Why “Consumer Comedy” Hasn’t Infiltrated Movies Yet

By  · Published on June 24th, 2015

If you’re wondering why there’s an entire show dedicated to famous people lip syncing popular songs, you’re not alone. It’s a program that seems to exist solely as a factory for Facebook-shareable clips and the kind of lukewarm surprise that’s forgotten as soon as the song ends. In other words, Lip Sync Battle is pure, yet tepid, distraction. It is the television equivalent of jangling a set of keys in front of a toddler’s face.

Writing for Splitsider, Devin Blake uses the show as a springboard for discussing Consumer Comedy, a trend that you can feel rising up through the ranks of the fluffier corners of entertainment. He writes:

“As the legal scholar Harry Arthurs puts it, people ‘now seem to prefer alternative identities: as consumers and investors rather than as producers.’ In other words, we take pride in what we take in rather than what we know how to do.

“We can see evidence of this throughout popular comedy. A lot of what happens in late night TV, for example, seems to involve things that we consume, namely other media like TV shows, movies, and music. That’s what Lip Sync Battle is. Or, when James Corden and Tom Hanks reenacted moments from several of Hanks’ movies in a segment for the debut episode of The Late Late Show. You can find this sort of thing in many, many places, from sitcoms and standup to copywriting and commercials to conversations with people at parties. And it moves beyond parody, roasting, or rib-poking; it’s something different. It’s comedy by and for people who see themselves as consumers.”

That’s the tip of the iceberg in a breezy-yet-important article which draws thick black lines around a trend that has become popular under our noses. The simplest definition of Consumer Comedy is that it operates as effortless reference to something else. Most comedy requires the audience to know something about X in order to make fun of/raise a point about/offer a new perspective on X, but Consumer Comedy only requires the audience to know about X to get the joke.

There is no added value (except entertainment). Just as it doesn’t take any muscle flexing for your frat brother to yell, “You’re my boy Blue!,” it also doesn’t take any muscle for James Corden and Tom Hanks to reenact Hanks’ entire filmography. They attacked it with the frenetic heaving of two first-year Second City trainees, and they did add jokes into the mix, but the keys are that 1) they mostly didn’t add jokes and 2) they didn’t have to add any at all anyway. They simply said the Line We Know from The Thing We Know and we laughed. They even put up the title of the movie just in case you thought your hand wasn’t being held tightly enough.

For the non-snobbish record, I watch these videos and get their appeal, too. It’s nice to have my cultural knowledge affirmed and, at a baser level, to be part of a club.

The obvious problem with Consumer Comedy is – like nostalgia-based entertainment – its reflexive nature. When nothing is added, an echo chamber gets created. Fortunately (or unfortunately), we’re so awash in culture that there’s an exterior, endless source of reference material for the craftless to harness. Granted, the people currently using Consumer Comedy the most have already proven themselves to be skilled in other forms of comedy. As Blake’s article tacitly points out, Consumer Comedy is most relegated to late night talk shows and the broadest sitcom shows, piloted by known talents.

That’s important to keep in mind. One of the aspects that Blake doesn’t explore is the difference between something Jimmy Fallon does and something my neighbor Earl does. Personality is a huge driver for making Consumer Comedy work – a double layer of recognition where laughing at the reference helps if you also recognize the referencer – so when Fallon lip syncs a Beyonce song, it’s harmless fun, but when my neighbor Earl does it, he looks sort of stupid. Fallon has a studio audience and Joseph Gordon-Levitt by his side; Earl doesn’t (although he knows Gordon-Levitt, he just didn’t want to bother him on a Sunday). Consumer Comedy doesn’t take any effort, but it helps a lot if you’re already famous.

This taps into the myth of how things go viral, specifically in regards to the power of someone popular offering a signal boost.

In “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” Jonah Berger explains the formula for making Buzzfeed-worthy headlines, but he also points out that having someone famous share your message is a huge contributor to it “going viral.” In the Olden Tymes, we could have called that, “being told about something.” Somehow the romance of a meme “organically” “going viral” is diminished when you realize that a comedian with 3 million viewers is the one spreading the word.

Another key message of “Contagious” is that memes are a modern way of proving your awareness. It’s pop culture Shibboleth. Berger expanded on the idea in an interview with The New Yorker:

Memes like LOLcats, I think, are a perfect example of social currency, an insider culture or handshake. Your ability to pass it on and riff on it shows that you understand. It’s the ultimate, subtle insider signal: I know without yelling that I know. When your mom sees an LOLcat, she has no idea what it is.

So, in a sense, late night hosts and sitcoms are telling their audience that they’re hip, shouting, “Here’s this thing we all know about,” and kicking their feet up until interview time. Proving they’re aware of something cool helps them when they need to also define what’s cool.

What’s most fascinating is that the appeal of being hip is so strong that they (probably with the gateway-opening Lonely Island) have gotten A-list celebrities involved. Where we used to mock Dancing with the Stars for not having any real stars, now we have to contend with Oscar-winners jumping on stage-built wrecking balls to imitate Miley Cyrus. We enter a rabbit hole where celebrities (the people) are referencing themselves (as a product/persona) in order to subvert that product and prove that they know about it (themselves, the way we see them).

And again, Anne Hathaway licking a wrecking ball chain suggestively is far more awesome than when my neighbor Earl does it.

That this trend has been left to – for now – late night talk shows where personalities are formed and reformed is comforting, and there’s reason to believe it won’t spread much further. Not only has it not infiltrated movies, it’s been rejected by audiences who mostly ignore or ridicule the too-obvious jokes of Friedberg and Seltzer, who represent the barest form of Consumer Comedy operating in cinema today.

Their joke pattern is, “Have you heard of Avatar? + We have also heard of Avatar = laugh track,” and in spite of financial success thanks to low budgets and enough willing souls, their model isn’t sustainable beyond the fringes.

Instead, the trend that has risen up in funny movies is Riff Comedy. Pairs or groups of actors (usually with stand-up experiences and/or improvisational training) who play off one another well and can keep a joke ball up in the air as long as possible. The Hangover, Anchorman, Ted, Bridesmaids, Knocked Up, Dodgeball, 21 Jump Street and so on. This can get stale, but at least it requires effort, brains and work.

In fact, the only obvious element of Consumer Comedy that has injected itself into modern, mainstream comedy movies is the pop culture cameo. Mike Tyson in The Hangover, Lou Ferrigno in I Love You, Man, Bill Murray in Zombieland, the majority of human characters with spoken lines in The Muppets. They work because they bring something recognizable out of its element and into a new, wacky one.

The reason “spoiling” these cameos is so hated is because nearly 100% of their effectiveness comes from discovering them for yourself. Knowing that Murray shows up in the zombie comedy changes his appearance from a moment of joyous recognition to the arrival of another actor you knew was in the film. The cameo, by definition, is used to get mileage out of something that’s recognizable. It’s also been done for a long, long time. Much longer than the current bout of Consumer Comedy hitting TV has been around.

The multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room is that audiences identifying as consumers is a big reason why we’re getting more Marvel movies and more Star Wars and more Star Trek and more Transformers and more stuff that we’ve all already heard of. Comedies seem immune because, for whatever reason, we demand at least something novel from them (sorry, doomed-to-flop Vacation sequel). It’s the same reason that remakes aren’t as profitable as studios keep pretending they are. Recognition is important, but only goes so far, and Consumer Comedy can work as a skit, maybe as a sketch, but certainly not as a narrative.

It simply can’t operate on the scale that feature films demand. It only takes the idea, a carton of eggs and a willing celebrity for Jimmy Fallon to go viral, but it’s also only good for a two-minute coffee break, and it’s the same every single time. Late night talk shows can wallow in what I lovingly call silly bullshit, and we’re definitely game to get free, brief bursts of entertainment from watching Anna Kendrick do impressions (or whatever) the next day, but we’re not going to get in my car for or spend money on it.

We demand more of movies – even when the film is based on A Thing We Recognize, we want to see new adventures, new worlds and new ideas laid out. An hour and a half is a long time to only make references. The cinematic world is also a vastly bigger engine than late night shows and sitcoms for creating The Thing that late night shows and sitcoms can point to with a knowing smile. Consumer Comedy has a safe haven in late night shows, and it’s not doing any real harm there because frivolity is in the job title. Let them shoulder the burden of showing us how we know the pop culture world to be, and let movies and smarter programming continue the responsibility of showing us how the pop culture world can be.

At any rate, at least the rise of Consumer Comedy proves that we owe Kevin James an apology. For as much grief as he gets for repeating the “Fatty Fall Down” formula, at least he’s making the effort to fall down.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.