The Curious Case of the Decline of Comedy Movies: An Investigation

Picture of By Gökçe Bayramıçlılar

By Gökçe Bayramıçlılar

When was the last time you remember laughing out loud in the cinema, surrounded by complete strangers sharing the same experience? Leaving the cinema thinking ‘That was such a funny movie!’ I’m not talking about animation comedies or romantic comedies or action comedies… simply comedy. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s been quite a while.

Historically speaking, comedy has always been a successful genre for the big screen, basically since the inception of ‘big screen’ as we know it. Even when there was no sound, Charlie Chaplin managed to make the audience laugh with slapstick comedy in times of war and despair. The big screen comedy was constantly successful, giving us iconic movies decade after decade, with more recent quintessential actors like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams. People were willing to go to the movies and pay to laugh.

That’s what makes comedy good – it doesn’t get old.

I grew up with hilariously iconic comedy movies that I still go back to and watch even today – and I still laugh as if it were the first time. School of Rock, White Chicks, Mrs. Doubtfire, Mean Girls, Men in Black… These are only a few examples of comedy gems from back in the day that can still crack audiences up today. That’s what makes comedy good – it doesn’t get old.

However, there’s sort of been a dry spell when it comes to big screen comedy. They just don’t make comedy movies like they used to anymore – in terms of both quality and quantity. I think the last of its kind were circa-2014 with 22 Jump Street (which was hilarious, by the way). Since then, I can maybe name one or two decent laughs. Well… turns out the number of comedy movies being produced has been decreasing for quite some time, as well as the box office numbers. Why is this the case, though? Do people not enjoy comedy movies anymore? Do they seek their daily dose of humour elsewhere?

My research says…

In the good communication science tradition, I wanted to investigate people’s preferences. I conducted a single-question survey with the help of my Instagram followers and asked them: ‘When you’re in the mood to watch comedy, what’s your go-to?

Of course, I had to give them an alternative option to comedy movies, sitcoms. Why, you ask? Situational comedies – aka sitcoms – have been constantly among the most popular television series, with wide reach and remarkable longevity. Even years after their initial release, the reruns of shows like Friends, The Office, How I Met Your Mother, Seinfeld, New Girl, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation manage to tune in millions on the daily through streaming services. No wonder Netflix paid a whopping $100M to keep Friends in its assortment. Because of their continuous success, I thought sitcoms could be a good alternative option to comedy movies when one is in the mood for some laughs. Moreover, I wondered whether the striking success of sitcoms could be a potential reason for the “curious case of the decline of comedy movies”.

To my luck, 112 individuals participated in the survey. The preliminary results indicated that for 75% of the respondents, their go-to comedies were sitcoms, whereas the remaining 25% opted for comedy movies. These results were intriguing, and, with the aim of understanding the choices better, I reached half of my respondents.

The majority of those who chose sitcoms over comedy movies did so for reasons such as the watch-time being shorter (20 mins versus 120 mins), the familiarity of the characters and the situations they go through, knowing what to expect, being able to hop into the narrative faster and passive watching. In contrast, the respondents with a preference for comedy movies chose it for the following reasons: ‘the lack of necessary commitment, the one-off’ness, the ease to satisfy the crave for comedy, the fact that the story is conclusive’.

It is worth mentioning that the majority of the respondents revealed that they still watched the other type of comedy even if it’s not their go-to. As it turns out, although the popular preference leans towards sitcoms, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for comedy movies anymore. People don’t choose one or the other when it comes to consuming media – they consume all media. This means that if Hollywood were to make good quality comedy movies, there would be demand.

So, I shifted my attention to Hollywood studios and producers. Why weren’t they investing in comedy movies when people obviously craved it? Just like Charlie Chaplin helped the people cope with the stress and the recession of their time, comedy movies could very well do the same for us at this current time.

If not because of the demand, then why?

Comedic genius Judd Apatow, who produced movies like Bridesmaids, Pineapple Express, 40-Year Old Virgin, Freaks and Geeks, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and many more, said “A lot of great comedy writers are going to television instead of sitting at home and trying to write a script for a film (due to studios not buying as many scripts anymore). While this could be a potential explanation for our results, it also tells the story of something bigger. It appears that the problem here lies with the studios wanting to invest in more guaranteed money-makers – blockbusters, like action movies or superhero movies.

This could be partially because comedies rely on cultural specificity, meaning that it is difficult to translate language-based comedy or culture-based comedy to other regions. Thus, these films will make less money than action or superhero movies, which rely on the universal appeal of blowing stuff up and superpowers. Moreover, with Marvel movies including comedic lines and storylines within them, it makes it even more difficult for comedy movies to compete in terms of box office revenue.

On this topic, Seth Rogen said that Marvel movies changed the comedy world, with some of the franchise movies, such as Ant-Man and Thor: Ragnarok, being comedy at their core. This changes the expectation from comedy, for both the filmmakers and the audience – they expect something on top of the comedy. 

A final possible explanation could be that people might simply not have the urge to seek out comedy that much anymore. And let alone pay for it, when it is awfully accessible with your smartphone for free. We are being bombarded with an endless stream of entertaining content, whether it is seeking out meme pages on Instagram, watching vine compilations on YouTube as your daily dose of serotonin, or going on TikTok and scrolling and laughing for hours on end.

It is the film studios’ responsibility to give the people what they want.

However, this doesn’t mean we don’t want or need comedy movies on our big screens anymore. The collective experience of watching a good comedy in a giant room with a bunch of strangers is something you don’t get in front of the TV in your living room, or through your phone. Coming out of a pandemic will very well be something that people will want to experience again. It is the film studios’ responsibility to give the people what they want.


 Cover by: Call Me Fred  

Edited by: Emma Chiaratti

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