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‘Step Brothers’ and the Peak Summer of Blockbuster Comedy

Filled with movies like ‘Tropic Thunder,’ ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ and the Will Ferrell–John C. Reilly classic, the dog days of 2008 were a great time to laugh in theaters. And also one of the last.

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2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

Some of the funniest movies ever made weren’t very fun to make.

While shooting Coming to America, Eddie Murphy and John Landis’s mutual disdain nearly resulted in a physical altercation. On the set of Wayne’s World, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s attempts to one-up each other led to a more vicious than friendly rivalry. And during the development of Groundhog Day, screenwriter Danny Rubin told The New Yorker that Harold Ramis and Bill Murray “were like two brothers who weren’t getting along.”

The production of Step Brothers, on the other hand, was a three-month party. When I interviewed the cast for an oral history of the absurdist exploration of male arrested development in 2018, everyone, without exception, talked about how working with director Adam McKay and stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly was practically orgasmic: Gillian Vigman, who has a small part in the film, went so far as to say that the experience gave her “a comedy boner.”

The world of the titular middle-aged man-children, Dale Doback and Brennan Huff, was one with a euphoric amount of freedom. Mary Steenburgen, who plays Ferell’s character’s mother, said that during filming she had a problem: No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop giggling. “There was a comedic cliff that everybody was being dangled over every single second,” she said. “You feel it.”

The two leads and McKay helped create an atmosphere where actors like Adam Scott, who hadn’t done much improvising, could attempt it without feeling afraid to fail. And if something didn’t work, that was OK. “You could just get back up and try something else insane,” said Scott, who steals his scenes as Brennan’s toolish brother Derek. “They just encouraged insanity and creativity.” Kathryn Hahn, whose delightfully unhinged turn as Dale’s secret lover Alice was Oscar-worthy, marveled at watching Ferrell and Reilly riffing together for hours. “To see the two of them, who I don’t think had been asked to work that way before, jump into something like this,” she said, “was just like, bananas.”

The joy of the shoot can be felt deeply in the movie. It’s a free-flowing, 98-minute rumpus. “Step Brothers,” Jonah Hill, an Academy Award nominee who’s appeared in some of the 21st century’s funniest films, once told me, “is the greatest modern comedy of all time.”

But looking back on Step Brothers now is bittersweet. It’s the kind of movie that in the 12 years since its premiere on July 25, 2008, has gone the way of the dinosaur: a comedy that you actually look forward to seeing in the theater. Dale and Brennan’s goofy story represented the genre’s early 21st century peak. Ferrell and Reilly were at the height of their improvisational powers; McKay was coming into his own as a director; Judd Apatow, then in the middle of an unprecedented run of comedies, was on board as a producer. But this peak was more than just a feeling—it was quantifiable. Step Brothers pulled in $128.1 million at the worldwide box office. In 2008, it was one of a whopping 10 live-action, non-sequel American comedies—including Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Made of Honor, What Happens in Vegas, Sex and the City, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Get Smart, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Bedtime Stories—that grossed more than $100 million globally. In 2019, only two earned that distinction: Last Christmas ($121.6 million) and Good Boys ($111 million).

Step Brothers was not the last classic blockbuster comedy ever made, but in 2020 it’s questionable whether it would be made at all. These days, a $65 million-budgeted movie that takes place in a house that isn’t haunted might not be considered a risk worth taking. “2008, when the stock market crashed, was the end of the big-budget comedy,” Peter Segal, who’s directed 11 comedies including Tommy Boy, 50 First Dates, and Get Smart, told me last year. “All studios decided, ‘We don’t need to spend $80 million on a comedy anymore, we can do something for a fraction of that as long as it’s good.’”

Long before COVID-19 crippled cineplexes, studios had already stopped banking on mid-budget movies, a distinction held by most comedies. The reasons for this? They made money, just not Marvel Cinematic Universe–level money. Also, unlike tentpole franchises, they didn’t always sell well internationally. After seeing the kind of totals that movies like Iron Man, Fast Five, and Jurassic World could fetch, it was only natural that executives began chasing giant jackpots rather than settling on sure but modest bets. “Markets around the world got bigger and they felt it was better to invest in a movie that could gross $500 million,” Apatow told me last year. “As opposed to a comedy, which rarely reached those heights.” And so in the age of superheroes and inexpensive horror franchises, Hollywood recently relegated funny films to streaming services and VOD.

“Unfortunately, the R-rated comedy genre is dead,” American Pie’s Seann William Scott told me last year. “They’re just not making them. Because they just don’t make money. Just the whole business model’s completely changed. It’s easier to make a cheap, good-quality horror movie for less than $5 million.” (Last year, Scott headlined one of those scary movies: Bloodline.)

Even highly anticipated releases are being pushed away from the big screen to flat screens. One of the funniest movies of this year, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, is on Netflix. In January, director Max Barbakow’s time loop rom-com Palm Springs sold for more than $17.5 million, the most ever paid for a Sundance Film Festival entry. But the buyer wasn’t Paramount or Warner Bros.—it was Hulu. This month, the company cited no hard numbers but claimed that the well-reviewed Andy Samberg vehicle was watched more during its opening weekend than any other movie in the platform’s 13-year history.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus forced Apatow’s newest film, the Pete Davidson–centered dramedy The King of Staten Island, onto VOD, and nudged Seth Rogen’s latest, the forthcoming An American Pickle, onto HBO Max. In another time, the release dates of both movies, made by two of the biggest, most influential comedy stars of the past 20 years, might simply be pushed back, like F9 or Tenet. The fact that they weren’t is yet another reminder that to Hollywood, theatrical comedy is no longer a priority.

The idea of the in-person cinematic comedy experience disappearing is, as Brennan Huff might put it, as sickening as eating white dog crap. The ideal method of watching a movie like Step Brothers is communally. Everything about the film, from its biggest set pieces (Derek and Alice leading their family in an a cappella version of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”; the Catalina Wine Mixer) to its smaller, slightly more subtle moments (Richard Jenkins as Dr. Doback furiously telling his line-crossing son to “Shut the fuck up!”; a sad Brennan claiming that he’s OK with the fact that his new Chewbacca mask is “not movie quality”) is better with other people. The childlike energy of Step Brothers is, well, infectious. That’s why over the past decade or so it has gradually become even more beloved than it was at the time of its release. After all, Dale and Brennan singing “This Is How We Do It” while building bunk beds gets funnier with repeated viewings. The film’s quotable filthiness moved its most rabid fans to spread the gospel. Like a lot of classic comedies, it relied on word of mouth to build its legend. “It was by no means not a success, especially for an R-rated movie,” Reilly told me in a 2019 interview. “But also the fans’ appreciation of that movie grew. It grew after the fact, exponentially.”

“After the fact” growth is not exactly something studios look for in their box office properties in 2020. While word-of-mouth successes such as 2019’s Us and Best Picture winner Parasite are more than welcome, the ultimate aim of a major studio release now is to score a massive opening weekend—the $357 million total of Avengers: Endgame; the nearly $200 million total of the Lion King remake. Movies that had long-tail success like Step Brothers, Role Models, and Tropic Thunder—the third of which made more money in its fourth weekend than its third—might not even be given the theatrical space to build an audience now.

As the 2010s progressed, McKay moved on from making traditional comedy to bleak satire. Ferrell and Reilly, meanwhile, continue to play comedic roles—they teamed up for 2018’s Holmes & Watson—but haven’t replicated the success from a decade prior. Ben Stiller and Jason Segel are focusing on television. Adam Sandler is starring in dramatic roles, and in January, signed a second multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix.

In 2020, McKay, Ferrell, and Reilly’s opus seems like a beautiful relic. Even when movie theaters open again en masse, if they ever do, their screens likely won’t be filled with major comedies. Those days are over, unceremoniously ended by superheroes and streaming services. At least we’ll always have Step Brothers—now there’s no guarantee that a studio would even have any interest in Dale and Brennan becoming best friends.