1980s Comedies That Couldn’t Be Made Today

Tom Hanks on the Piano in Big

Twentieth Century Fox

Classic movies can sometimes be uncomfortable to watch. Many things that were socially accepted during the Golden Age of Hollywood are not today, and vice versa. And representations and treatment of minorities of race, religion, sexual orientation and gender were often inauthentic – whether because of customary ignorance or concealment. But it’s not just the movies of our grandparents’ era that fit into this idea where we need to consider the times when appreciating cinema, whether it’s awful stereotypes in The Birth of a Nation or marital rape in Marnie or the general villainization of Native Americans for decades. We’re now far enough away from the 1980s that it’s time to reexamine just what we thought was okay and particularly what we found funny back then.

Many of the plots of hit comedies from that decade would never fly today. Some of it is leftover political incorrectness and downright racism and sexism, but there have also been cultural and technological changes in the last 25–35 years that make other scenarios dated and maybe even incomprehensible to young viewers now. One element of many 1980s movies that wouldn’t work for modern audiences is all the homophobia employed in insult humor and gags involving gay bars. There was also a huge issue regarding seemingly innocent, mostly non-physical sexual assault back then, from ghosts and super-powered guys peeping on and stripping unsuspecting women to more common non-supernatural forms of voyeurism.

Hollywood could easily remake many of the movies guilty of those issues and leave out that sort of inappropriate language and situations, but the following 10 comedies from the 1980s could not be so easily reworked as to be acceptable or make sense in today’s setting. Interestingly, a few of them have been or currently are in the stages of being remade. Good luck to their respective producers getting over the hurdles of archaic scenarios and humor.

The Toy (1982)

Even if you buy into the ways this Richard Pryor comedy is more satire than pure racism, it’s still a hard sell to have a movie where a rich white man buys a black man as a “toy” for his spoiled son. It shouldn’t have even seemed okay back then, especially since any social commentary was lost on the kids who’d go see a PG movie, but it was actually a big box office and VHS success.

Mr. Mom (1983)

There are still plenty of people who think a man should work and a woman should stay at home in the kitchen with the kids. And even more people have trouble at least shaking away the gender stereotypes while accepting that they’re old-fashioned. Still, the concept of the stay at home dad is pretty common these days. This and many other movies and TV shows involving guys having trouble taking care of children and housework are now just a piece of history, as a response to then-changing norms about the American family. More than the scenario of a Mr. Mom, though, it’s the stuff about how crazy it is for the mom to have an important job that is especially outmoded today. We can still laugh at a man who has trouble changing diapers and ironing shirts, but there’s nothing funny or odd about a woman in the boardroom.

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

It’s not necessarily the inappropriately excused rape scene where a character pretends to be someone else in order to have sex with that person’s girlfriend, nor is it necessarily the assault on women in the form of a sorority house break-in, voyeur cam installation and distribution of nude spy pics. That’s all pretty terrible and obviously shouldn’t be in the planned remake. The main reason why it doesn’t make any sense to redo this movie is that nerds are viewed quite differently 30 years later. They’ve “won.” We already have a new Revenge of the Nerds, and it’s called The Social Network.

Spies Like Us (1985)

If only we had comedies like this today. It doesn’t matter that the Cold War is over and scenarios finding humor in potential nuclear war aren’t as easily achieved or relevant. It doesn’t matter that espionage comedy is almost nonexistent now in spite of spies still being a thing. I don’t think we’ve gotten too serious about intelligence gathering to enjoy a movie about idiots being used as disposable decoys who ultimately save the world. We just don’t have an international adversary as appealing as the Soviets, with whom we could have our dumb heroes making peace so deeply as happens in the third act of this particular plot. Today’s Cold War is the War on Terror, and audiences just wouldn’t be as accepting of our current Dan Aykroyd equivalent winding up with a member of Al Qaeda.

Weird Science (1985)

The general premise of this sci-fi comedy (the second movie on this list written by John Hughes) is just fine. Two horny teenage dorks create a gorgeous fantasy woman, whose presence gives them a new reputation and greater self esteem. The woman doesn’t become a sex toy, as we probably should have expected in the 1980s, and in fact in spite of her being objectified “Lisa” is pretty much the one in control at all times. The problem for today is how she was produced: with a computer. How? Who knows, and that was okay because none of us knew much about computer back then. Well, okay, we knew you couldn’t really make a woman out of thin air, but the general principle of our ignorance still worked in its favor. There is a Weird Science remake in the works, and it will probably just employ the same manner of creation, but it’d be interesting to see the new version work with something else the general population is ignorant about. Whatever that might be.

Soul Man (1986)

There were protests when this modernized version of Black Like Me was released, and the same would be true today if a remake was produced with a white actor in the lead role. Never mind that the actual premise of the movie is a white actor coloring his skin to pass as African American – nobody gets away with blackface anymore except Robert Downey Jr. That would be unfortunate if we really needed another take on the situation anyway, but we don’t need a white man going undercover as a black man to reveal the persistent racism and privilege issues in America. Also, affirmative action isn’t as hot a topic as it once was (nationwide anyway). I do wonder if a remake of Soul Man would be more acceptable if the main character was black and played whiteface for the pre-transformation scenes, like Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man.

Overboard (1987)

At one time there was talk of a remake of Overboard starring Jennifer Lopez. Hopefully that idea has been completely squashed, because there’s no need for another movie about a woman turned into a slave while suffering from amnesia. Goldie Hawn’s wealthy character is sort of cruel, but not enough for a sort of social rape (we assume only that) when she has an accident and is deceivingly brought home by a working class guy to be housewife and mother to his many male children. It’s possible to overlook the sexism in order to view the movie as nothing more than a comedy about social class – same as Trading Places, maybe. The gender roles make that very difficult, however. And Hollywood would never do this story as being a man taking advantage of another man or woman taking advantage of a woman, for tricked servitude, because its the romantic comedy angle that’s really the appeal here.

Hiding Out (1987)

Playing unintentionally on the fact that so many teen movies star actors much older than teen-age, this little-remembered comedy has a stockbroker hiding from the mob by pretending to be a high school student. Surprisingly, many of the main characters in Hiding Out are played by actual teens, including the love interest role filled by Annabeth Gish, who was only 16 when the movie came out. She’s playing 17, I believe, but that’s still pretty inappropriate for a romantic relationship with the 29-year-old guy portrayed by Jon Cryer. We basically got the same scenario recently with the 21 Jump Street movie, but it somehow didn’t seem nearly as creepy in a statutory rape sense.

Big (1988)

As I wrote last year when the movie turned 25, “much of the humor seems so unremarkable in today’s regular manboy world. We can’t be sure that this movie won’t be remade anytime soon, but we can be sure it won’t mean as much after the careers of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell and others of their ilk.” Later in the piece, highlighting some favorite scenes, I wrote: “now in my 30s I find a lot of it even more plausible for someone my age, not just someone my age with the mind of a teenager. Certain responsibilities prohibit us from acting on living like a manchild, but what 32-year-old man with enough money and no concern about getting married and having a family wouldn’t like a trampoline, arcade game and soda machine in a giant loft apartment? Hell, you can probably find a few in Brooklyn who basically are living that way.”

Heathers (1988)

One of the most obvious inclusions for this list, Heathers has been discussed as an impossible movie in a post-Columbine world. In the last 15 years, we’ve seen school shootings increase and with them the body counts have risen, too. Heathers can be watched for what it is, a very dark high school movie satire, regardless of the present context. We can still enjoy everything about it (I did a Scenes We Love post about this one, too). But there’s no way any studio or filmmaker would think it would do well in theaters now, even if the protest of its content was silent. Not that it performed well back then, either, but the murders of teenagers wasn’t the reason.