Movie: The Big Bus (1976)

Mad Magazine was a big thing for me when I was the right age for it.  I especially liked the movie parodies in it, even if I had yet to see most of the films they skewered. 

I find it funny the first movie to carry the magazine’s brand, Up the Academy, was correctly identified as garbage by its target audience, including yours truly.  Somebody had already beaten them to punch by four years with the movie they should have made, and that is 1976’s The Big Bus. 

In an odd inversion of cause and effect, this feels like a movie adaptation of a Mad parody.  But this isn’t just a parody of one movie, this is a gentle takedown of the entire 70’s disaster movie craze that was getting long in the tooth at this point.  Other films are obvious influences, including Zero Hour!, which would be directly parodied four years later in Airplane!

The titular bus is a double-decker, double-length monstrosity.  It is also nuclear-powered, with a rocket thruster on the back.  It is as bizarre and over-the-top as the double-width train on NBC’s legendary dud Supertrain.

The vehicle makes its first appearance at a press conference.  For this, a group of approximately two dozen journalists get on a shuttle bus, which travels but a few yards to pick up a couple of company spokespeople.  Then it circles back to where it started and everybody disembarks.  This may be the movie for you, if you can find some degree of amusement in that concept.  If not, then this is going to be like an interminable bus trip where you’re seated next to somebody who won’t shut up.

Joseph Bologna will the captain of the bus for its inaugural non-stop voyage from New York to Denver.  Why not all the way to the west coast? Again, this is indicative of the off-beat humor of the film.  As for myself, I think it would be even funnier if it went from one unimportant place to another, like Poughkeepsie to Tulsa (no offense to either place, as I live in flyover territory).

Driving the vehicle is supposed to restore Bologna to his former glory. When we first see him, he ventures into a bus driver’s bar called “The Bus Stop”.  Almost all the patrons are hostile towards him, because of a bus crash where he resorted to cannibalism to survive.  It is widely believed he ate something like more than 100 people, but he claims he only ate a single foot, and that was only by accident.

I thought that was a pretty funny joke, though I didn’t realize that was referencing something in popular culture at the time.  A big movie of the same year had been Survive!, about the airplane crash in the Andes where the survivors had to resort to cannibalism.  The 1993 movie Alive concerns the same incident.

In a resulting bar fight, only John Beck comes to his defense, breaking a tall milk carton in two and waving it around like a broken bottle.  The bartender: “Look out!  He’s got a broken milk carton!”.  Bologna will go on to ask Beck to be his co-driver, a decision he will almost immediately come to regret.

As you may have guessed by now, the comedy is very hit or miss.  Some of the supporting cast is rather impressive, including Stockard Channing, Ned Beatty and José Ferrer.  Ruth Gordon is here but little used, and not well-used when she does make an appearance.  Not to knock the rest of the cast, but most of them are primarily from television: Bob Dishy, Larry Hagman, Richard Mulligan and Howard Hesseman. That was an indicator of low-quality in the 70’s and 80’s, as people usually didn’t pay for a movie so they could see performers they could see at home.

Unbeknownst at first to anybody on the bus, there is a conspiracy to sabotage the bus.  This is masterminded by oil baron Ferrer, as played from within an iron lung.  I didn’t find that funny, but I was amused by the paintings on the walls surrounding it, all of which capture a different 70’s disaster movie: one is of The Hindenburg, another is of a skyscraper on fire, etc.

His lackey is played by Richard B. Shull.  He will have a moment that made me laugh pretty hard where, under disguise as a hotdog vendor, he takes off when a bomb goes off at the bus factory.  The punchline is his most recent customer frantically tries to grab as many free dogs as possible. 

Curiously, I found far less to laugh about when we get to the bus journey itself.  I understand all of the passengers are different stereotypes of the type of films being parodied, but that in itself isn’t especially humorous to me. 

And yet I found many of the most outlandish features of the vehicles to be among the best jokes.  Much like car crashes, humor centered around complicated machinery normally doesn’t click for me.  But I laughed an embarrassingly long time when they test the automated tire replacement system, making a tire explode off a wheel.  Similarly, the automated washing system made me smile.  It is the kind of tall brushes found in any car wash, except these emerge from a recessed area and roll down the sides of the bus on a track system.

Also, the bus has a pool.  It is ridiculously small, and it is deeply ridiculous.  But I didn’t find that anywhere near as funny as the single lane bowling alley, which becomes as troublesome as most people assume having one in moving vehicle might be.

The film builds to a final set piece that is visually impressive, though I didn’t find it particularly engaging.  At one point, the bus is ready to fall off a cliff, carefully pivoting at its central point.  There is also a pickup truck embedded into the side of the bus.  Don’t ask.

It is almost impossible to say whether I would recommend The Big Bus to anybody, even among the people I know best.  Some of the physical comedy that didn’t work for me may be endlessly funny to one person.  Somebody like me might instead appreciate the scene where Bologna talks to a tombstone, only the have the cliché upended when he realizes there is a different person talking to every tombstone around him.  Basically, I don’t think everything here will click for anybody but, hopefully, any viewer would find at least one solid belly laugh here.  Not unlike any road vehicle, your mileage may vary.

Dir: James Frawley

Starring…well, too many people, honestly. Let’s just list Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing and John Beck, and leave it at that

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray