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The Zen of Caddyshack

By July 7, 2017 4 Comments

This morning we welcome Dordt History professor Paul Fessler as a guest contributor to the 12. Paul is a New Jersey native living in the cornfields of Iowa, trying to play golf.

I love golfing and, thus, can quote far more from the movie Caddyshack than I should. For non-duffers, it is a 1980 movie starring Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight revolving around a golf course, its members, its caddies and staff. Its primary plot (about a caddy trying to get a scholarship) is utterly forgettable and really doesn’t matter. It isn’t a “great” film as described by film critics or academics. There isn’t a character in the film that isn’t deeply flawed. The “good guys” in the film have just as many deplorable characteristics as the “bad guys” (such Ted Knight’s Judge Smails). Caddyshack also has a couple of scenes of unnecessarily gratuitous nudity. Is there anything redeeming within it? Why could or should a Christian watch it?

I ask this question because of a conversation I had with a colleague from my Christian college while we were golfing. He, too, liked Caddyshack and could quote lines verbatim but didn’t think there wasn’t anything really redeemable in it. I set out to disprove him as we walked the back nine. I tried coming up with a list of how Caddyshack is worthwhile. I felt like Steve Martin in Roxanne (a 1980s re-make of the Cyrano de Bergerac story) trying to come up with 20 better insults about his big nose on the spot.

First, I need to address the vulgarity in the movie. I’ll grant that not all humor is edifying or redeemable. There are parts of Caddyshack that that are problematic like the gratuitous nudity scene and some other parts. I don’t think that relegates the entire movie to the trash heap, though. We all have committed sins and actions that are less-than-redeemable or justifiable. For example, is the scatological candy bar scene objectionable? Having grown up a German-Lutheran in New Jersey, I used many four-letter words in my youth (The Sopranos is accurate in that depiction of the Garden State!) that are not acceptable in many parts of the Dutch Reformed Midwest. I’ve modified my vocabulary over the years and now use much nicer sign language when driving the farm roads of Iowa than when I drove Route 17 in Jersey.

However, I remember being shocked when attending church the first time in NW Iowa when people were standing around in the church using the word “shit” in a variety of ways—and not just as manure spreading. That was acceptable here among farmers but not in the Lutheran Church where I grew up! Heiko Oberman in his Luther: Man Between God and the Devil has a chapter entitled “God’s Word in Filthy Language” that clearly shows that Luther (and others) used vulgar language quite a bit (and often humorous) to convey the ideas of Christianity. When my students often can get a bit sanctimonious about language, I bust out the quotes from Martin Luther and ask if we should condemn the founder of the Reformation or not. Perhaps or perhaps not– but vulgar language, in and of itself, should not make the film beyond the bounds of adult Christians.

My list continued by finding “deeper meanings” within the film (I know, a shocker for an academic). After I double-bogeyed a hole, I thought of a scene in the movie where Chevy Chase practices golf blindfolded saying “na-na-na-na-na-na”. Talking to a caddy worrying about college, he said, “ Don’t be obsessed with your desires Danny. The Zen philosopher, Basho, once wrote, ‘A flute with no holes, is not a flute. A donut with no hole, is a Danish.‘ “ He quotes this while holing every shot in a relaxed, easy-going manner—the opposite of most golfers when we screw up by getting uptight and overthinking things. It works for life and golf! If we weren’t so uptight all the time, we’d not only sink more putts but probably excel in a whole bunch of other areas as well.

Next, I thought about the “leadership” books (and I’ve read a few). In an age where leadership books quote from Star Trek or Harry Potter, Caddyshack must have something to offer! Of course, I thought, the swimming pool scene would be perfect! On the only day caddies can use the country club swimming pool, a kid throws a Baby Ruth candy bar into the pool and everyone thinks it is a “doodie” in the water and goes crazy ala Jaws. Bill Murray, while emptying and cleaning the pool, finds the “doodie”, picks it up, and eats it as he realizes it is just a candy bar. This is perfect for a leadership book or a faculty workshop! We all overreact (especially in groups) to things that seem catastrophic, but in the end it winds up being nothing but a Baby Ruth candy bar! I told my colleague to use this scene in the next faculty assembly the next time the faculty got worked up.

However, I soon realized that such arguments were secondary from the real issue. In the end, the redeeming value of Caddyshack is that it is hilarious and makes me laugh no matter how many times I see it. Comedy is one of the hardest things to get right yet it rarely gets the respect it deserves. Comedies almost never get an Oscar (or even a nomination). The drama Ordinary People won the Academy Award for best picture the year Caddyshack came out but I would argue that Caddyshack has had a far more edifying and lasting impact over the last 35 years than Ordinary People.

In the end, trying to deconstruct a funny, stupid movie like Caddyshack is an exercise in futility and, ultimately, diminishes it. Even trying to explain the scenes above, I realized they doesn’t seem very funny in my re-telling (unless you’ve seen the film)—click on the links to the scenes and see if you think they’re funny yourself. That realization taught me that the redeeming value of Caddyshack is laughter. Now, I recognize that everyone has a different sense of humor and some people (like my wife) inexplicably do not find Caddyshack funny. That’s OK; tastes inexplicably vary! I love Caddyshack, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Seinfeld. I watch MASH or listen to NPRs Car Talk when I want to laugh with my wife.

We should value humor and comedy (including Caddyshack) far more than we do as Christians. Although that doesn’t mean we accept all humor blindly or put away our Christian critique, the one thing that drew me to the Reformed faith was precisely the ability to see God in all aspects of creation and cultures. Thus, in my final point to my golfing colleague, I quote Sergeant Hulka in the great (and stupid) Bill Murray movie Stripes, “Lighten up, Francis.”


  • Richard Tiggelaar says:

    This movie “works” in part because golf is many things but not fun(ny). Professional golfers look like they are walking in a cemetery. I golfed in a Western Sem scramble decades ago and was given advice to improve my swing by the 3rd hole. Years later I discovered the exception to the rule playing in the Craig, Nebraska (population 250) Foundation Scramble with my son, our church pianist and her same aged niece. Laughed and yelled through all 19 holes. Caddyshack and the Craig scramble show that golf can be fun(ny) if played correctly.

  • Revd Andrew Tempelman, PhD says:

    Or John ‘Diesel’ Riggins of the Redskins stretching out on the floor during a boring after-dinner speech, for which Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, seated at the same table, frowned down at him, and to whom he quoth, “Lighten up, Sandy, Baby!”
    Giving us the point #1 that humor is a victory, a triumph over government, a defeat of the enemy of all humankind–the authority of the overlord. This is what makes us explode into the joy of V-E and V-J Day, as Rodney Dangerfield alone did it in Caddyshack, while Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and the pathetic embodiment of social authority, Judge Smells were all stuck within their shitty horizons.
    And which gives us point #2: Jesus at Mark 7:19 cracks his own joke about shit: “whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter
    his heart but goes into his stomach, and then is shit into the toilet,
    And point #3: Jesus again at Mt 23, unafraid to talk dirty: Damn you, Writers and Pharisees, False Interpreters! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and the candydish, but inside you swarm with rape and gonorrheal drip.

  • Herm DV says:

    Be the ball, Danny. Be the ball.

  • Bernard says:

    When you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

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