Why Comedy Movies Aren’t Very Funny

It’s Robert Downey Jr’s opening monologue of Due Date. I know the actor, but I don’t know his character. And as he rants on about a baby names and a strange dream, I know that I’m supposed to be laughing. This is a comedy, after all, and his delivery has that cadence of “it’s time to laugh…now!”. But everyone in the audience is silent. Seriously. Not a single line gets as much as a chuckle. And in that moment, I feel bad for Robert Downey Jr the actor — not because he isn’t absurdly talented and not because he isn’t committing to the part.

I feel bad because he was put in a situation by a script or director or editor or all of the above to just be funny without context. I feel bad because I know he has a lot more of this movie to suffer through. I feel bad because even for this great movie actor, maybe movies are not the best way to deliver comedy, not when we have television and the mighty internet.

Every week, shows like Modern Family, 30 Rock and Community leave me breathless with laughter. They’re on my TV. Free. Week after week they wipe the floor with Shrek sequels, Apatow bromances and, of course, the contemporary road trip flick that cost me both a ten spot and an otherwise lovely afternoon.

You may disagree with this snobby-sounding thesis. And that’s fine. You should just skip to the comments and chew me out before I waste more of your time. But if you find yourself similarly disenfranchised by the Hollywood system and similarly in love with the 30-minute sitcom…well…I may have an explanation. Or a few.

The Cold Open

Every movie is a tabula rasa. You may have seen the previews. You have have read the book on which it’s based. But after the credits roll, you’re meeting a group of strangers on screen for the first time that are part of a larger universe operating comedic physics that are yet undetermined.

But with a TV show, writers have the luxury of time to set up a complex universe of logic and characters that the audience will become innately familiar with. After the first few episodes, there’s no need to recreate an entire world. Instead, they just need to set up a situation that takes place in that world. It’s not only easier to create, but it’s more satisfying for an audience who feels like they’re in on the joke.

Say our film opens up with our teenage protagonist waiting for his prom date to walk down the stairs. She trips, falls and Dad shouts, “I think her neck is broken!” The protagonist says, “Oh brother!” and just walks out the door.

This could be interpreted as pretty cruel, right? That protagonist sounds like a dick, and what happened to his date was sad!

Were this a TV show, after one episode, we might know a few things that could make this scene a comedic success. We might know that, like Kenny on South Park, this guy’s date dies every show — and that leads us to not associate death with real tragedy in this universe, but an everyday mundanity that’s laughable. And maybe that protagonist can be likable after all. I mean, the poor guy just wants to get laid and his date dies in a horrific fashion every damned show.

When we have context going into an episode of TV, the weight is off the script and the performers, and it allows the humor to start from moment one. We know Liz Lemon has stomach problems and she lives in a comedic universe where English trained butlers occasionally form privacy circles for affluent couples to fornicate on otherwise public beaches. OK. So if she finds herself calling for butlers after eating some week-old chuckle in the fridge, well, we know what to do.

It’s why, when Jason Sudeikis appears during an SNL cold open playing Joe Biden, we start laughing before he says the first line. That’s the power of context.

Two Hours Is a LONG Time

Have you ever told a two-hour joke? Of course you haven’t. The run-of-the-mill short joke can be told in under 30 seconds. Maybe a real humdinger reaches a minute. The ideal sketch runs 3-8 minutes, milking and heightening a premise for every bit of funny as quickly as possible, hopefully ending the split second before the gag gets old. Even the best stand-up comedians in the world know that their material won’t excite an audience indefinitely. If HBO could make their standup specials two hours long to fill more airtime on the same budget, trust me, they would.

Maybe it’s hard science. Maybe it’s some flaw within the human soul that separates us from the divine. But for whatever reason, a majority of comedy out there isn’t celebrated in two hour chunks. And even comedy movies acknowledge this phenomenon tacitly, shaving run times as close to 90 minutes as possible.

The law of diminishing returns may have something do to with it. You know that principle you learned in economy class? It basically states that the more you have of something, the less it’s worth (or the less enjoyment you get out of it). It’s why we always appreciate the first french fry more than the fifteenth. It’s why we prefer dating someone new to moving in with them.

Zach Galifianakis is hilarious in Between Two Ferns. He’s quite funny in Bored to Death. But when set to the task of being funny almost nonstop for two hours? Well, even if Due Date were a good movie at its core, which it’s not, the law of diminishing returns pretty much guarantees that we’ll have preferred his work elsewhere.

I mean, even Moby Dick was released in serial format. Why do you think the book is completely unreadable today? Try it a chapter at a time. It’s HILARIOUS.

Hangover Syndrome

Let’s look beyond Due Date to a recent, far more successful comedy: The Hangover. Both were written and directed by Todd Phillips, and both star Zach Galifianakis. The Hangover’s $277 million domestic gross puts it amongst the 50 most successful films of all time. (It’s also a critical success, scoring a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes vs Due Date’s 40%.)

Personally, I loved The Hangover, and obviously I wasn’t alone in that. But I have a question for you: Was The Hangover funny, or was it just fun? A group of guys going to Vegas in a vintage convertible, that’s fun. The mystery behind the missing tooth, or the baby in the closet, or the tiger in the bathroom or the valeted cop car? All of ’em a whole lot of fun. Heck, even T.I.’s Live Your Life is a fun freaking song.

The Hangover certainly had funny moments: Zach Galifianakis’ wolf pack speech, Ken Jeong’s improvised rants and, of course, the photo roll at the end of the film (which I’d argue can only be funny because we have so much context by that time) all come to mind. But the film is far less dense with laugh out loud punchlines than any TV comedy.

A successful comedy movie is one that you look back on it and smile, as you would a night out with friends — you had a fun time. It was certainly peppered with funny, but ultimately, you entertained one another. You enjoyed one another. Your sole purpose wasn’t dinner and an earnest attempt to make said dinner squirt from your company’s nose.

Are Comedic Movies Still Relevant?

And the fact that the movie format just isn’t that suited to comedy is proven in the last few years of comedic films. How many great ones have there been? I’d say that there’s been maybe one great comedic movie per year, on average, for the last decade. And even then, some years don’t even have a comedy worth calling great.

Let’s just look at 2010 as an example. Here’s a list of the major comedic films released this year: Cop Out, She’s Out of My League, Hot Tub Time Machine, Date Night, Death at a Funeral, MacGruber, Get Him to the Greek, Grown Ups, Dinner for Schmucks, The Other Guys, Vampires Suck, Lottery Ticket, Piranha 3D, Jackass 3D, and Due Date. And we’ve got Little Fockers to look forward to next month.

Anything in that list that really blew you away? That, provided you even saw it, you want to see again? It’s a list of movies that runs the gamut from awful to pretty good.

What about TV shows? Well, here’s an incomplete list of comedic TV shows that Splitsider editor Adam Frucci and I say are great: Louie, 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, Eastbound and Down, Archer Bored to Death, Modern Family, Delocated, The League, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Each of these shows has multiple episodes, from as few as 6 to as many as 24. Each show has much more content than any of the movies that were released this year. And And I’d argue that they’re all better —- richer in pure comedic content — than any major comedic film to come out this year. And feel free to disagree, but given the choice between one and the other, would you really give up all those shows for that list of movies? I’d be happy giving up the movies for the shows, myself.

It seems that by breaking comedy up into more digestible chunks, we can actually enjoy much more of it over time.

But None Of This Really Matters

The sad fact is, however, that even if you love film as format for comedy, it will always let you down. Why?

In terms of box office success, which one may or may not equate to a comedy’s effectiveness, what is the best thing that can happen when a comedy movie finishes in the theater and hits DVD?

The studios make a sequel. Not another episode or a season. They make a damned sequel. And if that sequel makes a lot of money, you might get an even more evil sequel to the sequel…or heaven forbid…a prequel. And if all that’s successful? Wait 20 years. Some intolerable preteen heartthrob will be starring in the remake.

Hollywood can never go out on a high note.

Mark Wilson is a writer based in Chicago who runs the site Life, Panoramic. He actually doesn’t watch that much TV.

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