You'd have to make some significant script changes, or at least drink a lot of cocktails, to start confusing "Pitch Perfect 2" and "Ted 2." In addition to their many comedic, tonal and thematic differences, there's also that matter of their divergence at the box office.
"Pitch Perfect 2" took what was not a hugely successful theatrical first film and built on it exponentially — the new movie grossed in U.S. theaters nearly triple the amount of the first. "Ted 2" took a whopping amount of fans and managed to shrink them to the size of a stuffed-animal extremity. The new movie will be lucky to get to $75 million, barely a third of the box office take of "Ted."
If you graphed the box office of the two Universal comedies, they'd basically form an X — with "Pitch Perfect" on a rocket ride up, "Ted" on a plummet down.
But Seth MacFarlane shouldn't feel too alone. Comedy sequels, especially those based on high-concept gags, often lose steam compared with the original. "The Hangover 2" took in less than "The Hangover." "Grown Ups 2" fell short of "Grown Ups." "Think Like a Man Too" and "Evan Almighty" couldn't match their predecessors.
In the past year alone, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2," "Horrible Bosses 2" and "Dumb and Dumber To" all took what were surprise hits and, not so surprisingly, turned in less stellar numbers. Unlike superhero and genre sequels, which often gain audience members from one film to the next, comedy follow-ups in the contemporary era regularly lose them.
The only comedy sequels that seem to regularly one-up their progenitors are those that found a large share of their fans after their initial theatrical run. They don't have a high box office bar to vault in the first place, most obviously, but maybe more important, they're movies that managed to stay in the public consciousness in the time between releases and thus still feel fresh by the time the new movie comes out.
That description of course fits "Pitch Perfect 2," which garnered a huge DVD and streaming audience after its initial modest theatrical run. It also suits "Anchorman 2," which in the 10 years since the first film opened, managed to build a diehard aftermarket fan base. The franchise then nicely upped its total when the new movie came out last year.
"Magic Mike XXL" will face the comedy-sequel curse as it opens Wednesday, trying to beat the $113 million tally of the original. Tracking puts the five-day weekend at about $45 million — making it a close call as to whether it can flout the rule. It's a challenge, if not impossible.
There are plenty of theories about what went wrong with "Ted 2," from a MacFarlane mojo problem to editing and slackness issues, especially in the film's second half.
But it's also hard to ignore the box office dynamics of comedy as a whole. The gags run out, the ideas run dry. Maybe more important, the patience runs thin. With superhero movies, we want to see where the world goes. With comedies we feel like we've seen the world before.
It may be coincidence, or it may actually be telling, that one of the few other recent comedy sequels to edge out the original is "22 Jump Street" — which spent a large chunk of its running time mocking the idea of a sequel in the first place.
What all of this adds up to for studios, of course, is that if you have a comedy that makes it big at the box office, the prudent thing to do could be to refrain from a sequel, or at least a splashy and expensive one (often the only kind, as actors and filmmakers now command higher fees). That kind of restraint in modern Hollywood is about as common as a litigious stuffed animal.
But for their sake, as well as ours, the next time a comedy hit materializes, it might make sense to listen to the talking bear.