Martin Short and Charles Grodin in 'Clifford'

30 Years Later, One of the Most Hated Comedies of All Time Is Funnier Than Ever

On April 1, 1994, three years after its intended release date, Clifford was unleashed on—I don’t want to say unsuspecting because that implies some level of public awareness—audiences nationwide. Hated by most moviegoers and critics alike, the absurd Martin Short comedy is even funnier now than it was 30 years ago.

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Where April Fools’ pranks are concerned, Clifford‘s a great one: Martin Short, then in his early 40s, plays an obnoxious, probably psychopathic 10-year-old boy who terrorizes his uncle, played by legendary comedic straight man Charles Grodin. Everything about Clifford, both the film and the titular character, is exceptionally ridiculous. In addition to starring a 40-year-old man as a 10-year-old boy, the film is bookended by scenes set in 2050, featuring an adult Clifford who has dedicated his life to the priesthood and shares his wisdom with a troublemaking child. The trouble? The kid blew up an entire gymnasium because he didn’t get to join the basketball team.

Comedy is often a game of heightening; take a familiar concept and push it as far as you can take it without losing the audience. Clifford starts at a heightened pitch and only gets higher and weirder from there. As explained in an oral history published by Vulture in 2021, Short wasn’t traditionally or digitally de-aged (not that the technology was readily available) to play a 10-year-old boy. Director Paul Flaherty toyed with forced perspective, casting taller extras, dressing Short in oversized clothes, and putting his co-stars on boxes to make the actor look child-sized. Short also used an old-fashioned taping technique to keep the skin on his face pulled taut and smooth, which had the effect of making Clifford look even more impish and unsettling.

The movie gets cooking when Clifford derails a family trip to Honolulu, forcing the pilot of the plane to make an emergency landing. With his son banned from the flight, Clifford’s dad (Richard Kind) calls up his brother Martin (Grodin) and asks him to take Clifford for the duration of the trip. Martin is a professional architect who wants to marry the love of his life, Sarah Davis (an absolutely dreamy Mary Steenburgen), but feels apprehensive about her desire to have children. Babysitting Clifford for a few days could be a great opportunity to show off his paternal skills, so Martin agrees to have his nephew stay with him—unaware that Clifford is a diabolical brat who schemed his way to Los Angeles so he can go to a theme park called Dinosaur World.

It doesn’t take long for Martin to figure out that Clifford, who carries around and talks to a dinosaur toy named Steffen, isn’t just a precocious kid—he’s a petulant maniac. When Martin breaks a promise to take him to Dinosaur World, Clifford makes ruining Martin’s personal and professional life his full-time job. And he succeeds: Martin gets arrested. This scene, in which Martin returns home from an overnight jail stay, is among the best in the film and shows off the incredibly hilarious dynamic between Short and Grodin:

Short playing a 10-year-old boy is the turkey on the sandwich, but that dynamic is the special sauce. It’s probably why, as an eight-year-old kid, I loved Clifford so much, and also presumably why the movie was a bigger hit with kids than it was with grown-ups. Clifford said and did all the worst things to get what he wanted, which isn’t that different from popular kids movies of the ’90s like It Takes Two or Home Alone. The difference is that Clifford’s hopes and dreams aren’t as noble as wanting to be reunited with family, and that Martin doesn’t really deserve to be pranked this hard, certainly not in ways that demonstrably harm his livelihood. Clifford just wants to go to Dinosaur World, dammit. He’s not an aspirational short king, but he is kind of relatable.

By the film’s third act, Clifford has successfully driven Martin into a state of psychopathy. He kidnaps his own nephew, takes him to Dinosaur World after hours, and proceeds to make Clifford ride the scariest ride at the park over and over, at increasing speeds, until the ride malfunctions and the kid almost dies. As a kid, I was in awe of Clifford’s dedication and his ability to make a grown man this upset. As an adult, 30 years later, I admire Short’s dedication to the role and the way Grodin maintains a straight face while doing that thing he did so well: quietly wrestling his own dignity in the most absurd situations.

In his review of Clifford, the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote that “It’s not bad in any usual way. It’s bad in a new way all its own,” adding, “There is something extraterrestrial about it, as if it’s based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe. The movie is so odd, it’s almost worth seeing just because we’ll never see anything like it again. I hope.” Ebert was sort of right that Clifford is worth seeing in part because it is so singular and strange. But he was wrong to hope that we never get another movie like it. I hope we get at least two.

If you haven’t seen Clifford, Pluto TV is showing it tonight on the ’90s Throwback channel at 8PM ET, 6PM PT.

(featured image: Orion Pictures)


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Author
Britt Hayes
Britt Hayes (she/her) is an editor, writer, and recovering film critic with over a decade of experience. She has written for The A.V. Club, Birth.Movies.Death, and The Austin Chronicle, and is the former associate editor for ScreenCrush. Britt's work has also been published in Fangoria, TV Guide, and SXSWorld Magazine. She loves film, horror, exhaustively analyzing a theme, and casually dissociating. Her brain is a cursed tomb of pop culture knowledge.