The New Age of the Comedy Auteur?

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Comedy at its basic form necessitates collaboration. Whether it’s the unspoken bond between standup and audience, the onstage trust between improvisors, or the vast amount of writers, directors, and actors needed to bring a movie or show to life, no one person can be the sole force behind their work. But too much collaboration can result in lifeless, homogenized groupthink: jokes aimed at the lowest common denominator, without any edge or perspective afforded by an individual voice; films and TV shows that literally feel churned out, as if by some soulless machine capable of intermittently printing out a script for the latest three camera sitcom or Adam Sandler movie.

Over the past decade or so, an interesting shift has taken place within the comedy-going audience, with more attention given to the individuals behind the camera as opposed to the broad, star-driven fare of the 80s and 90s. As a result, filmmakers, showrunners, and performers are being sought out and even marketed for their individual sensibilities. These auteurs, to borrow a term from the French New Wave, give an authoritative stamp to their work, allowing them to stand out from their peers, and in some cases become bigger draws than the actors they employ. But is this shift good for the world of comedy entertainment? Does the rise of individual voices in film and television result in better quality shows and movies, or less consistency and a more fractured audience? To look towards the future, it’s important to look to the past.

In a way, the decades of the 1970s and the 2000s (or aughts for those of us who like sound pretentious and nerdy at parties call them) were very similar in terms of the kinds of movies being made. The 70s saw the rise of the renegade filmmaker, one whose unique style could be seen and identified in every frame. When you saw a film by Scorsese or DePalma or Kubrick you knew what you were getting into right from the opening credits. It was during this period that ‘A Film By…’ began showing up in the titles, giving audiences a hint at what the next two hours entailed.

Film auteurs were common in dramas, but the world of the R-rated comedy was a different story. There were definitely examples of unique comic voices; just look at any of the early Woody Allen films, or work by any of the Brooks’ (Mel, Albert, or James L.), but it was rare for a film to be touted solely on its writer and/or director’s credentials, and rarer still for audiences to seek out more of the filmmakers work after a huge commercial hit — most of us can quote nearly every line in Caddyshack, but how often do you hear people talking about Harold Ramis and Brian Doyle Murray’s director/writer followup Club Paradise? (although it’s worth checking out if only for an against-type supporting role by Peter O’Toole).

As the 70s progressed to the 80s, unique filmmakers still remained, but they wouldn’t see a fraction of the popular and commercial success their more generic, studio-minded peers would see. Some notable proto-auteurs of the early 80s include the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker team, responsible for the joke-a-minute sketch aesthetic they brought to the Airplane! and Police Squad/Naked Gun series. Although their absurdest style is common today, popping up in everything from mainstream comedies to niche shows such as those within the Adult Swim block, at the time it represented a unique comedic voice unseen on the screen. Despite the success of these franchises, Hollywood chose the path of imitation, adopting the absurdist sensibility into studio pictures throughout the next 20 years until audiences couldn’t tell one comedy director from the next.

After two decades of fairly generic cinematic fare, the turn of the millennium saw a resurgence of sorts for the types of movies that were popular in the 70s. A new film by The Coen Brothers or PT Anderson brought the same level of anticipation as releases by Scorcese in his prime. What was interesting about these two auteurs was that they dabbled in more than one genre (often within the same film), and between the two of them have directed two of the more uniquely envisioned cult comedies (1998’s The Big Lebowski, and 2002’s Punch Drunk Love). It seemed that audiences were willing to take chances on more individual visions of what comedy could be on the big screen. The question remained whether a comedy-centric writer/director could step up and take the throne of the first comedy auteur of the new millennium.

Probably the most cited example of a comedy filmmaker whose movies contain a very specific style and tone would be Judd Apatow. Through his first three features (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People), and upcoming fourth (the maybe-it’s-a-sequel-to-Knocked-Up, This is Forty), Apatow has maintained a balance of sentiment and gross out humor, and has explored themes such as growing up, building families out of groups of friends, and isolation caused by success. His films take what could be generic premises in lesser director’s hands, and elevate them to unique, individual statements. His style has transcended the vast pool of R-Rated comedies and has approached something akin to its own genre.

Indeed, even films merely produced or written by Apatow carry the cache of having his name attached, and many of his cohorts have gone on to propagate his style of filmmaking. One such collaborator worth looking at in terms of being an auteur on his own is Adam McKay. Through his time as head writer at SNL, McKay worked with Will Ferrell to develop a style of absurd premises sprinkled with specifically arbitrary lines and characters. This sensibility is immediately apparent in McKay’s four features (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys), the first three also being produced by Judd Apatow. Interestingly, Step Brothers explores the Apatow convention of the stunted man-child to extreme, surreal levels, acting as a bridge between the two sensibilities.

To determine whether we have indeed reached a new golden age for the comedy auteur, it’s helpful to look at the trends being set at the box office. A quick look at total grosses for this summer sees the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids and The Hangover Part II taking top spots, a feat that is even more impressive considering the fact that they are both rated R, and not shot in revenue boosting 3D. The latter of these two films was directed by Todd Phillips, a director who while surely not as visually recognizable as, say, a Terrance Malick, definitely has own style and sensibilities. While these successes bode well for the Auteur theory, the true test will be to see how future films are marketed from such directors, and how much creative freedom they are given the next time out. In a system where comedy features are subjected to dozens of test screenings, studio mandated rewrites and punch-ups, and last minute recasting, is it even possible for directors to maintain autonomy while reaching as broad an audience as possible?

At the same time, would having marketable filmmakers backed by studios be a wholly positive thing? Surely there are some current examples of comedy writers and directors marketed for their unique style that aren’t exactly winning any kudos from the comedy community at large. The team of Seltzer and Friedberg (Date Movie, Meet the Spartans…), spiritual (not qualitative) successors to the Zucker Abrahams Zucker parody genre, are constantly promoted for their aesthetic — making half-assed nods to other, funnier movies, and assuming something counts as a joke because it references pop culture. And despite consistently terrible reviews, low production value, and a few angry rants from Spike Lee, it’s hard to deny Tyler Perry has a built in fan base, and the ability to make money off of any project he puts ‘Tyler Perry’s’ in front. Does a world where writer/directors are given as much clout as actors mean more Media?

In the television world, it’s clearer to see the results of a more creator-centric hierarchy. TV has long been touted as a writer’s medium, and it’s easy to see the stylistic marks of writer/producers such as James L. Brooks and Norman Lear. Over the past 20 years, the the rise of original cable programming has afforded networks to take greater chances on shows with more unique visions. As the term showrunner has shifted from industry jargon to the popular zeitgeist, audiences have begun to seek out new shows based solely on the people behind them, and networks and studios have taken notice. One only has to look at the promotion for the second season of  Louie CK’s Louie, which uses CK’s creative control (he writes, directs, and edits every singe episode) as a selling point. In fact, a cursory look at many of the popular shows on the air right now (Curb Your Enthusiasm, South Park, Community) reveals how integral showrunners and their perspectives are to the success of their shows. Television isn’t approaching the auteur age, it’s already there.

Maybe it’s simply because more television content is produced in a single season than than a two hour film, but it’s easier to pinpoint the styles and nuances of an individual showrunner than it is a commercial comedy director. With the success of the auteur model on the small screen, maybe it’s time for studios to give more chances to film writers and directors with a specific vision in mind. Audiences are always looking for original voices to latch onto and align themselves with. If a show as unique and creative as Louie can achieve critical and commercial acclaim without any interference from above, maybe this trend will expand into the world of features and beyond, ushering in an era of movies and television shows that look nothing like anything else. And that’s always a good thing.

Bill Grandberg is a writer and producer living in New York. He is the author of several plays, and creator of The Digital Dailies.