Box Office Analysis Proves the Movie Comedy Died 12 Years Ago

Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms in The Hangover (2009, Warner Bros.)
Warner Bros.

If you adjust for inflation, meaning an apples-to-apples comparison, only two comedies since 2005 — The Hangover (2009) #215 and The Hangover 2 (2011)  #286–  have entered the list of the top 300 all-time box office successes. This means that for 12 long years we have only had two comedies universally beloved enough to break into this ranking — and only one in the last decade.

This sad fact is unprecedented in the 50-year history of modern movies.

Of course, what I mean by “comedy” is comedy-comedy. There are plenty of movies that add comedy to other genres, such as animation (Toy Story), adventure (Pirates of the Caribbean), superhero (Deadpool), etc…  Humor might add to our enjoyment of other genres, but a comedy is something specific, something all its own, and for a dozen years only two have been successful enough to capture the country’s imagination.

How bad are things today? Well, in the six years before the launch of this 12-year dry spell (2000-2005), a total of eight comedies were popular enough to enter the top 300 (dollars adjusted for inflation throughout): The Wedding Crashers (2005) $299M; Meet the Fockers (2004) $405M; Bruce Almighty (2003) $369M; My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) $380M; Austin Powers: Goldmember (2002) $337M; Rush Hour 2 (2001) $366M; What Women Want (2000) $303M; and Meet the Parents (2000) $282M.

Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour (1998, New Line Cinema)

Between 1990 and 1999, a total of 12 comedies ranked in the top 300, including Home Alone (1990) $621M; Pretty Woman (1990) $387M; Sister Act (1992) $308M; There’s Something About Mary (1998) $344M; and Big Daddy (1999) $295M.

Between 1980 and 1989, there were 14 comedies that cut the mustard, including classics such as Tootsie (1892) $522M; Ghostbusters (1985) $653M; and Back to the Future (1984) $542M.

Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson in Ghost Busters (1984, Sony Pictures)

Between 1970 and 1979, there were 10 titles, including Blazing Saddles (1974) $580M; Young Frankenstein (1974) $419M; Smokey and the Bandit (1977) $521M; The Sting (1973) $818M; and M*A*S*H (1970) $492M.

Returning to the present-day, the news keeps getting worse.

In 2017, the top comedy was Girls Trip, which ranked #26 for that year and grossed only $115M (unadjusted). In 2016, the widely-hated Ghostbusters remake was the top comedy, coming in at #21 with $128M (unadjusted).

2014: 22 Jump Street at #14 with $191M (unadjusted).

2013: The Heat at #15 with $159M (unadjusted).

2012: 21 Jump Street at #21 with $138M (unadjusted).

All the hype around the so-called comedic brilliance of Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Melissa McCarthy, Paul Feig, Steve Carell,  and Tina Fey — sorry, these people are not delivering.

We may be stuck with this sorry gang of under-performers, but they pale in comparison to their predecessors, those we could count on, like Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop $576M), John Hughes (Home Alone, Home Alone 2 $384M), the original Saturday Night Live alumni (Ghostbusters, Animal House $549M), Richard Pryor (Stir Crazy $345M), the Zucker brothers (Airplane $284M), the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary),  Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire $452M), Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein), and Adam Sandler (Big Daddy, The Waterboy $314M).

Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles (1974, Warner Bros.)

No one is arguing that some present-day comedies have not made money. Bridesmaids $169M (unadjusted), Horrible Bosses $117M (unadjusted), and Wild Hogs $168M (unadjusted) are all unqualified hits.

Where, though, are the smashes, those satires and spoofs that unite us as a country and culture; that change the way we look at things, that for a couple of beautiful hours have us collectively throwing back our heads and roaring with laughter?

Not having done a poll, I can only speak for myself…

Fantasy used to be my least favorite genre, the one I took great pains to avoid. These days, it is comedy. Fantasy merely bores me. Comedy, on the other hand, either pisses me off or makes me wince. Either I am repulsed by all the gross-out jokes where the laziness of shock is utilized to elicit laughter (instead of charm, creativity, character, and wit), or I find the filmmaker insulting me with his partisan messaging, leftism, and obnoxious wokeness.

I remember enjoying of 22 Jump Street until it stopped to lecture me about homophobia.

And then there is the crippling horror show of today’s Production Code, the political correctness that has bled comedy dry, turned it lily white and pale, manifested characters no one can relate to because they are not real, but rather Stepford Characters manufactured to behave in the “appropriate ways” approved of by our Cultural Ruling Class.

Edgy realism we could all relate to (e.g. 1976’s The Bad News Bears, 1974’s The Longest Yard) has been replaced with the coldness of ironic distance. Good-natured satire aimed at everyone has been replaced with Christian-bashing, man-bashing, scolds, lectures, vomit, poop, and sperm.

Trust me, I am no prude — from my cold, dead hands will you take my well-worn copies of Animal House, American Pie, and Porky’s. The difference between those R-rated comedies and the body fluid festivals called comedy today is that I can watch those older titles at home and not feel like a perv.

Without a crowd, movies like Seth Rogen’s Neighbors and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno make me feel like a creep in a raincoat. What was kinda shockingly-funny in a group is kinda disgusting in the living room. Watching them with my wife (who is also no prude) makes me feel embarrassed. I can’t remember the last time we watched a modern comedy together. Like Pavlov’s dog, we have been conditioned to avoid that trial altogether.

Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016, Universal Pictures)

And where is the warmth? John Belushi, John Candy, Adam Sandler, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy, Rodney Dangerfield, Leslie Nielsen… You liked those guys, you rooted for them. On the other hand, Will Ferrell is a cold fish, a terrible actor who never settles into character. Even his morons reek of self-aware irony because he wants us to know he is not really dumb, that he is superior to the characters he plays. Rogen is so angry, Tina and Kirsten so cold and preachy.

All of this came to me last week when, for whatever reason, I gave Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky a go — a heist-comedy set in rural North Carolina about a bunch of working-class guys who hatch an elaborate scheme to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. At one point, the movie describes the heist as an “Ocean’s 7-11,” which is perfect.

What made Logan Lucky stand out is that I found myself relating to and liking the characters, and actually found myself laughing … a lot … and hard enough I kept waking up the wife. Although the principles are all good ole’ boys, the satire of my culture was as accurate as it was good-natured. Nothing like the snobby and superior mean-spiritedness of, say, 2006’s Talladega Nights.

Watching Logan Lucky, I found myself enjoying a comedy in a way I have not for years, maybe for a decade. The experience was so unique, I became aware of the fact that what used to be a normal experience at the movies was now so distinct it felt brand new.

From my perch, the movie comedy is in trouble today because those making them lack the moral courage to break away from the chains of censorship that is political correctness. Moreover, too many see themselves as elitists, as superior. They are not on our side, and you can sense that in their product. This glaring contempt for their own audience shines brightly in their childish desire to disgust us, lecture us from on high, scold us for who we are and what we believe, or just demean us.

Where’s the fun in that?

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.


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