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The Culmination of Bush Era Comedy: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

How a middling stoner comedy from the 2000s perfectly summarized its culture.

I first watched Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) how it was meant to be watched: opening night with a bunch of other young boys who had the vaguely socially liberal, but otherwise centrist, attitude common to the 2000s. Our adolescent lives were colored by a single, overarching comedic premise: the President was a moron. Not just some scapegoat for any given person’s political and economic woes, because what did we know of that? We just knew that the man in the White House was a yahoo who said stupid things and if you laughed at him you were smarter than the most powerful man in the world. The younger Bush was the punching bag for every comedian we admired, but after eight years of this shtick and seeing Little Bush debut on Comedy Central, the horse had been beaten into a fine paste. Everyone was hungry for some change. In hindsight that change would end up becoming social media and the individualized curation of pop culture it inspired; but a few months before every living soul was on Facebook, before the housing market crashed, and before the first Black man became president, the flailing aesthetics of post-9/11 and the Bush years had to be taken in front of the kids and shot dead. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay was the movie that pulled the trigger.

Harold and Kumar are second generation immigrants (Korean and Indian, respectively) who grew up in the American city, and despite their penchant for herbal recreation, have bright high paying futures ahead of them should they grasp the brass ring. After finishing the coveted White Castle burgers from the previous film, the duo decide to take a flight to Amsterdam to surprise Harold’s new ladyfriend who has flown out there for two weeks. Kumar makes a stink about being targeted by the TSA because of his ethnicity, berating the TSA agent for being racist, as Harold argues that the agent is Black and therefore can’t be racist. Kumar argues eloquently that he is being profiled as a smuggler of illegal drugs due to his skin color, before revealing that he is carrying a load of illegal drugs and his new invention, a smokeless bong. The central joke of the film is that the negative stereotypes we apply to people aren’t true, unless of course, they are. 

The smokeless bong is found on their plane via a racist old white lady and the guys are labeled terrorists and sent to Guantanamo Bay for about five minutes of prison rape gags. Escaping rather quickly, the guys have to race across the Deep South to reach Texas and clear their names while on the run from a racist government agent played by Rob Corddry. While dumb racists are the butt of the joke throughout the movie, Harold and Kumar aren’t above making their own racist assumptions. They soon roll through Birmingham, AL and rather than driving through and disrupting a street basketball game in the ghetto, accidently back their car into a fire hydrant trying to avoid the huge Black dude cleaning up the court. The basketball players start to approach the car with tire irons, causing Harold and Kumar to run screaming into the night, leaving behind the neighborhood that was actually just trying to replace their busted tire.

Harold and Kumar’s journey through the Deep South pits them against a pop ephemera fascination of the Aughts: rednecks. The political polarization between urban and rural citizens was well set in stone by the Double 0s, and voting patterns up to now are strictly divided between blue cities and red country. Stories like Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre take advantage of the anxiety city slickers feel around rural people they can no longer understand, but while those narratives deal with that anxiety through horror, this was a path for comedy by 2008.  One of the earliest examples I can find of rednecks irreverently serving as a foe for metropolitan youth in media is the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Californication” video, where John Frusciante gets sucked into a video game and has to dodge an invasion of lumberjacks. This continued forward into the age of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour and the satirical character of Larry the Cable Guy. The underbelly of the southeastern United States was exposed to an uncomfortable degree in Borat, which represents the peak of this entire fad. This fascination would peter out by the dawn of the 2010’s, where Honey Boo Boo and Mama June would grace the small screen and immediately overstay their welcome, signaling that Git R Done was, well, done.

The Harold and Kumar movies treat rural characters as completely unknowable and unpredictable, even if they are meant to be seen with some fondness due to their comic relief.  Harold and Kumar encounter a deer in the wilderness after beating feet out of Birmingham. They marvel at the creature, remarking that it isn’t an asshole deer like the ones back in New Jersey before Harold gets covered in viscera. The Jersey boys are horrified at the culture shock, their suburban lifestyles clashing with the deer’s lackadaisical shooter, a fellow with a lot of Bubba in him who guts the deer in front of the boys with the same feeling of mundanity they would get ordering at the drive-thru. Bubba offers the two some southern hospitality since the sun is going down, and as they approach his beat down shack in the woods, the simplest of comic expectations is subverted when the trailer’s interior is upscale and hosts his hot wife. But again, the chief gag of the movie is that the worst we think of each other is just a little bit true, and despite protesting that city folk just think southerners are a bunch of cousin fucking dimwits, Bubba and his hot wife are indeed related and have a cyclopean inbred son locked away. When Harold and Kumar have to hide in the basement, they are so existentially frightened by their encounter with the pastoral Polyphemus that they flee once more — their young minds forever tarnished with the chthonic knowledge that just outside of the city limits lies a land of unfathomable monsters.

Running further into the woods, Harold and Kumar have to hide from the Ku Klux Klan, and it’s here where the film’s depiction of racism deserves more examination. Once a force that upheld white supremacy through vigilante violence across the southeast, the diminishing relevance of the KKK in 2008 is expressed here through depicting them as low-IQ bumpkins sipping out of red solo cups. Harold and Kumar infiltrate their ranks for a chance at safety, donning the robes and trying to fit in until the original members they stole robes from appear and unmask them both. “Mexicans!”, the heavies exclaim, before chasing the boys through the countryside in yet another flight from danger. This communicates that not only is the KKK, of course, racist, but they are so stupid they cannot even correctly identify the targets of that racism. This was a very real situation post 9/11, as all number of American citizens with Asian ethnicities were targets of violence, mistaken for Middle Easterners. Satirizing the sociopolitical climate of the past few years, what Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay correctly aims to communicate is that racism is stupid, but it also leans into the uniquely Aughts’ sentiment that being stupid is what makes you racist.

This is expressed most clearly through Rob Corddry’s villain, agent Ron Fox and his sidekicks. Ron Fox, something of a Bill O’ Reilly send up, uses all sorts of racist interrogation techniques despite the protest of his more socially aware lackey Dr. Beecher. One standout scene has Fox opening and pouring out a can of grape soda in front of the large Black basketball player that Harold and Kumar were spooked by in Birmingham, who witnessed them running off. The arrogant Fox is clearly expecting this to cause the man such distress that he spills the beans. Beecher protests these actions, claiming that the basketball player is an orthodontist and he is a trustworthy member of society, while some lookers-on yell out their desire for some Kool-Aid. Again, Fox is wrong to make these assumptions about the man he is trying to interrogate, but given the core gag of the film, if he had tried one of the onlookers he may have had some success.

The movie makes a more sincere thesis statement in the all-is-lost moment. Harold and Kumar have been betrayed and handed over to Fox, who is flying a jet to take them back to Gitmo. In a final standoff with Fox, the two are saved by Dr. Beecher, who knocks over Fox and pleads that the two are innocent. Not only that, he exclaims that it is stupid, racist guys like Fox that give the United States a bad name to the rest of the world, and if people were a little smarter (or more like Beecher), America would be a better place. Right after this Beecher trips, opening a door and our heroes are sucked out of the plane in the “action climax” of the film. Parenthetically, the pure cheapness of the effects make it the funniest part of the movie. Fox leaps after the boys without a parachute, shooting his gun pointlessly at them as he falls to his futile death. This sequence displays a liberal fantasy where evil defeats itself through incompetence and blind rage, the world’s grievances with America are purely a matter of manners, and a meritorious technocrat saves the day by being smart. The film ultimately asks that the young voting population (exemplified by the politically adrift Harold and Kumar) trust more qualified officials that won’t perpetuate the racism of their idiotic, older contemporaries. This was the comedian’s case for Barack Obama, a well-spoken and intelligent Black man that, by the Spring of 2008, was taken for granted as Bush’s successor in the White House by most young people.

Media at the time frequently posited that the main difference between socially aware liberals and bigoted conservatives was a matter of intelligence. Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) is practically an entire movie based on this concept, combined with the ever-present fear, expressed at the time through comedy, of a takeover by the uncultured redneck barbarians just outside the city walls. This smug attitude ignores the very real effects of the Southern Strategy, deindustrialization gutting rural towns, and the lack of resources those in the American country have, as well as a refusal for liberals to take their political opponents seriously. The Bush years saw a cultural blitz around the long dead class solidarity between urban and rural workers, and this culture war rages on to this day with the same players but with a different flavor. I can make no excuses for every day bigots or the “economically anxious” who turned to Trump in the following years, but public education and greater government resources; a more engaged political Left, could have turned things around for the common people. Not raw individual intelligence or a Rally to Restore Sanity. But instead all of those economic resources were turned towards the war machine, powered on once again at the turn of the millennia.

The movie’s climax ends with the parachuting Harold and Kumar crashing into the Texas retreat of the man of the sunsetting hour, Dubya himself. The film expertly communicates the sense that everyone had about Bush Jr by the end of his terms; that he was a dope who never wanted to be president and was doing it all to placate his domineering father and the scary characters of his cabinet. Where the film goes horribly wrong is, in part, the fault of formula. A common trope of stoner films is the sentiment that the film’s opposing forces aren’t so different after all and need to see common ground over a fat roll. This is fine when your villain is like, an enemy frat house that takes themselves too seriously, it’s another thing when the guy who would be totally cool if he just lit up with the boys is the perpetrator of a war fought on the basis of a complete fabrication. The film resolves with the heralds of the millennial generation, Harold and Kumar, cheering George W Bush on as he tells off his father, all the while calling him awesome and a cool dude. This coddling of the younger Bush due to his perceived status as a put-upon failure who never wanted any of this is darkly reflected in our own reality today. In comparison to the gibbering specter of Donald Trump, Bush is now looked on by the media as a reasonable figure who makes cute paintings of the soldiers his deceitful wars killed; an unwitting clown bathed in the blood of a million.

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay personifies the smirking attitude that most liberals directed at their political opponents of the time, patiently waiting for their turn at the wheel. Confident that systemic racism was on the verge of defeat, with a naïve sense that interpersonal racism was the original sin of the old and stupid. The next generation wouldn’t have to fear it in the same way. Don’t fear the far-right extremist KKK, because they are ultimately just uneducated shit kickers that we are intellectually superior to. Don’t fear the old geezer who looks at you funny on the plane because you’re brown, because they’re old and lame and will be dead in a year. And don’t fear the most powerful man in the world, because he is just a dim-witted puppet who almost got murked by a pretzel. We would wake from the nightmare soon enough. But this didn’t bear out in reality. The far-right extremists got more guns and started engaging in stochastic terrorism using the darkest corners of the internet. The old people never died. And the world’s most powerful man is still the world’s most powerful man. The optimistic vibes of 2008 were just that, a passing wave, swept away by the limited imagination of the Democratic Party, and the insane Republican backlash to the first Black president. The hope of liberal American millennials died soon after. The psychopomps carrying us off to the next era were, for some fucking reason, Harold and Kumar.

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