It was a grand day for young children and British character actors 20 years ago, when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chris Columbus’ franchise-defining adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s debut book, hit U.S. theaters. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson became household names; Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith became faces that kids could inexplicably recognize; the world learned the most basic rules of Quidditch. But for all the questionable good brought into the world by these books and their subsequent (and mostly solid) film adaptations—and the unquestionable harm they’ve brought by elevating the hateful transphobe Rowling to any level of social or financial power, not to mention their domination of intellectually stunted political analogies—Harry Potter, and more specifically the first Harry Potter movie, has led to one unimpeachably good thing: Brad Neely’s gag audiobook/dub track Wizard People, Dear Reader. So that’s what we’re going to celebrate.
I love Wizard People, Dear Reader. The feature-length alternate audio for Sorcerer’s Stone is my embarrassing “keep yourself from quoting along with Monty Python and the Holy Grail” piece of comedy that I’ve watched dozens more times than the actual thing it’s riffing on. I treasure its excess, its existence as an extrapolated joke among friends, its bizarre references (Hardcastle and McCormick? Really?), its hazy digressions, its scrappy auteurism.
Neely, who went on to create lovably odd TV projects like Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio and China, IL in addition to other bastions of internet art that stand alongside WPDR (YouTube videos about George Washington and Lot, most notably), had a new show, The Harper House, premiere this year on Paramount+. Sadly I, a bad Neely fan, haven’t seen it. But I did do my annual screening of WPDR thanks to the DVD that my friend burned for me back in high school: Neely channeling Bukowski, a nasal, gravely drone of narration pouring over a low-res version of Sorcerer’s Stone, all synced up and encased by art proudly emblazoned with The Pirate Bay’s logo. Pure, hilarious comfort.
A few chapter-by-chapter YouTube playlists and re-recorded MP3s still serve a similar preservational function to my decade-old DVD copy, but the steal-it-and-share-it spirit of the torrent site (not to mention its place in mid-’00s culture) feels particularly appropriate for the gut-busting fan project. WPDR remains a deceptively intelligent, verbose and profane spin on what these redubbed comedies have been since Pete Smith’s Goofy Movies of the ‘30s: Instead of lampooning shoddy production or ridiculous subject matter, or (looking at the more prominent and popular examples of the form ranging from Woody Allen to Kung Pow) just being an excuse to turn a buck from racism, WPDR aimed its sights at the “chosen one” trope dominating storytelling, specifically in blockbuster IP.
When Neely spoke to Paste about the project in 2009, he highlighted the ridiculousness of the Potterverse’s revitalization and shaping of a particular kind of YA genre fiction that followed in its extremely successful wake.
“It’s like if Pip in Great Expectations found out that he was the second coming of Christ,” Neely said. “Surprise, Pip, it’s you! Here’s a lot of money, and you can save everyone. It jumps right over ‘You’re going to be OK, you’re going to have a job’ to ‘You’re going to decide whether people live or die.’ That’s hilarious, and that’s everywhere.”
Where the standard hero refuses the call, Neely’s Master P is an unabashed badass, a paradox of babyness and power who’s ready to burn down houses in demonstrative fireballs or slide a murder spell out of his sleeve. He’s ready to become the violent messiah of this world, no questions asked.
Neely’s deconstructive and R-rated Wizarding World alternates between these hyper-literalized tropes and off-the-wall absurdity, filling space with, in Neely’s words, “a bunch of yuk-yuks and dick jokes and stuff.” And yet, even the vulgarities hold up.
This is a world that pokes fun at Rowling’s arguably antisemitic goblin bankers (“They enter the foyer among evil, pasty, Hobbity, Ufgoody goblins. They are running the money show, clever turnips, these needleteeth”), upper-class twit Malfoy (“the rich little bastard starts throwing class trash”), and encourages HP’s infatuation with a heroic “man-horse”—even if God wouldn’t approve. It’s rare that a comedy from a white guy, especially a weird piece of outsider bullshit not originally planned for wide public consumption, holds up over two decades without cheapy problematic punchlines or an overreliance on juvenile non sequiturs eroding its potency.
“The fear is that people might just be laughing at the ‘fuck’ words,” Neely said. “The irreverence, or the weirdness of the project.”
And there certainly were, and still are, people laughing at the fuck words. They’re good fuck words, Brad. “Almost dookies a shooter” and “Fudge off, you fuck” are such odd amalgamations of the profane and near-profane that they sound like the kind of embellished retellings preteens like Potter, Weasley and Granger would entertain each other with if they existed in the real world. But between these goofy phrases, which still plague my vocabulary, there are odd namedrop references to Upton Sinclair and Laurence Olivier, and long passages of seemingly free-associated narrative. And despite it all, despite the daydreamed summiting of Near-Dead Dumbledore’s body and despite the existential confrontation with the Gate of Heaven (taking the Mirror of Erised to dire philosophical conclusions), WPDR also gives you a reasonable facsimile of Sorcerer’s Stone. So much so that I haven’t seen the non-dubbed version in years and years, substituting WPDR in whenever I’m cajoled into watching the franchise through.
In this way, the original film has been strengthened in my mind—its construction bolstered by Neely’s postmodern picking-apart. I know the plot beats by heart, even if they’ve been reinforced more by Neely’s MST3K-style speculation than by the text itself. “Deconstruction, that’s my favorite process, tearing things apart. There’s nothing more fearful than erroneously sound architecture. It’s very dangerous, because that shit can crash down on top of you,” Neely said, long before the Potterverse spiraled into Fantastic Beasts and its villainous Martin-Short-as-Jack-Frost Grindelwald crimes. Long before shit crashed down on Rowling’s public image, crushing the once-beloved figure under her TERFy behavior and half-assed cash-grabs.
When art gets this big, when the billion-dollar wiz-biz becomes an industry’s business model, its least reverential spoof becomes more and more appealing. A parody even stronger than the original isn’t unheard of, but Wizard People, Dear Reader’s alt-comedy origins and underdog spirit (Warner Bros. famously threatened theaters that silently screened Sorcerer’s Stone alongside Neely’s performance with boycotts) make it one still worth rooting for. Especially since, against all odds, HP’s legacy still dominates the entertainment landscape.
Not only are the various long-term, four-quadrant franchises that’ve followed in its wake impossible to ignore, but The Secrets of Dumbledore is on its way to follow The Crimes of Grindelwald, which was somehow the 10th highest-grossing movie of 2018. But even if it wasn’t Rowling’s Wizarding World still literally atop the box office, it’d be something else of its ilk. Shortform viral draggings of these mainstream hits have taken over the current sarcastic zeitgeist, poking fun at the now-dominant Marvel and DC franchises, but Wizard People, Dear Reader’s ambition and specificity keeps it as enduring and relevant as its source. Its endlessly funny, effortlessly creative appropriation of a story many now feel somewhat sour towards is the kind of perfectly palatable remix that allows appreciation without falling wholly into uncritical nostalgia. It might not specifically reference Rowling’s pet phobias, but it puts her story’s imperfections and absurdities front and center—opening a critical door still magically locked for some of the franchise’s most devoted fans.
“Life is so huge that art, even good art, is a stupid little shadow-puppet show,” Neely told Paste. But there’s a place for stupid shadow-puppet shows, just as there’s a place for people narrating others’ shows for the amusement of those who’ve grown cynical and tired of the same ol’ dogs and birds. So here’s to Upfish, to Zoomacroom, to Tony the Shrimp, to Dazzler, to Professor Catface Meowmers, to Ronnie the effin’ Bear, and to that beautiful destroyer of worlds, Harry Potter.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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