What Happened to Comedy?

by Kali Tuttle

That title alone makes me sound like an angry baby boomer writing about how Millennials are ruining everything. I promise you that I love both baby boomers and Millennials so I don’t want to start any inter-generational warfare here. I simply want to bring up some of the shortcomings of comedy today.

A few days ago, I watched National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), a comedy I had never seen before. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The humor was stupid and relied on inanity and wordplay; basically, the humor was witty yet stupid. And all I could think about was how that compared to some successful comedies in theaters as of late.

It seems comedies now tend to overly rely on potty humor and not-so-subtle sex jokes. Of course, there was a fair amount of that in Loaded Weapon 1 or Airplane! (1980), but it just never seemed like that was the sole basis for the comedy. When I watch The Hangover (2009) or Neighbors (2014), I feel like that’s all the laughs are — sex and potty humor. So, how did we come so far? Am I over-exaggerating? Or is this truly a trend?

Sex and Potty Humor Aren’t New

Let’s start with something that I know many of you are thinking: using sex and potty humor for cheap laughs has been a filmmaking go-to since the Hays Code was lifted. One of the funniest scenes from Airplane! relies on a gag about a stewardess giving oral sex to a blow-up dummy. Emilio Estevez appears fully nude in a scene of Loaded Weapon 1.

The problem is the rampant use of these devices and the more explicit nature of them. I didn’t want to actually watch Zach Galifinakis peeing in The Hangover but I did anyway. I understand the premise of Hall Pass (2011), but did I really have to see some dude’s penis? And what was with that farting scene in The Nutty Professor (1996)?

Image via NPR

Comedies used to be better at innuendos. Even if a character was having sex, I didn’t have to witness every single awkward moment of it. Things were hinted at, which could often end up being funnier anyway.

Tasteful vs. Tasteless?

Okay, now that I’ve established that I am the gatekeeper of comedies and no one is allowed to enjoy anything without my permission, let’s establish the rules, shall we? Just kidding. But seriously, let’s lay down some wide criteria for what type of humor is generally considered tasteful and what is pretty tasteless.

First of all, generally anything that has to do with farting is pretty tasteless. That kind of thing is funny in real life, but doesn’t translate well to movies. It’s basically a last resort joke when nothing else seems to be working.

Any sort of wordplay involving anything is tasteful (although puns are iffy on screen — kind of like how they are in real life). Especially if you can mix wordplay with a lesser form of humor, like potty humor, then you can cater to both high-brow and low-brow comedy enthusiasts.

Animals are a double-edged sword. Used sparingly, they can be pretty funny. Overused and only used as a vehicle for potty jokes and one-liners that only laugh at, that’s when animals don’t work out for comedy.

Image via Mental Floss

This is a pretty short list, but it includes some of the worst mistakes directors make when they create comedies that they want everyone to enjoy.

Does It Matter?

What’s the point of talking about all this? It’s the same discussion that curmudgeons have had decade after decade. I just don’t understand this new generation of comedy. It’s all so crass and stupid.

I guess it doesn’t matter in the long run. People will still go see dumb comedies, as long as they get a laugh or two out of it. A-List actors like Zac Efron and Robert De Niro star in these comedies and attract larger audiences who normally wouldn’t attend these inane films.

Image via The Wrap

Humor varies from person to person. What I find funny may not be that funny to another and vice versa. I understand that not everyone will agree with my opinions. They will tell me that movies are for escapism, so it doesn’t really matter if the humor is low-brow or high-brow or anything. As long as it makes someone smile, the film has done its job.

But what is that purpose?

Are Comedies Today Hitting the Mark?

Like I said, comedies are supposed to take us away from reality and make us laugh. That being said, do comedies today, with their low-brow sex and potty humor, hit that mark?

Short answer: no. Anytime a film stoops to that lowest denominator of humor for a cheap laugh, they create a lovely phenomenon that the internet refers to as “cringe culture.” It’s cringy when you can practically see a director grasping at straws to try and find some original content to make the audience laugh. When they bring out the monkey (monkeys always make their way into bad comedies), you know that the film is going downhill. (As I pointedly nod to The Hangover Part II [2011].)

Image via The Daily Rotation

Do you remember the last time you watched a bad movie and cringed? It was taxing, right? When all you want to do is leave and stop watching, it takes an enormous amount of willpower to stay and stick it out. So, no, when it takes just as much energy to watch a movie as it does to go about your daily life in reality, you can’t really argue that your dumb comedy is an escape from reality. Funny? Maybe. An escape? Not a chance.

Dirty Little Secret

I’ve berated modern comedy for over 1000 words now, so I figure it’s only right that I expose myself a bit too.

I love Elf (2003). By all the criteria I’ve set out above, I should consider it low-brow comedy — something beneath what I usually watch. Of course, it is mostly in between high- and low-brow comedy. Yet, there are certain parts where it definitely could qualify as one of the many films I consider to be “bad comedies.” Let me point a few.

There’s a scene where Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) burps at the dinner table for a good minute or so. I find this scene hilarious for some reason and I don’t know why. Buddy the Elf tries to hug a raccoon and is savagely attacked — with the raccoon making monkey noises for no apparent reason. I also find this hilarious. Also, there is a scene at the beginning where a troll who is not potty-trained farts; I don’t find that part super funny but it’s one bomb in a movie full of great humor and gags.

Image via Pinterest

It’s okay to like these movies. It’s okay to love these movies. A movie doesn’t have to be dignified high-brow comedy for someone to enjoy it. In fact, I do like that the film industry always has a plentiful supply of these movies coming. Yet, if comedies want to actually be considered great comedies, they need to step up their game. And, more importantly, when a generation of comedies use the same, tired tricks, a nasty, little trend appears.

Time for Me to Shut Up

I trash comedies a lot. I call anything that can’t stack up to my standard of humor a low-brow comedy — something not worth my time.

So, I want to hear the opinion of the masses. After reading this, am I really just a curmudgeon who needs to learn to enjoy things? Or am I simply voicing concerns that the rest of you have?

I can admit it — I tend to be a little conceited when it comes to comedy. I have high standards that only the greatest humorists can meet. So, please tell me what you all think!

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali @tuttle_kali

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Reely, Bernie? June 27, 2019 - 11:19 am

Gosh, great post. I wonder what would happen is Weekend at Bernie’s (personal fave), The Three Amigos, or Uncle Buck came out today. Would pretentious critics pan them for being surface level humor? Today’s so called comedy is fully committed to being the most vulgar, sexist, and base it can. It’s tedious. Go with a simple, innocent plot (the three I mentioned do) and just let it breathe. It’s like today’s so called comedy writers are pressured to push the limit. It’s all punchline with no setup, no exposition. So, no joke.

Bonnie Anderson June 27, 2019 - 11:05 am

Comedy is my favorite genre. I am often disappointed because smart comedies are so rare. Like you, I love Elf. There is a sweet story there and the characters are lovable. That, in my opinion, is why is works. The comedy comes from the character’s personality and even the potty humor that you mentioned is okay because there is so much other good stuff. Think about Blazing Saddles and the scene around the campfire. I chuckle thinking about it. More recently I watched The Hustle, which as you likely know is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. DRS is one of my favorite movies and I think Rebel Wilson, whom I don’t care for, should have left great enough alone. Not to say that there weren’t moments in The Hustle, but they were the same moments that were in DRS and they were not done nearly as well. Why would anyone want to step into Steve Martin’s shoes?!? Anyway, I could be your co-door keeper of comedies and I really enjoyed your post.

Vuava June 27, 2019 - 9:54 am

I very rarely watch comedy because of this kind of thing, which is just truly boring. It’s lazy writing – the writers are obviously incapable of clever humour and probably figure oh well, this sells. So people watch it and they make their money, good luck to them. They’ll never create anything that lasts, though. It’s not as if it’s impossible to write truly funny dialogue – the writers of Pixar animated features seem to manage, why can’t these writers of live action do thee same?

The Animation Commendation June 27, 2019 - 9:29 am

I am so with you. This is why I don’t watch modern comedies as they’re too raunchy for my tastes. The old comedies with innuendos were much better rather than full-out sex. I’ve never even understood why sex is a funny topic.


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