How changing culture and movie economics killed the Golden Age of comedy
Love this essay (esp. being reminded of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which I seem to have watched once a week on VHS back in the day). Thank you.
Your analysis seems correct, but I’d add that a lot of comedic energy has gone into podcasts lately (Cum Town and Tim Dillon come to mind), as well as Youtube (the stuff Kyle Dunnigan has been putting out recently has been genius: https://youtu.be/wlX3vjHykag). This could, I suppose, have the effect of giving talented writers less incentive to even try writing scripts/making television sitcoms or films. (I’m sure if Dunnigan or the Cum Town boys were given a movie deal and sufficient funding the results would be awesome, but no one will and they probably wouldn’t want to).
You ask what comedy films Zoomers are watching/making, but you need to price in that Zoomers probably regard watching a film the way we would regard winding up a car from the 1910s to get it started. I doubt the average person born 2003 has the attention span for a 110 minute movie. Their sense of comedy is absurdist meme humour, as far as I can tell.
It may also be that the surrounding economic/geopolitical circumstances are just too grim now, which didn’t pertain in the 90s-2000s (one could argue the War on Terror should disprove this theory, but Iraq and Afghanistan were faraway wars and didn’t affect most Americans economically beyond a brief spike in oil prices. America still seemed a self-confident nation, even that recently). The conventional thinking is that a darker/more unstable world leads people to seek escapist art, which we’ve seen plenty of recently, but not comedy, curiously.
A final thought: if ‘humour is intelligence dancing’ as Clive James said, then falling average IQ rates could be the simplest explanation (although for that to hold true then the best comedy of all time should have been produced in the 1870s, when western populations were at their most intelligent). I’d image you need IQ combined with a kind of open cultural atmosphere to produce great comedy (along with instituions and networks to nurture it), things we appear to be lacking now.
Anyway, just some thoughts. Great work, as ever.
Lol me looking at this list and thinking 2018 was a great year for comedy for having "Blockers", "Game Night", and "Tag". I can't tell if you actually watched these or they just didn't deserve mention, but if not you should give one of them a watch. Game night barely beats out blockers on RT at 85%
I had been reading this thinking you must not have kids. Then I get to the end and you say maybe you're too busy with your 3 kids. Huh. I feel like animation is where the funny films are at these days. The Bad Guys is a fantastic comedy heist movie that happens to star talking animals. The Croods and its sequel had some hilarious moments. My family recently rewatched Flushed Away and I was delighted by some of the very clever humour in that.
Or are you taking a definition of comedy that excludes animation and/or family films just on principle?
Strong case for the decline of comedy. One show that I think bucks the trend is Big Mouth. It has been consistently one of the funniest things I've seen on TV in years. And I continue to laugh at episodes I have now seen 6 or 7 times. It is coming of age and boy meets girl and gross out comedy and a whole lot more, and with some of the funniest people in the business right now. I can't gush enough about it, but I've said my piece. Thank you for interesting breakdown.
Concurrent with the "decline" of comedy in cinema is a golden era in television. The best comedic minds of the 2010s and onwards have flourished in the 30-minute serialized medium (Atlanta, Fleabag, Hacks, Key & Peele, Barry, Veep, What We Do in the Shadows, Ted Lasso, Ramy, Bojack Horseman... I could go on!). There's so much variety and diversity of perspectives!
Comedy is thriving in this medium because creative voices are being embraced and entrusted and are allowed to cater to niche audiences without consideration of how to monetize in theaters and / or globally.
To me, the biggest "loss" in the shift of great comedy moving from cinema to TV is the intimate scale of it; there's nothing like being in a packed theater sharing in laughs.
Would be interesting project to separate original comedies like "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1991) or "The Producers" (1967) from "meta" comedies like "Community" (2009-2015) or "21 Jump Street" (2012). My vague sense is that meta comedies have gotten more common and original comedies less even though the mass culture of mid-20th century America has disintegrated into a large number of media fandoms. Perhaps this is another driving force in the decline of comedy - another intra-genre trend (like feminization that you wrote about in point 1) popular with comedians, writers, directors, etc that isn't popular with audiences.
Saw a preview clip from the new reboot of Inside Amy Schumer and it was wretched. Not even in the least bit funny.
I think that a lot of comedy has shifted to YouTube and podcasting. New talent will seek the easiest way into a field, especially transgressive talent. Transgressive talent will often favour new media because it has less of the rules that the existing media has. For example, Doug Stanhope prefers podcasting because he doesn't have to accept the content and form rules of radio.
It's also the case that comedy works fine in this media. Comedy isn't a high capital media like superhero movies. A talented comedy writer can make something with few costs except their own time. And by not working within a large system like TV, they get to keep all of the rewards.
You can even see this in previous eras, like painting lost most of the best talent in the 1940s as more people moved into fields like film making. Musical theatre declined in the late 60s as people went and became pop songwriters (Benny and Bjorn would have been like Rogers and Hammerstein if born 30 years earlier).
Game Night (2018) was hilarious and not derivative. But may be the exception that proves the rule.
I consider myself a big fan of the comic arts. Or at least I once did.
I think there’s a certain “back in my day, the kids would get off my lawn” aspect to this article. I’m 58 and, like the majority of people in the prosperous West who have time to reflect on such things, I feel like the pop culture of my youth was the best, including the comedy. TV comedy? Saturday night on CBS (MTM, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett) in the 1970s, Thursday night on NBC (Cheers, Buffalo Bill, later Seinfeld and Frazier), Late Night with David Letterman (the 1980s show), never (other than The Simpsons) anything on TV as funny as that. Films? How could one top Mel Brooks of the 1970s (plus The Producers) and the Zucker/Abrams works (Naked Guns, Top Secret)? Or so I think anyway.
My oldest child was literally born the day after the last “Seinfeld.” And, of course, everything changed in my life after that. I have enjoyed some newer comedy since then — Chris Rock, Judd Apatow films, South Park, these are all “newer” to me at any rate. And when we were on vacation and I had time and access to cable TV, I used to really enjoy watching Sponge Bob with my own then-small children.
There is probably something to the complaint that Big Woke in its relentless dourness and dumbness has damaged comedy. But mostly I think it’s just that we are getting older.
Did you forget The Big Lebowski?!?!?
Perhaps not useful to the thesis, but for some to watch: I've enjoyed recent OSS 117 movies and various "Cunk on X" series. Neither of them terribly creative in form or even type of humour, being arguable retreads of Austin Powers and Ali G, but both have shocked me and made me laugh out loud. More than I can say for "Atlanta", "Barry", "Bojack" -- more examples of the moralising "does comedy need to be funny" trend. But who has heard of Cunk, even with Charlie Brooker being a household name?
The conservative in me wants to say it's a "left can't meme" thing, that _real_ transgression can't get funded, but I don't really believe it. Your "great man" and "Marvel" ideas ring truer, and can reinforce each other. Success requires both talent and support, and without one the other will find other opportunities.
The business has changed. It used to be that movies made most of their money in the US and other English-speaking countries. Now it's all about the foreign markets, especially China. Comedy just doesn't translate well to a foreign language with a different culture. So instead they double down on the visual spectacle.
Along the same lines, a lot of movies now have absolutely terrible sound mixing, to the point where you can't even understand the dialogue: https://www.slashfilm.com/673162/heres-why-movie-dialogue-has-gotten-more-difficult-to-understand-and-three-ways-to-fix-it/. But if the audience is just watching the visual spectacle and reading translated subtitles, it doesn't matter anyway.
All the real energy for comedy is in smaller, niche productions where they know their audience and can target it accordingly.
>I watched Wedding Crashers (2005) twice in cinemas. I could not stop laughing, the whole cinema was erupting. Have you seen Wedding Crashers lately? Watch it. You’ll feel like you’ve smuggled in a fresh pair of jeans into the Soviet Union circa 1969, straight from the Home of the Brave and Land of Free.
I'm (probably) a bit younger than you are, so here is my take: having never seen "Wedding Crashers", I decided to watch it. Meh. I had absolutely no "fresh pair of jeans in the USSR" feeling whatsoever. Any other Will Ferrell movie is funnier, and plenty of movies that are stylistically indistinguishable are still being made, and on Netflix. Maybe it was the first romantic comedy of its type or something, but whatever it is doing is now in the water supply.
If comedy's cultural progression stopped after the 90s, and it died in 2012, why were the best shows produced after the 90s? Evidence: HIMYM, which is objectively speaking the funnier "Friends"- started in 2005, Arrested Development, which is almost a class to itself (2003-2019), or Parks and Recreation (2009-2015), not to mention absolute giants like "The Office" (2005-2013). Even after 2013, plenty of funny comedies are being made, and there absolutely is a progression between what a youtube "comedy" looks like and what 90s/00s comedy looks like.
As far as I'm concerned, by the 90s Hollywood had already forgotten how to make certain styles of great comedies - where is the new "Airplane!" or "Monty Python"?
Probably the interesting question here isn't the one asking about comedies, but the one asking why you wrote this article ;)
Everybody Wants Some (2016) is a funny horny college students movie that I’m not sure how got made but kills
Kids now will be talking about the golden age of YouTube and Twitch streamers, and if you think those are a lot less funny and a lot more filler, you could say the same about those Comedy Movies and TV shows you love compared to the classic cartoons of the 30s and 40s.
You are right there was a creative boom that chased a few successive business models for a few decades and petered out a decade ago, but whether the current comedy situation overall is worse than in other languages or time periods before that boom I wouldn't be sure.