In 2007 I wrote a short paper about how film audiences might have driven a shift for a new type of comedy: the R-rated comedy. Since then I continue to find myself going back to this paper and wonder if this has now become a permanent change. Five years ago I quoted Judd Apatow as Hollywood’s new lord of LOL hits, and in 2007 “studio execs…speak of making comedy in a ‘post-Judd world.’” That’s big.
Creating blockbuster comedies like The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad, Apatow has proven “there’s a certain style and tone of comedy movies that people like,” (Hollywood Reporter). This style of R-rated comedy replaces funny exaggerated stereotypical characters with more relatable actors and situations.
Some could argue that technology has given people a greater opportunity to share their stories using cheaper tools, but technology gets blamed for impacting everything. I asked myself in 2007, “has the era of Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler comedies become boring as they venture into more dramatic roles?” You can decide, or believe that these actors are reacting to an industry shift because the audience demands more raunchy, realistic humor. Now that it’s 2012, I see a slight shift in Sandler’s career, like acting in Apatow’s 2009 Funny People, which was funny but set to a very dark and serious situation. He continues to do comedy, just toned down from his days of Little Nicky and The Waterboy.
When it comes to comedy, I want to see something I can relate to. The R-rated comedy continues to be funny because directors and writers illicit a reaction from the crowd by showcasing situations we can relate to, and stays away from the stereotypical leading man/woman who exerts all that is found in a popular high school athlete or cheerleader. We, as the audience find ourselves in these same situations, and that is funny. Rolling Stone reviewed Superbad as “powered by a comedy dream team, this shit faced American Graffiti dares to show it has a heart.” These movies, and Apatow, are also becoming brand builders for actors like Seth Rogen and Steve Carell.
Not only are “raunchy-yet-resonant laughfests” (Entertainment Weekly) making us double over in hysterics, they are also very commercially viable. In a 2007 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Sony reflected on the sell-ability of these comedies: “Before then, people were afraid of these hard, R-rated comedies with really out-there subject matter, but suddenly that is a positive.” Sony reported a loss of $134.8 million loss in 2006, but a positive income of $23 million in 2007, confirming that Superbad helped move them out of the red.
Positive revenues are one way to test audience reaction, or to confirm what you already knew was a winner. In a 2007 Rolling Stone interview, Apatow reflects on his past television flops, “Maybe there’s not many people who get this – that this is a niche, like a college band.” Pressure from television producers who could not move away from the standard template, helped push Apatow to film to produce the (then) niche comedy The 40-Year Old Virgin, which ultimately “usher[ed] in a new wave of foul-mouthed R-rated comedies,” (Rolling Stone).
Back in 2007, I predicted this shift to the R-rated comedy was here to stay-which I think has proven true after five years. You can see this from revenue and just the adoption of catch phrases, the audience is continuing to demand raunchier, realistic humor.