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Why did comedy die?
How changing culture and movie economics killed the Golden Age of comedy
Special thanks to my friend Jim Savage who crunched the IMDB data in this piece and who is always a top shelf chin wag. Note I include dates for films in (parentheses) the first time they are mentioned — dates are relevant here!
How Good We Had it
It’s always hard to know just how weird your childhood was, and through what warped prism you peer back at it, but I feel like I was brought up on Robin Hood Men in Tights (1993), Sgt. Bilko (1996) and Coming to America (1988).
For my cousins, replace Robin Hood Men in Tights with Spaceballs (1987).
Not just these films — I’ve thought about Disney films a lot — but even when just I write down names like Mel Brooks, Eddy Murphy and Steve Martin, it makes me smile.
And my God. The Adam Sandler killer run:
Billy Madison (1995)
Bulletproof (1996) (I remember nothing from Bulletproof except this scene but I still chuckle just thinking about it)
Happy Gilmore (1996)
The Wedding Singer (1998)
The Waterboy (1998)
Big Daddy (1999)
And it wasn’t just Sandler then. American Pie (1999). Notting Hill (1999) (okay maybe this is cheating but I laughed and I cried and I laughed and I’m leaving this in). Mystery Men (1999) — the greatest forgotten superhero parody that ever was, and that was before superhero flicks took over. Admittedly, that was also the year of Analyze This (1999). I like Billy Crystal (can I sneak in When Harry Met Sally (1989)?), but maybe De Niro’s turn to comedy was a sign of things to come.
Austin Powers (1997) and its sequels (1999, 2002) seemed to be huge cultural touchstones, at least for me (I was nine when the first came out). The second one made US$312m at the box office, so it doesn’t seem to be just me.
These films were a part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Zoolander (2001) remains inimitable. I admit my weekly Zoolander reference (orange mocha frappuccino! Mer-man *cough cough*) is more likely than not to go unappreciated. (Am I getting old? No, it is society that is wrong!). Then Anchor Man (2004) and Will Ferrell-mania.
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. It’s like making out with the pretty girl behind the school shed. It’s wild, man. From another planet. Illicit. Not just Wedding Crashers either. Funny People (2009) or Superbad (2007) feel the same way, to name a few.
We really didn’t know how good we had it.
Not just movies either.
Stephen Colbert stood at the White House Correspondents Dinner (2006) to take the absolute piss out of President Dubya Bush to the point of it being painful to watch, poking the Eye of Sauron in the heart of Mordor. Well done sir, well deserved.
And now this. Drooling, limp regime propaganda:
As Samuel L. Jackson’s character asks Robert DeNiro’s character after shooting him in the head in Jackie Brown:
What the fuck happened to you man? Your ass used to be beautiful.
What happened, man?
What was the last funny film you saw? Like, really funny.
I reckon it was Bridesmaids (2011).
Okay, maybe not literally. But that’s the Last Comedy in my mind. I had to google comedies from every year since. It is scraping the barrel.
Don’t believe me? What in Zeus’s beard is this:
Maybe Google top results is the wrong list. And I admit it’s not a funny factor of zero.But you see what I’m dealing with.
I’m no comedian or fancy film school film connoisseur, but my arc of comedy goes something like this (I appreciate it’s not exhaustive — take it directionally!):
Richard Pryor > Mel Brooks > Steve Martin > Eddy Murphy > Bill Murray > Adam Sandler > Ben Stiller > Will Ferrell > Judd Apatow > Tina Fey > ???
Where did the comedy-adjacent films go?
Comedy-adjacent films have also disappeared.
Where are the new great romcoms like Notting Hill, Love Actually (2003), When Harry Met Sally?
Male coming of age stories like Risky Business (1983) and Road Trip (2000) have been banished and frat films like Animal House (1978) sent straight to jail. One of the protagonists from the The Breakfast Club (1985), a genre classic, wrote an entire renunciation. Coming of age stories are often indistinguishable from comedies. Something inherently disgusting-funny about teenagers exploding with lust and stupidity. Boys trying to get laid is timeless comedy fodder. But today at best we pretend it isn’t a thing anymore, or it’s predatory in a post-Me Too world.
Coming to America, Stripes (1981), Austin Powers, The Mask (1994), Wedding Crashers, Risky Business, Superbad — a mere sample of the comedies that squeeze their laughs from boy-meets-girl arcs. That’s literally the oldest humour there is. These days it’s a bit on the nose.
Reruns and leftovers
Notice that what exceptions exist in comedy tend to be hangovers from the 90s — like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Dave Chappelle’s re-emergence. Maybe they’re a part of the broader culture of sequels and spin-offs, where nothing new is made, only endless franchises regurgitated. Or like the tendency in music, where over 73% of the US music market is now claimed by catalogue records, rather than new releases. Ricky Gervais continues his comedic romp. The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park still limp along, squeezing their carcasses for pennies. Even Dan Harmon's newer Rick & Morty (2013 - current) is in some ways Community (2009 - 2014) through a spacewarp.
Ross Douthat in his book The Decadent Society laments that Hollywood has become too reliant on recycling:
As a part-time movie critic I can attest that … the economics of the business depend increasingly on the constant recycling of famous properties that originated as mass market entertainments between the 1930s and 1970s. Unoriginality is, of course, hardly new in Hollywood, but there has been a meaningful trend away from novelty and creativity over the last generation.
And like the thing where institutions veer left over time unless they have an express right wing mandate: maybe comedians veer maudlin? Maybe it’s an age thing? Where the clown makeup cracks to reveal Pagliacci groaning and leering beneath? Jim Carey and Adam Sandler come to mind.
Where is the new comedic energy?
Death of time and comedy
In this great conversation, Tyler Cowen and Chuck Klosterman discuss how the evolution of culture stopped after the 90’s, or specifically how the 90’s were the:
last decade that was this immutable framing of time.
Klosterman claims that if you take a film from 2005 and a film from 2020, they’d be aesthetically indistinguishable. I wish they discussed comedy, because comedy is an exception to this. Comedy seems to have only accelerated through the 90s, reached its crescendo around 2010, and then fell of a cliff (based on my vibes only).
If cultural progression stopped after the 1990s, comedy died around 2012.
The age of Wedding Crashers, Tropic Thunder, 30 Rock, The Hangover, Colbert, Jon Stewart was over. The age of sanctimony, Hannah Gadsby, MeToo and Trump rage had begun.
So what happened, man?
I have a few theories:
A new age of sanctimony: feminisation and Trump
Comedy and the Great Man theory of creation
It’s the movies, stupid (superheroes and China)
1. A new age of sanctimony: feminisation and Trump
Maybe I’m showing my age but before worldwide fame in Borat (2006) Sacha Baron Cohen took the piss out of British / US gang culture with Ali G. It was hysterical and transgressive.
His character Borat was a sexist Slav who had a bit on Da Ali G Show. Was it funny because he was the butt of the joke or because his jokes were funny? Both, if we’re honest.
Sacha Baron Cohen made an entire career out of making fun of poor people and foreigners and minorities and British prudes and women and everything else he could sully and we loved him for it.
But that was then. Today the creator of Borat, like Colbert, is Serious and calling out threats to democracy or something.
Obama does seem to have been a turning point.
He was the West Wing President, teary eyed with the American flag waving in the background, talking down at you with liberal self-satisfaction.
My God, even the Presidents were funnier then. Well, that’s actually definitely not true — Trump is objectively one of the funniest men alive. But any laughter at Trump is usually drowned out by scolding and warnings about the death of democracy. Is there any doubt that the 2000s were just way funnier than the 2010s?
Obama was where Colbert and Jon Stewart went to die. It was a turning point.
The Obama era also coincided with the unmistakable feminisation of comedy. Endless harping about male comedy, the evils of Judd Apatow, careening right into the mass pussy-hattery of the opening of the Trump era.
The last gasp of comedy was female.
Tina Fey seemed to have birthed a new era of female-led comedies with her excellent 30 Rock (2006 – 2013). The show belongs to the Before Times. Not only temporally (began pre-Obama, ended in 2013), but culturally: it could not be made today. A masterpiece, its blackface, fat jokes, gender jokes, are anathema to today’s sensibilities. But it was followed by Inside Amy Schumer (2013 – 2016), Parks and Recreation (2009 — 2015), Girls (2012 - 2017), Broad City (2014 - 2019).
What is a more perfect embodiment of post-comedy comedy than Hannah Gadsby’s miserable and didactic “stand-up” show Nanette (2018). This brand of comedy went very quickly from insisting “IT’S FUNNY” to “IT’S NOT MEANT TO BE FUNNY”.
The period even popularised a formulaic Approved Content check for the screen: The Bechtel Test.
Now, I’m not really sure what to make of this — I think 30 Rock was one of the greatest comedies ever. I also loved all the other (non-Nanette) shows I listed above — I went to see Amy Schumer live in Melbourne! She was funny.
This period also coincided with the Great Female Remakes, which combines both the Feminisation and Endless Regurgitation trends. Arguably launched with Bridesmaids (2011), a funny cousin of the iconic The Hangover (2009) and then all the hurrah around Ghostbusters (2016) and Ocean’s 8 (2018). And to top it off: American Pie: Girls' Rules (2020). A remake (technically the 5th in the series) of the ultimate gross boy comedy released straight to DVD. How far the fall.
2. Comedy and the Great Man theory of creation
Above I sketched a rough comedy arc that tracks comedy history around my lifetime (I’m not going back to Shakespeare, even though I love Much Ado About Nothing more than the average punter):
Richard Pryor > Mel Brooks > Steve Martin > Eddy Murphy > Bill Murray > Adam Sandler > Ben Stiller > Will Ferrell > Judd Apatow > Tina Fey > ???
You’ll note this isn’t, in fact, an arc.
It’s really pockets of talent in time and place. You can cut it a bunch of ways — West Coast vs East Coast, Saturday Night Live peaks, standup / comedy club dwellers, etc. They overlap, and within each there are recurring casts that work together.
If I did the work, I expect it would look like a heat map — pockets of talent and partnerships that fueled comic genius.
So what if it’s not a matter of decline, but an unusual pique of brilliance followed by a reversion to historic norms?
An analogy lies in technology: Scholar Stage argues that technology and scientific research may have had a unique spurt in the 19th century as humanity benefited from one-off discoveries. We have coasted on those technological waves since, steadily declining since the 1970s in a reversion to historic levels of growth.
This is not quite satisfactory when applied to comedy — comedy is a human creative endeavour. Wouldn’t you expect more people with more media to create more comedy? But that’s not quite right either. We’ve seen brilliant and unsurpassed bursts of creativity before. There was simply something about Renaissance Italy or 18th century Vienna or 19th century Britain that led to bubbles of art and music and invention that haven’t really been surpassed. And if it were merely a numbers game, why are Israeli TV shows just so good? (Israel: Phenomenal cosmic powers, itty bitty living space!) At the risk of being extremely parochial and solipsistic, maybe we really have lived through a uniquely funny 50 years. And the post-2010s is just a reversion to a less funny world.
This seems to be borne out by IMDB data, which shows ~25% of films are comedies today, down from 50% in the 1990s, which was a peak:
One argument for the great clusters of creation in the past is that they’re not deterministic, they’re dependent on specific Great Men, singularly or in clusters, to create new things and push frontiers.
What if comedy too is driven by specific people and clusters that are non-deterministic, their impact not obvious ahead of time, but obvious only in hindsight? That one does not simply replicate the genius of individuals and pairings like Mel Brooks + Gene Wilder, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen + Jonah Hill, Larry David, etc?
3. It’s the movies, stupid (superheroes and China)
Maybe it’s not comedic talent or culture that’s ebbing and flowing but rather it’s structural changes in film that are displacing comedy.
The most obvious reason there are fewer comedies and comedy-adjacent flicks is because everything that is not superheroes is in decline.
Marvel is eating cinema.
COVID broke cinema generally after 2019, but in dollar terms you can see combined superhero success at the box-office:
Related to the superhero takeover is the internationalisation (read: China) of the box office. Comedy just doesn’t translate as well as CGI explosions. How would you translate this joke in Robin Hood Men in Tights? Or this one?
Comedy is too parochial. Better star-power, ADHD explosions and schizophrenia straight into the veins.
I guess it’s not surprising that comedy has been having less cultural impact given the superhero films make so much more money. The top 10 grossing comedies combined made US$5bn. The top 10 grossing superhero films made US$15bn. And this is a conservative ratio: in comedies the list includes Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022) (US$0.9bn) and Du Xing Yue Qiu (独行月球) (2022) (US$0.5bn) which ??? but god bless to them.
Definitions of comedy suck (Rain Man is on the list at 12?). Measuring the quality of comedy with film stats feels like measuring the pace of innovation by the number of patents issued. I can tell you that Sex and the City (2008, 11th highest grossing “comedy” of all time) sucked but Mrs Doubtfire (1993, #10) and the Hangover (2009, #8) were great but what does that mean? It launches into a discussion about taste and beauty that is beyond the scope of this essay. You’ve read this far so I assume you are onboard with the premise that within these blocks of text I am the arbiter of Funny.
Plotting the top 100 comedies by box office salesyou get a similar story. A slow build up to ~2012 and then a decline.
Plausibly comedy has gone elsewhere — to TV or YouTube or TikTok. If it’s TV, I haven’t noticed — aside from Curb Your Enthusiasm, the comedy heyday of 30 Rock and Arrested Development and Community and Veep seems to be behind us. There’s a lot more streamed standup — I don’t know if anyone’s watching it. I tried watching this show and holy smokes is it bleak. Seems to be an unironic liberal self-reflection on childlessness and meaninglessness in blue America? I mean, I’m impressed. Like Portlandia grew up and realised they really effed up.
Maybe it’s a generational thing and I’m too busy with 3 kids and life to appreciate the side-splitting stuff that continues to crack up a generation of teens and university students.
Maybe I’m just an old man and wow what a coincidence comedy died after I graduated from university when I had loads of time to enjoy movies. Gee whizz, my nostalgic youth just happens to coincide with the Golden Age in everything. Am I just an old man yelling at clouds?
War Dogs (2016) was funny. Jonah Hill gets me good. And there is such a perfect line at the end delivered by Bradley Cooper’s arms dealer villain: “I’ve got 3. All girls. They say it gets better, it’s not true it gets worse. That’s why I like the arms business. No women.”
Licorice Pizza (2021) was pretty good. But then I looked it up and it describes itself as a “Romance/Drama”. I asked my wife what she thought it was. She said it wasn’t a comedy, thought it was about pedophilia. (I don’t really care if a 25yo girl and a bear-sized 15yo boy fall in love, but she thinks that’s sexist). So I don’t know what’s going on there, maybe a film falling into the identity fluid zeitgeist. Personally, I think half the humour is the fact that the two romantic leads are so ugly, and it’s a comic deviation from the usual plastic fantastic protagonists.
Don’t Look Up (2021) is closer to regime propaganda but it had its parts. The General ripping off the girl for $20 was a great gag.
American Pickle (2020) was good — low key warm fuzzy shtetl Seth Rogan good.
Some comedies like Deadpool (2016, 2018) and Free Guy (2021) might also appear to buck this trend, but they’re also superhero parodies / derivative and ride on Ryan Reynold’s schtick. Which is fine, but they’re forgettable (like The Nice Guys (2016)). Literally the only other exception may be The Death of Stalin (2017), which is really quite grim.
Her first joke was something like: “You guys have no black people here. You know that’s weird right?”
You can plot by number and get a similar result. I’ve excluded 2022 as it’s a huge spike driven by the Minions film and two Chinese films.