I love black comedy and dark humor. A friend once told me that I could shift from comedy to tragedy faster than anyone she’d ever met. My passion for outré humor is one reason for my obsession with The Sopranos. There’s also something damn funny about New Jersey beyond the table flipping, cake throwing Real Housewives of New Jersey. Everything in Jersey is BIG: from the hair to the corruption to the people to Big Pussy.
You’re probably wondering what I’m on about. A common issue for my readers. Here’s what: the HBO Max documentary about the world’s craziest and most dangerous amusement park, Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey, which operated from 1978 to 1996. Class Action Park has been out 4 months, but we saw it for the first time on Friday night. Better late than never.
Action Park was the brainchild of a sleazy stockbroker, Gene Mulvihill. He’d lost his trading license and turned his attention to creating the world’s weirdest water park in the sylvan setting of rural New Jersey. That’s right rural Jersey: if you don’t know what I’m talking about you’ve never seen the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos. It’s unclear if that makes you a barbarian or more civilized than me. Just don’t ask David Chase what happened to the half-dead Russian guy Paulie and Chris dumped there.
Back to Action Park. Mulivihill’s brazen disregard for safety made it what it was. Most amusement park rides are designed by engineers, not at Action Park. Most amusement parks are run by adults, not Action Park: the teenagers were in command. That’s right, the inmates were running the asylum. Why the fuck not? It’s Jersey.
Class Action Park was written and co-directed by Seth Porges who’s also one of the talking heads. The documentary has three acts: the beginning of Action Park, the rides that became increasingly dangerous, and the human costs of this libertarian hellscape. The first two acts are played for laughs but they’re edgy dark laughs. Just how I like them.
My two favorite talking heads are comedian Chris Gethard and actress Alison Becker both of whom were guests. The remainder are mostly the folks who worked there as youngsters. A word I have never used before. I’m getting old, y’all.
Gethard is profane and hilarious, always an excellent combination. Here’s a quote about how hot the asphalt sidewalks were at Action Park: “If you didn’t bring your own flip flops or shower shoes, you were going to suffer from chopped meat feet.”
Ouch. That’s what they call ground meat in New York and Jersey. Dr. A lived on Long Island until she was 8 years old, but she still calls it chopped meat.
Here’s Alison Becker imitating the rowdy dudes who heckled timid guests, “You fucking pussy. This is Jersey. Do it or get out of Jersey.”
Action Park was no place for the faint-hearted. It was a genuinely dangerous place that narrator John Hodgman describes as a “cross between Ayn Rand and Lord of the Flies.” That hurts even more than chopped meat feet.
Mulvihill was an OTT character who was alternately charming and intimidating. If you sued the park, they never settled. A good thing because they had fake insurance. I am not making this up.
It’s unclear how “connected” Mulvihill was but there were a few wise guys in the woodpile. It reminded me of the Sopranos episode, Camelot, in which Tony meets his father’s mistress and learns that she was screwed out of her share of a dog track owned by Johnny Boy Soprano, Heshy, and Phil Leotardo. It wouldn’t surprise me if their real-life counterparts had a stake in Action Park.
In the final act of Class Action Park we meet Esther Larsson whose 19-year-old son George died on the infamous Alpine Slide ride. Ms. Larsson calls Gene Mulvihill “a piece of shit” and reminisces on how she toasted his death in 2012.
They don’t make them like Gene Mulivill or Action Park anymore. That’s a good thing. Despite the hilarity of the earlier acts, the movie closes on a somber note with the talking heads expressing amazement that they survived Action Park.
Class Action Park is streaming on HBO Max. I give it 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll crave chopped meat.
The last word * should* go to Bruce Springsteen or The Smithereens but I’ve had an era appropriate earworm since seeing the documentary: