I like my funny in everyday situations. Martians doing a Henny Youngman routine or dogs with a cockney accent just don’t foot the bill. I want my funny to occur in interactions between people, or mishaps with the weather. The persuasion lacks imagination or the ability to think outside the constructs of society, but with everyone on equal footing, an actor or comedian who can make the everyday entertaining proves creative and intuitive.
John Candy made the everyday funny. He wasn’t the Level Five Hurricane of Chris Farley who seemed to leave a broken table and an exhausted audience in his path. Nor was he the sound-effect facial-tic machine of Mel Brooks. Candy was notable for his size and stature, but he never made his size the story. Instead, he tap-danced his way through situations presented to him.
In the three movies (“Uncle Buck,” “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” and “The Great Outdoors”) that actualize my interpretation of him, Candy never made his weight the joke. Sure Steve Martin mistakenly wipes his face with Candy’s oversized underwear in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” but it was Candy’s disarming demeanor in situations that made him so appealing. He reminds me of the relative (An easy correlation to make since he starred in “Uncle Buck.”) who always knew a guy, had a guy, someone he played cards with on Thursday’s or who he golfed with twice who could get him out of a jam or procure a last-minute hotel room in the middle of Wichita, Kansas. In the make-believe world of movies Candy made you believe he had an actual bond with the individual, that he would know a guy like Gus, or Wally and established a sincere relationship.
The “every-man” label stitched to his persona carries him through any situation. You knew he would be the type to lug around an oversized trunk through New York City, or wear the small vermin atop his head in “Uncle Buck.” It was due in part to the fact that John Hughes wrote John Candy so well and John Candy acted the roles with such precision that anyone would feel comfortable eating a gigantic pancake he prepared. We fully expected him to lead a bus full of strangers in the theme song from “The Flintstones” or kick off his shoes on a flight to deal with his barking dogs.
John Candy acted as the total person, not some buffoon or overblown caricature. His characters were always the first to make a joke to diffuse any awkwardness, but don’t cross any of the people he cared about. (Part of the criticism of “Uncle Buck” came from Candy’s portrayal of Buck Russell as too dark, too thorny. And while kidnapping the two-timing boyfriend of his niece and dropping Pooter-the Clown with a jab appears unseemly, his affection for his family and others he cares about comes through in every role.) The pure elation that comes as a result of his flicking a quarter at his other niece’s assistant principal and advising her to have a rat gnaw that mole off her face is the type of rise-from-your-seat excitement that rarely comes across on the screen.
John Candy made the mundane funny, he made the everyday amusing and worked to create a character you felt you knew. Maybe one uncle bowled with him, or he sold snow tires to your next door neighbor. No gimmick, no shtick, no stupid catchphrase. Just funny.