopia of A-list cameos – Tommy Chong as a bug-eyed prison inmate named Squirrel Master; Jon Stewart as a stoner obsessed with doing everything “…on weed;” Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson basically playing themselves; Tracy Morgan; Bob Saget – are just as fabulous, this is indisputably Chappelle’s movie.
Chappelle wrote the script with Neal Brennan (who later went on to co-create Chappelle’s Show), and, on-screen, he’s the film’s hypermagnetic focal point. In fact, Chappelle plays not one but two characters: Jenkins and Sir Smoka Lot, an impotent hip-hop star and weed industry kingmaker who becomes one of Thurgood’s biggest clients; he would be right at home in a Chappelle’s Show skit.
Both characters are utterly impossible to dislike, and Jenkins, in particular, radiates an innocence that is a far cry from Chappelle’s, well…more controversial comedy. Just look at his puppy-dog eyes and winning smile as he tries to win the hand of Mary Jane (Rachel True). (Nor is his courting strategy limited to his charms: on their first date, he steals change out of a homeless guy’s cup to cover their expenses.)
Chappelle’s virtuosic gift for physical comedy shines here, too, foreshadowing his Chappelle’s Show antics to come; if you can make it through the scene where he first discovers that the lab is growing weed – and falls to the floor, his legs giving out from under him, gasping for breath – without cracking a smile, you should consult your doctor. (Fellow CS cast member Donnell Rawlings now hosts the Wikileaf podcast Hip Hop History High.)
The New York City that Jenkins and his buddies inhabit is whimsical, and their exploits often veer into David Lynch-style absurdism and quintessential stoner humor: take The Guy on the Couch (Steven Wright), a mysterious, beleaguered stranger who lies, seemingly comatose, on the couch of the friends’ apartment as they get ripped with the help of their trusty bong, Billy Bong Thornton; later, Kenny gets intimate with a prison calendar featuring his nemesis, Nasty Nate; a dog named Killer gets a ridiculous back story; people get high and fly across the city; Jenkins pretends to be Jamaican to throw Samson off his trail. In other words, Half Baked will make you feel stoned, even if you’re sober as a rock.
Yet for all its silliness, the film also shines a light on facets of the cannabis industry, and cannabis culture, that ring true more than twenty years later. For one, Half Baked was way ahead of its time when it came to recognizing that an extremely wide swath of the American populace actually likes cannabis, not just hardcore stoners like the film’s brain-fried main characters.
Moreover, the NYC weed delivery industry depicted in Half Baked doesn’t feel like it’s changed an iota (although an imminent legal market may soon have an impact): the aggressive marketing campaigns, the deification of various dealers, the convenience of it all. Honestly, the only thing that feels outdated is some of the vocab used by the friends’ own dealer: “highs, mids, lows” has been replaced by a much more specific lexicon.
Half Baked is a lot of things: a trippy, goofy laugh-out-loud comedy; a turning point in the career of one of the greatest comedians of our time; a document of a culture that, in some ways, has hardly changed in over two decades. More than a good time, I think its humor and its depiction of cannabis are, in a word, timeless. If you ain’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor; you’ll feel better when it’s over.
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