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Deeply Felt: ‘The Happytime Murders’ and Movie Comedy’s Death Spiral

The dirty puppets movie is one of 2018’s worst, and a bleak year for comedies gets even worse

Melissa McCarthy and a blue muppet wearing sunglasses standing in front of a brick wall STX Entertainment/Ringer illustration

In a scene that shall live in infamy for the precious few who will see it, the puppet detective spews puppet ejaculate all over the room. The spewer in question is Phil Phillips, the hard-boiled, blue-skinned Los Angeles gumshoe at the center of The Happytime Murders. The scene in question—which redefines The Streaming Era—comes about midway through the year’s most excruciating and unfortunate film, a new comedy that blends the ethic and figures of the Muppets with the comic imagination of a depraved teenager forced to watch Ted on loop. But The Happytime Murders is not even Ted—not close, really. Though that scene, the puppet-splooge one, serves as a tidy metaphor for what The Happytime Murders is trying to accomplish—an unvarnished release of comic id, meant to scandalize viewers who’ve come for a puppet version of The Big Sleep. Call it The Great Muppet Cummer. This is one version of movie comedy in 2018.

These are complicated times for movie comedies. On the one hand, there is something fertile happening; last weekend’s box office winner, the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians, heralded a new moment for representation and was charming to boot. Anecdotally, two of the most well-liked comedies of the year were also rom-coms, both of which originated on Netflix—Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I’ve been critical of Netflix’s movie strategy this year, but these two films represent a soft middle that has vanished from multiplexes. And they do the things that rom-coms ought to do: mint new stars, provide mindless emotional transportation, and kill time. But these are just a scant few success stories.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams face down on the floor in ‘Game Night’
Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in Game Night (2018)
Warner Bros. Pictures

The other side of the comedy story is shockingly bleak. We’re completing the first summer in more than 20 years without a $100 million comedy. The biggest of the year so far is Game Night, which was released in February and has grossed $69 million. For context, last year’s box office comedy winner was Girls Trip, which grossed $115 million. The year before that, the much-maligned Ghostbusters still managed $128 million. And in 2015, Pitch Perfect 2 pulled in $184 million. Sensing a trend? The box office tracking site The Numbers indicates that in both 2017 and this year, comedies represent just about 8 percent market share of wide-release movies. In 2008, at the genre’s height—with major hits like Sex and the City, Juno, Step Brothers, and Tropic Thunder—comedies grossed $2.1 billion, more than 21 percent of the box office. That was more than action movies, which earned $1.6 billion. (In 2018, movies classified as “action” or “adventure” represent about 65 percent of all grosses, or $5.3 billion.) The theatrical movie business is thriving, up 8 percent year over year. But movie comedy is in a state of crisis, with no true north and no clear path for recovery. Is that such a bad thing?

At the movies, comedy operates in waves, surfed by big stars and creators like Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Kevin Hart, Seth Rogen, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Melissa McCarthy. These figures carry projects, interpreting the comic mode of the day—Apatovian arrested development, multi-character farce, high-concept meta-commentary—and putting their twist on it. Between 1994 and 2000, Carrey starred in 11 movies, nine of which earned at least $70 million. He was the alpha and the omega of the genre, until he got bored and started pursuing biopics, kids’ movies, and smaller films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For years at a time, comedy could revolve around one or two people. Things are different now.

What does this mean for 2018? Perhaps more specifically, what does it have to do with The Happytime Murders? Everything and nothing. Like Tag, Uncle Drew, and Action Point—three movies with little penetration in the cultural imagination—Happytime was meant to fill a seasonal comedy gap, perfectly timed as a late-summer, out-of-nowhere raunch fest like 2016’s Sausage Party or 2014’s Let’s Be Cops. But the puppet flick from Brian Henson—son of the late Muppets master, Jim—is tracking at just a $13 million to $15 million haul for the weekend, behind Crazy Rich Asians, which is entering its second week of release. Happytime cost an estimated $40 million to produce and happens to feature one of those stars mentioned above—Melissa McCarthy—while also carrying a nostalgic lodestar in the longtime relationship many viewers had to the elder Henson’s comic creations, which were fixtures of 1970s movies and TV.

But what The Happytime Murders attempts to leverage—what if puppets, but they fuck—is a misapprehension of the Muppets’ legacy. The Muppets were rambunctious and sweet, but they were also cruel, weird, anarchic, and sexualized. Think Miss Piggy’s voracious pursuit of Kermit the Frog or Animal ogling Rita Moreno. The original title of one of The Muppet Show’s two pilots was “Sex and Violence.” They were featured in sketches during the wild first season of Saturday Night Live. Henson himself was famously uncouth. The Happytime Murders isn’t a reinvention or cutting-edge homage. Its idea of a joke is an octopus orgasmically milking a cow with all eight tentacles. Aside from the Muppets themselves, we’ve seen puppets do all sorts of adult, complex, and unseemly things in the past 30 years, from Team America: World Police to Meet the Feebles to Avenue Q. It’s just another step in the self-amused atomization of comedy.

There hasn’t been a major comedy this year, unless, of course, you count Deadpool 2, a movie I found both hilarious and sort of unbearable, as delighted by its own convention-smashing as its penchant for comic violence. It is, as they say, committed to the bit. Deadpool 2 is connected to The Happytime Murders in the way that Bill Burr is connected to Ali Wong—same game, different styles. But movies like Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War and Incredibles 2 have hoovered up the stars and affected the mien of comedies—they are grave stories with intergalactic consequence, but mostly they’re just hangouts with familiar faces, whether Elastigirl or Rocket Raccoon, featuring your favorite comedy actors. They’re even a kind of rehabilitation program for washed-out actors of a certain type; without Deadpool, I’m not sure Ryan Reynolds would have a career in 2018. These movies stole the comedy quan and retrofitted it for an expanded universe.

Genre panic is often a false negative. Too many of the best movies glide among story types with an ease that makes us think more about character than approach. Is Bull Durham a rom-com, a sports movie, or a lighthearted drama? Who cares? But comedy’s recession signals something compelling about the fractured interests of the world at large. There’s more comedy than ever—more stand-up, more TV shows, more podcasts, more YouTube stars, more tweets, more assholes on the corner with a slick line about our disreputable republic. And so there are more ways to be amused. If superheroes, animation, Disney live-action, and horror represent the load-bearing weight of movies in 2018, films like Book Club, Blockers, and Super Troopers 2 signal the deepening strata of comedy. All three films are considered successes, all three serving different audiences—older women, teenagers (and their parents), and stoners aged 18 to 49. These movies are microtargeted, and they found their audiences. There have always been modestly successful comedies, but never in a time without a There’s Something About Mary or Meet the Parents, movies that were theoretically for everyone. Crazy Rich Asians is a beneficiary of targeting too, with nearly 40 percent of the movie’s opening-week receipts coming from Asian American ticket-buyers.

It all recalls the music industry’s recalibration after the rise of Napster and eventually iTunes, after the time when a mega-album release could go diamond, selling 10 million copies, providing labels the capital to float several other less successful bets. The web ruined that structure. Now we have fewer albums by major labels, but lots more music. Our interests are divided up into increasingly thin slivers. Comedy isn’t going anywhere. I suspect Netflix has green-lit several rom-coms and raunchy teen comedies in the time it took you to read this column. But the mass moment—consensus—for the genre is vanishing. To survive, you’ll need to do more than make one’s presence felt. (Sorry.)