This weekend, Seth MacFarlane’s big-screen debut, Ted, opened to an impressive gross of $54 million on screens across America. Even more impressive than its take, however, was the fact that the funny, surprisingly sweet-natured, and well-constructed film is almost a freak of nature in today’s theaters–an actually funny American studio comedy—a species so rare that it’s difficult to remember when we last saw it.
Look no further than this year’s Comedy Central awards nominations for the best film comedy of 2011. Of the five films chosen as the year’s funniest, one is, by any standard, not a comedy (The Artist), while another is, by most standards, painfully, tediously unfunny (Horrible Bosses). Yet another (Midnight in Paris) is a maudlin piece of treacle, praised out of sentimental swooning for a director’s long-past better days. That leaves two (Bridesmaids and Crazy Stupid Love) that would be better described as dramedies than pure comic films, each lurching between the very serious and the genuinely funny.
What is sad about this list is that Comedy Central didn’t get it wrong—this was as funny as mainstream cinema got in 2011. Below these five rot the carcasses of Just Go With It, Tower Heist, Something Borrowed, and Arthur, to name a few. And looking back to the previous year’s roster, the results are only marginally happier.
American cinema is suffering its greatest comedy drought in a generation. The ’70s had Animal House, Blazing Saddles, and The Jerk. The ’80s were the golden age of the high-school comedy, with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, and Heathers. The ’90s saw an explosion of innovative genre-busting comedies from The Big Lebowski and There’s Something About Mary to Office Space and Groundhog Day. The ’00s saw the revival of the bawdy R-rated comedy, with Borat, The Hangover, Superbad, Anchorman, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
A fourth of the way through the decade, there have been a handful of fair to middling comedies, but the era has yet to produce a single contender to stand with the above. Why, then, are our funny people falling so short? What forces have made the comedy springs suddenly run dry?
Here are a few possible suspects in the Great Comedy Drought.
Saturday Night Live
For more than 35 years, Lorne Michaels’s show has been the launching pad for America’s new comic talents. However, America has SNL to thank for another legacy: the franchisization of comedy. The basis of the SNL style is telegraphing every joke miles in advance, making it clear exactly what the joke is, preferably in the sketch’s title, so that no viewer, however humble or distracted, can miss an ounce of laughter. Worse, SNL’s relentless quest for material to exploit through repetition and big-screen adaptation has wrung the anarchic spirit not only out of the show, but out of the writers and actors who pass through it. The influence of this spirit is felt from the costume comedies of Will Ferrell and his gang—where the basic joke is seeing the actor (or actors) from this clubby, closed society wearing funny wigs or costumes (as in Blades of Glory or this year’s Casa de Mi Padre). And the SNL spirit of product exploitation hangs over the various TV adaptations and comedy franchises that haunt our screens (Hangover being the most current example).
Traditionally, those at the margins of show business have provided the next waves of funny, as their rambunctious spirits have stormed the gates. Such has been comedy’s great lifecycle from the Marx Brothers through to National Lampoon and onward. Today, however, the fringes are dominated by a species of comedy nerds not so much trying to storm the gates as preserving the past as a precious memento. Typified by TV’s Community—the ultimate geeks’ touchstone—comedy has become self-obsessed and inward looking. One glance at iTunes showing you the dozens of podcasts featuring comedians talking to other comedians about their journeys tells you all you need to know about comedy’s outskirts today. The barbarians come, not wielding a rubber chicken, but on bended knee with a proffered rose.
No one needs comedy to be as ornately structured as a Thackeray novel, but if you’re going to spend 90-plus minutes with a film, it’s got to do something more than deliver one joke over and over. That requires some rudimentary storytelling skills to move the audience from one bit to the next. Unfortunately, the Internet and viral videos at the apex of comedy today have taught writers to create worlds that end as soon as the joke does. Many of today’s comic films have the feeling of a 45-second video that didn’t know how to stop. Take in Dinner for Schmucks to see a film that has no clue where to go once the premise has been put on the table.
These days, the majority of money for most studio releases is made overseas, with the ensuing dictate that studio films must be made with international audiences in mind. For comedy, heavily dependent on the English tongue and our national idiom in particular, this development has led to a string of impossibly tedious star-vehicle action comedies that seek to transcend language itself (This Means War, One for the Money, Tower Heist) and an even larger than usual helping of frat-boy gross-out romps (Hangover 2, Horrible Bosses, Your Highness).
There is no subgenre more venerable than the romantic comedy. “Meeting cute” only to overcome ridiculous obstacles to find love throughout the years has proven the most relatable and sympathetic of formulas. Looking, however, at this decade’s roster of rom-coms, one would get the impression that Hollywood actively hates the idea of people falling in love: What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Something Borrowed, Valentine’s Day, The Back-up Plan, What’s Your Number, When in Rome, She’s Out of My League, Leap Year, You Again, Going the Distance, New Year’s Eve. One would be hard-pressed to find a more gruesome, less funny roster of films from any genre in any decade. It’s hard to see how the bottom could so completely drop out of a type of film that has withstood everything from the Great Depression to disco, but one hypothesis is that in the age of the miseries of online dating and trying to find something lasting in an era that treasures preadolescence, romance is no longer looked on as a fun romp en route to destiny, but a grueling slog toward an uncertain and likely miserable end.
What passable comedy has existed in these bleak times has largely sprung from the camp of writer/director/producer Judd Apatow. Bridesmaids is the one potential comedy classic of these years, and a handful of other films made by his extended troop—Get Me to the Greek, 50/50—have been among the decade’s nondisasters. After early steps as the avatar of frat-boy banter, Apatow’s naturalistic, improvisational style has driven some of the screen’s most interesting and moving pieces. However, in becoming more real and dramatic, the films have become less concerned with being funny. In films like 50/50, which owe much to the Apatow style, laughs have become almost the afterthought, merely the lubricant as they march toward a weightier goal.
Apatow’s bastard indie stepchild. Taking off where Apatow’s early films left off, American art-house audiences have been subjected to a long, dreary line of films about mostly Brooklyn-dwelling, aging hipsters moping around their apartments as they grapple with the horrors of getting a job or pursuing a grown-up relationship. Writing about what you know seemed much better advice in an era when people occasionally left their homes.
The Dark Knight
It is a truism that tough times make people seek out mindless escapes. But these tough times seem to have led people to want big, dark thoughts—or that’s what filmmakers think they need. The latest trend of super-serious remakes of fun films (Dark Knight, Total Recall) suggests we are in a time that takes itself very, very seriously. Given that, perhaps no one wants to send in the clowns.