14 March 2014

An Analyzation of the Targets of the Past Forty Years of Comedy Films

It's interesting to determine what spurs the conversation on the Internet. You'd think that in general, with instant and continual access of every bit of information known to humanity, we'd talk about everything all the time. Instead, there is a steady stream of contemporary events that inform pop culture discussion. This week, even though it hasn't really been a domineering critical or commercial success by any means, everyone seems to have either the revitalization or desolation of sword-and-sandal epics in the wake of 300: Rise of an Empire (2014). Likewise, a few weeks ago in the wake of the death of Harold Ramis, everyone couldn't stop talking about the monumental influence he had on the modern comedy, even if Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Doug Kenney, and John Landis are probably equally to blame.

Still, I was attracted to this piece by the New York Post, which essentially lamented the fact that the comedy films of old drove their satire through targeting venerable but corrupted institutions while the comedies of today only target poop and vaginas. While any kind of nostalgia-thumping like this is basically selective remembering (if you look at a list like this, most of the films we remember and talk about today are mostly satires - which is fair to say that they have perpetuated in our culture, but were far from the only films being produced or popular), it also drew me into a larger conversation - how do we judge the evolution of the modern Hollywood comedy film based on its target?

1970s: Institutional-Smearing Comedy

If we're looking at the big 70s films that we remember today - Robert Altman's M*A*S*H* (1970), a few Mel Brooks opuses (Young Frankenstein [1974] and Blazing Saddles [1974]), a few Monty Python opuses (Holy Grail [1975] and Life of Brian [1979], Burt Reynolds' role-defining Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Ramis' aforementioned Animal House (1978), and the greatest comedy of all time, Steve Martin's The Jerk (1979) - we do see a lot of busting on the stodgy and pompous institutions that control aspects of society, social customs, or even the acceptable narrative structure of Hollywood films themselves.

The target in a comedy is the butt of the joke. The Post piece suggests that targets in the 70s and 80s were great and powerful, compared to the crass subject matter of today. That's largely true. From the list above we see targets including the Korean War, racism, zealous religious followers, good ol' boy law enforcement, and academia. I'm for a bit of a loss, though, who the targets were for  Young Frankenstein, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Jerk. Do we have, respectively, Old Hollywood, English Legend, and uh, biker chicks?

The 70s were full of irreverence. As New Hollywood emerged through the collapse of the production code as well as the advent of modern blockbuster filmmaking, comedy reflected these thrown off shackles through its gutting of societal structure and thriving on high concept ensemble pieces. There's no central star in most of these films - it's more groups of people getting together and lampooning an established part of society.

1980s: The Satire Evolves on a Grand Scale

Comedies from the 80s explode a bit, though that may be due to the fact that as of late the 1980s have sort of been canonized as this decade where everything awesome originated - after all, the toys of the 80s are the biggest films of today. We have this strange adoration for the slick veneer of the 80s, even though it was really as shallow and money-driven as it's usually stereotyped. It still offered some of the best big-movies of its time - what other decade could we find so many forgettable Best Picture Winners and so many adored blockbusters?

When I think 80s Comedy my mind turns to Airplane! (1980), Caddyshack (1980), The Blues Brothers (1980), Stripes (1981), Vacation (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Ghostbusters (1984), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Coming to America (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and Major League (1989). Who are our targets? Or another way we can look at it - who are our villains?

There is a bit of a mix here for sure. From this list we can see country clubs, Illinois Nazis, the Army, the police force, the EPA, and school administrators. There are, however, already a good mix of the kind of personal comedy that would define the Apatow era. Vacation and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles are both disastrous road trip movies where the greatest obstacles to the characters' final destination are the characters themselves. The high concept for Coming to America is an African Prince traveling to the United States to find a bride, but neither love nor Africa is really lampooned. Well, maybe the latter. Other films like Airplane! and This is Spinal Tap have achieved immortality through defying convention and digging more into specific characters with quick and dirty jokes than having a major target.

The 80s still evokes a lot of ensemble, but there's a bit of a paring down throughout the decade, so that eventually we see all these duos popping up. Doc and Marty, Neal and Dell, Eddie and Roger. Hell, Eddie Murphy's Black Cop / White Cop shtick defined a whole genre of buddy action films. There is still a lot of institution-bashing, but there is more introspection going on. More than that though, there are actually strong themes of convention shifting, whether it be from the improv-driven Spinal Tap, the animated Chinatown-esque Roger Rabbit, or the slapstick-or-bust rapidfire nature of Airplane!

1990s: The Megastar Era

These films keep paring down. From the 80s duos we see instead these big star-driven vehicles in the 90s, mostly for Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, or Ben Stiller. There is still this mixture of targets, though, and the most successful of these 90s films are those that emulate the standards of the 1970s. Our list of general 90s comedies we're still talking about includes, Home Alone (1990), Wayne's World (1992), Cool Runnings (1993), Groundhog Day (1993), Ace Venture: Pet Detective (1994), Dumb & Dumber (1994), Clerks (1994), Billy Madison (1995), Friday (1995), Tommy Boy (1996), Happy Gilmore (1996), Austin Powers (1997), The Big Lebowski (1998), There's Something About Mary (1998), American Pie (1999), and Office Space (1999).

Now, feel free to debate my selection here (Why for instance, do I feel like Tommy Boy is more relevant than Black Sheep [1995]? I don't know. It just seems to me based on no evidence that more people like it and it's a bit of a better movie. Ditto with leaving out The Mask [1994]), but I'd call these in general the crop of 90s Comedy Films that peaked commercially (sometimes critically), but everyone's pretty cool with still watching today. So, what kind of institutions are we still targeting?

Olympic bobsledding...and uh...school administrators and golf again. That's about it. Suddenly these movies are about one central doofus character, sometimes a duo again like Wayne and Garth or Harry and Lloyd. Gone are the teams or camaraderie, though it returned a bit with fare like Lebowski, Pie, and Office Space by decades' end. The 90s are probably our most vapid decade. It's fitting for a decade where we were on top. With a booming economy and a Cold War victory in hand, it seemed like for all our angst, our institutions seemed to be working - so why target them? We lost a bit of that critical eye, because we weren't in fact as angry as we probably should have been. We had a pot-smoking, saxophone-playing president and Arsenio had his own TV show. We're pretty close to that point again, so who knows how the rest of the 2010s will play out.

There is some saying that comedy fails during really good times, which is perhaps why when looking over this list you don't get quite the feeling as you do when checking out the flicks from the 70s and 80s. These are classics, but more in a really frat-y way, and even though There's Something About Mary is really just as classy as Animal House it loses some charm, maybe because Stiller somehow is less charismatic and more neurotic than John Belushi. Or maybe it is because the 90s asks us to question less. It's more complacent with its authority figures. EXCEPT for Adam Sandler movies - which is why in the 90s Sandler was really the most brilliant auteur out there and truly emulating Ramis' efforts a decade and a half earlier.

2000s: Character and Self-Reflexive Comedy

This is tricky, because as I pick the most representative films of the 2000s there is sure to be more debate over what has really had the most influence. Still, when I think of 2000s people still talk about today, I think The Replacements (2000), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Super Troopers (2001), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Zoolander (2001), Old School (2003), Anchorman (2004), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Shaun of the Dead (2004), The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005), Wedding Crashers (2005), Beerfest (2006), Borat (2006), Talladega Nights (2006), Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), Tropic Thunder (2008), Pineapple Express (2008), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Step Brothers (2008), and The Hangover (2009).

Now, how come I can only name eight films from the 70s I'd consider relevant and twenty films from the 2000s? Well, time hasn't yet sorted out the best from the only very good yet. But to be honest, if you look at what these films are doing, you'll find a couple things that begin to circle back to what the 70s was doing - ensemble satires, with most importantly, the addition of a ton of character-driven comedy.

Ensembles are most visible in Wes Anderson, Broken Lizard, and Judd Apatow films. Even Will Ferrell comedies are pretty scared of leaving him up there alone to do Jim Carrey-like shtick. It's why the Ace Ventura-like extremely annoying character was brilliantly lampooned in a film like The Cable Guy (1998) - because in reality, no one could buddy with that kind of person and emerge with a complete life. Ferrell is much softer, and has made headway into these sort of buddy comedies reminiscent of the 80s. So, targets?

NFL Unions, family structures, highway patrolman, summer camps, male models, the fraternity system, local newscasters, racism, nerds, horror films, antisemitism and jingoistic beliefs, NASCAR, big budget Hollywood filmmaking, and anti-marijuana laws. I would contend that a film like Pineapple Express encourages questioning of authority at least as much as Stripes does. For the rest, the targets are smaller, more intimate. You can see a clear declining of really solid targets from about 2006 on. Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Hangover, again the largest obstacles characters face are themselves. These films really dig into interpersonal relationships across their ensemble as the cause of conflict rather than an outside antagonist. I do, however, want to focus on one more decade, even three years' worth, to at least suggest that we're starting to be encouraged to question again, perhaps because we're once again in a time of absolute shit.

2010s: What the Hell do We do Now?

We're far too close to the past three and a quarter years of film to really figure out who is influencing who and how this decade is developing. I can, however, give you three films that have succeeded in being just as subversive as anything the 1970s gave us. For better or worse, they are three Will Ferrell movies: The Other Guys (2010), The Campaign (2012), and The LEGO Movie (2014).

The Other Guys had a lot to say about the foreground and background characters of action films, but as per Ice T's narration, the core Madoff-esque scheme that drives the plot, and the end credits infographic, it's really taking a very sly dig at the financial industry under the silly sheen of a buddy cop comedy film. In an age where we're more ostrich-like than ever while getting screwed over a rapidly growing income gulf, it's startling that such a mainstream comedy featuring A-List actors of both comedy and drama would contain such a subversive message.

Likewise, The Campaign is one of the more underrated films of 2012 with its virulent but believable take on the rigors of political office-seeking. It offers a brutal glimpse into the insane lengths it takes to win one of these contests, the rapid reaction of middle America to slight changes in public figure perception, and of course, the vested interest of nefarious corporations looking out for not the country's interest, but their own. It's another film that strongly asks us to question everything about our electorate institution.

Finally, The LEGO Movie is probably one of the most subversive films of all time, as I've recently and neatly outlined here. It pleads for a line to be drawn between creative thought and stuffy mind-destroying cultural oppression. Its largest target is the banality and unoriginality of pop culture itself.

You know, we could also throw in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) for its succinct skewering  of the 24-hour news cycle, but that would be a little much, wouldn't it? It also features an ensemble cast and a tendency towards slapstick and silliness over crudity. So, why would anyone complain about this film? It's everything the 70s and 80s wanted to be. Which is why it's set in 1980. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are truly the Ramis / Murray of this generation. Actually, it's more like Ramis and Murray were the McKay / Ferrell of their generation.

I have a lot of confidence for the future of comedy. I'm not sure that institutionally-targeted comedy makes the best kind of film, or that satire is even justifiable in the sense that it leads to comfortable inaction rather than actual policy change. In the end, none of this really matters. As long as it's funny.

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