There are those who worry about antibiotic resistance and flesh-eating bacteria, or the fact that it hit 90 degrees in Anchorage for the first time and the melting permafrost is releasing ancient life forms. Those things are worth worrying about.
I have my eye on something that to me is more troubling: I refer to the recent plummeting share of movie dollars that people spend on comedies, because Hollywood isn’t making them, or because America is in a bad mood, or both.
The situation is dire.
In December, I saw something that chilled me to my funny bone: When Kevin Hart’s Night School opened at No. 1 at the box office, it was the first comedy to do so in more than two years.
The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a numbers crunch revealing that comedies last year accounted for an appalling 8 percent of box-office revenue.
Now, some of this is a statistical sleight of hand. All superhero movies get dumped in the superhero-genre pile, even though Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are quite clearly comedies. Ditto the Deadpool movies, which exist to satirize superhero movies, and thank God because it reflects the (former?) American impulse to make fun of the grandiose and the self-important. Woe to any culture that loses the will to make those kind of jokes, or the capacity to laugh at them.
Even accounting for mis-labeled Marvel movies, though, the situation is disturbing. We’re seeing fewer comedies, and laughing less at the comedies we do see. To get a sense of this decline, let’s run things back 20 years to 1998 for a full-year comparison. You’ll find a diverse array of comedies in the top 15: There’s Something About Mary, The Nutty Professor, Rush Hour, You’ve Got Mail, The Truman Show, Patch Adams, even The Waterboy. Way down ballot you had The Big Lebowski and Rushmore.
Ten years later, 2008, you had hits like Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, part of producer Judd Apatow’s hot streak that in the previous year included The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Wedding Crashers, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The year before that: Knocked Up and Superbad. In 2009, The Hangover set an R-rated comedy box-office record.
Things go in cycles, of course, and that kind of wave won’t roll on forever. Talent burns out. Partnerships disband: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost make a trilogy that includes the incomparable Shaun of the Dead, then move on.
I felt the urge to don a black armband last month when — almost unnoticed — Adam McKay and Will Ferrell announced the end of their long and fruitful partnership. What a run they had: Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys.
Actors who rise in comedy — Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Jonah Hill — want to try drama. Of the biggest comedy stars of the last 10 years, Kevin Hart gave drama a try with the Philadelphia-shot The Upside, and Melissa McCarthy was nominated for an Oscar for her stellar work in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It’s also true that if they wanted to make comedies again, there’d be less room at the multiplex. Part of this has to do with the way the superhero movies suck all the air out of the room, as we’ve written in the past. Their massive budgets mean there is less money to spend on other things — comedies, which aren’t known for making a mint overseas, included.
Streaming services have filled the comedy void, for better or for worse.
“People go to Netflix for comedy, and they now think of movie theaters as the place of event movies and blockbusters,” said Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick, Silicon Valley), whose action comedy Stuber is in theaters now.
His opinion is backed by evidence — the market-share grab now being undertaken by Amazon and Netflix has targeted the mid-budgeted, offbeat tranche of movies that have been a traditional home to comedy. Studios, meanwhile, have virtually abandoned the sophisticated marketing and careful platform releasing that helped comedies, like Back to the Future, and now rely on blockbusters that make most of their money opening week.
This hurts movie comedy in obvious and abstract ways. There is pretty good research to show that we think jokes are funnier when we see others laughing with us — like, in a movie theater.
It’s conducive to a kind of social cohesion, a piece in Scientific American recently asserted, that binds us in powerful ways. Often by building on forms that have existed for centuries, and are widely used in movies. The Greeks noticed 2,000 years ago that we love to laugh at previous iterations of ourselves — this comports with the coming-of-age comedies that encourage us to chuckle at the mistakes of youth. Freud observed that we like to laugh at mild rattling of sexual and social taboos (what we might call gross-out or raunchy comedy).
We laugh at the misfortune of others — slapstick — but only if the misfortune is not extreme, and at a remove from reality. The line is arbitrary, which is why some people find the ultra-violent John Wick movies funny, and others don’t.
Researchers noted that we also laugh at the incongruous — simple absurdity. Ron Burgundy’s out-of-nowhere jazz flute solo in Anchorman, for example.
I wonder if the Greeks might have enjoyed Booksmart, the recent coming-of-age movie about two brainy high school nerds (Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein) who try to make up for four years of non-partying in one indulgent night. I found it to be a clever movie about two young women, a little full of themselves, who learn that they’ve judged others too harshly.
Yet the movie, for an innocuous one-crazy-night comedy, has itself come in for harsh judgment. For failing to capture nuances of class and privilege, for instance, but that frankly seems to me beyond the scope of its brief run time.
The movie hacked out a B+ Cinemascore, so it had plenty of admirers too, and comedy is notoriously subjective. The mystery of why people laugh, and why some movies connect with audiences is deep and maybe unsolvable, but it’s obvious that the going has become tough for comedy. Booksmart had decent word of mouth, but it opened softly. So did Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen’s Long Shot. This indicates people didn’t want to see the movie in the first place (ditto Mindy Kaling’s Late Night).
In addition, call-out and outrage culture make it harder for comedies to pass muster with the vigilantes of social media. In the above-referenced year of 2008, two of the $100 million comedy hits were Tropic Thunder (an arrogant white actor thinks skin dye will help him be believable as a black man) and Don’t Mess With the Zohan, about an Israeli IDF counterintel agent with a Palestinian archenemy. It’s virtually impossible to imagine those movies being released today. When Amy Schumer made I Feel Pretty, about a self-doubting woman who’s bonk on the head makes her magically self-confident, she was hounded by detractors who believed the premise could not believably apply to a woman who was blond and “able-bodied.”
That movie had the disadvantage of not being especially funny, and in the end, that’s the bottom line, says comedian Jerry Seinfeld: If it’s not funny, then it’s not a joke.
But even classic stand-ups like Seinfeld have found themselves defending their craft recently on the heels of the groundbreaking Hannah Gadsby Netflix special, Nanette, that served to deconstruct classic stand-up as a paternal and oppressive institution that too often punches down on the marginalized. (Though this would seem to “erase,” as the kids say, the contributions of women going back to Grace Allen, Moms Mabley, and beyond).
Her special led to a broader critical discussion of the uses of comedy, including the argument that formulaic jokes “can’t really challenge or change anything, and are therefore more conservative than progressive” and not especially useful in "describing the totality of the human experience.”
Here you can feel comedy being dragged into the same politicized, polarized morass that has made so much of contemporary culture dull and dreary, and reduces what has traditionally been the comedy-loving American citizenry into a churlish electorate, formed of grumpy constituencies.
I think it also underestimates the purpose and power of a “mere” joke. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air, but that cannot be said of a joke. It exists to be told, to elicit a response. It is intended as a basic tool of human connection, and a means to pleasure.
A well-crafted joke, a good comedy, a funny movie — they most certainly address (and alleviate) the human condition.
“I think what we’re seeing is a period in which comedy needs to reinvent itself. Comedy always has to change, and evolve. This has to happen. And I think it will happen,” said McKay, in town last year to accept the lifetime achievement award from the Philadelphia Film Society. That’s true, but it’s also true that good comedy endures. I recently revisited Anchorman for the 500th time and was struck by how relevant it is to the #MeToo movement — entitled, oblivious Ron Burgundy pursuing coworker Veronica, ignoring every signal she sends his way.
But even if Anchorman weren’t a satire of male entitlement, it would still have the inspired weirdness of Ron’s jazz flute, or the jazz-scored, S.E. Hinton street brawl featuring rival news teams on 10-speed bikes.
And so it stands the test of time. I’m reminded again of the line in Lone Survivor, drawn from life, about a doomed SEAL fated to die at the hands of the Taliban. When his buddy says he wishes he could call in an airstrike, he replies that he wishes he were back home on his couch, watching Anchorman.
Amen to that. When the permafrost melts, and the ancient life forms commence their apocalyptic zombie assault, that’s where I’ll be.