Essays

For Consideration: This Year’s Two Award-Worthy Tributes to Potty Humor

Why aren’t these smart celebrations of infantile comedy on more award contention lists?
By  · Published on November 17th, 2017

Why aren’t these smart celebrations of infantile comedy on more award contention lists?

Two pieces of entertainment caught me by surprise this year. One is the animated feature Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, the other the Netflix true-crime series spoof American Vandal. What they have in common, besides me initially dreading yet ultimately enjoying them, is their dealing with infantile sense of humor.

Comedy is a subjective matter, as we’re seeing with the Golden Globes consideration of Get Out for their comedy awards categories. It’s also something that’s not often appreciated when dissected. When you break down the elements of a joke or gag, the humor is easily lost. That’s not the case for either Captain Underpants or American Vandal because they’re not genre deconstructions.

Instead, each focuses on characters who think literal potty humor and dick jokes are the funniest thing ever. Rather than attempting to align our senses of humor with theirs, the movie and the series have us laughing along with the characters on another level — though there are also surely many children and immature teen viewers of the respective works whose sense of humor does match.

Captain Underpants is an adaptation of the popular children’s books about a superhero created by a couple of fourth grade pranksters. The screenplay is by Nicolas Stoller, a guy who knows how comedy works, for all ages and all MPAA ratings. The movie isn’t just about getting audiences to laugh. It’s about characters, and seeing what makes them laugh.

Despite being the third best-reviewed animated feature of the year so far (a year of mostly disappointing kiddie and family fare), it wasn’t an epic hit, though it managed a profit due to its relatively low budget. It’s the sixth highest-grossing animated feature of the year, domestically, with $73.9M. And yet it’s not on any awards pundit’s lists of frontrunners for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Not one. Predictions on various sites are mostly hopeful for indie animated features, like the GKIDS-distributed The Breadwinner and Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but for studio competition against Pixar’s Coco there’s the understandable mentions of The Lego Batman Movie but then also poorly received features like Cars 3 and The Boss Baby. Is it because they have dismissed Captain Underpants based on presumed childish material?

That’s what I did when I first saw the trailer for American Vandal. The limited series is kind of a spoof of true crime documentary series, both of the TV and Netflix variety a la Making a Murderer and podcasts such as Serial (which is referenced by one of the characters). The crime here is not a murder, however. It is vandalism in the form of a teenage prank. The mystery to be solved: who spray painted penises on all of the teachers’ cars in a high school staff parking lot.

While the marketing for the series makes it seem as childish as the graffiti — I thought it looked like a Friedberg and Seltzer parody of true crime series — it’s actually a smart, mature sendup that just happens to involve dumb, immature material. Like Captain Underpants, it’s a character-driven story, and one of the main characters happens to think drawing penises in public view is hilarious.

American Vandal is often very funny otherwise, though it doesn’t go for big laughs as a spoof. Nothing is exaggerated. Nothing is really mocked. It’s just that the crime is rather silly compared to what’s typically involved in true crime stories. And yet the mystery is so compelling that, silly or not, you’re engaged with the story and want to know whodunit. Much of the time, the series doesn’t even function as a spoof. It’s more of an homage to the nonfiction format, utilizing it for a great work of fiction.

Although American Vandal has gotten good reviews, the series doesn’t seem to be receiving awards buzz, possibly because of its subject matter. This show should be a contender in the limited TV series categories at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards and more, including next year’s Emmys. The problem is it doesn’t have the star-studded clout and prestige of frontrunners like Big Little LiesThe Handmaid’s Tale, American Horror Story, or Feud.

There couldn’t be stars in American Vandal for it to work as well as a mimic of true crime series. Plus, it’s set in a high school and primarily focuses on a young cast of unknowns, most of whom are exceptional in passing as real, unscripted kids. As the main subject, the boy potentially wrongfully accused of the vandalism, is particularly effective. But would anyone give him a nod next to, say, Geoffrey Rush or Robert De Niro? I would.

One of the reasons both Captain Underpants and American Vandal might be a difficult to sell to certain older voters is because it might not resonate as well with them. Both stories are told through very young characters. The two fourth graders at the center of the animated feature, who are storytellers within the story by being comic book creators, narrate their tale of how their principal thinks he is their made-up superhero. American Vandal meanwhile plays out through footage shot by teen documentarians.

In both cases, though, the storytelling devices also give audiences a more direct gateway to the stories by bringing us to the same level as the characters. We’re more immersed in their worlds, whether it be of fourth graders’ imaginations and elementary school life or high school classrooms and teen parties. That’s a way to empathize with the characters’ perspectives and concerns and, yes, senses of humor.

Each does what it sets out to do pretty much perfectly. Captain Underpants manages to capture the spirit of the children’s books they’re based on, and their appreciation for, rather than mere peddling in, adolescent humor. Even though it’s not necessarily geared towards anyone other than kids, there’s a way in for adults to get it. American Vandal impressively, impeccably copies the true crime docu-series style for a genuinely entertaining original teen drama that can be enjoyed at any age.

Neither work shows innovation in their medium, but neither means to be so flashy in their delivery. Captain Underpants is faithful to the cartoon style of its source material. American Vandal sticks to the documentary style it’s honoring. Without being so much about the latest in computer-generated animation or stand-out dramatic performances and portrayals, they aren’t as noticeable by those covering awards. Hopefully the people who actually vote will see them for the exceptional contenders they are.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.