This summer’s latest critical and commercial shitfest was The House, a promising broad comedy starring heavyweights Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. What went wrong? Well, for one thing, the general consensus seems to be that it blows. Critics say it lacks momentum, wastes its cast, and seems to rely way too heavily on improv, leading to paper-thin characters and general meandering. I’ll get to that eventually, but I think it’s about time to address a more systematic issue: Hollywood has a serious comedy problem.
How can we be sure? Well, let’s just look at the facts. So far in 2017, there have been around 7 or 8 major live-action comedies. Not one of them has been a commercial success, and very few of them have been a critical one. The most successful comedy so far has been Baywatch, which holds a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes and made just $150 million globally on a 60-million-dollar production budget. Most of the others didn’t break even. In 2016, the only mainstream comedy films to be both critically and commercially successful were Neighbors 2, which you forgot about until just now; Sausage Party, which was made on a shoestring budget; Bad Moms, one of the year’s biggest anomalies, and Ghostbusters, which holds dubious claim to either honor. For comparison’s sake, Ghostbusters made $230 million at the global box office. The most successful comedy of 2012, Ted, made $556 million.
And The House isn’t the only recent flick to besmirch the names of immensely-talented comedians. Fist Fight somehow fumbled the brilliant pairing of Charlie Day and Ice Cube, Zoolander 2 had everything the first movie had going for it and still flopped, and Zach Galifianakis struck out twice last fall with two movies you don’t even remember. Even really solid comedies like Keanu, Sisters, and Popstar got shafted at the box office last year. The mainstream comedy was bigger than ever a scant five or six years ago, so what happened? Let’s look at the suspects.
It’s always easy to look at any tidal change in Hollywood this past decade and say “Duh, it’s Marvel’s fault.” But in this case, there may be some truth to that. You see, everyone in Hollywood is trying to cash in on Marvel’s titanic Cinematic Universe strategy, which means copy every single thing Marvel is doing, from style to casting to set-up. Thus, Marvel has led to an interesting trend in blockbusters: they’re all expected to be parodies of themselves. Iron Man couldn’t just be a hero, he also had to be a snarky, arrogant drunk. The dialogue has to be 80% quips. Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok all seem to be straight-up comedies. This is a fine choice to make on Marvel’s end, but it means the market is saturated with gut-busting romps like Kong: Skull Island and Deadpool. Why see a flat-out comedy when you can see something that’s funny and so much more?
But there’s more to it than that. Because Sony looked at Marvel and said, “Why don’t we just make a comedy cinematic universe?” Enter Ghostbusters: the most polarizing comedy of all time. Even if it has its fair share of fans, it barely broke even at the box office, and Sony called it quits. But before that, the e-mail hack revealed another cinematic universe in the pipeline: Jump Street/Men In Black. I actually called this one more than a year before it was revealed, seeing it as a logical extension for the two franchises, but the crossover was pronounced dead by Jonah Hill back in August. Could this tendency to jump on trends have pushed public perception out of the mainstream comedy’s favor? Maybe, but that’s not all.
Another Marvel trick that everyone and their grandmother has adapted is the habit of taking promising young filmmakers and giving them big-budget action movies. This means that promising new comedy filmmakers are getting swept up left and right, and with the Apatow diaspora fading away, the comedy industry needs them more than ever. Shane Black went from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to Iron Man 3. The Russo Brothers got to make Captain America and Avengers movies because of their work on Community. Kiwi comedy mastermind Taika Waititi is helming Thor: Ragnarok. Ant-Man snatched Edgar Wright, spit him out, and then took Peyton Reed instead.
And that’s not all. Look at every promising comedy filmmaker of the past few years: Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts directed the latest Kong flick and is now working on a Metal Gear Solid movie. Colin Trevorrow did the charming indie sci-fi rom-com Safety Not Guaranteed and was soon after put in charge of both Jurassic World and Star Wars: Episode IX. The X-Men franchise got in early and scooped up Kick-Ass’ Matthew Vaughn back in 2011, but they’ve also got Fault in Our Stars director Josh Boone in their wheelhouse. Since everything needs to be a travesty, the forthcoming Hanna-Barbera cinematic universe will kick off in 2020 with a Scooby-Doo reboot directed by Dax Shepard. Hell, DC’s Flash movie has already blown through three promising comedic talents (Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Jump Street), Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and Rick Famuyiwa (Dope)), and they haven’t even started yet. What a goddamn mess. If they’re all making summer blockbusters, who’s supposed to be keeping comedy afloat? A bunch of no-name slackers who think they can just let the talent riff and they’ll shit out a good movie.
That’s another item of note: over-reliance on improv. You see, some of the great comedies of all time, like the original Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, and Anchorman, were mostly improvised. Comedy heavyweights like Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Christopher Guest, and Sacha Baron Cohen leaned heavily on improvisational humor in all their movies, and in their heyday, the results were brilliant. Unfortunately, this has led a generation of impressionable young comedic filmmakers to think they can just write a shell of a script, get some talented actors, and not have to put any effort into making their movie good. Of course, this strategy only works if you have an extremely competent director (Paul Feig, Lord & Miller, Harold Ramis) and an extremely talented, cohesive cast (Anchorman, Ghostbusters, This Is the End). A film like The House or Fist Fight flounders using the same formula because they pair a novice director with studio intervention, a weak script, and actors who are clearly only in it for the paycheck. When Lord & Miller tried to make an improv-heavy movie with a studio watching over them, they got themselves fired, and now we’re gonna get a lame Han Solo movie because of it. But every Cohen, Keen, and Roach in Hollywood thinks they can just remake 21 Jump Street/Anchorman/Bridesmaids and audiences will eat it up.
But to some extent, Hollywood’s comedy problem can be blamed on the talent themselves. As I previously mentioned, mainstream comedy was experiencing a serious boom not too long ago, and this can be attributed to a phenomenon colloquially known as the “Apatow diaspora.” This term refers to an intricate network of comedic actors, writer, directors, and producers, all of whom can be traced back to Freaks and Geeks creator Judd Apatow. After F&G’s untimely cancellation, he made it a personal mission to enact revenge on NBC by turning everyone involved in the show into a global megastar. He became one of the most-sought-after producers in Hollywood, and some of the stars whose film success can be directly linked to him include Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, Lena Dunham, Leslie Mann, John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Bill Hader, Russell Brand, Mila Kunis, Melissa McCarthy, Paul Feig, Nicholas Stoller, and Amy Schumer. Basically, every major player in mainstream comedy’s wonder years of ~2004-2013. But while the actors have mostly either defected to Marvel or found themselves stuck in a spiral of failure, look what’s happened to the filmmakers. Apatow himself has taken a turn for the melancholy: his last two directorial efforts were the bittersweet This Is 40 and Trainwreck, and he’s veering even further with his next flick, a documentary on the Avett Brothers. Ferrell and McKay have broadened their horizons to include over-the-top action reboots like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, depressing character studies like Welcome to Me, and subtle Japanese thrillers like Oh Lucy!, not to mention McKay’s last directorial effort, a biopic about the subprime mortgage crisis (The Big Short). Paul Feig is dipping his toe into animation, Lord and Miller are spearheading Warner Bros. Animation, and Seth Rogen is inevitably veering towards art films as his projects grow increasingly gonzo. The heavy-hitters in comedy have moved on from comedy. What’s left to do?
Well, there is a glimmer of hope. Where comedy is a genre built to last, cinematic universes and superhero movies are on a thin bubble, and that whole industry could crash at any minute, leaving an opening for fresh films to swoop in. We’re still seeing plenty of good comedy being churned out in forms like TV, internet content, and animation. Apatow’s still opening doors for promising newcomers like Kumail Nanjiani and Pete Holmes. Other newcomers like Ilana Glazer, Jillian Bell, and Kate McKinnon have also seen their stars rising. Jordan Peele is suddenly the most-sought-after director in Hollywood after his smash hit horror comedy Get Out. It’s looking like the mainstream comedy is going to lie dormant for a couple years. But it’s not going anywhere.