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Will a Comedy Ever Play at a Movie Theater Again?

Three writers wonder if 2020 is the end of the end of laughing out loud at the cinema.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Netflix, HBO Max, Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Hulu
Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Netflix, HBO Max, Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Hulu
Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Netflix, HBO Max, Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Hulu

Long before COVID-19 curve-flattening measures jammed the revolving doors of movie theaters across the United States, the fate of the laugh-out-loud comedy was unsettled. Once cineplex attractions, funny films have, over the past several years, seemed more likely to premiere in the confines of your living room than in a darkened, popcorn-littered auditorium. Now, as many of the year’s intended box-office hits are being shunted down the release calendar, Vulture is taking a closer look at the 2020 movies that opted to forgo a theatrical release and were unleashed (sometimes prematurely) on a streaming platform or VOD — many of which were, yes, comedies. This new dynamic raised a question for three of our writers: Is the studio comedy dead, dying, or simply hiding out?

Jesse David Fox: Upon finishing watching Palm Springs, I thought, Good movie! Laughed. Cried. Repeat. And then I closed my laptop. Such is quarantine life. This was the fourth movie in July — joining The King of Staten Island, Irresistible, and Eurovision — that I watched on my computer and that, in our collective previous life, I likely would’ve watched in a theater, as they were all made by movie-theater talent. August quickly continued the trend with American Pickle starring Seth Rogen (and Seth Rogen). Four of these five movies decided to skip their theatrical releases because of the coronavirus. Eurovision, however, was always meant for Netflix, a telling arrangement considering its star, co-writer, and producer Will Ferrell’s onetime box-office dominance.

To that point, there is something ominous about seeing Ferrell, Andy Samberg, Judd Apatow, Steve Carell, and Seth Rogen all release comedies without theatrical releases. I’ll add to that the fact that Melissa McCarthy’s next comedy is soon to come out on HBO Max and, you know, Adam Sandler’s whole thing over at Netflix. Each passing year since at least 2015, the idea of a theater-bound studio comedy that isn’t ostensibly for children (or an action-comedy that is also ostensibly for children) has been getting nail after nail hammered into its coffin. Do you feel like the coffin is fully shut? Is the coronavirus the time of death? If so, what was the cause of this American pickle we find ourselves in?

Alison Willmore: You know, I was looking over the box-office tallies for last year’s comedies, and at the top was a movie that I wouldn’t necessarily think to even put in the category — that maudlin Kevin Hart–Bryan Cranston remake The Upside. It also happened to be the only entry on the list to make more than $100 million, which is a line that no comedies managed to cross the year before. The studio comedy has been hurting for a while now, and there are all kinds of possible explanations why. For one, the nature of stardom and the public’s relationship with it has changed; there’s no one celebrity out there who can be relied upon to open a movie in theaters every time anymore. As you pointed out, Jesse, not even Ferrell, a comedy deity, is exempt from this shift — hell, Downhill barely registered when it opened in February.

A bigger problem has been that people seem to need to feel a sense of urgency to buy a ticket to the theaters these days — at least they did back when theaters were a thing. There’s been an obvious struggle to make comedies feel like the kinds of events that superhero movies are — not just enjoyable but unmissable. The pandemic has made it clear that studios have been more than ready to surrender on the genre for a while now. While films like Candyman and Wonder Woman 1984 were pushed to the fall when theaters will (hopefully?) have reopened, studios have consigned comedies like The King of Staten Island and Irresistible to VOD and sold off others like An American Pickle and The Lovebirds to streaming services.

All that being said, I’m not convinced that the studio comedy has been banished from the big screen for good. These things ebb and flow and, hey, a decade ago the rom-com was declared dead, and a few years later it apparently lurched back to life.

Seth Rogen playing one of his two roles in An American Pickle, a comedy that premiered on HBO Max this month. Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO Max

Bilge Ebiri: It might not be so much that the comedy is dead or dying, but that it is hiding. Alison, I’m surprised that when you looked at last year’s box-office numbers, Jumanji: The Next Level didn’t come up for you — a movie that made more than $300 million domestically, apparently. Of course, the Jumanji movies want to be more spectacles than comedies because they make more money that way, even though they are overtly comedic in a way that, say, an Avengers movie is not. (I suspect humor is kind of the secret sauce of the Avengers movies and their success, too.) Comedies seem to do perfectly well on TV and streaming, but yeah, theatrically, there’s some sense that they are not important or grandiose enough to warrant a ticket purchase.

Which is a shame. Because laughter is one of those things we like to do with other people, and indeed it’s one of those things we do more of when we are with other people. It’s an infectious phenomenon, to use a now-slightly-arcane definition of the word “infectious.” When I saw Eurovision the first time, off a screener, by myself, I chuckled at it and maybe laughed out loud once or twice, even though I did greatly enjoy the movie. The second time, I watched it with my wife and son and they were in stitches, and their laughter made me laugh even more. It made me remember all over again how much I miss seeing comedies in theaters. This is a thing that is really lost in the age of “LOL” — the actual laughing-out-loud part.

It doesn’t have to be Eurovision. It can be anything. I mean, I like a gentle, warm, humanist, uplifting, droll, cuddly, insightful comedy as much as the next person, but I also really like to laugh like an idiot in a room full of strangers. Like when I went to see the 2015 remake of Vacation one afternoon on its opening day, in a sparsely attended theater. The movie had already gotten savaged by critics and was about to get demolished at the box office. I assumed I was going to hate it; I’d missed the one press screening but still had to review it, so I was buying my own ticket. But something happened as I was watching it. Our small group of audience members, scattered all around the auditorium started to laugh at all the movie’s stupid jokes. And we couldn’t stop. It was sheer, magnificent idiocy, and I miss it so much. I realize that Vacation is a widely loathed film, so maybe I’m just dumb. But surely I can’t be the only person who just misses laughing — actually laughing, uncontrollably — with others in a theater. But do people even make movies like that anymore?

JDF: I was about to say I also saw Vacation in a theater, but I was actually thinking of 2013’s road-trip comedy We’re the Millers. Oddly enough, I’d say 2013 was the last big comedy year in American cinema history, with The Heat, Bad Grandpa, This Is The End, The Hangover Part III, Grown Ups 2, Identity Thief, and, yes, We’re the Millers all making over $100 million. The summer of 2013, which was when most of these films came out, was also when Orange Is the New Black premiered on Netflix. I point this out (and Bilge, I promise I’ll get to your questions), because it seems telling for a couple reasons. The first is, as y’all mentioned, how it’s just hard for people to justify leaving their homes to go see something when they have an algorithm-perfected visual playground at home.

The second is the continued polarization of movie budgets. It’s been happening for so long now it feels hack to point out, but generally two types of movies get made nowadays: big, expensive movies where they hope a $300 million budget will gross $1 billion, or super-small indies. Comedies that are not Jumanji fall between that gap. That gap has also become Netflix’s sweet spot, right? The Adam Sandler deal is the most famous example of this, but if you look at big red’s last five years, you see a lot of movies that might’ve filled that sort of Vacation slot: Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, Ricky Gervais’s Special Correspondents, Christopher Guest’s Mascots, Marlon Wayans’s Naked, the Workaholics dudes’ Game Over, Man!, Amy Poehler’s Wine Country, Ali Wong and Randall Park’s Always Be My Maybe (not to mention the tons of other romantic comedies Netflix has done), Zach Galifianakis’s Between to Ferns: The Movie, David Spade’s The Wrong Missy, and now Eurovision. It’s not that Netflix is stealing these movies from the studios, like they might be with other genres. The talent still wants to make these movies and Netflix is the only one willing to pay them to do it. Now, as our colleague Josef Adalian recently reported, Comedy Central’s new programming strategy is to essentially forgo scripted TV series and produce 10 to 20 comedy movies a year. So, the comedies are being made, but we lost the joy of seeing them together.

You know, I asked Judd Apatow about this and he wasn’t sure where he stood on the matter. He knows as well as anyone the power of playing comedies to live audiences, but, as a viewer, he also finds other people and their chewing noises distracting. Bilge, you mentioned enjoying watching Eurovision with your family, but, for both of you, do you wish you could have seen any of the comedies that hit streaming or VOD in 2020 in a crowded theater? Do you think it would have improved the experience of watching these movies? And, if so, what exactly is lost if this is the end of the end of seeing comedies in movie theaters?

Will Ferrell’s latest laugh-out-loud comedy premiered on Netflix earlier this summer. Photo: Netflix

AW: I was lucky enough to get to see Palm Springs in a theater, when it was the last movie I saw at Sundance back in January and back in a whole other reality. By the time I watched it, the film had already become the most expensive acquisition in the festival’s history — a record that should probably come with an asterisk, given that it was a joint theatrical/streaming deal that feels like the future of indies. Or whatever you want to call Palm Springs, which is “indie” only in a strictly technical sense — it’s sleekly made, it’s perfectly crowd-pleasing, and its leads are Samberg, who’s a star, and Cristin Milioti, who should be (and surely will be) one soon. To your point about budgets, Jesse, I can absolutely picture Palm Springs being put out by a studio as a mid-budget venture not so long ago. I mean, Universal Studios put out Lonely Island’s last feature, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which I adore … and which sank like a stone on its release for reasons I still can’t really fathom.

Anyway, back to that Palm Springs screening: It was at the Eccles, Sundance’s biggest theater, and it was a packed house — even late in the festival, when a lot of earlier attendees and most of the talent had headed home. And it was just such a heady delight, after a grueling week, to see that movie — a total charmer with a streak of Groundhog Day to it — with so many people. Watching things with an audience is a different experience, and that’s especially true with comedy, where the energy of the crowd can be as infectious as the coronavirus that, now that I look back at that moment, was likely in that room as well.

I don’t like Eurovision nearly as much as Bilge does, but I wonder if watching it in a crowded theater for the first time would have made me feel differently about it — especially the sequence when Dan Stevens booms out a song about being “a lion lover” for the first time in a rich, reverberant voice that clearly isn’t his. In an alternate timeline in which the pandemic never happened, Palm Springs would be given a platform release, would build up some word of mouth in addition to reviews, and then would have a second life on streaming. Now that it has only come out on Hulu, I worry that that diminishes it somehow, like it’s just part of an endless digital deluge of content rather than something that will get considered on its own.

BE: I was not one of the lucky folks who saw Palm Springs in a theater, and after having seen it recently off a screener at home (via a laptop connected to an HDTV, so it was a decent size, but it still looked kind of crappy), I really wish I had been. I liked the film quite a bit, and it’s witty and sharp and fun and all those things, but I think I cracked a smile, like, twice. I chuckled maybe once. It registered in my mind that what I was watching was funny, sure, and there was probably some part of my brain that was briefly stimulated so I could say, “I laughed.” But it would be a lie. I didn’t laugh. I LOL’d. I am positive that, had I seen it in a theater, I would have LAUGHED. (And it’s not even a movie whose primary aim is to make you laugh — it’s not a super-broad comedy in that way.) But I felt like shit afterwards because — maybe due to the fact that these things we’re talking about were on my mind — I was aware of how little I actually laughed at this perfectly funny movie. I felt like some part of my soul had been robbed by not being in a group of people watching it. (Even if that group was just a few people.)

Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but I’m not exaggerating. There’s something dead-eyed, lifeless, and cruel about the world we now inhabit, and I feel like the part where we all decided comedies weren’t worth seeing in movie theaters anymore might actually be one of the forks in the road we may want to revisit.

JDF: I want to talk a little more about how we got to the point where the end of laughing a ton in the movie theater felt inevitable, even before this here global pandemic. I was trying to think, When was the last time I even did the thing we are mourning? And I had two memories: Booksmart was the last new movie I saw where I laughed a ton in the theater. It’s an interesting example because I was a bit surprised while it was happening. Though I knew it was supposed to be a comedy, the marketing and discourse around it made it seem somewhat more like a prestige play than escapism. (I remember a lot of people saying it might look like Superbad, but it’s not — it’s better!) Which makes sense, because nowadays the only middle-budget film studios put out are hopeful awards contenders.

The other memory I had was from the last Vulture Festival, in which I watched MacGruber with Will Forte and a packed house. It was the festival’s hottest-selling ticket, topping two high-profile reunions. Forte, one of his co-writers John Solomon, and I had mics to do a sort of live commentary, but it became clear most people were happy just watching the movie together. I bring it up because MacGruber was savaged by critics and is about to return as a TV show.

To me, a lowly comedy journalist, these examples both, in different ways, reflect a history of devaluing funniness for funniness sake. I won’t get too much into why I believe this, because I already published 20,000 words on the topic here, but post-Chaplin and the screwballs, if you look at the history of film criticism and big awards, comedies are just treated as lesser, as secondary to the real movies — surely not something you’d pay money for. I should say I’m not like yelling at you two for MacGruber getting a 48 on Rotten Tomatoes, but you know better than I do that the last real comedy to win Best Picture was Annie Hall. Barely any have even been nominated since. And I don’t think the same thing can be said for television, where comedy is often seen as the cutting edge. So, in that way, it makes sense for film comedies to join their TV siblings.

Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart premiered in theaters in 2019. Photo: Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

AW: Yeah, critics and institutions have definitely tended to be dismissive of comedies, and complaints about that feel like they stretch back almost as far as awards do. There’s a streak of establishment film criticism that’s always seemed intent on enforcing the idea that good/bad exists on the same axis as weighty/entertaining. And comedy’s not alone in getting penalized out of some sense of respectability! Action movies and horror movies have at various times felt just as likely to get dinged for being perceived as intellectually unserious, regardless of how vapid plenty of acclaimed prestige fare can be despite its branding. It’s telling that the Golden Globes split their categories into “Drama” and “Musical or Comedy” in order to maximize the number of nominees, and somehow they still tend to sell comedies short when it comes to their annual choices.

Comedy gets treated as more frivolous and less capable of taking on significant topics, and while that isn’t true, arguing over it feels like it’s missing the point — which is that there’s an art to getting laughs for the most purely silly shit as well. But even people who specialize in comedy aren’t immune to this line of thought. Take Adam McKay’s recentish route as a director. Step Brothers is sublime anarchy, and the jumping-off-the-building sequence in The Other Guys is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Then he made The Big Short, with its interludes in which comedy and spectacle were treated as the sugar coating required to get viewers to sit through explanations about finance. I hated that — hated what it implied about the audience and about the genre. Vice struck me as worse, a comedy only in the most resentful sense. It felt like a film that was too angry to want even dark laughs, but it was begrudgingly convinced people wouldn’t show up for it otherwise.

Honestly, also, some comedies do feel too small for theaters — as do some dramas, some horror films, and some romances. An American Pickle is so modest in its aims and even its length that I might have felt a little resentful plopping down $15–18 bucks to see it in a theater. But it fits perfectly on streaming, where you’ve already paid for the access and all you need to spend additionally on it is the time. In that context, it’s a pretty cute movie, and the parts that don’t work in the middle feel like they’re outweighed by the parts that do at the beginning and the end.

BE: I do think devaluing the power of laughter is part of it. One of the things that always gets me is how I will sometimes sit in a room full of critics, all of us laughing uproariously at a movie. Later, I’ll go home and write a positive review of the film and then discover when the reviews drop that the rest of them all panned it. And I want to scream: “You’re LYING! I sat next to you!! YOU LAUGHED JUST AS MUCH AS I DID!” But maybe that is simply not a thing they give a shit about. And maybe that’s kind of the problem. I worry that — even though Netflix seems to be doing an admirable job of keeping this genre alive for now — we will have irrevocably lost something when the laugh-out-loud comedy is permanently divorced from a world in which you will actually laugh out loud at it. The circumstances of exhibition ultimately transform the art form, which is why I bristle whenever some tech jagoff tries to tell me that movie theaters dying is a good thing.

That said, I watched one of my favorite recent comedies, The House, on an airplane (it is, as Jason Mantzoukas himself once told me, the ultimate airplane movie) and, even though an airplane is also supposed to be an alienating movie-watching location, I laughed like a banshee for two hours, and legitimately got angry looks from my fellow passengers. Sometimes, a comedy is so funny that it transcends the limitations of its present and steals your soul back for you. (Yes, I am talking about The House.) Shit, now I miss airplanes, too.

Will a Comedy Ever Play at a Movie Theater Again?