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The Great Studio Comedy Fall From Grace

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

One genre I find myself begrudgingly staying up to date with is studio comedy. It's light, low stakes, and rarely requires too much contemplation. I can turn on a comedy with my parents (“oh yeah, that new movie with so and so!”), my friends (“I want to turn my brain off”), and in big group settings, appeasing the widest of demographics simply because funny is broad. Funny is good. Funny is a break.*

*For the purposes of this essay, a “studio comedy” can be defined as a live-action, studio-produced film with predominantly comical scenes that exists outside a pre-existing franchise (e.g. Marvel, Star Wars, etc.) and is marketed toward an adult audience, thus garnering a PG-13 or R rating.

The golden standard of comedy prior to the 21st century (for some, the John Hughes era, or Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler and any other SNL alum who had the momentum and charisma to make a career out of a few silly voices) was tried and true. A charming protagonist (likely a man), some silly one-scene cameos, an outrageously beautiful love interest, and the rough essence of a plot to keep things going from scene to scene. Sandler, of the pre-listed examples, found his footing with ease. Two Grown-ups movies and a half dozen Rob Schneider cameos later, he is one of the most admired lowbrow connoisseurs in America.

In the 2000s, the reign of Apatow commenced. Frequent collaborators Seth Rogen, James Franco, Paul Rudd, and Jason Segel popped up here and there for a laugh. Apatow produced films Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Step Brothers all in the span of four years, and directed and produced The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up during the same period. His quantity to quality ratio is surprisingly good, and those films made big ripples in theaters across the U.S. (Of course, that is not without the casual sexism and cultural insensitivity so often present in those types of movies, but that aspect of male-dominated comedy is already pretty well-established and well-dissected in popular discourse, and I have no intention of exhausting my word count with why uncomfortable penis joke not always funny).

Right after Apatow’s Amy Schumer vessel Trainwreck hit theaters in 2015, comedies kind of took a downturn. You could blame it on dude-bros who think that hating Amy Schumer is a sport in itself, but looking at where the other comedies of that year rank, it starts to make a little more sense. Picture it: Jurassic World is making over $650,000,000 at the box office. According to IMDbPro Box Office Mojo, the biggest studio comedy that year domestically was Pitch Perfect 2 (which came in #13 at the box office and is also a sequel to an already successful first film). The Melissa McCarthy comedy, Spy, came in at #25, and Trainwreck actually took spot #27.

However, in 2016, the highest-grossing studio comedy was Ghostbusters at #21, which received considerable flack for recreating a beloved franchise with women (and also falls into the franchise subcategory). The first Kevin Hart-Dwayne Johnson collaboration, Central Intelligence, took spot #22, and the first Bad Moms film took spot #25.

2017 revived the Jumanji franchise with another Hart & Johnson collaboration, taking spot #18 (the film's Dec. 20 release date gave it a new life in early 2018, in which it took spot #7 by the end of the year). Tiffany Haddish star-maker Girls Trip, the sensation that it was, clocked in at #29, and Daddy’s Home 2 took the #33 spot.

The Jumanji reboot’s longevity of success into 2018 is admittedly impressive, but because its existence is dependent on a pre-existing franchise, it doesn’t quite fall within the pre-established definition. Franchise revival Ocean’s 8, featuring another all-female reboot, got the #22 spot. But the biggest non-franchise straight comedy of that year was actually Hart-Haddish collaboration Night School, which was #40.

Ignoring the Jumanji sequel, 2019’s biggest non-franchise, original successes were Jacob Tremblay-led raunch-fest Good Boys at #34 (a film picked up by Universal after debuting at SXSW) and Rebel Wilson film, Isn’t It Romantic (#57). A Madea Family Funeral (#39) is technically a continuation of Tyler Perry’s cross-dressing odyssey and Adam Shankman’s What Men Want (#54) a response to the 2000 Mel Gibson-led rom-com, What Women Want.

Apatow took a break from directing comedies during that period of time, choosing instead to work on two different documentaries. Then 2020 came, and the world changed a little bit. More on that later.

Determining a big Hollywood comedy’s level of success can be measured in several ways. There is, of course, the box office, which I just examined in great depth for the purpose of building my argument about the gradual demise of the market for broad comedy (despite the fact that most brainless, star-studded features can still usually grab a solid return from it). There is the “acclaim” feature: a particularly good performance or screenplay that stands out from the rest. Bridesmaids (2011) – produced by Apatow — stands as the best example to date of a mechanically directed laugh-fest receiving considerable love at awards shows. There is also the “ahead-of-its-time” qualifier of success, which earns a film love long after its initial release. Very few broad comedies find a second life, and if they do, it’s not usually the ones that make $200,000,000 first go-around.

Streaming has undeniably changed the outlook of studio comedy. Now, the studios making and distributing films are Netflix and Hulu, and they don’t have to worry about dropping movies in competition with other genres. Teen comedies, action comedies, parodies and farce are continuously churned out, and audiences will almost always consume them because of Netflix’s internal marketing. One of 214 million users worldwide needs only to open the app to have the service's newest product directly advertised to them. It’s a pretty brilliant system, especially when a pandemic arrives and people are unable to attend movie theaters. It’s a guaranteed win for the studio, which needs only a few million dollars and a couple of funny people to turn a profit.

However, this essay is not about streaming vs. cinema or the profit margins that constitute success. It’s about the kinds of humor that penetrate the mainstream consciousness, becoming grounds for widely understood pop culture references. With so many movies at the fingertips of consumers, the notion of a culturally resonant super-sensation (beyond the world of multi-billion dollar franchises) is less and less realistic, particularly for those films that do not rely on nostalgia from a bygone era. Originality is simply not a money-maker. Too many new concepts and characters seem to overwhelm the already very overstimulated media consumer.

The industry timeline can very well be divided between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic: in my personal opinion, the last great comedy released exclusively to theaters is Game Night (2019), which in itself arrived after a long humor drought. Whether or not you’re privy to the work of 2000s Apatow or Jake Kasdan, you would likely agree that there was very much a tried-and-true rhythm to non-independent productions over the past 20 years. Game Night, at the very least, did something creative with its cinematography and brought in dramatic heavyweights Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons to balance out seasoned television veterans Jason Bateman and Lamorne Morris.

So what do post-2020 studio comedies look like? 2020 box office numbers are not the most reliable figures. So I instead revert to my own unresearched observations of media ripples on the internet over the past two years. The following films were all released straight to streaming.

Palm Springs' timeliness had a huge impact on the public conscience; however, it’s an indie. It got picked up by Hulu after finding success at Sundance. Borat II meant something to people, even garnering some Academy award nominations during the great movie famine of 2020, but it is another example of a continuation of a pre-existing character. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga with heavy-hitter Will Ferrell enjoyed a decently healthy fanbase on Netflix, as did the Sandler-gang get-together, Hubie Halloween.

Lo and behold: Judd Apatow rises from the ashes and returns with the loosely autobiographical (for Pete Davidson) film: The King of Staten Island. Perhaps the vulgar yet earnest stylings of a man-child who finds a good woman will be affectionately received and his signature will be reborn!

But as it turns out, that film’s comedy is a lot more naturalistic. It’s a dramedy in every sense of the word, more of a Funny People than a Talladega Nights. Perhaps the goofy Apatow of the past is gone. Perhaps only franchise comedies will sell at the box office, and independent comedies with fresh faces will impress at the awards (not that I’m complaining about the latter).

It would be very easy to look at studio comedies and their recent track record and say, “well, we’d be better without them.” I myself prefer independent movies, knowing they’re more likely to emerge from a place of sincerity and passion than one generated by a focus group.

But I know it takes time to build an interest in independent cinema, and not everyone has the time or patience to do so. Some people want to sit in their big cushy AMC seats, watch a movie from recognizable stars, and turn their brains off for a bit. That’s not a crime.

I do think the pandemic has forced comedy executives to take a second look at some of the stuff they’re producing and think, “does this have merit?” Blockbuster franchises are going to consistently take the top spots at the box office. The producers behind those films are testing out all the genres within their conglomerates to satisfy a wider audience and create fan loyalty. Studios looking for original comedies can’t build that same kind of loyalty or consistency around a brand, so they tend to do so with actors. But now, many of the biggest names are being bribed and usurped by massive corporations. Conglomerates have the benefit of higher budgets, superior marketing, and brand loyalty. If Michael Peña being funny in a studio comedy doesn’t make much money, just have Michael Peña be funny in the MCU, and he’ll be set for life.

Studio comedies used to provide a safe middle ground for actors and filmmakers. Putting a rom-com into theaters wasn’t seen as a risk. Now, much like the trend of U.S. wealth, there is a growing disparity in movies. There’s a 7 to 9 digit divide that guarantees what will succeed and what will not. Studio comedies are not the only victim: when’s the last time you saw a romance get huge numbers at the box office? The American conscience, without sounding too derivative, operates with a zombie-like predilection for the next movie in a series.

Apatow’s change in style from 2015 to 2020 may very well be a product of trying to fit in with the small-town, big-hearted vibes that ring more authentic to viewers. He even brought in auteur-collaborator Robert Elswit to do The King of Staten Island's cinematography. Further, the movie was released directly to streaming services. Maybe the decision was made strictly due to the pandemic, or perhaps Apatow is self-aware enough to understand how the receptors of his movies have changed in the time since. Regardless, his films don’t seem to have much of a market alongside blockbusters anymore.

Apatow has a new movie coming out this year, The Bubble, starring a modest cast of C-list pros. It’s due to be released straight to Netflix. I have no doubt that it’ll enjoy a greater audience on streaming than it ever would at the cinemas. It seems that, in order to compete on the big screen, films need spectacle.

2021’s Free Guy enjoyed considerable success, but its grand scale rendered it overproduced in comparison to a lot of its contemporaries, like Bad Trip (Netflix) and Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, the absolute best thing Paul Feig never directed. It too was sent straight to VOD.

Maybe the Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock-led The Lost City will find some theater success. But not once Morbius, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and the next Fantastic Beasts movie come out in the weeks thereafter. Even then, The Lost City is an action-comedy. It appears that there is no profitable funny without stunts and theatrics. I fear that the cinema lookout for original broad comedy is bleak. Consumer consciousness will more than likely continue to be dominated by franchises.



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