06 February 2004

Everybody needs Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert not only has movie reviews published on the web, he maintains an entertaining column called Movie Answer Man, in which he answers reader mail.

A couple of years ago, he kept a running joke alive in the column for an astonshingly long time.

It started with his review of Heist.

Gene Hackman plays a jewel thief who dreams of taking his last haul and sailing into the sunset with his young wife (Rebecca Pidgeon). Danny DeVito is the low-rent mastermind who forces him into pulling one last job. Hackman complains he doesn't need any more money.

DeVito's wounded reply is one of the funniest lines Mamet has ever written: “Everybody needs money! That's why they call it money!”

But this didn't make sense to everyone, so a week or two later Movie Answer Man had to speak to it.

Q. In your review of Heist, you say that the line, ''Everyone needs money. That's why they call it money!'' is one of the funniest lines that David Mamet has ever written. Why is it funny and how do you interpret it? I saw the film this weekend and heard the same line, yet I feel it just doesn't work.
Rory L. Aronsky, Pembroke Pines, Fla.

A. Ali Hirji of Edmonton agrees with you: “I personally do not understand what is so clever about this line, since it seems to have no meaning beyond its literal meaning.” Why is it funny? As Louis Armstrong once said, “There are some folks that, if they don't know, you can't tell 'em.”

But Ebert evidently got even more mail as a result of this comment.

Q. Re your item about the line in David Mamet's Heist, “Everybody needs money! That's why they call it money!” I was wondering myself what was so funny about the line. You quoted Louis Armstrong but you didn't give us an answer as to why YOU thought it was so funny because, I guess, some of us are probably too dense to “get it.” Could you please enlighten us anyway on why you think it's so funny? To me, the word has no meaning beyond its literal meaning.
Binh Ha, Waterloo, Ontario

A. Of course it has no meaning beyond its literal meaning! That's why it's so funny! This is the question that will not go away. Juan-Jose Pichardo of Chicago also writes: “No, really, explain Mamet's money joke.” I cannot explain it. I can only laugh at it, and quote Gene Siskel, who liked to say, “Two things are not debatable: eroticism, and comedy. If you don't think it's sexy, or funny, there's no way I can change your mind.”

I thought that was the end of it. But not for Ebert. The following week, the Answer Man faced a completely different question.

Q. I was looking through the quotes section of the Internet Movie Database and ran across this exchange from Me and My Pal (1933):
Oliver: You know what a magnet is, don't you?

Stan: Sure, it's a thing that eats cheese.
I must not be as fluent in old movie/vaudeville jokes as I thought I was. “Magnet” sounds nothing like “mouse,” so I'm stumped, unless it's just Stan Laurel being silly, I'm stumped.
David Westhart, Philadelphia, Pa.

A. Everybody likes magnets. That's why they call them magnets.

...which just confused the Answer Man's public even more ...

Q. Jeez, you really make us work! In a recent Answer Man, someone asked you to explain the Laurel & Hardy joke about a magnet being something that likes cheese. Your response was, “Everyone likes magnets. That's why they call them magnets.” WHAT were you referring to? I searched through recent AMs until I found debate on the David Mamet line from Heist about how everybody needs money: “That's why they call it money.” I laughed then, and laughed again today.
Paul J. Marasa, Galesburg, Ill.

A. As many readers pointed out, including David E. Miller of Las Vegas, Howard Hoffman of Sterling, Va., and Edward Sullivan of San Francisco, Laurel and Hardy were making a play on “magnets” and “maggots.” Readers who don't think Mamet's line about money is funny continue to write me. I encourage them to write one another.

Finally, Ebert took drastic action, as the Answer Man explained a bit later.

Faithful readers will recall several entries since November about a line in David Mamet's Heist that I said was the funniest he had ever written. Gene Hackman is a thief who wants to retire. Danny DeVito wants him to do one more job, for the money. Hackman says he doesn't like money. DeVito replies: “Everybody needs money! That's why they call it money!” (Earlier I quoted this as “likes” money, which is just as funny—but inaccurate, as Peter Debruge of AOL Movies informs me.)

Many readers said they did not see anything funny about this line. I quoted Louis Armstrong: “There are some folks that, if they don't know, you can't tell 'em.” More protest. I quoted Gene Siskel: “Comedy and eroticism are not debatable. Either it works for you or it doesn't.” This also failed to satisfy many readers.

In desperation I sent the whole correspondence to David Mamet himself, and have received the following reply:

Thank you for your update on the Heist controversy. A lot of people didn't even think ‘World War One’ was funny. So it just shows to go you.

Additionally, Clausewitz's On War was, it seems, originally issued as a serio-comic ‘memoire’ of life in a garret. (Orig. title Tales of a Garterbelt.)

I see where our beloved president has taken to speaking of “terriers and barriffs.” Can he mean “Braniff(s)?”

“Humor is where one finds it” —George Dandin

With all best wishes,

And I thought that was well and truly the end. But no, not quite yet.

Months later, Ebert reviews The Scorpion King.

Special effects send Mathayus and others catapulting into harems, falling from castle walls and narrowly missing death by fire, scorpion, poisonous cobra, swordplay, arrows, explosion and being buried up to the neck in the sand near colonies of fire ants. And that's not even counting the Valley of the Death, which inspires the neo-Mametian dialogue: “No one goes to the Valley of the Death. That's why it's called the Valley of the Death.”

Update: David Ziegler and Jacques Derrida explain the original joke!