Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the hard R glory of ‘Porky’s’
Seth Rogen’s R-rated cartoon, Sausage Party, opened recently to big money, and once again people were surprised. It’s understandable as the past several years have seen annual top ten box-office lists consist of PG and PG-13 films with only one or two R-rated titles muscling their way into contention. 2001 was the first year to see an R-free top ten, and since then it’s happened six more times as family films, superhero movies, and other “safe” bets take over the cinema. It wasn’t always this way though as at one time restricted fare occupied regular spots at the top of the movie charts.
1982 for example saw four R-rated films crack the top ten including An Officer and a Gentleman, 48 HRS, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Can you imagine any of them accomplishing that feat today? All three are stories for and about adults, and the audience responded. Sitting pretty in fifth place for the year though – and earning over $100 million at the box-office – is a still-funny movie about teenagers, sex, and the shifting tides of the American landscape. That last bit is fitting as Bob Clark’s Porky’s was also among the last to fully embrace the teen sex comedy aesthetic (at least until American Pie came along seventeen years later).
Set in mid-’50s Florida, the film introduces us to the boys of Angel Beach High School and to their quest for sex. It’s a simple desire, one familiar to anyone who lived through the hormonal invasion of high school, but these guys are laser-focused in their search for horizontal mambo partners. They spy on their female classmates in the shower, attempt to visit prostitutes, and prank each other’s sex drive with abandon. Their desire to satiate the horn-dogs within eventually leads them across the county line to a shady establishment called Porky’s, but the proprietor – the large and eponymous Porky (Chuck Mitchell) himself – takes their money, dumps them in the bayou, and tells them never to return. Their feud with the big man escalates from there, fueled in part by the vicious beat-down Porky and friends give to one of the teens, and culminates in a coordinated effort to literally destroy the club.
I say “teens” knowing full well that this cast clearly doesn’t belong in high school as they all look to be mid-20s at the youngest. The single exception is the poor freshman girl who’s tricked into asking one of the gang why exactly everyone calls him Meat (Tony Ganios). They have the mentality of the young and horny though with Pee Wee (Dan Monahan) leading the pack with his one-track mind. From his morning-wood measurements to his designation of any girl who looks his direction as “hot” he’s consumed with thoughts of sex, and his impatient desire makes him an easy and frequent target for his friends.
The others are a blend of the smart and generic, but Clark (who also wrote the film) adds an additional conflict to the mix with the abrasive relationship between Tim (Cyril O’Reilly) and Brian (Scott Colomby). The latter is a Jewish transfer student while Tim is a vocal racist, but the film doesn’t treat him as just another villain. He’s one of the core group of friends, and while it’s not an overly-nuanced situation there’s something to be said for allowing him to be one of the “good” guys anyway. The gang knows he’s wrong and tell him so, but they still cheer him on in a fight with Brian because ultimately – and realistically – he’s still their friend. Any other film would see him as simply a bully to be dealt with before the third act, but Clark paints him as a young person capable of change. His father, the one whose violence and hatred shaped Tim’s own racism, is part of the immovable old guard (which also includes Porky and some of the school administration), and we’re allowed to see the boy outgrow the man before the credits roll. It’s an unexpected but welcome aside in a movie that also includes trash bag-sized condoms, a girl howling during sex, and “the biggest beaver shoot in the history of Florida.”
But enough about the teens, let’s talk sex comedy!
I’ve watched Porky’s more than a few times over the years – as recently as yesterday and for the first time when I was seventeen – and while the legendary shower scene was once the highlight for me it’s since been shuffled down the list behind the film’s laughs, commentary, and ahead of its time relevance. Clark ticks off the genre boxes with the nudity and sexual antics, but look closer and you’ll see a romp that’s actually respectful of the ladies too.
The girls have the power here. Safe sex is the norm, and some unnecessary but expected weight jokes aside the ladies are treated as equals both as the butts of jokes and the ones masterminding the pranks. Wendy (Kaki Hunter) gets burned with the still terrific “Mike Hunt” gag, but she hits back with equally playful and fun bits. The girls are on display in the shower, but the guys are stripped down too in scenes designed to leave viewers laughing at their naked idiocy. Miss Honeywell (Kim Cattrall) is the sexy, bottomless howler behind the Lassie sequence, but she’s a woman who stands up for herself when challenged by others and takes the lead with the locker room sex.
And let’s not forget that the shower scene ends with the tip of Tommy’s (Wyatt Knight) “tallywhacker” in the iron grip of Miss Balbricker’s (Nancy Parsons) angry fists leading to a scene that still counts as one of the funniest to come out of the ’80s. The single, uninterrupted, four-minute take of Balbricker in the principal’s office asking for a lineup of naked boys so she can pick Tommy out for discipline is a masterclass in delivery and reaction. “I’m not going to let him slip through my fingers again,” she says as the three coaches fall apart behind her. (All five performers are fantastic here, but character actor Doug McGrath as Coach Warren is the clear MVP throughout.) I recall watching the film with my family – we were progressive, eventually – and the joy of seeing my mom lose her shit during this scene remains one of my favorite movie-related memories.
Porky’s is one of three teen sex comedies from 1982 – the others being Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin – and all three remain classics. The last two take a far more serious look at teen sex while still allowing room for laughs and playfulness, and all three are unlike anything being produced today. The Last American Virgin in particular works less as a comedy and more as a tragedy that leaves its protagonist in a far more miserable place than where he began. Taken together the three films are a funny, sexy, and honest time capsule revealing a time, a place, and a respect for young audiences that no longer exist.
Clark tragically died in 2007, and we all failed him in his last several years of filmmaking as he was relegated to forgettable (and downright terrible) fare like Baby Geniuses and The Karate Dog. He’s remembered instead for the quality and breadth of his earlier years that saw him deliver this classic sex comedy as well as one of the first and most frightening slashers (Black Christmas), one of the best Sherlock Holmes films (Murder by Decree), and one of the most enjoyable and quotable holiday films (A Christmas Story).
If you only remember Porky’s for its epic shower scene, well, that’s understandable, but you owe it to yourself to give it another watch. (The movie I mean, not just the shower scene.) Sure it’s crass and sophomoric, but it’s also very funny, filled with heart, and home to a surprising message of tolerance. And don’t worry, the message never gets in the way of the sex or the laughs. They saved that misstep for Porky’s II: The Next Day.