Year In Review: The Serious Problem With Comedies

By  · Published on December 29th, 2013

If there’s one movie that speaks most to the sad state of comedy in 2013, it’s The Hangover Part III. It managed to copy the chemistry that made the Wolfpack a household name while evolving into a different animal altogether. The gags were angrier, more aggressive, and they shifted the tone from absurdity to despair. It’s a comedy that isn’t funny (much like The Comedy, which isn’t funny) and it offers some insight into the frustrations offered by modern movie humor.

In our obligatory year-end retrospective, we’ve covered horror, documentaries, sci-fi/fantasy, and other categories, but even thinking of 13 movies meant for laughter (let alone the best baker’s dozen) is a difficult task this year because a general pall of mediocrity fogs the genre. The cinema is dominated by comedies that aren’t funny. There were studio efforts (Grown Ups 2, We’re The Millers, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) that fell completely flat, indie standouts (Frances Ha, Computer Chess) that were funny without busting guts, and experimental tinkering (Movie 43) that was just plain terrible.

That’s not to say that there were no triumphs, but the amount of whiffs was truly disheartening, and one formula is causing the lion’s share of the problems.

A large factor in whether you thought the third Hangover worked hinges on whether you enjoyed spending a lot of time with Phil, Alan and Stu. That’s effectively all the story is promising and delivering. That could be said of a few comedic projects this year, following a sitcom concept of using plot as an excuse to see friends hanging out with other friends. The Big Wedding lives and dies by that. The World’s End, which might be the polar opposite of The Hangover III, works on that model without depending on it. Then there’s This is the End where another group of friends faces a potential Apocalypse and the jokes rely almost wholesale on the people telling them instead of their intrinsic comedic value.

More directly, the film depends on pop culture awareness: a random girl cursing and swinging an axe at non-rapists isn’t funny, but Hermione Granger cursing and swinging an axe at non-rapists is hilarious. A random cokehead being crazy isn’t funny, but George Michael Bluth doing coke and being crazy is comic perfection. Pineapple Express 2 is bizarre without any context. Blather, rinse, repeat.

In the hands of anyone else, it would have been another generic project where assholes are being assholes at the edge of existence. Instead, it was a great movie with an over-the-top feeling that absolutely wouldn’t work for anyone unfamiliar with James Franco, Jonah Hill or the rest of the gang.

That’s not a structural knock on the movie necessarily. Some can make the structure work for them. After all, there’s a proud tradition (think Animal House or Stripes) of putting a funny group of people into a loose story and letting the chips fall. What’s interesting is that it puts an overbearing amount of weight on the personnel. It also, in cases like This is the End, gives the actors and writers involved a safety net. If the joke is rooted in who the person is, all they have to do is be who they are (and/or act diametrically against type). For the niche audience being targeted, it would be difficult not to succeed.

For The Hangover III, the comedy hangout pressure meant the kinetic drive-by insanity of the first two films was replaced with long slogs, extended sequences and brief emotional moments that dealt with death. If a joke wasn’t landing, it was going to remain in the air for an uncomfortable, uninteresting few minutes (the set up where they break into Chang’s “old house” is particularly egregious). For Grownups 2, it was a repeat of the bizarre vanity window into Adam Sandler spending time with his real-life friends in a sequel that (like its predecessor) amounted to asking solely, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a lake house and hang out with Adam Sandler?” Once again, an example where what’s funny is defined purely by the personality with no other work required.

Taken to its extreme, celebrity cameos have become the norm in comedies (and the latest thing we’re not supposed to spoil).

When various prestigious entities hand out awards at the end of a given year, there’s an appropriate (and far too common) cry for more comedies to be considered. On the heels of the Golden Globes having a strange definition for “comedy,” I’m tempted to cut them some slack because I have no idea what comedies would legitimately stack up against the other work of 2013.

The worst is seeing how terrible Movie 43 turned out to be. Not only because of the huge amount of talent involved, but because we need more comedic options than a group of friends getting together for X. Stepping outside the norm has its risks, but whenever those kinds of movies flop, it makes it harder to make something without the formula.

On the other hand, it’s encouraging to believe that this year’s comedies have defied categorization. The World’s End is one of the funniest, but it deals movingly with substance abuse and loss; The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely not a comedy but apparently features one of the biggest laughs of the year; Anchorman 2 – which is admittedly an example of funny friends getting together for X – still resists easy categorization because it’s weird as hell.

I know that the Mel Brooks days are long gone and the spoof world has been unfairly snatched away by the Movie Movies, but in a year where it was maddening to whittle down a list of best dramas or horror, it’s unfortunate that any list of 10 best comedies (maybe even 5) would require padding.

The Hangover III is not a funny movie, but that all feels intentional. A second sequel in the 2013 sea of sequels, it was born by one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud studio projects of the past decade, but ended its run as a kind of middle finger to anyone who complained that Part II was exactly the same as the first. The bulky new structure and the mid-credits gag that could have been the opening scene make that clear. What’s not clear is where the next big comedies are going to come from. If you’re as disheartened as I am, you might not want to look at what’s scheduled for 2014.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.