The state of the big-screen summer comedy is no laughing matter. Can the genre get its mojo back?
In years past, the summertime box office could always be counted on to deliver at least one mainstream comedy smash that would break out of the pack of superhero films, action spectacles and rampaging giant-monster epics.
Think: “The Hangover,” which pulled in $277 million domestically in 2009. Or “Ted,” which grossed $219 million in 2012. Or, more recently, last year’s “Girls Trip,” which took in $115 million.
Alas, this past weekend’s “Tag” — one of the comedy genre’s brighter hopes for this particular summer — was not it.
Despite boasting an ensemble of name actors (including Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher and Jeremy Renner) and a hooky premise that seemed tailor-made for fans of past comedy hits like “Wedding Crashers” (grown men playing a decades-long game of tag), the film took in $14.9 million in its debut, less than a tenth of the haul of the weekend’s other major arrival, Pixar’s “Incredibles 2.”
It also came in lower than the recent openings of Amy Schumer’s “I Feel Pretty” and Melissa McCarthy’s “Life of the Party” — both of which have petered out around or below the $50-million mark domestically.
At a time when comedy is enjoying a boom on the small screen and stand-up comedians are being touted as “the new rock stars,” the genre can’t seem to shake a big-screen slump.
Barring a surprise breakout, this could be the first summer in more than 20 years in which no traditional comedy grosses more than $100 million at the domestic box office.
Speaking to The Times late last year shortly before release of his bizarro satire “Downsizing,” director Alexander Payne spoke sadly of what he saw as the twilight of the era of the broadly appealing mainstream summer comedy.
“Every summer we used to look forward to the big blockbuster comedy,” Payne said. “We used to look forward to ‘Trading Places’ and ‘Ghostbusters.’ ‘What’s the big comedy that’s going to make a ton of money and be delightful?’ I lament the passing of those days.”
Aside from “Girls Trip,” the summer of 2017 proved a veritable bloodbath for major, star-studded studio comedies like “Baywatch,” “The House,” “Snatched” and “Rough Night.” The sheer volume of flops left many who work in comedy wondering when, or if, the genre can get its mojo back.
“I talk about this all the time with my comedy friends — it is rough out there,” said director Rawson Marshall Thurber, whose “Central Intelligence” was a summer comedy success just two years ago, grossing $127 million. Seeing what he calls “a comedy famine at the box office,” Thurber, who also helmed the hits “Dodgeball” and “We’re the Millers,” has lately shifted from the genre that launched his career; his next film, which hits theaters July 13, is the “Die Hard”-esque action film “Skyscraper,” starring Dwayne Johnson.
With each passing year, the multiplexes have become increasingly dominated by big-budget spectacles, many of which have eaten into the turf of the traditional comedy. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” gave Johnson his biggest domestic hit by pairing him with comedy veterans Kevin Hart and Jack Black and a healthy dose of tent-pole razzle-dazzle. Marvel Studios juggernauts like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor: Ragnarok” deliver as many jokes as action set pieces, while, for all their comic-book trappings, “Deadpool” and its sequel were essentially R-rated action-comedies dressed in spandex.
“Deadpool” screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese scored their breakout with 2009 comedy sleeper “Zombieland” but have since found even more success giving the superhero genre a sarcastic makeover with their fellow writer and franchise star Ryan Reynolds.
“I think it’s less that audiences don’t want to see comedy in a theater and more that they do want to see spectacle in the theater,” Reese said. “TV is so good at providing drama and comedy that the movie theater is becoming one of the only places you can see things on a grand stage. It may be that with ‘Deadpool’ we’re just taking advantage of that. We’re providing spectacle and the superhero genre, but then we’re sliding a comedy in, so I think we get the benefit of both genres as opposed to just one.”
“Do people go to the theater to see just a pure comedy anymore?” Wernick wondered aloud. “Boy, I don’t know. It’s truly a shame because I think comedies are such a communal experience. Going to the theater and hearing other people laugh is such a wonderful feeling of community. So we hope by all means that it’s not the end of the traditional comedy because we grew up on that stuff and love it to death.”
Granted, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom lately for the old-school big-screen comedy. This year has seen a pair of solid R-rated performers buoyed by positive reviews: February’s dark-comedy-thriller “Game Night,” which earned $117 million worldwide, and April’s raunchy teen comedy “Blockers,” which took in nearly $93 million globally. And the May release “Book Club” has amassed a respectable $62 million domestically by appealing to an older demographic (its overseas performance, like many Hollywood comedies, has been more modest).
Although her film fared better than most, “Blockers” director Kay Cannon can’t shake the feeling that big-screen comedy is in the doldrums both creatively and commercially.
“You have to choose to be optimistic — otherwise it’s just too sad,” Cannon said. “I think it really comes down to the work. We have to be more advanced and more sophisticated in the stories and the kind of comedy that we’re putting out. There’s so much content out there that you have to touch people in some way.
“It’s just harder to make comedies good because audiences are so savvy and they’ve seen a lot,” Cannon continued. “You can have a horror movie that’s just OK and people will go see it because scaring someone is easier than making them laugh. A comedy has to be great.”
Paul Dergarabedian, senior box office analyst for the data firm ComScore, believes that in recent years the audience’s faith in the genre has been worn down by too many comedies that simply failed to deliver anything fresh.
“You can’t just throw whatever at the wall and hope it sticks,” Dergarabedian said. “Great comedy looks effortless, but it’s probably the hardest genre from a filmmaking standpoint. The currency of these movies is not the budget or the special effects. The currency is the comedy — and if the comedy isn’t there, it erodes the goodwill of the audiences, which just sends them right back to the small screen, where they have so many options.”
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the decline in the fortunes of comedy on the big screen has moved in lockstep with the rise in the quality and quantity of comedy on the small screen. Services like Netflix and Hulu offer viewers a seemingly limitless supply of comedy series, films and stand-up specials on which they can binge without leaving their couch.
As a result, comedy stars have increasingly followed the audience toward TV and streaming platforms, where the creative liberties may be greater and the pressures to deliver a huge audience lower. This week, Will Ferrell signed a deal with Netflix — which has already established itself as the home for another onetime box office titan, Adam Sandler — to star in an upcoming comedy for the service called “Eurovision.”
Speaking at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ben Stiller — whose last major big-screen comedy, 2016’s “Zoolander 2,” crashed and burned — highlighted the upside of working in the streaming world. “I think you have so much freedom when you don’t have to worry about recouping box office, you don’t have to worry about pleasing four quadrants of audiences,” he said in an interview.
In an era that has seen the box-office power of stars wane across the board, the number of people who can be reliably counted on to draw audiences to a comedy — the way, say, Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey could in decades past — has steadily dwindled, a trend that has only accelerated as the entertainment landscape has grown ever more fragmented.
“I think that’s a big factor,” Cannon said. “I want there to be comedy stars. I think Melissa McCarthy is amazing. But if you were to do a deep dive, there are tons of YouTube celebrities that are considered ‘comedy stars’ that I don’t even know their names.”
One of the few remaining stars who can draw a global audience across a range of genres, Johnson witnessed firsthand with “Baywatch” how quickly even a highly anticipated comedy can tank once the tide turns against it. Based on the famously kitschy ’90s TV series, the film earned generally scathing reviews and grossed just $58 million at the domestic box office.
“By midnight East Coast time Friday night [on opening weekend], I was taking the ass-kicking, and it was a good one,” Johnson told The Times earlier this month. “It’s not that critics didn’t like it — they … hated it. There was a very valuable lesson I learned on ‘Baywatch,’ which is that if you’re truly going to be funny, you can’t be really cool. We should have winked a little bit more with the audience and leaned into the baggage [of the show] a little bit more.”
Still, not everyone in the film-comedy business shares the sense that the genre’s best days are behind it. One of that realm’s most powerful figures, Judd Apatow, takes a more sanguine view. For Apatow, whose comedy hits include “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Trainwreck,” it all comes down to execution and quality control.
“When comedy is good, it always does well,” Apatow told The Times recently. “There’s no great comedy that hasn’t made money — I think it’s as simple as that. Maybe the environment has changed where crappy comedies can’t trick you into coming anymore because you’ll find out too fast on Twitter. But when someone makes an amazing movie, people tend to go.”
As examples, he pointed to Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age film “Lady Bird,” which earned a best picture Oscar nod and grossed nearly $77 million worldwide, and last summer’s low-budget romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” which earned widespread raves and grossed $56 million globally.
“Even though ‘The Big Sick’ was a small movie, it did amazing business,” said Apatow, who produced the film. “It only makes me nervous if someone makes something I think is wonderful and crowd-pleasing and it does no business. But when I look at the list of bombs in comedy, I never think, ‘Wait a second — that’s a masterwork!’ I feel like if someone made ‘Airplane!’ today it would still make $200 million.” (Released in the summer of 1980, that classic disaster-film spoof grossed $83 million — or, adjusting for inflation, well over $250 million in today’s dollars.)
Although this summer has yet to deliver a bona fide comedy hit on anything remotely close to that scale, there are a few films coming up that could snap the slump, including the sports comedy “Uncle Drew” starring Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”) and Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving, the Kate McKinnon-Mila Kunis action comedy “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” the raunchy puppet comedy “The Happytime Murders” with Melissa McCarthy and the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” spotlighting an all-Asian cast.
Whatever happens in the next few months, many hold out hope that the pendulum eventually will swing back and that the big screen will once again reclaim its historic place at the heart of the comedy landscape. “Comedies don’t work until one works,” Wernick said. “Then something hits and it’s, like, ‘Oh, my God, comedies work again!’ ”
“Right now I think we’re in this dip in the comedy market where a new voice has to come along in the same way that Judd Apatow came along and the Farrelly brothers before him and Adam Sandler before that,” said Thurber, whose next project will be a big-budget heist film called “Red Notice” that will reunite him with Johnson. “It’s certainly not going to be me, but there will be someone who will come along who will be young and fresh and new and have a new tone of comedy.
“Right now the horizon looks really dry because they haven’t shown up yet,” Thurber continued. “But that voice will come back in and you’ll go, ‘Oh, comedy is this now.’ You can set your watch by it.”
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