Bummer Summer: The Sad State of Modern Comedy

What is wrong with the world of comedy? 2011 has undoubtedly seen some of the worst mainstream comedies in recent memory, and it seems there is no end in sight. This past summer we were inundated with a glut of loud, obnoxious, arrogant, brash comedies that failed to arose the slightest hint of interest from either critics or audiences: The Change-Up, The Hangover: Part II, Hall Pass, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses. This past year’s films have been met with nothing but disappointment, disgust, and displeasure (granted, Horrible Bosses did inexplicably manage to receive strong critical response despite a rather meandering plot and boring characters). This summer’s comedies weren’t just bad or unfunny; they were something more: they were all just plain irritating.

I bring this up because there seems to be a shared affinity between these disparate, underachieving films. Yes, the actors and directors all seem to lack comedic timing, the actors themselves aren’t very funny, and the jokes are completely unoriginal (unless you consider bizarre pairings of expletives funny – “Fuck-knuckle” anyone?). All of these issues contribute to the films’ failures, but there is something much simpler, rather obvious, and quite mundane that is missing from these films: they are all unable to generate any audience empathy for their characters.

Today’s comedies, and I’m speaking particularly about The Change-Up, The Hangover 2, and Horrible Bosses here, are dominated by such arrogant, unsympathetic, and disgustingly perverse characters that it is impossible to walk away from these films without being annoyed by the characters we are supposed to identify with. They have very few, if any, redeeming qualities; they don’t act like we want them to; they don’t speak like we want them to; and they don’t seem to learn any lessons like we want them to. Instead, they are loud, obnoxious, and quite frankly, hard to watch.

I think that this problem emerges largely from the way that these films slightly change the comedy structure. In a typical comedy, the straight man is paired with the funny man as counterpoints to each other. While we all know that the straight man is usually there to set up the jokes for the funny man, there’s also an important aspect of this combination that often gets ignored: the duo is supposed to mutually learn from each other and come to a shared sense of respect. For example, the straight man usually needs to learn to ‘relax’ like the funny man, and the funny man needs to learn to be more responsible like the straight man. It is this mutual exchange that largely makes these characters identifiable. Despite their extremes characterizations, they come to a shared understanding, and a more ‘agreeable’ lifestyle in the end that justifies their time together.

At first glance, these films all seem to use the archetypal ‘straight-man/funny-man’ combination, but they add a slight modification. In The Change-Up, for example, we are given the mild-mannered, hard-working, earnest Dave (Jason Bateman) and his rambunctious, slothful friend Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) who magically switch bodies and hilarity ensues. But there’s a slight deviation here. Instead of simply a straight man/funny man combination, there is a twist on the model. Instead, we are presented with a ‘weak man/overly arrogant man’ combination that is meant to resemble the archetype, but rapidly devoids the characters of any charm as neither man is particularly funny, and neither is particularly caring. In the place of the ‘funny man’ role, we are given the arrogant, relentless, overly chauvinistic partner who tries to encourage his weak-willed, slightly effeminate, caring friend to become more like him. He curses a lot, he’s dirty, he causes problems wherever he goes, and he’s proud of it. In contrast, the ‘straight’ or ‘weak’ man is too straight, too nice, too easily pushed over (usually by his wife), too accepting, and the only way to conceivably resolve this is by becoming more like his arrogant friend.

This issue played a small part in the first Hangover film, around the character Stu (Ed Helms) and his controlling girlfriend, but The Hangover: Part II structures the entire narrative around this central issue. This time, Stu is getting married in Thailand (against his and his friends’ wishes), and struggles to deal with his future wife’s controlling, overbearing father. The film takes several twists and turns as it tries to give Stu the strength to stand up to his father, but instead of this lesson being something he learns through the bizarre adventures in the film, it is something he learns from Phil (Bradley Cooper), the sauve, attractive, slightly chauvinistic, completely unapologetic best friend who seems to have everything under control. But, who’s the funny man in this movie? Arguably, Alan (Zach Galifianakis) takes on this role, but he is such a minor character in this film. No, I’d say that the ‘funny man’ role has been taken over by Phil. But the difference is that he’s not meant to be funny, he’s meant to be the counterpoint to Stu, the arrogance to his weakness, the charm to his awkwardness.

The typical straight-man/funny-man combo of yesteryear has been utterly gutted and replaced by the pairing of the ‘weak man/arrogant man’ as a comedy duo, all while attempting to pass it off as the same thing. The problem with this structural change isn’t that it’s offensive; it’s that there is nothing funny about a prideful, arrogant man. His only humor is his pride—we can’t believe the things he says (Did he really just say that??), and we can’t believe the wild situations he gets himself into. And the problem is, we really can’t believe the insane, ridiculous situations these characters get themselves into. These films are so filled with prideful, arrogant, and unrepentant side-men, that each situation is more ridiculous and insipid than the next, and the characters don’t seem to show any pathos or growth. In the end, does Phil learn anything from his adventures? Does he change? No, he just stays the same. While Stu is meant to learn to from his crazy adventures and stand up for himself, we can’t say the same about the ‘arrogant man’ role. Phil becomes the object of identification for Stu, and presumably for us as well.

There has always been a certain level of subtlety and honesty needed to make comedy work. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” The line between comedy and tragedy is a very thin one. Comedians require a little fragility, honesty, realness—ideals the audience can identify with—and ideals that are completely lacking from these comedies, and that might offer the slightest bit of audience empathy. But in these films, the prideful, arrogant, and unapologetic side-men offer no room for identification or empathy. They are more admired than pitied, more obnoxious than comical, and more irritating than empathetic.

Let me offer a brief counterexample that develops my point a bit more. In many ways, Danny McBride perfectly epitomizes this arrogant/funny man role. He perfectly portrays brash, egotistical, self-obsessed characters who are completely unapologetic for their behaviour. But at the same time, there is an honesty, a tenderness in his characters that he taps into. He exposes himself on screen. His portrayal of the crude, selfish, narcissistic Kenny Powers on Eastbound & Down is perfectly augmented by the soft, pathetic side of his character. Even while he is rude and obnoxious, he stills offers a feeling of aloneness, of tragedy in close-up. He can be incredibly abrasive, but he couples that with a true humility and desperation that allows for us to understand his character, and offers a sense of identification, something we can’t say for these other comedies.

I want to end by pointing to one of the few lone bright spots amidst this rather grim, unfunny future. I’ve noticed that many of the most successful comedies of the past several years have featured female-centered casts. I’m thinking particularly of some of the work of Tina Fey, or this year’s film Bridesmaids. These films have used very simple characters, simple plots, and simple structures. No, Bridesmaids is certainly not the funniest movie of the year, and indeed much of the humor ends up falling flat, but there is a quiet earnestness in the film that is lacking in the aforementioned stream of comedies. The characters are real; they’re honest, open, and more than fragile. In many ways, the situations, the problems, the characters all seem familiar, and that is because they are. We’ve seen them before. Indeed, these films have simply adopted a classic comedy archetype and barely changed anything. Perhaps it’s because these female-centered comedies are a relatively recent phenomena in mainstream cinema and TV that they use such simple plot structures, but perhaps it’s because they use such simple characters and plots that these films and TV shows have become so popular. This familiarity isn’t a negative; it allows us to connect to the characters in ways we can’t with these other films. So even when they aren’t funny, they are still identifiable.

Do you agree? Is there something wrong with today’s Hollywood comedies or are they just as funny as ever?

  • I actually enjoyed most of the R rated comedies this summer. Most of them were stupid yes, but they made me laugh. They’re way better than the watered-down PG-13 crap that usually gets released. I’m glad the R rated comedy is back.

  • Rick

    i also enjoyed all those movies. I laughed my ass off. Were they dumb, yes, yes they were. But sometimes it’s nice to go in to a movie and have everything that you can take from the film right there in front of you. They had thier messages sure, but i didn’t have to think long and hard about what that message was, or how they were trying to convey it. WIth everything going on in the world, right now entertainment is crucial. I want to go in, sit down, laught my ass off, and leave feeling good. These movies were successful in my book. Are they inception? are they american beauty? are they donny darko? NO of course not! but thier not trying to be, nor do i want them to be. I want them to be exactly what they are; crude, offensive, graphic and most of all….funny!

  • Juan

    they are just movies people.. why take it so seriously?

  • Kasper

    I saw The Hangover 2 solely because I was in a foreign country with a colleague, and there were nothing else remotely interesting in the theater when we had to pass the time somehow. Previous to this I hadn’t seen The Hangover 1, but I ended up loving The Hangover 2 – it was awesome. I saw The Hangover 1 afterwards and while it was good, I actually found The Hangover 2 to be much better.

  • Andrew

    Really good article.

  • Anthony

    Horrible Bosses was hilarious though.

  • kyri

    Zak seems genuinely upset about this whole comedy thing..
    he is right though in what he says about the ethics of the main characters in all those films, they are all so pathetic and obnoxious individuals that makes it impossible to care about the plot or their story.

    I can’t really disagree with anything he says.. so many fancy words.. only sean is mentally capable to argue against them..

  • I think this article nails it. But like anything within genre, it is cyclical. Although Zak fails completely to mention the entire Apatow school of comedy in the past number of years.

    I hope that the comedies of the next 10 years find some new form. The writer-focused fly-on-the-wall British stuff (In The Loop, The Trip and Tristram Shandy) is far more up my alley.

  • I totally agree with Zak.

    It was a long time ago when I saw a good comedy in the cinema. Do you remember the 80’s? Naked gun series, Airplane, Top Secret? I could watch them endlessly. And hey, they didn’t even use any offensive word so you could watch those movies with your family as well.

    I’m still waiting for a good movie in this genre.

  • Zak

    I should say that I’m not really upset about how gross or how offensive these movies are. In fact, I usually love gross out comedies and don’t really take any offense towards the moral aspect of these films. But what I’m complaining about more is the overall effect of these comedies. I think that these comedies have stopped being funny because they have created these overly offensive and obnoxious characters who audiences can’t identify with, and as a result, much of their humour really is just plain irritating. I think that these films have become so obsessed with creating these ‘cool’, confident male characters (such as those played by Ryan Reynolds or Bradley Cooper) that they really have no humour to their characters. All the jokes end up resulting from how confident they are–they say crazy things, they get themselves in crazy situations–so that there’s almost no ‘real’ character to them at all.

  • Zak

    But Kurt is right. I am skipping over lots of movies here, and my argument is nowhere near conclusive. But I think that Apatow is different in that he is able to create something close to ‘real’ characters. The jokes in his films emerge from the characters themselves, rather than just the situations. And I think that his use of ad-libbing adds to this as the characters become something more than just one-dimensional ‘wild and crazy’ guys who do wacky stuff, but the actors are able to form realistic and identifiable characters.

  • kyri

    I think what Zak is trying to say is that If you fart in a car with your mates then is funny cause the atmosphere is clean and the guy who sits next to you is forced to smell the fart. Solid. But when you fart in the shitter where everything smells like shit anyway it just doesn’t matter..

  • Zak

    @kyri Haha, good comparison.

  • Andrew

    pi = 3.14
    2 + 2 = 4
    Farting in clean atmosphere = hilraious

  • Jsin

    Holy shit, you sound like an old man, and one totally void of the humor I enjoy. Yes, there is a vein of alt/hipster comedy in comedic movies these days. It mirrors the anarchist humor you see in internet memes these days as well as the bullshit socio-economic-political atmosphere we have these days. These comedies have unredeeming characters, because it reflects all the unredeeming characters that are fore and center in society today.

    Why don’t we go back to the idiot man-child/slacker comedies of the nineties? How about the underdog/sex movies of the eighties? How about the screwball comedies of the seventies? Why not the straight man/funny man road movies, Abbot and Costello? Why not slapstick Three Stooges? Because “new” humor reflects current trends in society. There will always be throwbacks that draw from the above, but the spotlight will be on what’s new.

    As for your comparison to Tina Fey? Fuck that shit. I tried watching 30 Rock three different times since in went into syndication, and I literally can’t get through 5 minutes without changing the channel.

    Next decade there will be some guy watching comedies and asking why the big comedies don’t follow an Apatow model that is prevalent now.

    It’s been said on the podcast, humor is subjective.

  • Phil Middleton

    Totally agree, knob jokes are so old hat, hollywood has just got plain lazy. The best comedies are the ones with great scripts not 2 hours of prat falls which seems to be the norm. No one ever seems to think outside the box anymore. The last film I really laughed at was Hot tub time machine (I know lots of knob gags!)becasue it didnt try to hard. But I hanker back to the days of films like Kind hearts and coronets, school for scoundrels, Neighbors (undervalued Belushi/Ackroyd comedic leviathon) and more recently Groundhog day. Come on Holywood, must try harder!!

  • adam s

    adam sandlder used to be a whitty, charming actor back in saturday night live days and for a few years after but not he is more a production company monster regurgiting weaker and weaker iterations of his former self. pathetic. while it took hime near 2 decades to suck corporate ass this bad, his apprentices took to corporate felching instantly – i’m looking at you Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill and Sandberg!

  • Excellent Zak. After sitting through the truly horrible and painful “That’s My Boy” I’d rather spend a decade in Hell then watch another Adam Sandler film. After Hangover II, of which I did laugh, but felt ashamed for doing so, I realized, as you have by this finely expressed article, that American comedy mostly sucks.

    I agree with your main point, that audiences cannot identify with these characters because there is nothing redeeming nor even emotionally human about them. Its as if the authors of these movies believe that people only care about watching the uncaring slob work his way through hurt and meanness to get what he wants.

    Thanks Zak for writing this article. I have been wanting to write my own about this subject, but the closest I got was one of the last on my blog site about Man/Child films.


  • Marissa

    I agree with you for the most part, comedies have changed and evolved. But I see it as this is just a different type of humor. To be honest Hangover 2 wasn’t as funny as 1, Horrible Bosses was hysterical but I also love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Why not go see the Dictator, Three Stooges, 21 Jump Street, Ted, or even MIB 3?

    I generally like those comedies they are just different than most. I don’t laugh as often watching The Hangover 2 as I did Super Troopers or some other silly comedy. But it was entertaining as a movie should be.

    The Adam Sandler note is sad. I LOVED his old school stuff. Bring back Opera Man, the Goat and Happy Gilmore!

  • I have laughed more with some commercials (chick dating a french model? she met through the internet) than with many of this movies. I have seen most of them because I miss those comedians from SNL and now they only have bits and pieces in sitcoms or movies, and I just can’t get enough. Adam Sandler is so obnoxious in THATS MY BOY, using that voice that I so much hate.
    Last week I found a movie that made me laugh like crazy, SLAMMING SALMON. I don’t like much of the comedy nowadays, but I want to see more of the SNL cast, now that they’re not there anymore. I think all of them should be given the chance to star and not just be in a supporting role.

  • Frugal Freak

    remind me to avoid crass people like you.

  • Frugal Freak

    So people being obnoxious together is comedy? Nah it’s just crudeness for sake of being crude because the brain is underdeveloped.

  • Frugal Freak

    That is the issue, crude, offensive, graphic isn’t funny, it is just teenage boy funny. Jerry Lewis, John Candy, Chevy Chase, Those guys were funny but had Class. They didn’t have to resort to digging at bottom of trash bin.

  • Frugal Freak

    Personally Zak, I think mentally you have grown up, THAT is why it isn’t funny to you anymore. A crotch shot isn’t funny. Some Guys and girls don’t KNOW how to mature.