Shifting Baselines

This is the bottom line I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been sort of picking up this vibe with the advance word, but here it officially is–the film critic for the Orlando Sentinel reviewed Ben Stein’s anti-evolution movie, “Expelled,” and, bottom line, said:

“It just isn’t particularly funny.”

That’s all that matters. End of story. It’s not entertainment. Film is first and foremost an entertainment medium. Anything on film that isn’t entertaining is an attempt to drive a square peg into a round hole. Michael Moore’s films are entertaining. “Super Size Me” is entertaining. “Flock of Dodos,” according to all the major reviews, is entertaining. Even the Al Gore movie was largely oriented towards showing that he can actually be non-boring and even somewhat entertaining.

Ben Stein is an entertainer. He is known, not as a singer, dancer, or musician, but as a man who is funny. If he’s made a movie that isn’t funny, its the same as Fred Astaire making a movie in which the dancing is lousy, or Barbara Streisand making a movie in which she sings off key.

I had heard about “the Ben Stein movie,” over a year ago when a friend in Toronto told me her best friend’s boyfriend was a cameraman on the movie. I had tried to warn everyone, “if this thing turns out to be entertaining, the evolution world is in trouble.”

It isn’t. Crisis averted. Thanks to Ben Stein. We can now throw this on the scrap heap alongside the growing mountain of boring global warming documentaries. And folks, warn your children, don’t use film to try and educate people. It’s an entertainment medium.

i-2a21ee3b440536cc2c78fcdbf002a385-Ben Stein.jpg
To err is human. To be unfunny when you’re supposed to be a comic actor is to totally screw the pooch.


  1. #1 Mark Powell
    March 9, 2008

    Now that’s a good Randy Olson review, opinionated and sassy. Go Randy.

  2. #2 geo
    March 9, 2008

    YOu might rather do your readers a service, by directing them to a less hysterical, sloppy and coherent review, one written by a professional. Check out Jack Cashill’s review on the Blog” at

    Even better…you might wait before weighing in so heavily…until AFTER you have viewed the film YOURSELF. It’s what real journalists try to do.

    That way, dear – your readers might think that you actually have a mind of your own! :)


  3. #3 Randy Olson
    March 9, 2008

    Jack Cashill was in my movie Flock of Dodos. I love the guy, precisely because he is … hysterical, sloppy and coherent (as you said it).

  4. #4 Zeno
    March 9, 2008

    Geo suggests we go see Cashill’s movie review, which is actually posted at the movie’s own website. I’ve read it. Guess what? Cashill proves that Expelled is a brilliant movie!

    Really? No. Sorry.

  5. #5 Anonymous
    March 9, 2008

    “Film is first and foremost an entertainment medium. Anything on film that isn’t entertaining is an attempt to drive a square peg into a round hole.”

    I realize this isn’t your main point, but are you seriously saying that security camera footage, news, and a good many documentaries are a waste of film?

  6. #6 Randy Olson
    March 9, 2008

    Didn’t say it’s “only” an entertainment medium, just that it’s first and foremost.

  7. #7 Jennifer Ouellette
    March 9, 2008

    Even documentaries still have to be entertaining, otherwise nobody would watch. You can do a lot within the medium, but as Randy says, you can never forget that one must, absolutely, entertain.

    Thanks for an excellent post. I’ve been making this point to various scientists all week, so it’s especially timely. :)

  8. #8 nunyer
    March 10, 2008

    Even better…you might wait before weighing in so heavily…until AFTER you have viewed the film YOURSELF. It’s what real journalists try to do.

    . . . except that real journalists are un-invited – expelled? – from the screenings.

    Nice to see how Stein et. al. practice their own special brand of “academic freedom.”

  9. #9 TTT
    March 11, 2008

    Never allow Ben Stein to be taken seriously on this or any other topic. He is a clueless celebrity activist, whose questionable fame is based entirely on the tone of his voice, and so every role he has ever had has sounded exactly the same. He’s like the wingnut Bobcat Goldthwait.

  10. #10 noncarborundum
    March 11, 2008

    Funny isn’t everything. I don’t remember many laughs in The Thin Blue Line, but it was riveting and got its point across.

    Of course, if the makers of Expelled wanted serious and riveting, they wouldn’t have hired Stein. On the other hand, I wouldn’t hire Stein if I were trying to make a funny movie, either.

  11. #11 donk
    March 11, 2008

    I dont think i’ve ever watched a documentary hoping that it would be funny.

    And of the best films i’ve ever seen, few of them would be called ‘entertaining’!

    There’s more to cinema than popcorn flicks

  12. #12 Randy Olson
    March 11, 2008

    Okay, now you’re forcing me to go to the dictionary. What I said is that film and television are ENTERTAINMENT media, first and foremost. Not funny media. There is a difference. The definition I find for “entertainment” is, “something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement, esp. a performance of some kind.” Funny is a form of entertainment, but so is storytelling.

    Storytelling provides pleasure for MOST humans (though I’m not certain that’s true for most scientists). The Thin Blue Line is an excellent piece of storytelling — plenty of tension and conflict. In contrast, for most humans, education is not a source of pleasure, diversion or amusement. Sorry, but it isn’t. For MOST humans, it’s like medicine. Important to take, but you wish you could have the end result without what comes in the middle.

    So had Ben Stein been funny or told a really great story, he’d have something that people would want to watch, regardless of the politics (that’s why so many Republicans turned out for “Fahrenheit 911”). But he didn’t. He failed to entertain. Which is unforgiveable. We must stone the failed entertainer.

  13. #13 Citizen Z
    March 11, 2008

    Ben Stein is known for his comedic roles, and according to the less coherent review by Jack Cashill is supposed to be a “brighter and more benign” version of Michael Moore, who also is a comic figure. I don’t think anyone will be expecting “The Thin Blue Line”, they’ll be expecting clear eyes. AWESOME.

  14. #14 Randy Olson
    March 11, 2008

    Regarding the degrading of Ben Stein — there’s no need. His fame is deserved. He did an amazing thing in the 80’s creating a persona that made him one of the only geriatrics ever truly popular with the MTV demographic. But unfortunately he eventually emerged with the same sort of cynical, lizard-like vicious outlook on the world that Dennis Miller eventually revealed as well. What’s with these guys who seem like fun comedians only to eventually rip off their happy mask and show they are mad at everything in society?

    There’s no way Ben Stein is a very happy guy deep down inside. He’s just bitter, for some reason.

  15. #15 Glen Davidson
    March 12, 2008

    It looks like Josh McDowell largely agrees with Randy Olson’s assessment of Expelled:

    • Expelled is a documentary. It is not for entertainment. It will require the audience to think about what they are watching. Although it includes some humor (how could Ben Stein keep from adding humor?), it is a very serious documentary. Be sure people understand that they are attending for the purpose of learning not for a night out at the movies.

    I suspect that Olson is also right that to be successful it would need to be entertaining. Not that they’re not going to prod a number of true believers to go, especially at first, but the lack of entertainment value is likely going to make it tank relatively fast, even if Stein is a little bit funny (not much in the promotional material, is for sure).

    Glen D

  16. #16 Jay Rogers
    March 20, 2008

    I saw the movie in an advance screening and I thought the movie was hysterically funny, sad, powerful — the gamut of emotions ran through me. It will make people amused, angry, sad, hopeful, fearful.

    See my review for more details:

    You are saying it will tank if it’s not entertaining. So when it breaks the $50 million mark as a low budget effort, will you eat crow. You’ll either write that it is entertaining (once you actually see it) or you will say people like movies that aren’t entertaining after all. Imagine that.

    Mark my words. It’s going to open big, get bigger, and then it’s going to stir up more controversy than ever before — and then it’s going to get bigger and have a longer run due to the controversy. All during this, the media will be saying it is tanking.

    Of course. They have to. There is no other alternative except to admit the impending failure of the liberal worldview.

    To attack it’s success will only give it more success. That’s your tactic here. It’s clever only because it’s the only tactic that might work. But it won’t.

    But I’ll check back with you on May 18th. I’d be surpised if it doesn’t gross $50 million in its first month — fabulous for a documentary. I’ll eat crow if it doesn’t

    EXPELLED is entertaining. It’s hilarious, but it’s not meant to amuse.

    The Greek word MUSE means to think or ponder something. A-MUSE-ment is the lack of thoughtful consideration.

    In fact, most of the best humor is unintentional and deeply ironic.

    This is an experience movie. People flocked to see The Passion of the Christ — one of the least entertaining movies you will ever want to see. A low budget film that made a billion.

    EXPELLED is in the same vein. It begins in an upbeat light manner and slwoly descends into serious blackness. You can dismiss it, but it’s a nother one of these low-budget masterpieces whose producers have chosen to spend millions on advertising. And it’s going to get a big boost from word-of-mouth and grassroots efforts (like your blog).

    I have to laugh when I read critics saying that Michael Moore’s style of jump-edited out-of-context mockumentary is better than EXPELLED. They haven’t even seen it! It is a masterpiece compared to anything More has done. I know he is the patron saint of the radical left, but take out his political views and an ape with a camera could put together a better production. (No pun intended.)

    I am a Christian who can’t stand some Christian movies becasue they have been historically schlocky, but this wasn’t a “Christian” movie (Stein is a Jew) and it had high production quality.

    With the availability of high tech media production at a lower cost than ever before, we are seeing conservatives and Christians in particular turn the corner with high grossing efforts that are at once entertaining, informative, uplifting and provocative.

  17. #17 Randy Olson
    March 21, 2008

    Well … it will certainly be a miracle if what you say happens. “The Passion of the Stein,” I suppose. And I’m not saying it won’t. Its just that … people are saying it really isn’t funny. The Passion of the Christ delivered passion. You can read it in the reviews. Ben Stein is supposed to deliver funny. But the reviews aren’t saying he does. Be sure to check back in May and let me know what happened in case its fallen out of the news by then. Thanks.

  18. #18 theophilus
    April 17, 2008

    ” . . . if this thing turns out to be entertaining, the evolution world is in trouble.”

    Why would you be worried? If evolution was scientifically sound, then why the need for any worry?

  19. #19 MARK A. MENCER
    April 21, 2008

    i HAVEN’T SEEN THE FIME AS OF YET, BUT I GET THE FEELING FROM THE LEFT-WING NUTS AND THERE BLOGS THAT THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT DRIVES THEM SO INSANE. GOD is the creatator of all living things and thats an idea they better get used to.

  20. #20 ameenah kaplan
    May 14, 2008


    i just heard you for the second time on skepticality and was again so impressed and inspired. i’ve made my living in the arts for most of my life and a year and a half ago realized i was an atheist. my own work in the theater has always been themed around thinking for oneself and striking out on one’s own. but it wasn’t until i realized atheism that my “mission” became clear. when i heard your first interview with swoopy, i said, this guy has it right. as someone who’s spent her whole life surrounded by artists who believe in everything but rationality, to this community, the scientists do come off just as you say. my first foray into the skeptical community was through a podcast. the hosts, though obviously intelligent, were condescending and dismissive of anyone who was a “believer”. while i obviously agree with their larger point of view, the way in which they belittled anyone who “still believed in all that crazy shit” was a little too much for me. i didn’t grow up around scientists. i don’t work with scientists, and though they are the keepers of the truth, their world seemed like something i couldn’t belong to. we were just too different socially, it seemed. as an artist, i’ve been in search of a way in which to spread skepticism and rational thinking to our community. let me put it to you this way, as actors, we use all the tools that science says are not reliable in order to achieve our goals–faith, emotions, memory, etc. this has led to a crossover with people’s real lives. they are simply unable to reactivate their disbelief when they exit the stage. i guess, we are a little superstitious like athletes. if meditation worked just before the show, why wouldn’t it work in real life? this has always driven me crazy. for me, the fantasy has always begun and ended at the door of the theater.

    i live in hollywood and work as an actress, musician, dancer, choreographer, and director. i don’t have a day job. i understand this business. i’m a black girl from the south who grew up in a jewish household! nobody understands the way the machine of hollywood works better than those of us struggling to carve out a niche in a business that is deliberately and apologetically racist, sexist, classist, you name it. hollywood is its own animal, with its own rules and you’re right, the scientific community doesn’t get it at all! they have the naive belief that truth will win in the end. they’re wrong. i know i’m a better actress than many of these beautiful, homogeneous starlets. but will i ever get to enjoy the fruits of hollywood the way they do?–hell no! this is a business run by entrepreneurs who are living vicariously through artists. they have wedged themselves between artists and their work in the form of agents, managers, casting directors, and producers! and as business people, their concern is not art but making the maximum amount of profit with the least amount of effort–and being photographed at the after party with celebrity x. that is why we see change happen so slowly. that is why the same type of actor continues to book all the best parts despite the fact of diversity in the country. this is a business that preys on and thrives off of people’s ignorance; constantly playing to the lowest common denominator. which is usually sex.

    i want to help! so in january, after working professionally as an actor since the age of 15, i’ll return to film school so that i can contribute to the scientific, rational education of the masses.

    YOU ARE RIGHT ON TARGET!!! if we are to realize the rational and united humanity that we envision for the future, we need media savvy, sexy people delivering powerful, engaging and cogent messages.

    thank you again randy. you continue to inspire and enlighten me. we are out there. we are supporting you. we are contributing!

    ameenah kaplan

  21. #21 S Warsi
    June 16, 2008

    Mr. Stark,

    how was the crow?

  22. #22 S Warsi
    June 16, 2008


    Mr. Rogers,

    how was the crow?

  23. #23 josh
    August 19, 2008

    I read Dawkin’s rant in response to the movie.
    I’ll be posting this comment on his blog once registered to do so.

    Interesting response Mr Dawkins. Nothing really substantial in the way of any rebuttals. Instead it seems a determined effort to question Stein and Mathis’s character. Also seems to be a critique of the movie making abilities rather than the subject matter (you opinion rather than your qualified expertise as a movie critc of course). I have not yet seen the film but am now curious to see why it should capture such ire of someone that supposedly does not care what the other side thinks.
    The funny part may be that this response is on a blog where the terms and conditions clearly ask that no slander or abuse is to be posted. I guess I need to re-define what those mean in my mind.
    I believe that this may be the first time Mr. Dawkins tastes the feeling of being interviewed or scrutinized and then having his statements presented in a way to promote an opposing belief. Creationists and ID followers have had to put up with that marketing garbage for decades. Good on Stein to give the “Gander” it’s due.
    All this arguing solves nothing. Creationists think ID’ers are sellouts and Evolutionists are deviously sinister; Evolutionists think ID’ers are on crack and creationists are conspiracy theorists; Hindu’s think we will all rebirth as another form any way so pointless to argue ; Muslims love us all since we will all convert by force when Jesus returns:
    And then there are all the folks in the middle that think I just misrepresented their beliefs.
    If we honestly think people need to be saved from their convictions then lets just keep giving each other a chance to hear the arguments and don’t sweat the rejection.
    Name calling and ridiculing people is not a reason to keep believing what we believe.

    If there is no God, why do Evolutionists care what others believe? Seems a waste of time.
    If Evolutionists/Atheists are right, we all win regardless, so why the effort to down the Creationists and ID’ers?
    If the Creationists and IDer’s are right, then some faith system will be ultimately right and we will not all win.
    We all agree that it is important to live in harmony while on this earth. The real argument is what happens beyond the grave…..we cannot all be right.
    If there is a God, why does he need any religion to convert people by force or ridicule. That is not a definition of free choice (ie., true love).
    I suspect that a fair God will want his truth/invitation simply to have the opportunity to be told. Those who accept it….great; those who reject it…no big deal. The very definition of love/free will.

    We are all hypocrites so I will attempt to dissolve my hypocricy by watching Stein’s film and then commenting on it again later.As I am in Western Canada, I have to wait until the opportunity to rent the film is given.
    I choose to take the leap of faith into the Creation model. If yu leap with me that’s cool, If not, that’s cool too.
    This is because I believe that my God tells me your choice is between you and him. My responsibility is simply to be available to give you an opportunity to hear what I think is his invitation. maybe I’m sniffing glue or maybe I’ve got the truth. Only you can determine this. By taking a chnce, research, long term observation or just a gut feeling makes no difference. Its all up to you. No hard feelings and no ridicule.


  24. #24 sohbet odalar?
    February 4, 2009


  25. #25 forum
    March 13, 2009

    Thank you

  26. #26 esenler inÅŸaat
    March 13, 2009

    Nice Ä°dea :)

  27. #27 HawK.TwO
    May 25, 2009

    Well, this very nice and wonderful.

    …………THE REAL FORUM…………

  28. #28 Leslie
    September 10, 2010

    I did watch the film, just now in fact, and all I have to say is that Randy read my mind. I was totally expecting Funny from Ben Stein and was happily disappointed. Happily, not because I don’t believe evolution to be scientifically sound, but, because I would hate to see any member of the small demographic of people who are keeping creationism out of our schools swayed by right-wing propaganda with a friendly face. The only thing that I did find laughable about this movie were the ridiculously incongruous black and white film clips. Seriously, the Berlin wall is representative of the scientific community as a whole? Michael Moore he definitely is not. Thank the universe!

  29. #29 William Owen
    October 9, 2010

    Jay Rogers – I have not yet seen a comment from you in which you described the taste of the crow, the texture, the way that the feathers were digestable or perhaps not…

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