The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Remember when Comedies were Funny? A Lament for (and about) Superbad

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

Image The advanced screening of Superbad that I was lucky enough to attend this week was nothing short of an event. People literally lined up around the block to get in, creating a crowd easily three times larger than the theater could hold. Once inside, we were treated to live stand-up comedy, followed by a Superbad trivia contest (for knowing that Judd Apatow was the producer, I won a whole array of swag!) followed by the movie itself. The audience just LOVED this movie, hooting, hollering and doubling over in laughter from start to finish. In fact, their (the audience’s) unquestionable adoration of the film would surely indicate that it’s without a doubt the best movie of the year, if not for two mitigating factors:

1. The screening was FREE
2. It was one of those “hip” theaters, meaning beer was served, and most people were drunk.

As for me, I sat there tragically sober with a $15.00 personal pizza in my system (amazingly…despite the free screening…the theater still made money hand over fist!) and for the life of me COULD NOT understand what was going on. Have our expectations for comedies sunk so low that we can’t even recognize it anymore?

Please don’t misunderstand me here: Superbad is a funny movie. There are several great scenes, and one line in particular that I still can’t think about without chuckling (hint: it comes right after the finger-sucking). There is even a great deal of very pleasant (if even more disturbing) eye candy. However, at many points, it was just as formulaic, hackneyed and toilet-obsessed as every other teen sex romp comedy you’ve ever seen. Are there “hilarious” misunderstandings? You bet. At least one needlessly gross bodily function gag? Is there ever! How about the requisite “good drunk goes bad” scenes that involve vomiting and passing out? In spades! From my seat, Superbad was a solid B to B minus, which is not bad. However, someone passing by the theater and overhearing the reactions would have thought we were watching the single greatest comedy event of the past decade.

I have written about this time and time again, but nothing puzzles and saddens me more than when things that are merely “good” become accepted as transcendently “great.”  What does it say about our culture today that it takes so little to keep us amused?

There are those who would argue that the problem here is that, after over a hundred years of filmmaking, all good ideas are taken, and that everything now is in some form copied from another source anyway. That argument states that, in the early days, filmmakers went forward with the complete freedom that comes from trailblazing; everything they did was new, and so it was by definition unique. A pie in the face on screen might represent the first time a pie was EVER thrown in someone’s face on screen, and so it was funny. However, that same gag today would be so trite and overdone that it would have the opposite effect. According to this school of thought, filmmakers today fight a very uphill battle, trying to make something new and fun in a world where everything has been done a dozen times before, and so anything that “works” at all should be considered a success. Fair enough.

But I think the OPPOSITE argument is also valid. Those early pioneers did indeed have the luxury of doing things for the first time, but they also did so with incredible limitations, both in technology as well as with society. Those filmmakers were not able to approach the level of visual sophistication that we have today with our lighting, special effects and computer animation, and they were not allowed to broach the subjects and situations that are commonplace to us today. As our culture broadens and relaxes (as a whole, overall) it should truly open up new avenues all the time for what can be shown and done in movies. That’s the theory anyway.

Studies have been done recently to track the evolution of television, and by extension how we watch it. It’s been shown conclusively that, over the years, both the programming and the viewer have grown exponentially more sophisticated.  The best shows on television from yesterday (let’s say Perry Mason, or The Honeymooners) featured linear storylines and very simplistic plots. It’s no wonder it was found back then that brain activity while watching TV was next to zero. Modern shows by contrast (for example Lost, Heroes, or The Office) are complex and multi-faceted, with several storylines happening at once. Hell, even if you compare BAD shows from the two eras (Leave it to Beaver and Queen for a Day vs. Two and a Half Men and Survivor), you’ll see far more depth and variety in today’s shows. Clearly, as much as we try to hide it, we ARE getting smarter as a species (at least in our programming consumption). And yet movies keep getting dumber!

Look, I know that there are smart, sophisticated movies that find their way to release these days that could never have been done in earlier times. That will always be true, no matter when that sentence is written or read. However, there are just as many movies that could NEVER get made today due to the amount of sophistication, complexity and nuance they contain (The Big Sleep, Network, and And Justice for All to name three), and a quick look at the box office numbers for this year show time and time again that edgy smart movies fail in favor of bombastic and familiar popcorn fare.

I am all for fun summer movies, and God knows I spent more than my fair share of time and money at the theaters this year. But my fear is that, each time we propel these movies to the top of the charts, the more risk averse the studios become. How many more times will they be willing to take a risk on a truly original comedy (remember that executives thought the Zucker brothers were CRAZY when they made Airplane!) when people seem so mollified by the same thing again and again? How many more examples of great TV comedies like Arrested Development getting canned for poor ratings will they endure before studios start listening solely to Perez Hilton and his ilk for “inspiration”?

By all means, go out and enjoy Superbad if you’re of the mind to do so. Chances are you’ll have a good time. But at the same time, take a minute to dream of the day when that name will only be the name of a movie, and not a description of the state of Hollywood creativity as well.