Let’s start with the stutter. In this film Michael Palin’s Ken is known for his debilitating stammer and back in 1988 when the film was released this was a source of acceptable humour. The question is, is this still funny now?
Well stuttering, certainly to the level that Ken suffers from it in this film, is a disability and laughing at disability is not something that most people should be comfortable with in 2020. Our modern sensibilities are entirely appropriate but on reflection I don’t think the treatment of Ken in A Fish Called Wanda is too problematic even by contemporary standards. The humour here is derived from two things in the movie; John Cleese’s exasperation at Ken not being able to give him the inspiration he needs near the end of the film and Kevin Kline as Otto and his constant mocking of Ken’s condition. Well, John Cleese getting exasperated is always funny, even if it is more dialled down here that it was in Fawlty Towers or the Dead Parrot sketch, and Otto is a psychotic imbecile. Crucial to all of this is that when we are laughing at anything to do with Ken’s stammer, we are not laughing at Ken. We are laughing at the reaction it gets and at those who respond in this way. We might be siding with John Cleese’s Archie on this a little but we’re certainly not siding with Otto so it’s kind of okay.
A Fish Called Wanda is still still largely acceptable in this respect then. No, the real problem is with the casual homophobia. It isn’t just the use of the gay panic joke, where one male wards off another by pretending to be sexually attracted to him. This was unfortunately pretty common in film and television for a while with even Groundhog Day playing this tired card in Phil’s final meeting with Ned Ryserson and there is that moment in Friends when Joey and Chandler realise they’ve been hugging each other a bit too long (although if we got into the worrying treatment of homosexuality in that show we’d be here for a long long time). The biggest issue here is how far they push this with Ken’s response to the question of how he could morally be considering killing an old lady. In this scene he says ‘at least it’s better than buggering people’. In jest or not, the script (written by Cleese) actually posits that homosexuality is worse than murder. Sure it was a different time so maybe we can forgive it but watching it now we certainly don’t have to like it.
Although, looking at this in context (as with did with Otto’s treatment of Ken’s speech impediment) then this prejudice is all part of Ken’s stuffy buttoned up Englishman characterisation and to be fair I think it would be unrealistic to suggest that these things don’t genuinely go together, even now. In fact the thing lampooned more than anything else in this film is the notion of what it is to be English and that is still funny because no one has ever really been the victim of repression for being English, at least not en masse. Still, with how things are going currently we might have this coming, the UK becoming less the country of culture and bowler hats and more the country of covidiots and Brexit.
There are other things in A Fish Called Wanda that won’t land in the same way with a modern audience. At one point Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda defends Otto’s behaviour by saying he was beaten by his father as a child and Ken says ‘good’. Not good. She also tells Otto who is her lover but is posing as her brother that even if they were siblings she’d still have sex with him. That is not a joke you’d hear in anything made now either.
Also, like so many of Jamie Lee Curtis’ films going right up to True Lies in 1994, the movie is too often too focused on her taking her clothes off.
Of course there is more to A Fish Called Wanda than all of this and even with its fairly significant issues this is still enough. The film is smartly plotted, remarkably efficient in how it sets up its characters, each being established in the first minute and a half of the film, and it is funny.
As much as it has aspects of humour we should have moved away from, it is also reminiscent of examples of national comedy that should be celebrated. First off A Fish Called Wanda clearly has moments of Monty Python infused through it. Even aside of Palin and Cleese, Otto reflects the naively enthusiastic, ridiculously confident and nonsensical, in places almost surreal, decision making process of a whole raft of characters from Python’s back catalogue. People get hit on the head a lot too (even Stephen Fry in a forgotten early film performance) which is very Monty Python and who else would use chips as a torture device.
A Fish Called Wanda is also a great late example of the British caper movie which includes classics like The Italian Job and The Pink Panther as well as the Hue & Cry from 1947 and the wonderful The Lavender Hill Mob from ‘51 which both actually share the same director as this film. Charles Crichton’s long career ended here but also included lensing The Titfield Thunderbolt and episodes of The Avengers and Rentaghost, all of which are part of a legacy that A Fish Called Wanda feeds off.
In the end then I have to say then that this is a movie that it is worth revisiting, albeit with some provisos.
Right, now let’s dig out a copy of Crocodile Dundee and see how that holds up.