1980s Must-See Black Comedy Stars One Of The Most Hated Men In America

By Robert Scucci | Published

After the tell-all documentary Quiet on Set alleged a litany of questionable behavior during Dan Schneider’s tenure as a producer for Nickelodeon, he may very well be one of the most hated men in the entertainment industry. But long before he was a producer, he portrayed an equally unlikable character in the 1985 black comedy, Better Off Dead.

Though Schneider’s character, Ricky Smith, isn’t the center of attention in this John Cusack-starring film, his off-putting behavior is right on the nose when you consider what we now know about the man behind the character.

Dan Schneider In Better Off Dead

Better Off Dead is one of those films that you’ll either love or hate, and your reception of the film will hinge on what kind of sense of humor you have. Using black humor centered on depression and suicide as one of its primary vehicles to deliver laughs, you may find it insensitive. But if you’re willing to accept Better Off Dead as a product of its time and lean into its premise, the humor holds up despite how problematic some of the jokes may be in 2024.

John Cusack Stars In Better Off Dead

John Cusack’s Lane Meyers takes center stage in Better off Dead, and like most films starring the then-teen heartthrob, focuses on his romantic woes.

Having been dumped by his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss), Lane falls into a deep depression and attempts to commit suicide on a number of occasions to drive the point home.

Lane is also a talented skier, and much to his dismay, Beth is now dating Roy (Aaron Dozier), the captain of the ski team.

Skiing The K-12

In an attempt to win Beth’s affection, Lane attempts to ski down the highest mountain peak in town, the K-12, but wipes out and humiliates himself in the process.

Just when things can’t possibly get any worse for Lane, he gets fired from his job at Pig Burgers in front of his now-ex-girlfriend, and Roy, his new rival.

Everything changes in Better Off Dead when a French foreign exchange student named Monique (Diane Franklin) moves in next door with the Smith family, and Lane’s newfound attraction to her helps him take his mind off of Beth.

Matters get complicated in Better Off Dead when Ricky Smith is introduced. Ricky is a socially awkward teenager who “sits around crocheting all day and snorting nasal spray,” and his mother desperately wants Monique to date him. Fortunately for Lane, Ricky is repulsive by design, and Monique isn’t interested in his advances.

Better Off Dead A Success

better off dead

For its absurdist take on high school romance, Better Off Dead was an overnight success, earning $10.3 million at the box office against its reported budget of $3.5 million. Though Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert famously gave the film a “two thumbs down,” contemporary reviews were more forgiving.

Presently, Better off Dead has a critical score of 77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes against an even more favorable 87 percent audience score across over 50,000 ratings, making it a true cult classic.

Cultural Impact

better off dead

Despite the controversies currently surrounding Dan Schneider, Better Off Dead’s legacy is here to stay.

The premise was even revisited in 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine, which takes place on a ski slope in 1986 and also stars John Cusack.

If you listen carefully enough, you can even hear somebody yelling “I want my $2” in the distance, which is a callback to the persistent paperboy in Better Off Dead who repeatedly demands that Lane settles his debt.

Streaming Better Off Dead

better off dead

Better Off Dead is a dark comedy with a cast full of rising stars that is worthy of your attention if you’re into surreal humor that’s further bolstered by the performances of its principal characters.

You can currently stream the title on Paramount+, and you won’t regret it if you like romantic comedies with an edgy premise.