Do we see the end of the comedy movie?
Recently, the popular movie website Indiewire released a list of the greatest comedies of the 21st century. As with many similar attempts, it has been widely derided. At the very top was that of Alexander Payne Next to (that famous riot of laughter about two lonely wine lovers who alienate everyone around them offers a grim portrait of existential despair) while Lost in translation and Greater Budapest featured in the top 10.
These movies are not devoid of that weird, funny moment – for example, this writer was memorably sitting right next to Michael Portillo for Lost in translation, and can report that the politician burst out laughing during the famous ‘lip my stocking’ scene – but something seems wrong.
Although the lower part of the list is filled with more obviously “fun” items (like Girls trip, or Stalin’s death), in 2021, the very idea of comedy films has an intangible archaic feel.
In the United States, two low-key eras of cinematic comedy stand out: the 1930s and 1940s, which saw the arrival of vicious comedies, such as Raising baby or Her daughter friday; and the late 1970s and 1980s, which ushered in the heyday of comedians and television comedy graduates. They made the transition to cinema in films such as The Jerk, Coming to America or Three Amigos.
This model of comedy would last for years, with In living color Jim Carrey, a former student in power in the 1990s and the escape from Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell, took over in the 2000s. But this model has become increasingly fragile. Recent comedies with SNL stars such as Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar (with Kristen Wiig), and Palm springs (Andy Samberg) has become streaming fodder. Granted, the pandemic has intensified – or accelerated – what was already a trend for films to move towards streaming, but that trend has been around for some time. The films have been admired, but are far from becoming a cultural touchstone.
Why the death of cinematographic comedy? The double blasts of television and the Internet are largely responsible for this. Cable television in the late 1990s attracted ambitious comedy writers and performers, leading to what became known – perhaps a little too uncritically – as the Golden Age of television. Television comedy has always been around, with studio-produced sitcoms like Roseanne and Seinfeld considered to be classics of the form (the rough equivalents of the United Kingdom being Black viper or Absolutely fabulous), but there was a pervasive sense that the two forms – film and television – were distinct. We enjoyed TV at home – movies called for a Friday night at the cinema.
This is no longer the case in the age of streaming, when a TV series like It’s always sunny in Philadelphia and a standalone comedy like The forty year version are competing for your attention on the same platform. The explosion of ambitious single-camera television comedies in the United States, such as Gender and city, must have contributed to this state of affairs. Indeed, putting together a similar list of era-defining TV comedies would be a cinch. Calm your enthusiasm, Chip bag, Development stopped, Disaster and Office all of them feel like more faithful representations of our times than the disparate movie comedies. Perhaps because television comedy can invest in building a world, gradually adding jokes, which then become beloved points of reference in our culture. Development stopped “It’s a banana, Michael, how much could it cost?” Ten dollars? “To” what the hell? “Reaction shot, from Veep.
Modern comedians are also struggling to draw our attention to comedians, who have made a habit of distilling the very essence of humor into vignettes. For example, the actress Elsa Majimbo publishes miniature sketches, several times a week, to 2.3 million subscribers on Instagram; Oneya D’Amelio, also known as Angry Reactions, posts to 20.7 million subscribers on Tiktok.
In these videos, the comedy isn’t a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end – it has become something else. It’s an interstitial performance, a nugget that fits into the course of your day. That makes a great lumberjack dinosaur on a 120 minute screen. Additionally, the internet – with its dizzying variety of shows, videos, and users – has shattered viewing habits and benchmarks across generations. On-screen comedies that rely on group excursions surely have a harder task to bridge the gap and bring people together.
Cinematic comedies have not disappeared –Borat 2 was made again in 2020 (albeit for much lower returns than the first installment) – but the form itself is in transit, evolving and diversifying into a multiplicity of approaches that reflect the diverse and exciting world in which we are living now. The big screen has more to give, once theaters reopen after this long pandemic, but they are arguably no longer the primary focus of comedy.