It’s Time to Rethink How We Review Comedy

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: comedy is the most subjective genre and we should be more aware of that when we review it.)

Bold statement coming at you: we need to rethink the way we review comedic films. I know this sounds odd coming from someone who literally survives off of being allowed to have entertainment opinions (thanks, internet), but comedy is the most subjective genre, and we need to start treating it as such. When it comes to movies, the blanket hate for certain comedies is shocking. 

If you’re wondering what qualifies me to have these opinions, I have a history with comedy. For nine years, I had my hands in all types: I did stand-up, improv, sketch, wrote three comedic plays, and helped run a comedy theatre in Chicago. Personally, I think capturing comedy onscreen is harder than capturing it onstage, and I’m going to tackle this through the lens of experience. 

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Rotten Tomatoes

No matter how you feel about Rotten Tomatoes, it’s undeniable that people look to their scores for film recommendations. It’s the culmination of opinions and the percentage score is something we, as former schoolchildren, can appreciate. Personally, I take Rotten Tomatoes with a grain of salt, and I have a strict rule to discount any film that’s older than the website. However, going to the movies is expensive, and it’s a good source to gauge whether or not something is worth your time. I’m not 16 anymore… I don’t have the luxury to just “check out” Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.

When it comes to Rotten Tomatoes, I have a system. If it’s a drama, I won’t typically settle for anything under 90% (if you’re going to make me cry, you damn well better earn it). If it’s a horror or an action, I’ll drop down to 70% (for the record, if it’s something I’m dying to see, no low score will stop me). However, if it’s a comedy, I won’t even check.

There are a lot of factors that go into filmmaking, but when it comes to comedy, we tend to judge based on one thing: did we laugh? The problem with reviewing comedy is there’s no middle ground. In other genres, it’s easier to pick things apart and appreciate certain filmmaking aspects, but it’s rare to leave a comedy thinking “that cinematography was magnificent”. There are exceptions, but ultimately, it comes down to laughs. Interestingly, when a movie falls into a subgenre, it becomes instantly easier to critique. Rom-coms and action comedies aren’t required to have a laugh a minute, and therefore have the luxury of relying on their other sides to thrive.

The problem with judging a film solely on laughs is that everyone has a different range of what tickles their funny bone, and it can be a fine (and weird) line. For example, I don’t go in for fart jokes but I do like lowbrow humor (in seventh grade, I watched American Pie every single day). I love roasts but I hate watching people get physically hurt (except the Jackass guys… they’re great).

My absolute favorite director in the history of comedy is David Wain, which means my brand of comedy is Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together. Now, I know that my tastes are not for everyone. If you love comedy, you might not love David Wain, and I think even David Wain would understand that. It’s not like action, where if you love action, you loved Mission: Impossible – Fallout (unless you didn’t, in which case, I don’t think you love action at all).

Circumstance

Another important factor in comedy is circumstance. The way you go into a comedy is more important than nearly any other genre. Similar to how you’d prefer an action movie on a big screen or a horror movie in the dark, comedy depends on your mood and your company.

One of the highest rated comedies of this year was Game Night (84%), starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. Personally, I didn’t like it. This was especially disappointing because I loved the cast (although, Chelsea Peretti was underused) and was pleasantly surprised by Jesse Plemons’ comedic performance. That being said, I barely laughed, and I absolutely believe this comes down to the odd circumstance in which I saw the film.

I had just done a stand-up show and the host and I got to talking and all of a sudden they were coming with me to a movie. This is the one and only time I ever met this person. We also went to the theatre with the intention of seeing a different movie, but it was sold out. With the wrong mindset and wrong viewing partner, I left feeling disappointed in the film.

Casting is a big part of comedy enjoyment, too. If you put Kate McKinnon in your movie, I am going to love it. Confession: I prefer the new Ghostbusters to the original. Now, before you deem me unworthy to even discuss film, I didn’t see Ghostbusters (1984) until I was an adult. I watched it on a whim with a roommate in the middle of a weekday. The new movie, on the other hand, starred four women I admire very much so I saw it with purpose and with people who share my love. How could I not prefer it? Am I saying it’s better? Of course not! It’s all just circumstantial.

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Bad (?) Comedies

Let’s focus on some fairly recent comedies that were universally disliked and try to figure out why: Baywatch, Rough Night, and Happytime Murders. I enjoyed all of these flops, partially because I love the casts and partially because I saw them under the right circumstance.

Zac Efron is a wildly underrated comedic actor (his pretty face makes it hard for us to view him as funny, which is a shame). Dwayne Johnson has already proven himself to be comically-inclined. So what went wrong with Baywatch? First and foremost, it was advertised incorrectly. The trailer made it seem like an action comedy, but it was incredibly raunchy and over-the-top, which certainly isn’t for everyone. Expectation is damaging in many film cases, but it can really kill a comedy. Baywatch might be gratuitous and ridiculous, but it’s an undeniably entertaining movie. Good? Maybe not. Rewatchable? Absolutely.

Despite the killer cast, Rough Night was not perceived well by critics. The film had some issues and some problematic moments, but I still enjoyed it. This is probably because I saw it with hoard of friends who are obsessed with the cast and were excited at the prospect of an all-female comedy. Maybe if we had more comedies starring women (that are not rom-coms), my friends and I would’ve judged this film a little more harshly.

Thankfully, female-led comedies are starting to become more frequent (last year’s Girls Trip was awesome), but they’re not being made fast enough for us to get picky. The question is, does my need to see funny women onscreen and my positive external experience with Rough Night deem me unqualified or more qualified to review it? I laughed the whole time, but there’s no way to know if I would have loved it alone or if there were more options to choose from.

The most recent example of unfair comedy treatment is The Happytime Murders. While it’s not the best raunchy puppet movie I’ve ever seen, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh. Brian Henson, Melissa McCarthy, and lowbrow humor are a combination that I was going to enjoy, no matter what. I’m certainly not going to tell you to seek it out for yourself no matter what (we have to know the difference between what makes a good comedy and what makes the kind of comedy we like to watch), but if I were to review it, it’d probably be one of the more positive reactions. It’s sad that this movie has to be branded with a 21% when it delivered exactly what the trailer promised.

Classic Comedies

If you google “Best Comedies Of All Time”, the first five movies that come up are Airplane!, Groundhog Day, This Is Spinal Tap, Some Like It Hot, and Anchorman. Now, these are all undeniably great films, but the one I’ve seen the most is Anchorman. Not because I think it’s the best, but because it’s the only one I was old enough to see in theaters. Comedy is a “here and now” genre. Of course, each of these movies basically reframed comedy in some way (heck, Groundhog Day invented a whole new “day repeat” subgenre). These classics were all made beautifully, but there’s a reason the most recent movie on the list is 14 years old: most comedy doesn’t stand the test of time.

Not only is comedic preference based on an individual, but also on time. Our collective comedic tastes change, especially depending on the state of the world. With the current wave of the #MeToo movement, the old comedy standard of using women as sex objects won’t fly anymore.

Take a look at Revenge of the Nerds, the 1984 classic that is still prevalent today (Pixar’s Monsters University is practically a remake for kids). Many of us grew up with that movie, never questioning the moment one of the “heroes” wears a mask and has sex with a sorority girl, leading her to believe he’s her jock boyfriend. The films treats this moment as a victory for the woman, who is finally receiving real pleasure, and all is well. But the thing is, that’s rape. He is raping her and it’s made worse by the fact that no one involved with this film thought of it that way.

Not only does our collective taste in comedy change through the ages, but what we find funny on a personal level alters as we reach different stages of our lives. This year’s Book Club clearly didn’t resonate with everyone, but older women found it refreshing and hilarious. No 30-something man should be expected to see that movie and write a rave review.

When it comes to time and the “here and now” experience, people also desperately cling to the comedies they grew up with, despite how poorly they aged. If I were to watch American Pie for the first time today, I would absolutely hate it. It’s sexist and icky, but nostalgia wins every time.

Girls Night Trailer

What Now?

I’m not saying we should abolish the idea of reviewing comedy. As a comedian and comedy writer, I’m not trying to dodge criticism (what am I, a male comedian?). I’m just saying we need to be a little more open-minded before we bash something or chalk it up to a percentage. Honestly, I don’t have a solution. The only thing we can do is be more open-minded and consider who a comedy is being made for before we reduce it to just being bad. And remember, laughter is infectious, so at the very least, go watch comedies with your friends.

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