Spoiler Alert: Hangover 2 is powerfully unfunny, a cash grab on par with Home Alone 2 in terms of bafflingly recycling the jokes and premises of the original success. It even starts with a head-slappingly literal “It happened again…” I went in with low expectations, not caring much for the first, yet did not even crack a smile once through the two hours of forced gags that pushed only the boundaries of taste, but never innovation, cleverness or wit.
The painfully plotted and paced film allowed a lot of time for reflection, and a thought struck me: even the most third-rate, way-past-prime episode of The Office or The Simpsons can still elicit even a few chuckles. The lamest Colbert Report of the month will still make me laugh out loud once or twice. Type “people falling down” into YouTube and you’re guaranteed fleeting hysterics. And yet here is a giant, glossy, expensive movie, one that is generating hundreds of millions of dollars and titillating the lowest common denominator the world over, that can’t even bring a smile to my face. And I want to laugh, trust me.
Hangover 2 is far from the only culprit. From the best-of-the-worst (Bridesmaids) to the positively unwatchable (Magruber) it seems exceptionally rare that a feature length comedy can even hold a candle laugh-wise to the most average episode of, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even a heavily-hit amateur online sketch. Could it be symptomatic of the feature-length film as a medium? For a feature, there is requisite a narrative that can hold an audience’s attention and disbelief for a couple hours, so it is bound to a certain level of suspense that must propel the story forward. As such, many if not most comedies take a very basic, funny premise and feel the need to inject the plot with the trappings of other genres: car chases, hokey romance or ludicrous plot twists all come immediately to mind.
Context and expectations play significant roles in generating an emotional response from an audience as well. People watch TV when they’re tired, or bored, or eating dinner. The guard is down, and moments of wit or spontaneity have much more power. But for audiences paying twelve bucks for a theatre ticket (and forget the mortgage needed to cover the popcorn) then there is a much higher onus on the film to meet expectations. Mainstream audiences demand bang for their buck, which the Hollywood machine attempts to satiate with big distractions as opposed to investing their time into rich screenwriting and dynamic characters. Sure, we want spectacle, but so often the best comedy lives in the smallest places. So while writers and performers constantly swing for the fences, they neglect the subtlety and intelligence that delivers bigger laughs on smaller screens.
The size of film also demands that there is more guarantee of a return on investment for the studios and producers in the business of movie making. When there are many millions of dollars involved, the studio execs writing the cheques feel they need to play it safe. TV and digital media is nowhere near as constrained, and take greater risks with much greater reward. The comedy features that have really worked in recent memory, like Napolean Dynamite or Superbad for example, have done so by being brave weirdos, likely rejected by countless studios before striking a chord with audiences hungry for genuine surprise, wit and honest characters. But with a franchise as valuable as The Hangover on the line, creative types are very quick to lean on “Here we go again..” groaners to protect their valuable property.
Time and time again, simplicity proves invaluable in creating working comedy. Even the first Hangover – for as unremarkable as I found it – really connected with audiences because the premise could not be more easily explained: some dudes have to figure out what happened after blacking out in Vegas. Internet and TV programming is limited by time, and as such have to work from a smaller, simpler place. TV writers aren’t able to let their stories run out of hand in the same way as film, because there is a rigid 22-minute frame to work within. YouTube-ready sketches (done best by Funny or Die, or the Lonely Island crew on SNL) take a funny idea and distill it to its essence. The sketches don’t have to lean on genre or narrative conventions, and can be as bold, simple and weird as they want. A good joke shouldn’t be unnecessarily crowded, and it typically takes genius on the level of the Coen brothers to keep a plot as labyrinthian as The Big Lewbowski consistently hilarious. Even cartoons that take an audience to the heights of absurdity must limit their narratives to short, simple three-act structures.
Finally – while I will concede that there have been many, many very funny movies that incredibly crude – the limiting censorship of mainstream television forces writers to more cleverly employ the English language, which is frequently where the best humour lives. The gates have swung wide open for R-rated comedies, and writers have come to lean on dicks and “fucks” as par for the oft-misogynist universes they create. In turn, lazy writing has created lazy audiences. I mean, is “What the FUCK?!?!” ever really the funniest thing a character can say? I must have heard it at least a dozen times during Hangover 2, and select half-heads throughout the theatre laughed every time. Before ultra-profane became the mainstream norm, film writing was more akin to TV writing, with spontaneous indulgences in the taboo providing exciting, hilarious results. With no taboo, in a world in which exposed penises have become comic devices in countless features, the audience’s imagination can’t be engaged in the same way. Think of how brilliantly Seinfeld danced the English language around the dirtiest subject matter.
Of course, there are dozens of exceptions to all the rules and observations I’ve just illustrated. Funny, crude movies still happen all the time, but it’s more often than not that the real laughs are living in the smallest places.