The Underappreciated Comic Genius of Anthony Michael Hall

by Michael Gursky | October 19, 2021
14 min read

Editor’s Note: Anthony Michael Hall, the guest celebrity at this weekend’s Truth or Consequences Film Fiesta, is not simply a great actor. The author makes the case here that Hall, who appeared in iconic teen comedies of the 1980s written and directed by John Hughes, was the funniest kid ever on film. On Friday, the Fiesta will screen three of Hughes-Hall’s most admired collaborations: “Sixteen Candles” at noon; “Weird Science” at 2:30 and “The Breakfast Club” at 6 p.m. It’s too late to buy an all-access pass for the Fiesta, but if single seats for these films are available, they will be awarded on a first come, first serve basis to single-ticket purchasers. The three films are also available to rent on most streaming platforms.

Think of your favorite comedy films, or what you might deem the “greatest comedies.” Now consider your most cherished funny actors who played roles in those films. Who comes to mind?

Anthony Michael Hall
Anthony Michael Hall: a comedic giant on a par with the legendary Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Bill Murray?

The likes of Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy or perhaps Chevy Chase. The late John Candy, maybe? Robin Williams is in many minds, I’m sure. These are just several of the most beloved comedic actors who played integral roles in history’s funniest, most influential films. They also happen to be comic performers who shared some of their most impactful work throughout the 1980s.

The ’80s were a standout decade for breezy, fun cinema. A heyday for snobs vs. slobs slapstick, light sports comedies and silly tales of family vacations gone awry. In this span of 10 years many of the most memorably funny and inspired comedy films ever were released. And we revere the comedic heavyweights who made some of cinema’s funniest capers what they were—especially those names listed above.

People pretty unanimously love a Bill Murray performance or several. We’ve felt and loved the warmth of John Candy flicks since our upbringing. Even those who don’t like Chevy Chase have gotten a rise out of “Vacation” or “Fletch.” You can’t scroll a streaming platform’s comedy section without stumbling upon at least three Steve Martin vehicles.

These are names we still talk about, the actors who frequently arise in the “great comedic performers” discussion, but there’s one actor who needs a whole lot more mention when we chew over the funniest people in the funniest movies. A brilliant underdog. A seriously hysterical hero to many. An underestimated talent who made some of the funniest movies ever as funny as they were and still are. That actor is Anthony Michael Hall.

Whether you’re 60, 42 or 25, you’ve probably seen a John Hughes film, and you more than likely love a John Hughes film. No writer/director made teen movies as funny, hip and poignant as Hughes’ before his run of ’80s teen films, and it’s hard to say any filmmaker has painted adolescence as charmingly and timelessly since. With his name on iconic titles such as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty In Pink” and others, it’s hard to dispute that Hughes is the all-time teen movie king. If you’ve seen even a few of his most significant ’80s teen comedies, you’ve watched a performance from Anthony Michael Hall that runs the range between relatable and endearing . . . and impressively, uproariously funny.

Anthony Michael Hall and John Hughes
In the 1980s actor Anthony Michael Hall (left) teamed with writer-director John Hughes (right) to make some of American cinema’s most funny, hip and poignant teen movies.

Hall was in unforgettable films of the ’80s that have been endlessly parodied and borrowed from since. “The Breakfast Club” has been joke fodder on “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons,” late night shows and a laundry list of other programs from the ’80s to now. “Sixteen Candles” was lampooned in more than one parody film of the 2000s, including the raunchy classic “Not Another Teen Movie.” Hughes’s flicks are genuine, funny as hell, pop culture staples. Hall arguably stole the show in some of those efforts, bringing a unique blend of raw heart, real innocence and lovable snark. I honestly don’t believe the movies we regard as the funniest teen comedies would be so memorable without him.

Hall entered entertainment in the early ’80s with a sweet, all-American sort of look, like a boy from a Norman Rockwell painting. With his wavy blonde hair and gentle eyes, he was not cookie-cutter handsome or bound to be the school stud, but pleasant in appearance. Based solely on looks and the feel he exuded, young Hall seemed like his film characters: a bright and funny, yet insecure kid with the right intentions and the sarcastic edge adopted by someone who has suffered constant reminders he wasn’t popular or cool enough.

Hall’s characters resonated then and still do with the quirkier kids and young men wandering about, not completely sure of themselves and unwelcomed by the standard social circles. Those written off as dweeby because of their harmless appearance or different body frame. The guys who aren’t chiseled and classically handsome enough to draw attention from the popular girls, nor tough and “guy’s guy” enough to find footing with the jocks.

Hall’s characters are the misunderstood, funny, actual cool guys who haven’t been given a fair shot to express themselves and be understood. That represents a lot of kids and young adults in reality, then, before then, today and forever. The roles Hall played in the ’80s not only speak to these young folks, they offer a fun bit of inspiration through the laughs. After all, these characters might be wrongly labeled and laughed at early in the story, but we always end up laughing with the young men Hall’s playing, loving their confidence and adoring their quirks.

Though his most prominent roles fit somewhere in the category of “dork” or “geek,” the kids Hall played weren’t one-dimensional nerds. Beneath gangly exteriors and beaten-down attitudes were hilarious, smart dudes who recognized they had swagger and charm, but had been taught to suppress their outgoingness. When their confidence comes out, however, they’re smooth, enigmatic individuals. Hall breathes real vulnerability into his characters, but also always conveys an offbeat, half-expressed self-assurance you have to love. His character “The Geek” in “Sixteen Candles” frequently lies to impress peers, but always follows with truth. The inner fight for authenticity shows in all of Hall’s best performances for John Hughes, and it’s that battle with self versus the judgments of harsh peers that we understand and appreciate. Fortunately, Hall’s characters are armed with great one-liners to match rejection or jeers. Hall delivers such zingers in a dry, “fed up with it” tone, blending sharp comic wit with raw realness.

Hall as Rusty in "National Lampoon's Vacation"
At 15, Hall landed his first feature film role as Rusty Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

Hall’s major feature acting debut came in 1983 with “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” penned by John Hughes, his soon-to-be frequent collaborator. As most know, the movie details the comically disastrous Griswold family vacation to fictional amusement park WallyWorld. Hall, of course, starred as son Rusty Griswold. He wouldn’t remain the only actor to play Rusty in a “Vacation” caper, but he’s no doubt the most fondly remembered. The film is still a widespread favorite today. An all-time great comedy, it tells the all-too-relatable tale of a well-meaning but emotionally immature father who drags his family along for a trip full of dark comic mishaps. Rusty, a sheltered pre-teen, has the good nature of a kid from a decent home, but also the edge and inclinations of a curious young guy nearing his teens to whom his goofy dad can’t relate, and whose mother has been driven to exhaustion by a screw-up, unfaithful husband. Though Hall mostly plays the straight man to Chevy Chase’s lunacy, he delivers his matter-of-fact remarks with impeccable timing and shows all the signs of a funny young prodigy. A scene in which Rusty casually chugs his dad’s beer is a particularly funny Rusty moment that demonstrates Hall’s natural timing and comedic presence.

The following year came “Sixteen Candles,” a timeless Hughes classic, treasured raunchy teen comedy and Molly Ringwald vehicle featuring a show-stealing performance from Hall as “The Geek.” The Geek has an obsessive crush on misunderstood older girl Samantha, who herself longs for Jake, the most popular guy in school. Over the course of a nutty evening that includes a school dance and wild after-party, both Samantha and The Geek find their shots at acceptance.

Hall and Molly Ringwald in "Sixteen Candles"
In “Sixteen Candles” with Molly Ringwald, Hall stole the show with his performance as the snarky sort of guy nerds need to be in high school, society’s most ruthless popularity contest.

The Geek isn’t an assembly-line social outcast. He’s the unfortunate result of a late puberty—the snarky sort of prick guys need  to be when they’re small, skinny and still without a single armpit hair in high school, society’s most ruthless popularity contest. The Geek has all the arrogance and bravado of a chiseled ladies’ man, despite his lack of social standing and unimposing appearance. A guy as compassionate and complex as The Geek can’t uphold that façade for long, though.

Hall plays the sexually charged little perv that is revealed when The Geek drops his guard with enough social intellect and genuineness to make the sleaziness feel harmless and funny. The Geek may request a pair of your worn panties, but he’ll be candid about why he’s doing so. Hall embodies every layer that this delusional horndog requires to be more than a sad, sex-crazed dork. His nervous screeches seem to derive from a hilariously real place, and he has a few of the film’s most hysterical lines (“Nice ma—nice manners, babe?!”). His self-aware transitions from behaving embarrassingly to playing it cool are brilliant. The Geek is embedded in pop culture nerd history thanks to Hall. “Sixteen Candles,” though not entirely politically correct by today’s standards, is a comedy classic that doesn’t receive enough credit for its genuine funniness.

Hall’s presence was evidently sought after, as a year later he would appear in 1985’s “The Breakfast Club,” another John Hughes project that is arguably the most respected and fondly remembered of the writer-director’s teen capers, even though its premise may be the simplest. A random group of students is spending a Saturday in detention with a power-hungry principal. There’s a jock, a leather-jacket-sporting rebel, a prom queen, strange girl outcast and a bookworm, so virtually all of the stock teen characters are covered. While these may be standard roles, they each have their depth and individual motivations, and, though the movie covers just a single afternoon in detention, it’s a timeless look at young people searching for their identities with misplaced angst.

Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in "The Breakfast Club"
Hall with Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in “The Breakfast Club”: Hall’s portrayal of bookworm Brian Johnson, who attempts to befriend the cooler kids he encounters in high school detention, may be his most recognized performance.

“The Breakfast Club” presents another opportunity for Hall to bring his authentic self and comedic chops to a teen comedy, this time as a more subdued, unconfident character, the bookworm Brian Johnson. Johnson’s an innocent, troubled soul, a bullied dork who has been beaten down. Here Hall isn’t called to be the high-energy cutup serving up meanspirited jokes, because Johnson is a reject of the softer variety. He’s tremendously believable and easy to empathize with in this role.

Hall’s also the glue holding this cast of misfits together. After the characters have warmed up to one another and come together to speak candidly during a “group therapy” scene, Brian’s the first to ask: “What’s gonna happen to us on Monday?”; the first to express: “I consider you guys my friends.” He’s in a sense the group mediator, and, once his confidence is built, he’s the main character who tries to establish lasting friendships. It isn’t Hall’s wildest performance, but it may be his most recognizable. Brian might not be manic or over the top, but he’s charming, funny and not unlike someone we knew or were.

After a nice run playing supporting characters, Hall stepped into the leading role in a different sort of teen vehicle from Hughes, 1985’s “Weird Science,” an adolescent-dude comedy with a sci-fi tinge, the usual Hughes heart and more zaniness than was seen in previous Hughes movies. For me personally, “Weird Science” is a deceivingly hilarious gem that’s still underappreciated. It features Hall’s funniest performance, which I believe is one of the funniest performances ever captured on film.

Hall plays Gary, another misunderstood, dorky guy who’s not exactly killing it with the ladies. He and his computer-whiz friend Wyatt use software to build their ideal woman, but, because of technological difficulties, the computer creates a beautiful flesh-and-blood woman who falls deeply in love with Gary and Wyatt. Due to its sci-fi elements, “Weird Science” has slightly aged into camp and cheese, but many of us value those qualities in an ’80s flick. For those who can look past corny effects and silly old fantasy-comedy concepts, the film is a laugh riot throughout which Hall’s young comic genius shines.

Ilan Mitchell-Smith and Anthony Michael Hall in "Weird Science"
Nerds Wyatt and Gary (Ilan Mitchell-Smith and Hall), who aren’t exactly killing it with the ladies, accidentally create a flesh-and-blood woman–a premise that hasn’t aged well, but which offered Hall the opportunity to display the entire range of his comedic talents.

Gary’s a textbook instigating friend; the guy who means well but pushes his buddy to do stuff out of his comfort zone. Gary masks insecurities with jokes and quips, even though, deep down, he knows he’s cooler and more of a catch than the kids at school who tease him. Hall’s at his most sardonic and schtick-y in Weird Science, calling upon a comedic arsenal ranging from zingers to silly character work to more outrageous physical comedy.

Following his hall-of-fame appearances in these Hughes classics, Hall made his way into non-Hughes vehicles, both comedy and non. He appeared as Darryl Cage in the 1986 dark action-thriller “Out of Bounds.” A year later he returned to comedy in “Johnny Be Good,” playing a star high school quarterback. “Johnny Be Good” didn’t hit big like any of the John Hughes movies in which Hall made his name, nor does it have any real lasting power, but it’s a lightly funny effort with a unique Hall showing that I think may have been overlooked.

“Johnny Be Good” concluded Anthony Michael Hall’s ’80s hot streak, an unmatched one for a young comedic talent. He continued appearing in films, some of which were box office hits, though he seemed to favor television acting through the 1990s and 2000s. In fact, he’s has had a spectacular acting run that’s far from over; his latest film, “Halloween Kills,” with Jaime Lee Curtis was released only last week, and the Film Fiesta is still hoping against hope to to win the right from Universal Pictures to screen it this weekend.

Hall broke out of typecasting smoothly and didn’t make any haunting attempts to hold onto youth or what was. Due to the fact that the man’s career hasn’t ever seen a lull, we film and comedy lovers can sometimes forget just how incredible Hall’s teen performances were. He is seldom referred to as a “Great Comedic Actor” because he’s spent the majority of his adult life in more serious projects. Clearly Hall is a talented thespian with diverse abilities and ever-great presence. I highlight his earlier career simply to make the point that he was unusually funny in his younger years, beyond anything audiences have seen or will see in a teen or young adult performer. He was a special comic actor who could garner laughs like seasoned comedians who had spent decades in film.

To be one of the funniest people in the funniest movies, during a decade many would call the golden age of comedy films, is a remarkable feat. But Hall wasn’t simply funny, he was real. He was me, and guys I knew—misunderstood, witty dorks on the outside of cool—and I didn’t even grow up in the ’80s. I watched and loved Hall’s ’80s roles as a kid in the 2000s, because they spoke to me unlike any other teenage character I had encountered in movies, and he made me laugh more than just about anyone. Fans of the mature Anthony Michael Hall might not know it, but he was one of the funniest, most authentic, real and likeable comedic actors of all time, and he hasn’t been a leading man in a straightforward comedy film in decades.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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