The Unfortunate Rise of Dumbed-Down Hollywood Comedies

Kurt Thurber


All right, Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and Tyler Perry walk into a bar and the bartender says, why the lazy pop-culture references, the pedantic hijinks of men not wanting to grow-up and the simple caricatures of African-Americans and women?


Heard that joke before? Let’s try this one. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Lowbrow comedy. Lowbrow comedy who? It’s lowbrow comedy everywhere because it’s easy to write and cheap to produce. The entertainment industry is bigger than ever. Therein lies the problem:  Hollywood has produced lowbrow comedy for every generation,  and it now has the capability to produce dumbed-down movies in every genre tenfold. 


Comedy is subjective. When done right, it gives a platform to leave a lasting impression on the viewer, whether it is the absurdity of war (take the Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup), the pangs of infertility (Raising Arizona with Nicolas Cage) or a commentary on the measure of success in a capitalist society (The Jerk). When comedy is performed in order to have the broadest juvenile appeal, it turns into a vacuous performance that dulls the senses.  

Judd Apatow has been involved in many “successful” (i.e., profitable)  comedies, including his rightfully lauded 40 Year Old Virgin, as writer and director. The movie explores the role of sex as an indicator for social stature and male identity. Steve Carell  gives a touching and humorous performance.  

However, Apatow goes for broke in making hackneyed, self-referential movies. Knocked-Up is an endless barrage of pithy pop-culture one-liners, a terrible Mr. Skin motif and sappy “we-dare-you-not-to-like-our-movie” because the protagonist found the meaning of life by becoming a father. Funny People, in which Apatow tries to convince an audience how hard it is being funny and materially successful by writing and directing a plodding movie in which Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen deal with death and  love while struggling with the burden of being funny and well-off. Also, the lead character has terminal cancer, which he overcomes, and in the process does not get to win back his ex-wife. C’mon John and Jane Public, can’t you see Apatow literally kills himself to write such intellectual fare as  Pineapple Express and Don’t Mess with the Zohan? There is no laugh better than a guilty one.


Adam Sandler, star of Funny People, does not even try to be self-referential. It seems Sandler, who was childishly charming in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, just takes a theme from a Hallmark card, adds flatulence, marijuana and Rob Schneider to the mix, and voila, a movie is made… and another… and another.  Sandler who was quirky and edgy in Punch-Drunk Love, has gone backwards as an entertainer of merit. He is content to play the same one-dimensional characters from his time on Saturday Night Live (actually that is an insult to “Canteen Boy” and “Opera Man”). The actor  seems content to play zero-dimensional characters as seen in Little Nicky, Grown-ups, and Jack & Jill. Sandler is in the process of making a Grown-ups 2 and a possible movie version of the board game, Candyland. If anything, he is consistent when trying to find the lowest common denominator for comedic appeal.  


Then there is Tyler Perry, who makes the equivalent of the Ernest movies for the African-American community (fun fact: both Ernest and Madea spent time in the big house). Perry began writing plays specifically for African-American audiences. This success led to big-screen prominence with 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman,  in which he stars as the cross-dressing, life-knowledge-spouting Madea.  He has taken the concept of the “magical Negro” (a term popularized by renowned filmmaker Spike Lee) to dizzying heights with a mixture of homespun platitudes, religious devotion and the reprimanding of all ancillary characters with problems (drug users and dealers, adulterers, the mentally handicapped,  etc.) without much respect for property rights.

There is no one formula for a smart comedy. Todd Phillips who directed the insanely fun Old School managed to make Zach Galifianakis unfunny in Due Date and The Hangover II.  Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and Will Ferrell do not make comedic gold at every turn. They do, however, attempt to engage the audience on multiple levels. It is not to say that Apatow has not been involved in other smart comedies. He was smart enough to produce Bridesmaids. While Tyler Perry’s movies do not activate most brain synapses, they do highlight relevant issues that are important to the African-American community, which is admirable .


The highbrow gripe with Apatow, Sandler, Perry and others of their ilk is that they have  been given the opportunity, after making millions upon millions of dollars, to venture beyond their weary formulaic approaches to  comedies   and   create something smart and intelligent. Instead, they always  opt for the banana peel, whoopee cushion and pie-in-the-face without fail.


Author Bio:

Kurt Thurber grew up in Caroline County, the only landlocked county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After matriculating through the public school system with no distinctive accomplishments whatsoever, he attended Mary Washington College, graduate school at Villanova University and completed a successful apprenticeship as a masked vigilante crime-fighter. He is ready for a highbrow discourse on any number of subjects. Did Han Solo shoot first? Heck and yes. What was MacGyver's first name? Angus. Can anyone put baby in a corner? Yes, Patrick Swayze from heaven. Read more of Kurt Thurber's musings at his blog

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