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No, Laughing Matters: The Difficulty With Streaming Comedies

Would any of the comedic movies forced to the small screen amid the pandemic have been better served by the theater experience?

Getty Images/Sony Pictures/Hulu/Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

For exactly 10 seconds of the dorky new Netflix action flick Project Power, I wished I were watching it in a packed movie theater. The details of the other 1:53:05 aren’t terribly important. There’s a mysterious new drug that will give you a random superpower for exactly five minutes. Jamie Foxx plays an anguished semi-badass searching for his kidnapped daughter. Dominique Fishback plays the reluctant drug dealer and aspiring rapper who helps him. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a steely New Orleans cop, but never mind him for now. A bunch of action-movie shit ensues. Explosions and whatnot. And in a quiet moment about halfway through, while recuperating in a veterinarian’s office, Foxx goads Fishback into rapping for him, freestyling off the words feline, seismograph, and antibiotic. She raps. It is good rapping. She stops rapping. There is a brief, awestruck pause in which Foxx reflects, in closeup, upon the good rapping. And then he does this.


Even off a screenshot, you can hear this ooh: the goofy two-note falsetto, the slight but monumental Born Movie Star curl of his lips, the colossal amount of charisma packed into the tiniest possible gesture. “You smoked that,” he adds, and for a moment I longed for that line to be inaudible over the raucous laughter of several hundred people. Or even just a wry chuckle from two or three other kindred spirits scattered throughout the theater, a quick jolt of communal enjoyment before more deafening action-movie shit ensues and we’re all once again alone in the dark.

Ten years ago today, I watched Bad Boys for Life in a crowded theater this past January, and it was that imagined utopian 10 seconds for two hours IRL (“You fucked a married witch!”), and all was right with the world, or at least with the movie industry. And then, well. Well! Never mind! In the past few months, in the anxiety-plagued comforts of my own home, I’ve sought solace in 2020 comedies born into a coronavirus-dominated world the filmmakers never could’ve imagined, and a superheroes-or-bust apocalypse Hollywood had long feared. In August, Vulture published a spirited but downcast roundtable discussion under the headline “Will a Comedy Ever Play at a Movie Theater Again?” Not a rhetorical question. Also: not a joke.

Some of these recent movies, like the Judd Apatow–Pete Davidson joint The King of Staten Island (released in June as a $19.99 VOD rental) or the Feuding Seth Rogens showcase An American Pickle (released on HBO Max in August), once at least aspired to multiplex greatness, however deluded that might seem. Others, like June’s gently clunky Netflix farce Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, already had resigned themselves to the pre-COVID reality that the playful antics of even big names like Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams are now better suited for streaming services. I likely would’ve loved Staten Island even more—and disliked Fire Saga even more—in the theater, and been exactly as (gently) confused by An American Pickle no matter how or where I watched it, even if it had been projected onto the surface of the moon.

My suspicion, then, is that The Theater Experience serves as a bonus multiplier for how you personally feel about the movie in question. The laughter of your fellow theatergoers heightens your own; their awkward, disappointed silence deepens and further darkens your own. Which is why, if I had a time machine, after doing two dozen unrelated things, I would then travel to the Sundance Film Festival in January to attend the packed-theater premiere of Palm Springs, the outlandish and sneakily poignant time-loop rom-com starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. That screening was reportedly a blast, and generated such giddy enthusiasm that Hulu and Neon quickly bought the rights for a record-breaking $17,500,000.69. Multiplex greatness, alas, was not in the cards; Palm Springs hit Hulu in July. I watched it with my wife on a laptop. Y’know: date night. I loved it. Lots of people do. But it’s a very 2020 idea, that even my favorite movie-watching experience of the year is colored by what might’ve been, and which strangers might’ve been sitting all around us, laughing too.

Will Ferrell, historically, is a guy who understands the bonus-multiplier aspect of theater laughter, and how it’s made his mightiest hits, from Anchorman (the street fight) to Step Brothers (the balls on the drums) to Talladega Nights (the cougar) even mightier. This applies somehow to even minor, more cerebral Ferrell: I vividly remember digging the underloved Stranger Than Fiction and the specific moment when Maggie Gyllenhaal exclaimed, “Harold! Look at you! You’re not fine! You’re severely injured!” Maybe two other people in the theater joined me in laughing at that one, max. But it was something. It was enough.

Lately I have found, even in my work-distraction YouTube viewing (I just spent 25 minutes rewatching scenes from Stranger Than Fiction), that the stuff I’m gravitating toward—from the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World blooper reel (“I ripped my pants!”) to Bernie Mac destroying Def Comedy Jam (“You patch-eye motherfucker!”)—is not about my laughing but about watching other people laugh. I want another moment as pure as the way Ricky Bobby even says the word cougar. I want the silly camaraderie. I am resigned to the fact that Fire Saga was not gonna give it to me no matter how many other people I crammed into the room with me.

This movie is more than two hours long, first of all, which ought to be illegal, for comedies in 2020: They oughta pay you a dollar for every minute a comedy runs over 90. Fire Saga is packed with medium-catchy songs and gaudy costumery and IRL Eurovision celebrities if that’s your thing and all manner of never-unenjoyable Will Ferrell tomfoolery (I dig the elves). But it never quite crosses over into laugh-out-loud territory, and you never shake the suspicion that the whole thing is just too leisurely, that it has no greater aim than wasting time. Which is a valuable service, for many of us, global circumstances being what they are, but the slow-dawning realization that Fire Saga is Funny Peculiar as opposed to any other kind of funny would’ve left an extra-bad taste in your mouth if you’d had to drive somewhere to go taste it. Eventually Netflix is gonna say fuck it and invent a movie that just physically knocks you unconscious for two hours. By that point you’ll probably be into it.

An American Pickle graciously abides by the 90-minutes-or-less rule but grapples with the same Funny Peculiar issue; I spent most of its running time wishing that the dueling Seth Rogens would stop fighting and start soothing me, dammit. It’s a New Yorker caption contest poorly disguised as a broad, crowd-pleasing, Mad Magazine–type blowout.

Rogen is another excellent one-man litmus test for the fate of the movie-theater comedy overall: His highs, from Superbad to Knocked Up to even the Pineapple Express trailer, are canonical. (Seriously, the foot through the windshield is another full-theater LOL I will always cherish.) But his 2019 Charlize Theron rom-com Long Shot is likewise emblematic of the splendid lower-stakes flicks that used to thrive in theaters but may never even get their feet in an AMC multiplex door again, should those doors ever reopen. It may take him a while to rise above the very low expectations an HBO Max premiere implies, but I reserve the right to add “Sarah Snook biting into a fish head” to my work-distraction routine.

Whereas The King of Staten Island, as leisurely and overlong (it owes you $48) as it might be, deserves to be enjoyed and even re-enjoyed in full. I am grateful to Judd Apatow for his quick-hit theater LOLs (“You like Coldplay” etc.), but also for his slow-motion avalanches of unease and absurdity: It’s not any individual laughs I remember, mine or anybody else’s, from seeing Funny People in the theater, but the very strange and pleasurable sense that this movie just won’t stop going. I would love data on how many times on average viewers paused Staten Island at home, how many times they checked their phones, how many hours it really takes to watch a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie. But this one works whether you break it into Primo Apatow parts—the four-losers-bullshitting-on-a-couch reveries, the possibly improvised one-liners (“Fat Kanye”), the tear-jerking Steve Buscemi monologue you pray is coming—or commit in full, phone down, letting the excess watch over you.

I did not laugh or make any specific noise during, say, the montage of Marisa Tomei and Bill Burr falling in love set to Fabolous’s “You Be Killin Em.” But I assure you that I was delighted, and that my delight was a palpable, chemical thing, and I just assume up to a half-dozen other 40-something dudes in a hypothetical movie theater would’ve been just as delighted, and would magnify my delight in turn, but alas. That connection, however unspoken or altogether intangible, is what you overpay for at a movie theater, and can be just as vital as the Reese’s Pieces and the Cherry Coke. (Pick your own concessions; those are mine.) And that mutual-delight phenomenon works—or worked—for movies large and defiantly small.

Yes, God, Yes stars Natalia Dyer from Stranger Things as an early-2000s Catholic schoolgirl struggling with sexual urges triggered by an accidentally racy AIM chat, or a vibrating mobile phone, or the sex scene in Titanic. There is no universe—not since the early 2000s, anyway—in which this film, written and directed by Karen Maine, would’ve made it to even the parking lot of your average Midwestern movie theater. (It hit VOD in late July.) The plot is genial and delicate and slow-moving enough that it’s like someone trying to push a computer mouse incrementally forward without disturbing the screen saver. It is 78 minutes long. (You don’t owe it $12; that principle doesn’t work in reverse.) I liked it very much.

Screenshot via Vertical Entertainment

Sure, you can fantasize about a rollicking sold-out theater thrilling to the scene that involves a church-retreat forest blowjob, and a mop, and the chorus of Collective Soul’s almighty ’90s alt-rock jam “Shine.” Great scene. But this, again, is a fantasy: Even at its most immodest, Yes, God, Yes has the modesty of a micro-indie just happy to be here, here being “available to stream on the internet.” The bright side, such as it is, is that with theater splendor off the table for practically everyone and everything, now a film this bespoke can compete on a level, or level-er, playing field with Fire Saga and Staten Island and the like.

Maybe. Theoretically. But global circumstances being what they are, maybe you, too, are inclined to dig a little deeper for your comedy fix, for the LOLs you wish could mingle with the LOLs of others. There’s a new rom-com-ish VOD jam called I Used to Go Here starring Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement that I’m curious about but afraid to watch, specifically because as a 40-something person, I’m afraid that Clement plays the Wise Elder Statesman and not the Romantic Lead in the Prime of His Life. This is my personal anxiety, I realize. I would share it with you, in public, if I could.