You know that Beatles song With A Little Help From My Friends? “I get by with a little help from my friends,” Ringo intones in that understated baritone, “I get high with a little help from my friends.” The rhyme provides an impromptu equivalence relevant to the structure of contemporary stoner comedy. The juxtaposition of “getting by” and “getting high,” suggests that weed smoking directly benefits the stoney agent, helping him or her (and their buddies) survive and, indeed, flourish.
Weed smoking is versatile with respect to its scene of appearance. While almost nothing is more enjoyable than a night in one’s apartment, sucking on smoldering glass while a quesadilla melts on the stove, smoking pot can also be an excellent opportunity for collective social engagement. The “friend in need” is a constant trope in stoner comedies that I have seen. As these films present their protagonists with crises (in urgent need of resolution by the end of the “long day of the stoner comedy”), they also frequently suggest that the optimal way to solving these problems is by buddying up.
While there are some interesting friendships in Odyssey, Homer’s theory of friendship is modeled by Achilles and his homie/lover/friend Patroklos in Iliad. Their friendship influenced later models of friendship in that it suggests that the friend is “another self.” The implication of this “other self” is that in friendship one is both stronger (by being doubled) but also weaker (in that one’s autonomy is diffused between two bodies.) And the friendship of Achilles and Patroklos bears both of these consequences out. The Achaeans’ ultimate victory in the Trojan War is guaranteed by the fact that Patroklos’s death causes Achilles to blatantly disregard his own wellbeing. The cost is of course that both men end up biting the black dust, hateful night enclosing their eyes and so on.
There is another powerful classic paradigm of friendship. And that is the dynamic duo of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Harmodius and Aristogeiton were best buds who murdered the tyrant Hipparchus, effectively ushering in Greek democracy. They, naturally, were executed as a consequence, but their solidarity became paradigmatic. Their tale reminds us that friendship, from the golden age of Greece until now, can be a powerful revolutionary tool. And it’s for that reason that capital wars against it. For us who are indebted, alienated by our labor, increasingly siloed from our colleagues and comrades, overworked, urged to establish the family at the expense of the friend relationship—these fixtures aid and abet an ongoing assault against forms of friendship and friendship as a way of life.
In stoner comedies that I have seen, friendship is frequently the key to solving the problems the protagonists face: problems, as we’ve seen, that often situate the protagonists, like Harmodius and Aristogeiton, against the agents of sovereignty. And while these films thus valorize the power and possibility of friendship against all the forms of dominion which strive to ruin our lives, this has to be admitted with two caveats. One is that the vast majority of these films, like much of the history of the theory of friendship, only privilege a particular homosocial relationship, that is, friendship between two men. Secondly, the friendships in these films are not totally beneficial arrangements. While it’s friendship which permits the buddies to “get by” while they “get high,” it’s often the friend’s own errors which bring about the problems in the first place.
Almost all stoner comedies feature buddies who oppose a world of squares, but consider for now the Harold and Kumar trilogy. Harold and Kumar Goes To White Castle (2004, dir. Danny Leiner) begins with a key departure from the form of most stoner comedies in that it begins not in the morning, but at the very end of the workday. After Harold’s boss forces him to take a weekend’s worth of work home with him, he and his best friend Kumar relax by smoking an enormous amount of pot. While they watch television—with all the amazement and laughter such an activity brings about while so stoned–they see an ad for White Castle. Inspired, their odyssey begins, White Castle their gleaming Ithaca.
As is to be expected, their seemingly simple objective is repeatedly diverted. And, as in most stoner comedies, their antagonists arrive in the form of the law (trying to buy pot on Princeton’s campus the pair are chased by campus security, and Harold is later jailed by a racist pig) and their self-imposed somatic challenge (these two are really high and make poor decisions.) But the narrative is also marked by a leitmotif whereby Kumar’s antics result in some sort of insult and/or injury to Harold.
This scheme of simultaneous aid and sabotage is perhaps even more strongly expressed in the sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008, dir. John Hurwitz). While Kumar’s bad decisions are the catalyst for the spectacular events which divert the guys from their goal (this time they’re headed over the rainbow to Amsterdam, Oz for potheads), Guantanamo Bay more explicitly contextualizes the figures of authority as metonyms of a racist superstructure. No one denies that Kumar ought not have smuggled weed aboard the transatlantic flight with a homemade bong. But it’s the racist white supremacists aboard the plane who misrecognize Kumar’s ethnicity and fantasize about his motives, mirroring the misrecognitions which occur later with law enforcement and homeland security officers. Again, in the end, it’s their collective effort, fraught but indispensable, that manages to redeem them.
In Odyssey, as we have seen, much of the journey Odysseus makes from Troy to Ithaca is undertaken alone. And while there are many instances whereby mutual aid among his crew permits him to survive another adventure, his comrades, like Kumar, tend to fuck up in some way, whether they become lunch for a Cyclops or linger too long with those chillaxed lotos eaters. But when Odysseus returns to rocky Ithaca, there is still a crisis which awaits resolution, and that’s when something like a friend comes in, to help him get by if not high.
His wife Penelope has been constantly besieged by a palace full of asshole suitors. While Odysseus has been desperately overcoming hijink after hijinks on his way home, the suitors have eaten his fat sheep, drank his unmixed wine, openly hit on Penelope and threatened his son Telemakhos. For Odysseus to get rid of these jerks, he depends on the help of a few of his friends.
When Harold and Kumar finally reach White Castle in Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, their meal is beyond excessive, their slow-motioned eating almost erotic, set to music, grotesque, expansive. I like to imagine Odysseus and Telemakhos like that, sitting in that big hall, surrounded by suitor blood and gore, the wails of the dead finally dissipating from their ears. Odysseus passes around a big blunt, both of them inhale, hold, and sigh. Victorious at last.
Next time, I’ll conclude this series with a look at Gregg Araki’s classic Smiley Face.
- BRANDON BROWN
Brandon Brown is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Flowering Mall. He writes about art and culture for Open Space, the magazine and blog of the SFMOMA and Bay Area journal Art Practical. He is an editor at Krupskaya, and occasionally publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG! In 2014, Big Lucks will publish a new book, Shadow Lanka.
 It’s worth reminding the reader here that in stoner comedies, the gags which adorn the movement of the characters from point A to point B are often hideously racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic. It is only with the arrival of Smiley Face (2007, dir. Gregg Araki) that this paradigm is challenged and overcome. But that is the subject of our finale.
 Indeed, such scenes are basically metanarratives for the situation of the viewer him/herself, who is often watching stoner comedies while baked.
 Without spoiling the plot, I’d be remiss not to note that Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay also stands as the first film depicting a sitting president smoking weed.
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