Hollywood comedy is in serious trouble. This month, a study by Japan’s Nomura Research Institute showed that America’s four biggest film studios had massively cut back on comedy production: in 2010, the genre accounted for 44 per cent of Twentieth Century Fox’s releases, for example, but only 8 per cent of their releases this year so far.
And last year, box-office analysis website, The Numbers, found that audiences for comedy were duly plummeting, too; whereas comedies contributed 25 per cent of total US cinema ticket sales a decade ago, they now contribute in the region of 12 per cent.
The people responsible, industry commentary has concluded, are those pesky, non-English-speaking foreigners. As the expanding Asian market becomes more and more crucial to Hollywood’s success, studios are focusing their energies, and dollars, on cartoons and effects-packed blockbusters, both of which sell easily overseas. Transformers: Age of Extinction is now the highest-grossing film ever released in China after a matter of weeks. Comedy, meanwhile, just doesn’t travel as well.
But before we get too annoyed with those giant-robot-loving Chinese, and their failure to appreciate the cultural specifics and subtle anglophone wordplay of Horrible Bosses and Ted, perhaps we should consider another reason why 21st-century Hollywood comedies aren’t pulling in the big bucks. Could it be, simply, that they aren’t very good? Some of them are awful (e.g. almost every Adam Sandler film), but most are aggressively, defiantly OK-ish. Should you ever slump in front of We’re The Millers or Wanderlust or Bad Neighbours, you probably won’t hate it. You’ll probably smile a few times. But will you float away afterwards, buoyed by the knowledge that the film could scarcely have been any more hilarious? Don’t make me laugh.
I blame Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen. In 2005, a TV writer-director named Judd Apatow made his film debut with The 40 year old Virgin. In the middle of it, he included an improvised sequence in which Rudd and Rogen sit side by side, playing a video game and trading jokey insults, each one introduced with the question, “You know how I know that you’re gay?” Overlooking the no-doubt ironic homophobia, what’s striking about the scene is that it’s barely a scene at all. Plot-wise, you could cut it without affecting the rest of the film one jot. But it does help to foster the illusion that Apatow’s characters are old buddies having a laid-back, unscripted conversation – and in 2005 that was genuinely thrilling.
At the time, lest we forget, the Hollywood comedy landscape was dominated by the romcom at its most insufferable. The likes of The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days were essentially contrived and airless advertisements for haute couture and luxury apartments. The 40 year old Virgin and Apatow’s follow-up, Knocked Up, were a different matter.
They didn’t have any montages in which heroines tried on every dress in the Western world. No one raced to the airport to stop their true love emigrating, or earnt a round of applause by declaring their undying devotion in public. Shifting the genre in a more testosterone-heavy direction, Apatow’s comedies had unshaven, dope-smoking, gym-phobic slobs hanging around together and having the sort of affable, expletive-peppered chats which the average man might have if he was as funny as they were. It was jazzy, breezy, radical stuff.
The dress-montage romcoms continued – and many of them starred Katherine Heigl, the leading lady in Knocked Up – but their days were numbered. The success of The Hangover in 2009 sounded their death knell. It wasn’t directed by Apatow, but like his films, it had no A-List stars, a rambling story about a gang of socially irresponsible men and an R-rating (the US equivalent of a 15 certificate). It was also the 10th-highest grossing film of the year. After that, there was no going back.
Subsequent comedies no longer needed to be tightly scripted, family-friendly vehicles for the likes of Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez and a pre-revival Matthew McConaughey. They could have loose-at-the-seams plotting, a what-the-hell indie attitude, and acres of improvised, scatological banter – and they could still make a fortune.
No wonder every recent high-profile comedy appears to have been directed, produced or at least influenced by Apatow and to have featured actors from his unofficial repertory company – Rogen, Rudd, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, James Franco, et al. They had achieved something revolutionary.
Unfortunately, this new style of comedy has come to seem as smug and artificial as the old. Screenplays have become baggier and ever more reliant on improvisation, even as that improvisation has proved ever more limited: if you took away the swearing and the pop-culture allusions, there wouldn’t be much left. And running times have stretched, so that even the best of the bunch outstay their welcome.
The problem is that Apatow’s easy-oasy, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood but less than ideal in other contexts. And it’s fatal for films whose premise involves jeopardy and urgency: see such action-comedies as Your Highness, The Green Hornet, and Land of the Lost. In these, the ramshackle, haphazard plotting kills the momentum, while the digressive, extemporised babbling continually reminds you that you’re not watching innocent people in danger, you’re watching comfortable comedians throwing out off-the-cuff wisecracks.
The logical culmination of this phenomenon was This Is The End, last year’s meta-apocalypse farce about a bunch of neurotic Hollywood stars facing the end of the world. The actors, including Franco, Rogen, and Hill, all used their real names – and why not, when they always play themselves, anyway?
By 2012, when Apatow directed his wife and daughters in a 134-minute home movie, This Is 40, his techniques had become synonymous with self-indulgence. They were also ubiquitous. I can still remember hearing the whip-cracking screwball dialogue in Silver Linings Playbook, also in 2012, and realising, to my excitement, that it wasn’t improvised. It’s the kind of excitement that today’s US comedies rarely offer.
Actually, that’s not quite true. American sitcoms have never been stronger: watch an episode of Parks & Recreation or Modern Family, and you’ll know that a team of writers has fine-tuned the script. And, thanks to the statutory 20-minute duration of US network sitcoms, only the very best moments of improvisation ever make it into the final cut. And then there are cartoons.
Top-tier digital animation is still so expensive and time-consuming that every second has to count, so there’s no room for sloppiness. Just look at the work of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, two directors who switch between live-action and animated films. Their flesh-and-blood comedies, 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street, are pretty funny in their shapeless, shambling way. But their cartoons, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie, are far, far better. Why? Because when you’re employing several dozen animators, you can’t rely on Jonah Hill riffing about his genitalia for a cheap laugh.
But the difference isn’t just down to production methods. It’s also down to the target demographic. While cartoons and sitcoms are angling for viewers of all ages, big-screen live-action comedy is now content to wink knowingly at youngish, media-savvy males with a penchant for jokes revolving around sex and drugs.
And that, ultimately, could be why Hollywood comedies are playing to smaller audiences. It’s because they’re aimed at smaller audiences. If they abandoned the Apatow approach in favour of propulsive storylines and well-structured comic setpieces, maybe those all-important Asian viewers would be keener. The rest of us might be keener, too.