The Return of the Big-Budget Comedy


What if Barbie was ejected from her plastic fantastic world for daring to be less than perfect? What if Dracula’s long-suffering assistant broke free of his master and fell in love with a traffic warden? What would happen if a black bear ate a duffel bag full of cocaine? At last, screenwriters are asking the important questions. After a long stretch of box office domination by superhero franchises, family animations and live action remakes, it looks like 2023 could see the return of the blockbuster comedy, with Barbie, Renfield and, for better or worse, Cocaine Bear poised to be some of the biggest films of the year.

To say that comedy has not been the defining genre of the last decade would be putting it lightly. Not since the death of Orange Wednesdays has going to ODEON for a bag of Revels and a laugh been a common pastime. Personally I would say the nail in the coffin was 2016's Sausage Party, but comedy hasn't been alive and well in Hollywood since the final flurry of Frat Pack titles from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay / Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg that defined the mid-to-late 2000s. Enjoyable as they were, by the time The Other Guys and This Is The End came around it was basically like listening to Slayer albums released after 2001 – solid, but more of the same. After that, the industry took an earnest turn.

The mid-to-late 2010s were not banner years for “fun”. I wouldn’t be so histrionic as to say the Trump presidency brought an end to humour in the arts, but it’s fair to say that comedy transitioned from the writers room into actual political theatre. As world class satirist Armando Iannucci has said many times regarding the impact of right-wing populism on comedy, it’s hard to make fun of the rules when the rules are being rewritten, our shared sense of reality is crumbling into incoherence, and you can’t always rely on a mass audience to get the joke. Right-wing populism also became strangely tangled up with mainstream comedy in general. What was once the realm of dumb stoners, horny teenagers and hopeless romantics running amok warped into a war over what “can” and “can’t” be said, with veteran actors on their “we couldn’t make [insert massively popular piece of media] today” bullshit on one side and people reappraising everything through a “your fave is problematic” lens on the other. Very little room for capers and frivolous nonsense, with all that going on. Though in fairness it makes sense that comedies would have a commercial dry spell in the 2010s regardless. Each decade tends to react against the one that preceded it, and as far as film goes the lack of comedy at the box office was a logical response to the gold rush of the 00s, when you couldn’t swing your JanSport backpack without hitting a plot about a male virgin who is attractive but (surprise!) not in the traditional ways (he’s sensitive, you see).

Photo by ALAMY.

And so we arrive, somehow both bored and bewildered, in the year 2023. A global pandemic, multiple political insurrections, and an endless cavalcade of world leaders woefully unprepared for the tasks at hand later and everyone seems to be in agreement that we could all use a bloody good laugh. As with any horrific, reality-bending tragedy, there is always a grace period before it’s acceptable to be silly. “How do you make a joke ever again?” Gilbert Gottfried (who dropped a one-liner about catching an indirect flight via the Empire State Building at Hugh Hefner’s roast on 4 November, 2001) once said about the state of comedy after 9/11. It feels like 2014 onwards has been one long, reality-bending tragedy, with the years 2014-2019 being especially bleak for comedy on the whole. Now that we’ve settled into ‘bad’ as a baseline, perhaps we’re taking the levity where we can get it. The worst of the pandemic seems to be over, therefore: Cocaine Bear.

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What’s interesting about this year’s upcoming comedies is that – with the exception of Jamal Olori and Stephen Glover’s House Party remake and Legally Blonde 3 – they aren’t trying to rehash the past. They’re not stoner comedies, or sex romps, or pratfalls. You People from black-ish creator Kenya Barris is a buddy comedy with a culture clash twist. Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins smashes Ted Lasso and Welcome to Wrexham together for the true story of a football coach who tries to turn the American Samoa team – one of the weakest in the world – into a World Cup-qualifying squad. And Shotgun Wedding pairs Jennifer Lopez with Josh Duhamel together for a high octane take on the mawkish, middling rom-coms Netflix has been quietly churning out for years. Also Brendan Fraser is back, there are three Adam Sandler films due for release, and you know there’s a cultural shift happening when Tom Hanks is playing a comedy lead (and I should stress this: in an official capacity) for the first time since 2011.

Photo by NETFLIX.

The success of these films is still in the balance, so it’s hard to say whether it’s a flash in the pan moment or the start of a more long-running trend in cinema. Based on the creeping presence of comedies over the last few years, though, momentum does seem to be building in a way that suggests a sign of the times. A Man Called Otto is already proving to be a much bigger success than Babylon, and even on a smaller scale the backlash to Paramount+’s decision to pull the Workaholics film showed, if nothing else, just how much appetite there is for slapstick and bromance.

Tension is always at the heart of good comedy, but mostly the new wave have a distinct socio-political bent (not Cocaine Bear, though there is a compelling argument to be made about man’s impact on nature. In this essay I will–). Societal expectations, generational differences, that sort of thing. That’s perhaps partly due to the gradual but ongoing success of prestige “eat the rich” entertainment – films like Knives Out / Glass Onion, Don’t Look Up and The Menu, TV shows like Succession and The White Lotus – which has proven that social commentary can be done with a wink and a big budget. Humour also had a strong showing at this year’s Golden Globes, with The Banshees of Inisherin, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Abbott Elementary, The Fablemans and one-woman masterclass Jennifer Coolidge all recognised inside and outside of dedicated “comedy” categories.

For a while it seemed that the decline of Western society was so grave the best thing for everyone to do was reel back the pranks, sit on the stairs, and think about what we’ve done. Minions and The Boss Baby began their residency in cinema chains; indie comedies took a hard pivot into trauma. Now we’re out the other side and the industry itself is better for it – it's highly unlikely that we will see a roaring revival of whatever Rob Schneider was up to in the 00s, for example, though he does seem to be trying – but also everything has gotten much worse? Very rapidly, and in an ongoing way? So that dynamic has run its course. First as tragedy then as farce, after all. When things go from bad to worse, what else is there to do but laugh?

FromEsquire UK

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