Think back to the last comedy film you saw. Was it funny? If you’re nodding affirmatively, let me ask you something else: was it hysterical?
Despite comedies seeing some of the highest attendance rates out of all film genres, there has been a considerable decrease in the quality of comedies coming out. Splitsider.com wrote an article a while ago about the top 20 greatest comedies of all time. If one wants to take a look at the article (and I would highly recommend it), they might notice that out of all the comedies on the list, only one came out after the year 2000. Even looking at Rotten Tomatoes, one will find that most high ranking comedies post-2000 end up being animated, family-friendly films – a niche of their own.
There are very few comedies coming out these days that people will consider classics in years to come. Why has the genre taken such a bad turn? Let’s explore six reasons why comedy in films is dying.
Childish Gambino said it best: “It’s because of the internet.” The internet is this hive mind of billions of people gathering information from all over the world. Comedy is simply a type of information that causes someone to have a predictable reaction (i.e. laughter). The internet has been amazing for comedy over these past twenty-something years. Think about all different types of comedy there are in the world, and being able to experience all of them in one place for as long as we want. We even have certain forms of comedy only for the internet such as memes, tweets, and podcasts. Going to a film with only one plot can almost be seen as boring these days when we could go to YouTube and look up as many five-minute videos as we want with such variety that it would almost be impossible to be bored.
The entertainment industry has to compete with this. The internet is making the trends in comedy instead of following them; it has become the source of original humor. Films take so long to produce that they can’t keep up with the fast-paced world of memes and topical humor, nor can they afford to take the risks that five-minute skits can take in exploring new ideas, so they stick with what’s safe: recycling the same films that have worked in the past.
Modern studies have shown that the digital life has caused humans to have decreased attention spans, making it more difficult for people to grab and retain our attention. It’s not like we all have ADHD, but we can admit there has to be something a little more than mildly interesting to get us to look up from our laptops and phones. When we have the internet to give us the many fast-paced quick moments of comedy we are accustomed to, it seems almost like a hassle to have to sit and watch the same thing for an extended period of time. If it’s a truly amazing comedy then it will get our attention, but that’s the problem – there just aren’t as many fantastic comedies being made by the film industry as there are random people in the world making quick five minute videos. Here’s a good example: I am able to go on YouTube and look up the funniest scenes from the film Airplane!without having to watch the entire film. It’s an amazing film, but a lot of times I don’t want to sit through the whole movie to get to a certain part.
Our reduced attention spans may even make us less likely to go watch a comedy in the theater.
There is a style of comedy that does involve extending the length of a joke to great lengths of time to make it funnier. When this happens, the time lapse over the joke becomes a part of the joke itself, and can even be the funniest part about it. A notable example of this can be seen in many of episodes of Family Guy. While this does work for Seth MacFarlane, it could not work nearly as well for a full two-hour film – and those who have seen a Family Guy movie may agree. It’s just too much time for the joke to drag on, and eventually it will go from being funny to being tiring.
The thing about comedy is you want it to be fast paced. It’s easier to make a joke quickly and have it end on a laugh than to let it drag on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and see what I mean? The more time you give an audience to think about a comedic situation, the less funny it tends to become. In addition to our attention spans not having the patience for drawn-out jokes, analysis kicks in, and the premise is picked apart using the terribly unfunny duo known as “logic” and “reason.”
Our reduced attention spans may even make us less likely to go watch a comedy in the theater. Relying on a single source of entertainment for 90 consecutive minutes with no form of interaction can seem like a daunting time investment. Sure, it may pay off, but there is still the concern that the movie will not be funny, and while other films can suffer from poor execution in some areas and still be entertaining, an unfunny comedy is just a burden to watch.
Let’s look this table showing the 25 top grossing comedy films from 1995-2015.
If you remove sequels and prequels from this list, then the top 25 quickly become the Top 18 highest grossing comedy films. The problem with a good comedy is fans will always ask for more. I remember when I was 12, I thought Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was the funniest film ever, and would have loved to have seen a sequel to it. Now I’m older and even before it came out, I knew the sequel was going to be worse than the original. It wasn’t bad, but it was definitely not as good, much less better. In order to make a truly great sequel, it has to take the original version and improve on it in some way. With comedy though, most fans of the film want to hear the same jokes over and over again because they believe if it was funny before, it will continue to be funny and will always be funny. The film industry understands this, and that is why we have so many sequels for comedies that never seem to be as funny as the original.
This is unfortunately something that happens with all genres of film, but comedy is one of the biggest victims. Producers tend to want more sequels from comedy than anything else (except perhaps action-adventure films). To add some emphasis, here are the top 25 highest grossing films in the “drama” genre:
I don’t know what the Twilight series did, but regardless there are a lot less sequels on that list than there are original films.
There’s been a considerable lack of visual storytelling in modern comedies. It almost looks like every comedy that’s come out in the past ten years has been made by the same director, same studio, same producers, etc. I usually just guess Judd Apatow for director or writer and sadly I’m usually correct. I’m not saying I despise Apatow and all he’s ever made; he’s made some truly hilarious films and has almost created the modern-day trend for comedy in film. This trend is called, “over the shoulder camera-angle and predominant focus on writing and/or improvised lines.” Most comedy films these days involve basic camera angles and editing to make sure the scenes aren’t too difficult to follow for the audience. The reason why there is nothing fancy being done is that the audience is not supposed to be focused on the visuals or the audio, but instead on the dialogue. The dialogue is the funniest part of the films nowadays; it’s the only thing in the film that’s getting any effort put into it. The screenwriters add jokes, the actors act them out, and the film is considered a success. Everything else is almost kind of lazy.
There have been some directors going out of their way to making more visually-striking comedies. Some of my favorite examples are Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright. If one looks at Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, they’ll see an amazing blend of dialogue and visuals being combined together. If one wants a film that is visually hilarious, look at Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and pay attention to everything that you can see and hear in the film. Again though, people don’t want to pay attention when watching a comedy, they simply want to laugh. This does not mean there should be a lack in trying something new, though. Wes Anderson’s style of film is completely his own, but he finds new ways to make people laugh. By focusing on more than writing, a film can become funny in so many aspects and still give people opportunities to focus on new aspects of the film. A viewer might laugh at a funny line, a funny transition, or even the way somebody or something might be characterized. Even the music can help add to the film’s humor if timed well.
Unless you’re a professional critic, your opinion does not really matter to the entertainment industry.
As stated before, jokes work best in short takes, but it isn’t the speed of the joke that makes it funny – it’s the pacing. One needs to do a great job setting up a joke, adding the proper details, and then ending it at the right moment for the delivery to have its maximum appeal. It just so happens that if someone gets less time to perform a joke, then there’s less time to mess up the delivery of it. That’s why jokes need fast pacing. So in comes television, with its much shorter time slots, and much easier format to work with. The shorter episodes in television use less time than full-length films, but use their time more wisely. Writers for television shows only have to deal with an average of thirty minutes, which gives their jokes a much stronger impact in the timeframe. Films use their time wisely as well, but adding joke after joke (even if they’re all funny) can become almost tedious and irrelevant. Remember a film has to worry about the plot as well, and unlike television, a film cannot just finish up the plot in another season (unless you count sequels, but we won’t). A film cannot be a two hour long stand-up special.
It’s also easier to watch an episode instead of committing to a whole hour and a half film. The funny thing is though, most people nowadays tend to watch a series all the way through using services like Netflix or Hulu. It would take considerably less time to just watch a film, but they instead spend three days in a row watching a show. I think this goes back to the commitment and attention spans of the average viewer. A new topic in each episode instead of one long theme gives viewers more chances to switch their focus onto something else so they don’t get bored.
Everybody’s a critic. I’m a critic, you’re a critic, and the critic commenting on this article right now saying they’re not a critic is a critic. But unless you’re a professional critic, your opinion does not really matter to the entertainment industry. It’s been a common pattern that comedies do not receive the same recognition as dramas in terms of praise from the film industry. In fact, very few comedies have ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and many other notable awards. They win awards in their own categories, but never against dramas.
Now, 2014 gave us a big twist and the film Birdman received the Oscar for Best Picture. Birdman was listed as a comedy, and it was critically acclaimed by film enthusiasts and patrons of the arts alike. So, perhaps this article was a complete waste of time? I’d say that if it weren’t for the fact Birdman was categorized as a “black comedy-drama.” A comedy-drama is basically the entertainment industry’s way of saying “it didn’t take itself seriously enough to be considered a drama.” This is such a cop-out in my opinion, even if I thought Birdman was amazing. I also thought it was funny at times, but then again I thought Full Metal Jacket was funny at times and that’s not even labelled as a comedy. If it makes you laugh then it’s a good comedy, but a drama can also have the ability to make you laugh. That may be the reason more dramas are being made today than comedies. A drama can have as much comedy as it wants and still be considered a drama, but comedies cannot have as much drama as they want, or else they become comedy-dramas. There are no “drama-comedies” out there.
Sure, there are some hilarious comedies being made every year for all types of people. Watch whatever you want. Numerous underrated comedies are out there that weren’t well received by the box office or critics, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t funny. The Grand Budapest Hotel was phenomenal, and I heard Trainwreck was pretty good. Both of those films had large box office receptions and were well received, so the film industry does know how to make good comedies. The thing is, they are the minority. A very tiny minority. Comedy in film is indeed dying, and hopefully something can be done about it soon. Otherwise, we’ll be seeing a development of Bridesmaids Pt. 2 Featuring Pitch Perfect.
Wait, that’d actually be kind of cool now that I think about it.