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Comedy’s Post-cinematic Universe

Hastened by the pandemic, a trend that’s been building for years fully arrived in 2021, as funny movies were almost entirely relegated to streaming platforms

Netflix/20th Century Studios/Amazon Studios/Hulu/Ringer illustration

In 1995, 12-year-old Eric André went to a cineplex in his hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, to see Tommy Boy. Watching Chris Farley on the big screen, with hundreds of people around him cracking up, “unlocked this primal thing,” he says.

“You can tell, he’s a huge influence in my work,” André says. “Chris Farley is just the most lovable puppy dog. I just remember being doubled over with laughter.”

Like countless people around his age, André grew up going to funny movies in packed theaters. “There’d always be that one comedy that came out per year, where you and your friends would go to middle school or high school after the summer was over and you wouldn’t stop quoting it at all,” he says.

This year, the comedian and actor cowrote and starred in his version of that. In late March, his guerilla-style road-trip comedy Bad Trip came out on Netflix. A few days later, the ubiquitous streamer began touting it as one of its most-watched titles. To André, who’d been developing the project for a decade, its popularity felt damn-near miraculous. There was only one thing about the film that disappointed him: There was no way to enjoy it communally. “I never got that moment of seeing it with like, hundreds of screaming South by Southwest fans or any fans in a theater,” André says.

Even before the pandemic started, he’d accepted the fact that the act of watching a funny movie was becoming almost exclusively an at-home experience. “Laughing in a room full of your friends and strangers is so cathartic,” he adds. “And that is gone.”

Consider: The sole original comedy that made nine figures at the COVID-19-depressed North American box office in 2021 was Ryan Reynolds’s Free Guy, a Disney-backed, CGI-stuffed, Marvel and Star Wars–referencing video-game homage that happened to have jokes in it. Tastes have changed radically since the ’90s, when there were at least two live-action comedies among the top 10 highest-grossing movies globally every year. Since 2007, only the first two installments of the Hangover trilogy, Ted, and the Jumanji films have reached that high mark.

Yet even post-blockbuster comedy, there were still funny hit movies. Until recently. Free Guy aside, there have been only two other live-action, non-franchise comedies to gross $100 million-plus domestically over the past four years: Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Girls Trip (2017). The worldwide list is longer—Good Boys, Instant Family, Game Night, and Night School—but not by much.

Streaming services now have a stranglehold on the genre. Several of this year’s most anticipated funny films—Eddie Murphy’s Coming 2 America (Amazon Prime Video), Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (VOD), and Bad Trip—were initially available only digitally. “I do think all the studios are aware that if they have a great comedy, it has the potential to make an enormous amount of money,” says Judd Apatow, who’s spent the better part of this century making hit theatrical comedies. “There’s just something about the system that doesn’t nurture those voices in the way they used to.”

One reason for that is because the current system is designed to engineer blockbusters, not plain old hits. Comedies, which are usually modestly budgeted, are often profitable—but never on the scale of something like F9 or Spider-Man: No Way Home. And as studios have continued to pass up solid returns for massive paydays, the genre has become increasingly marginalized. “If you’re going to gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on one action movie,” Apatow adds, “well, some of that money is money you’re not spending developing comedy scripts.”

Eric André and Lil Rel Howery in ‘Bad Trip’

The truth is that many up-and-coming comedic performers and writers gave up on trying to get feature films made long ago. Even if the jobs don’t pay as well or offer as much security as major network gigs used to, there are just more opportunities in streaming TV. “People have to eat, especially young comedy writers who are usually knuckleheads fresh out of college,” Apatow says. “They’re not going to sit home and take that risk when there’s a great job sitting there for them.”

Take, for example, Tracy Oliver. After cowriting Girls Trip, she moved on to the 2019 comedy Little. But her next comedy after that was Harlem, a TV series for Amazon Prime Video that premiered this month. Meanwhile Malcolm D. Lee, who directed Girls Trip, shifted from comedy in 2021 to make a little movie called Space Jam: A New Legacy.

The biggest names in comedy have also moved to streaming services. The pandemic pushed Seth Rogen’s latest, 2020’s An American Pickle, to HBO Max. Will Ferrell just did a television drama for Apple TV+ with Paul Rudd, who also plays the MCU’s tiniest superhero. Will Forte’s MacGruber never got a sequel, but a series based on the cult classic is now airing on Peacock.

Amy Poehler’s past two movies, both of which she directed, were for Netflix. Adam McKay’s latest political satire, Don’t Look Up, just premiered on Netflix. Kenya Barris’s next project, featuring Eddie Murphy, Jonah Hill, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is also a Netflix film. In 2020, Adam Sandler re-upped his Netflix deal. And Apatow’s new film is slated to appear on, you guessed it, Netflix in 2022. The streaming behemoth has amassed a stockpile of comedies: This year alone on Netflix, there were the rom-coms To All the Boys: Always and Forever, He’s All That, Love Hard, and Good on Paper; Poehler’s Moxie; and Octavia Spencer and Melissa McCarthy action comedy Thunder Force.

Not to mention Bad Trip. André, for one, was thankful Netflix showed interest in his film. “The amount of people that saw that movie with a click-of-a-button access? Dude, it was unmatched,” he says. “We were no. 1 in the U.S. We were no. 1 in the world. And I don’t know if we would’ve gotten that with the traditional theatrical release.”

The story of Bad Trip’s release is a good example of what an original comedy is now up against. Costarring André, Lil Rel Howery, and Tiffany Haddish, the guerrilla road-trip film is a mashup of Borat, Jackass, and Dumb and Dumber. Over the opening credits, André tramples through unsuspecting people’s homes—and it only gets weirder from there. To André, its popularity felt damn-near miraculous. After all, MGM’s Orion Pictures had planned to release the movie in theaters all the way back in October 2019. But the studio pushed it to the following spring, for a reason that André found dubious.

“There was some other Black movie that was coming out on our release date called Black and Blue, which no one has ever fucking seen or heard of,” André says. “It was like a procedural cop drama. And they were like, ‘Well, we can’t have two Black movies premiere at the same time. So we got to push your shit to like, April of 2020.’ Then finally Black and Blue came out, and I’m expecting it to be some big Kevin Hart comedy. I don’t know what it was. It was Tyrese playing a cop. And it wasn’t in the slightest competition for us, whatsoever. Yes, there were Black cast members. That’s fucking it.”

Still, André was excited to premiere the film to a live audience at South by Southwest in March 2020. He even set up a red carpet prank. Then the spread of COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the festival—then the country, including movie theaters, shut down.

“I’m thinking, ‘It’ll never come out,’” André says. “‘It’s a curse. It’s a cursed project.’”

From there things only got stranger. That April, as MGM was trying to sell Bad Trip, the comedy leaked briefly on Amazon Prime Video. Also around that time, André recalls, Netflix original films head Scott Stuber happened to screen the movie. “He was dying laughing,” André says. “Please do not sell this to Quibi, we want this. This is ours.”

In May 2020, Netflix bought Bad Trip. But a backlog of original content caused the company to wait nearly a year to put out the movie. “It was [set for] March 2021,” André says, “which at the time sounded like fucking 10 years.”

When the release date finally came and the movie received good reviews, André felt validated. Bad Trip never got a chance to have a theatrical run, but he’s at peace with that. “It’s like being a typewriter salesman,” he says. “It’s just the end of an era. All good things come to an end.”

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar’

As bad as things are for comedy, its predicament is not unique. Mid-budget films across all genres, especially those aimed at adults, seem like less and less of a priority to the major studios. “I think that it would be much harder to be Sydney Pollack today,” Apatow says. “It’s hard to get Out of Africa type movies made.”

Indie outfits are still pumping out interesting releases, but the conglomerates are focusing on franchises, the occasional prestige pictures, and cheap horror flicks. To Barry Blaustein, who cowrote Coming 2 America, the lack of variety is frustrating. “When I first came here, studios would make like 15 movies a year,” says Blaustein, who’s been collaborating with Eddie Murphy since their days working together on Saturday Night Live. “And three of them would be Academy Award–nominated films. Three-to-four would be tentpole movies that would try to appeal to everybody but wound up mostly appealing to no one. The rest were genre movies—comedies, thrillers. That’s gone.”

There is one theatrical genre, however, that’s still going strong: horror. “They’re much more inexpensive to shoot than comedies,” Apatow says. “They’re easy to make well enough to get people to go. When a comedy doesn’t work, it’s just a disaster. It’s hard to sit through— people are literally failing. But a bad horror movie is just a little boring. It’s still kind of scary and you can’t fail that many ways when you’re murdering people.”

What’s scary is apparently less subjective than what’s funny. “Murdering people is universal,” Apatow notes.

Today it’s just hard for people to justify leaving the house to see a comedy. Especially during a pandemic. “I think people are still reluctant to go to the movies,” Blaustein says. “Maybe they’ll go to see something that’s incredibly visual. But they’re not rushing out to see a comedy.”

Despite conventional wisdom, it’s actually easier to replicate the theatrical superhero movie experience at home than the theatrical comedy experience. A 72-inch flat-screen and a Blu-ray player can bring the Avengers into your living room. There’s no device to simulate being in a crowd of people laughing uncontrollably.

Blaustein remembers seeing Blazing Saddles and noticing that Mel Brooks seemingly inserted pauses between jokes to account for the audience’s explosive reaction. When André saw Borat, the room shook. “I could tell everyone in that theater was like, ‘We’re watching the greatest comedic experiment ever pulled off,’” he says. Apatow recalls going to an opening-night showing of There’s Something About Mary with Ben Stiller. “I knew nothing about it and it was pandemonium,” he says. “It was like going to see Led Zeppelin.”

To this day, Apatow tries to make comedies that surprise people. But he’s aware that the medium is changing. He kept that in mind while directing The Bubble, which he cowrote with Pam Brady, about a cast and crew trying to make a dinosaur movie during a pandemic. “We had a great experience making it, but we also tried to be aware of what the experience would be like for the viewer,” Apatow says. “We definitely made editing choices which were based on our awareness that you wouldn’t be surrounded by hundreds of people. You would be sitting at home eating a sandwich, having a different kind of night. That was fun too, because you can lean into certain jokes that you might think, ‘I don’t know if that would work in a theater,’ but at home it might be your favorite joke.”

Apatow knows that longing for the ’90s and ’00s, when his genre routinely reigned at the box office, is pointless. But it doesn’t mean that theatrical comedy is completely dead. “I actually equate it to shooting on film,” he says. “We don’t have to shoot everything on film, but we always need film to be a healthy option. We need theaters to succeed and we need comedies to succeed in a theater.”

When it comes to funny movies, there actually is a lot to look forward to in 2022. Kevin Hart will star in The Man From Toronto, his first pure, original comedy in four years. Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum are teaming up for The Lost City, which looks like Bromancing the Stone. Billy Eichner’s film Bros, featuring an all-LGBTQ principal cast, is also on the calendar. As is Jackass Forever, which hits theaters on February 4.

André, a longtime fan of the gonzo franchise, appears in the latest installment. There’s a good chance that he’ll enjoy its premiere better than Bad Trip’s: “I watched it with my ex-girlfriend on our couch when the clock struck midnight.” Halfway through, he fell asleep.

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