I am a sucker for big dumb comedies. When friends at my high school were trying to get me into Monty Python, Christopher Guest and Mr. Show I was happily consuming sitcoms, Jim Carrey comedies and Chris Farley/Adam Sandler-era SNL movies. I eventually turned on those, instead finding my way to Chasing Amy-era Kevin Smith, The Coen Bros. and the absurdist joys of Adult Swim, yet I still have a soft spot for the type of comedy The Farrelly Bros. would be happy to call their own.
That part of me has been seriously overindulged this past year or two. Hollywood has an R-Rated comedy problem at the box office right now (as in the R-Rated comedies keep struggling to break even) because the studios are making too damn many of them, forever chasing (and failing to reach) a Hangover-sized audience. I might personally enjoy the mindless, debaucherous joys of Rough Night, Snatched and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, but the rest of the world begs to differ. In fact, every R-Rated comedy which has come out since Bad Moms last year has turned into a box office disappointment, the latest being Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s The House. Now let’s totally overreact to that, proclaim the death of the R-Rated comedy and blame, um, superhero movies because why not!
THE “DOOM AND GLOOM” POV
The recent history of Hollywood is dominated by two supermassive black holes trapping everything in their gravitational orbit (that’s how black holes work, right?): Netflix and international audience-pleasing superhero movies. Netflix has changed both the way we watch movies and TV shows as well as what we deem worthy of actually paying to see in theaters. Superhero movies, meanwhile, are continually elbowing other film genres out of theaters and shunning them off to TV, where they can exist as an HBO or Netflix Original Movie or, more likely, as a limited series. The rom-com, for example, is all but dead as a film genre receiving a theatrical release, but it’s alive and well in an updated, more emotionally honest fashion on TV shows like Catastrophe, Love and You’re the Worst.
As such, whenever a specific film genre goes through a rough patch at the box office the question must be asked: Is this just a slump, or the beginning of the end?
This is what Deadline and Variety recently pondered about the R-Rated comedy in response to the surprisingly dismal box office performance of The House, Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell’s bawdy, $40m-budgeted “let’s start an illegal casino in our friend’s suburban home to raise money for our college-bound daughter” comedy which currently sits at just $18m after 10 days. The last time Poehler and Ferrell teamed up on-screen it was as adversaries in 2007’s figure skating comedy Blades of Glory, which opened to over $30m and legged it to $118.6m. At that time, they were both still starring on SNL, and the world had yet to meet Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man.
Since then, Ferrell has racked up just under a billion in domestic gross from 11 live-action movies, Poehler enjoyed 7 seasons on Parks & Recreation and the occasional movie and Iron Man has earned $2.6 billion in domestic ticket sales across his various Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances. Now, Ferrell finds himself suffering his second straight box office disappointment (after last year’s Zoolander 2) while Downey, Jr.’s golden touch helped launch Spider-Man: Homecoming into the stratosphere.
Well, that doesn’t seem like a completely fair comparison, now does it? The House and Homecoming didn’t even come out over the same weekend and courted different audiences. Consider this, though. 2008 – the year of the first Iron Man and The Dark Knight and first full year of Netflix streaming – is the last time comedies (live-action, animated, any rating) had a market share on par with all other genres.
It might be coincidental, but the rise of the superhero movie, led by the more comically-inclined Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, has happened at the same time as the decline of the traditional comedy. That’s even with 2009’s The Hangover kickstarting one of the highest-grossing comedy franchises of all time. We just like our jokes better when they happen in our superhero movies these days.
Here in 2017, The House’s lackluster performance is par for the course. Of all the live-action R-Rated comedies of the past two years, there have only been two bonafide hits: Bad Moms and Daddy’s Home. Now they’re both getting sequels this year even though neither has been away long away to really build up much of a demand for a return (the amazingly churned out Bad Moms sequel will arrive 15 months after the original’s summer 2016 debut).
Surprisingly, some of the R-Rated comedies to disappoint domestically have recovered overseas where comedies aren’t supposed to travel well due to language and cultural barriers, but we have to remember that the studios only get a 40% cut of international ticket sales, 25% from China. Bad Moms, for example, grossed over $180m worldwide off of a $20m budget, but is only thought to have turned a $50m profit, according to Deadline’s estimates.
Recent Live Action R-Rated Comedies
Rough Night – $21m domestic/$34m worldwide vs. $20m budget
Baywatch – $57m domestic/$159m worldwide vs. $69m budget
Snatched – $45m domestic/$58m worldwide vs. $40m budget
CHiPS – $18m domestic/$25m worldwide vs. $25m budget
Fist Fight – $32m domestic/$40m worldwide vs. $25m budget
Why Him? – $60m domestic/$117m worldwide vs. $38m budget
Office Christmas Party – $54m domestic/$113m worldwide vs. $45m budget
Bad Santa 2 – $17.7m domestic/$23m worldwide vs. $26m budget
Bad Moms – $113m domestic/$181m worldwide vs. $20m budget
Masterminds – $17m domestic/$23m worldwide vs. $25m budget
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates – $46m domestic/$77m worldwide vs. $33m budget
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising – $55m domestic/$107m worldwide vs. $35m budget
Keanu – $20.5m domestic/$21m worldwide vs. $15m budget
The Boss – $63m domestic/$78m worldwide off of a $29m budget
Dirty Grandpa – $35m domestic/$94m worldwide vs. $25m budget
Daddy’s Home – $150m domestic/$238m worldwide vs. $50m budget
Sisters – $87m domestic/$106m worldwide vs. $30m budget
There are fewer abject failures on that list than you might expect, but there are also fewer definite success stories. Instead, there’s a lot of middle-of-the-road business, the kind studios loathe because it does nothing for their stock price and can’t be saved through secondary sources like toys. Meanwhile, really funny superhero movies like Guardians 2, Homecoming and Deadpool are making a killing out there, and an animated R-Rated comedy like Sausage Party grossed over $140m. The lesson is not that we’re tired of comedy; we’re just more eager to see comedy done in slightly newish ways, like in a Pixar-esque animated movie that culminates in an insane food orgy.
THE “EH. THIS IS JUST A ROUGH PATCH” POV
“There’s such a high bar for comedies on the big screen, and to make them work theatrically boils down to the idea. The comedies that work are largely relatable and that credit goes to Judd Apatow for making that happen. It’s not about blaming Will Ferrell in The House, but the idea. The whole concept of a guy and wife turning their house into a casino, and a bunch of girls going crazy and killing a stripper in Rough Night, these are Netflix movies and farcical jammed up ideas from the 1990s. Comedy has moved on,” is what one studio chief told Deadline.
Indeed, the obituary has been written for the American comedy multiple times, and every time something new and unexpected comes around the corner. We’re just stuck in a phase where there’s been too much of the same kind of thing, hopelessly stuck in the past comedies chasing after Hangover, Neighbors, The Heat-level success. The hopes to extend the life of the bawdy R-Rated comedy by gender-switching the roles (e.g., doing a quasi-Hangover thing with women instead of men in Rough Night) isn’t working out, resulting in too much duplication (Rough Night and Girls Trip, Bad Moms and Fun Mom Dinner).
THE CINEPHILE “THESE COMEDIES BARELY EVEN REGISTER AS MOVIES TO BEGIN WITH” POV
A couple of years ago, Tony from Every Frame a Painting created this video using Edgwar Wright’s films to argue for the power of visual comedy over the Apatow-esque improv Olympics which has overtaken American comedy. Sadly, most of his points still stand as the majority of the R-Rated comedies still have multiple scenes which play as if there was no written dialogue and instead just a stage direction reading “Then the star improvs a bunch of jokes, some of which we’ll put into the gag reel at the end.” I am half serious when I speculate that The House‘s script might just have been 30 pages long with long breaks for “And then Amy Poehler/Will Ferrell/Jason Mantouzakas says something crazy that we’re too lazy to even script for them.”
As Tony argued, “These movies aren’t movies. They’re lightly edited improv. Everyone stands still and talks at each other in close-up. Almost none of the jokes come visually. They’re overwhelmingly sound, and not even the full range of sound. It’s just dialogue. This is really sad because that’s just a fraction of what’s possible in cinema.”
THE “TRUMPY, TRUMPY, TRUMP…AND, OH, DID I FORGET TO MENTION TRUMP OF IT ALL” POV
As Variety argued:
Another point that’s been raised is that many of the scripts produced and released this summer were sold in a pre-Trump era. The definition of what makes a good comedy has changed quickly and dramatically in the past year. “Saturday Night Live” and late-night television have captured much of the comedy zeitgeist during and especially since the election — how are movies supposed to compete? Unlike a daily or weekly television show with a team of writers reacting to that day’s trending story, most movies spend years in development before hitting the big screen. Studios can only hope that the next big idea for what comedy means today is already in the works.”