Hollywood movie studios have stopped making comedies. Thanks, Seth Rogen.
The graph of the box-office performance of Seth Rogen comedies is a dismal sight. Corrected for inflation, Knocked Up (2007) turned out to be his biggest hit, with $149 million in domestic takings. (That’s $195 million in today’s dollars.) As recently as five years ago, Rogen was still a huge draw; Neighbors, in 2014, earned $150 million, or $162 million in today’s dollars.
Since then? The Night Before and Neighbors 2 flopped. This spring, Long Shot marked his first star turn on screen in three years. It made $30 million. That’s less return to the studio than what it costs to put out a movie in wide release in the first place. Rogen’s movies are cheap and yet they’re losing a lot of money, which is why he had to release Long Shot via the mini-major Lionsgate, which, along with another mini-major, STX, and Megan Ellison’s latest plaything, United Artists Releasing, is the movies’ version of a last-chance saloon, or maybe an island of misfit toys.
I don’t mean to pick on Rogen, whom I usually find very funny. If he’s not succeeding, no one is. He’s more or less the biggest comedy name in Hollywood — and he can’t sell enough tickets for a movie to break even. True, his shtick has perhaps started to wear thin (Long Shot looked a bit like Knocked Up, only with Charlize Theron playing the Katherine Heigl role and Rogen playing an angry-woke political journalist in the mold of Chapo Trap House, which is to comedy approximately what Alpo is to steak). But Rogen has tried all sorts of different modes, from Funny People to Green Hornet to Observe and Report (all of which I liked, by the way), and the audience wasn’t interested. He went back to what he thought was his strength and failed anyway. Rogen appears to be over as an onscreen movie star, though you can contain your tears by considering the large checks he will continue to cash for his voiceover work. (Even Rogen’s haters must concede that his voice is funny.)
Rogen is symptomatic of a surprising trend in Hollywood: Comedy, as a genre, is basically dead. The five major studios (down from six, since Disney bought Fox) have almost stopped making comedies. The biggest comedy success at the box office this year, at number 18 on the list of the year’s biggest hits, is Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral: one of several modestly successful comedies aimed at black audiences. Last year’s biggest comedy, Crazy Rich Asians (which was more like a luxury catalogue crossed with a love story than a comedy), finished 17th on the year. After that you have to go all the way down to Night School, at number 39, to find a comedy on the box-office chart. Comedies tend to be cheap to make, and yet you can lose a lot of money on them. Mindy Kaling’s hyped Sundance comedy Late Night, which cost $13 million plus a reported $35 million in distribution costs, looks like it’s going to lose more than $20 million, maybe even $30 million, for Amazon Studios.
Comedy does fine when you layer it under a superhero tale (Deadpool 2, Shazam) or put it in either an animated feature (Toy Story 4) or a big-budget fantasy spectacle (Aladdin, Jumanji). But the Farrelly Brothers (well, one Farrelly, anyway) and Kevin Hart are making deeply earnest pictures such as Green Book and The Upside. Some of the funniest people in America, such as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, no longer seem interested in movies.
Meanwhile, comedy is not only thriving on television, it is providing so many great options it’s difficult to keep track of it all, from the philosophical fantasy of The Good Place (NBC) to the romcom-sitcom of Catastrophe (Amazon Prime) to the moral abyss of Barry (HBO) to the many great standup specials on Netflix and elsewhere. Comedy is doing great.
Yet the shows mostly draw minuscule audiences: TV Comedy is an indicator of our social atomization, of bowling alone. The shared experience of spending 90 minutes sharing laughs with 500 other people is increasingly a rare one. That’s a shame. You’ll probably laugh heartier in a room full of people who get the same joke than you will if you’re watching by yourself on the couch while your spouse is asleep. In a theater you may also, for the length of the movie anyway, feel connected with your neighbors. Sofa comedy is in a different category than howling along with Dodgeball or Talladega Nights on the big screen.
It may be that the Cambrian explosion of different types of comedy on television has pushed us away from one another. Saturday Night Live is now targeted solely to left-liberals, and that works for the show because it no longer needs to draw a huge audience to succeed; it merely needs buzz. Same with the Australian standup Hannah Gadsby, who is a Netflix sensation though her overall audience is probably tiny. If you find her funny, even a woke big-screen comedy like Late Night is going to strike you as far too soft and bland. Barry is much edgier than anything that might sell $100 million worth of tickets at the multiplex. It’s hard not to think something has been lost if the 100-year-plus tradition of America going to the movies for a laugh dies off completely. The good news is that just about no Hollywood trend lasts forever. In five years I hope I’ll be writing a Seth Rogen comeback story.