A few weeks ago, an episode of How I Met Your Mother jokingly presented the idea that Tommy Boy may be “a modern retelling of Henry IV, Part I.” While this was most likely meant to be a joke, I become increasingly curious by this idea the more I think about it. HIMYM presented a similarity between this movie and Shakespeare that I had never considered — but after some pondering, this same similarity exists in other comedies of the same genre and generation, like Billy Madison and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Namely, all three deal with an unfit heir to their father’s domain stepping up in time of crisis.
Tommy Boy makes a nice parallel to Henry IV, Part I, as HIMYM pointed out, in that both have a young, unfit ruler thrust into leadership after the death of their father. However, Tommy Boy, like all three movies at hand, does not discuss a kingship, but rather something much more modern – in this case, a brake pad company. But Tommy, much like Henry IV’s eldest son, Harry, still starts the movie in about the same position: the audience knows just as much as the father does that his son is in no condition to take over. The maturity level just isn’t there — nor is the ability to competently sell brake pads. It isn’t until death of their respective fathers that both sons force themselves to grow up a bit and learn how to lead their fathers’ legacies.
Billy from Billy Madison keeps this tradition, as does Kumar from Harold and Kumar, only leaving out the death of their fathers. However, it is implied that both father figures would not keep their respective practices for much longer; Brian Madison’s hotel chain is about to be passed on to his subordinate, while Kumar’s father (a doctor) ages towards retirement. For Billy, stepping up requires initial jealousy and hatred of his enemy, while for Kumar it requires a night of drug-induced self reflection and clarity. So, needless to say, this argument would have little to stand on if the only parallel was in the direct act of the son stepping up.
But with all three coming of age stories for these unlikely heroes, the main conflict arises when legitimacy of the inherited rights is challenged. Kumar doesn’t believe he should become a doctor like his father because he wants to avoid further stereotyping and torment, while both Billy and Tommy are challenged by their antagonists for their incompetence and unprofessionalism in their father’s businesses. Much like in Henry IV, Part I, the antagonists justify their behavior with one mindset: the new ruler’s right to rule is illegitimate, therefore usurp is justified. To this end, the son characters are forced to grow up — not just to win back their rightful role, but to deserve it. Any ill deed towards their respective antagonists would further soil their reputations; to win, they each have to win fair and square, even when their opponents play dirty. Hence, things like academic decathlons and cross-nation sales trips are born.
Now, I’m not saying that any of these movies plagiarized, or actually based their movies off a work of Shakespeare. However, I do believe that there is a reason Shakespeare’s themes overlapped with movies stemming from the last two decades. What made Shakespeare so timeless was the fact that many of his themes are feelings we still experience today. Coming of age, be it to impress our loved ones or spite our enemies, is a feeling that remains relatable and will remain so for some time. I doubt that the likes of Billy Madison, Tommy Boy, and Harold and Kumar will linger in as many generations as classic Shakespeare will, but I already know that there will be another movie that shares their elements in a few years. The next generation is bound to share our growing up pains and struggles — and their media will reflect that the same way ours did.