Studios Have Abandoned Big Comedies, But Laughs Thrive In The Indie Arthouse World Of 2023 

Where have all the comedies gone? Think about that and sing it to yourself to the tune of Paula Cole's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" We used to be a proper country, inundated with the works of filmmakers like Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, and Paul Feig, starring big name talent like Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Melissa McCarthy, and Jason Segel, just to name a few of the actors who led big studio comedies that were hitting the big screen left and right. Sadly, times have changed, and it's hard to find a successor to "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," the next "Superbad" or "Bridesmaids," or even another "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." 

This year alone, you'd be hard-pressed to find movies that are just straight up comedies. Sure, "Barbie" is incredibly funny, but it's not your average straight-up comedy. "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" has a surprising amount of laughs, but that's a tentpole action fantasy that just so happens to have some hilarious material. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" is a total blast, but it's another high concept comic book movie infused with comedy. Movies like these are blockbusters first and comedies second. 

Then you have the likes of "Cocaine Bear" and "Renfield," which strive for laughs but struggle to balance quality jokes with the primary focus of their narrative. When movies like that are making it onto the lists of the year's best comedies, you know we're in somewhat of a drought of laughter. Basically, the only quality major, straight-up studio comedy we got this year (that wasn't a family film) was "No Hard Feelings," which was superb, but it's just not enough to scratch that itch for laughs. 

However, comedies are still thriving if you know where to find them, and right now, that's in the indie arthouse world. Even though studios have abandoned big comedies with all-star casts, they're still putting out a handful of niche comedies that tickle the funny bones of film festival audiences and those willing to take a risk on promising, rising talent still carving out a name for themselves. 

Sign up for Theater Camp

This trend might seem like another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic taking a chunk out of box office potential, as audiences have opted to stay home more often and wait for movies to pop up on VOD or in one of their many streaming subscription libraries. But honestly, big studio comedies were on the way out in the years just before the pandemic hit, and Covid merely shoveled the dirt on the open grave. Thankfully, the indie arthouse world has kept the laughter alive with up and coming stars who will hopefully keep filling the void left by studio comedy scarcity. 

Just take a look at "Theater Camp," the indie comedy directed by "The Bear" season 2 co-star Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, who also co-wrote the script with cast members Ben Platt and Noah Galvin. The film takes a mockumentary approach to the story of a summer theater camp in the Adirondack Mountains that suddenly ends up being run by a clueless crypto bro (Jimmy Tatro) after his mother (Amy Sedaris), the camp's owner, ends up in a coma, forcing him to deal with a variety of stage personalities that he has no idea how to handle. This includes Ben Platt and Molly Gordon as a pair of co-dependent collaborators, Ayo Edibiri as a total fraud trying to pretend she knows a lick about theater, and an entire camp of enthusiastic theater kids. 

Largely improvised and incredibly funny, the film has the vibe of the kind of comedies we used to get in theaters once a month. This one was picked up by Searchlight Pictures at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, got released in theaters over the summer, and it can now be found streaming on Hulu. 

Bottoms is top notch absurdity

Stepping into the satisfying absurd territory that was once inhabited by the likes of "Anchorman: The Legends of Ron Burgundy," we've got "Bottoms." Director Emma Seligman previously described the film as being "in the vein of 'Wet Hot American Summer' but more for a Gen-Z queer audience," but when you watch "Bottoms," you can see flairs of "Anchorman" in there, as the world in which the movie exists comes with a level of absurdity that must be accepted in order to hang out with it. Maybe "Hot Rod" would be a more apt comparison, even though that movie was a box office bomb. But you get the point!

In "Bottoms," which Seligman co-wrote with the film's star Rachel Sennott, a pair of high school misfits (played by Sennott and Ayo Edibiri) start a high school fight club disguised as a self-defense class in order to meet girls and lose their virginity (ah, that old chestnut). However, when the fight club takes off, they soon find themselves in over their heads and keeping track of too many lies to maintain the facade. Oh, and some of the school's other students start fighting each other in the name of self-defense, creating total chaos. There's a stellar ensemble cast of up and coming talent driving the movie, as well as a hilarious supporting turn from former NFL star Marshawn Lynch. 

"Bottoms" isn't exactly an indie, since it hails from MGM, but it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year and got the traditional indie release model with limited screens gradually spreading to a wide release. The strikes by both the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild certainly didn't help spread the word to turn it into a bigger hit, but it was a critical darling, and word of mouth helped turn it into a moderate success. "Bottoms" is available to stream on MGM+.

Rye Lane and Shortcomings bring the romantic laughs

Much like comedies, romance has been dead at the box office for some time too, with most romantic comedies being relegated to streaming unless they have big names like George Clooney and Julia Roberts in "Ticket to Paradise" or a high concept like "The Lost City" with Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock. But the indie arthouse world has always been a place where romantic comedies have sizzled, and this year is no exception. Straight from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, we have both "Rye Lane" and "Shortcomings."

"Rye Lane" (seen above) doesn't exactly have a direct comedic counterpart, but Raine Allen-Miller's directorial debut with a script by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia is funnier than most of the movies deemed comedies this year. On top of that, you have such wonderful chemistry between the film's two leads, David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah, who play two strangers who have a "Before Sunrise" meet-cute in South London and reminisce about their recent break-ups while slowly falling for each other. It has touches of "Love Actually," which is why Colin Firth has a little cameo at a Mexican restaurant called Guac'tually, and it's both charming and funny.

Sony Pictures Classics
Meanwhile, "Shortcomings" will work for the "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" audience, as "WandaVision" co-star Randall Park makes his directorial debut from Adrian Tomine's script, which is actually based upon his comic of the same name. In the movie, you have Justin H. Min ("After Yang") as Ben, a struggling California filmmaker struggling in his romantic life after his girlfriend moves to New York for an internship, leaving him to contemplate what he really wants out of life. Aside from the laughs that come from Ben's job at managing an arthouse movie theater, the film is boosted by a hilarious supporting turn by Sherry Cola. 

After getting picked up at Sundance, "Rye Lane" was picked up by Searchlight Pictures but sent to straight to streaming on Hulu (though it did get a theatrical release in the United Kingdom). Meanwhile, "Shortcomings" was given a late summer theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics, who knows how to pick great films, but often doesn't do enough to market them to a wider audience. Since Sony doesn't have their own streaming service, the movie must be rented or bought on either digital or physical media. Again, the WGA and SAG strikes kept these from getting properly promoted, but even with those channels available, these are the kind of movies you have to seek out, because they're not being hammered over your head with huge marketing campaigns.

Joy Ride is the new Bridesmaids
If "Bridesmaids" is the kind of comedy you're missing these days, take a trip with "Joy Ride." Much like "Bridesmaids," the film directed by Adele Lim and written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong (an executive producer on "Family Guy") and Teresa Hsiao follows a group of women who suffer through a series of mishaps and shenanigans as successful young Asian woman Audrey (Ashley Park), raised by a white adoptive family, takes a detour from her business trip to track down her biological mother in China. Joined by her rambunctious childhood best friend Lolo (Sherry Cola in another hilarious role), now-famous college friend Kat (Stephanie Hsu of "Everything Everywhere All At Once"), and Lolo's awkward, eccentric cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), the trip is packed with sex, drugs, and rock and roll K-Pop.

But much like "Bridesmaids," there's also a big beating heart at the center, as Audrey comes to terms with her place as an Asian woman raised by a white family and the truth about her biological family. Plus, the dynamic between Audrey and Lolo is just as strong as the bond between Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Paul Feig's comedic masterpiece. Add in the fact that it allows a diverse group of women to partake in the kind of debauchery typically reserved for male-centric comedies, and you've got a movie that is worth tracking down.

"Joy Ride" is a Lionsgate movie, but it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year before getting a wide theatrical release. Though not exactly an indie, the movie didn't get a big marketing push, largely because of the then-ongoing Hollywood strikes, so it ended up feeling like a hidden gem that you had to discover and tell friends about. You can find it now streaming on Starz.

The Blackening put the laughter in slaughter

Horror is a genre that endures even in the darkest of times at the box office. This year, several horror franchises showed their strength, and even originals like "M3GAN" shined by raking in the big bucks. Thankfully, that means comedy can still sneak into theaters by meshing with horror, as in the slasher satire "The Blackening."

Though Lionsgate gave "The Blackening" a wide release this year, it made just over $18 million worldwide, which is enough to warrant a sequel in development. What you might not have realized is that before Lionsgate jumped on board, "The Blackening" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022, making it another indie gem that became a modest hit. The film's appeal comes from taking the "Scream" approach to slasher films, providing meta commentary on the genre, but this time from the perspective of a Black cast of characters who are being targeted by a killer trying to figure out who is "the Blackest" person among them, with the least Black person being axed by a mysterious killer. 

Just on the cusp of parody, "The Blackening" finds a fresh approach to meta horror by injecting some racial humor in the equation. With an eclectic cast that brings laughs and suspense, it's a wonderful discovery to make, whether you're looking for chills or chuckles. It's streaming now on Starz.

 The Musical is just bonkers

Finally, A24 brought some unhinged comedy into theaters with "Dicks: The Musical." It only had a brief theatrical run, but the involvement of "Borat" director Larry Charles behind the camera and the absurdity of newcomers Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp (both as writers and stars) brought just enough oddity to spark curiosity, especially the presence of those weird little Sewer Boys. Combined with the comedic prowess of Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally, this depraved musical comedy put a twisted spin on a classic-style musical that had its roots in an Upright Citizens Brigade show that Jackson and Sharp starred in years ago. 

Jackson and Sharp played estranged bros, both literally and figuratively. Their parents (Lane and Mullally) split up when they were little, leaving each of them with a single parent and no knowledge that they had a brother out there. Despite being the kings of selling robot vacuum replacement parts at their respective companies, suddenly a merger brings them together and finding out that they're the missing part in each other's life. That might sound very sweet and charming, but believe me when I say there's a load of inappropriate humor here, especially involving references to sex and genitals and all that jazz. It's all so dumb and silly, but it's also catchy and fun. Not every musical has to adapt a Tony Award-winning Broadway production or come from Disney. Sometimes it just take some filthy comedic minds and arthouse production company to take a chance. 

"Dicks: The Musical" is available on PVOD now. 

Studio comedies still need a comeback in theaters

Despite the fact that superb comedy does live on in the arthouse and indie world, this doesn't change the fact that studios need to revive big comedies. While there are hurdles to overcome, such as the decline of bankable movie stars and lower box office returns across the board, the drop in appeal of formerly reliable blockbuster formulas like superhero movies and other established franchises like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the rise of interest in the likes of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" means there's room for originality, and straight-up comedies can easily fill that gap. Sure, "Barbie" is inspired by a beloved toy line that's been around for decades, but the brand had been untested at the box office, and turning any toy into a movie is far from a guarantee to put butts in seats. And while "Oppenheimer" is about one of history's most influential figures and comes from one of Hollywood's most beloved filmmakers, a three-hour film that's half in black and white making nearly $952 million at the box office is nothing to brush away. 

What this proves is that audiences are willing to turn out for movies when the appeal is genuinely there. Studios merely need to create the desire with good movies that demand attention. While comedy can be a hard nut to crack, as people have a wide variety of comedic tastes, we need to cultivate filmmakers and stars who are eager to make people laughs. With so many streaming options available, gone are the typical channels to fame, and even being on "Saturday Night Live" isn't the kind of ticket to comedic fame that it used to be. Just ask "SNL" filmmakers Please Don't Destroy, who had their hilarious comedy "The Treasure of Foggy Mountain" relegated to Peacock, when it should have been in theaters giving audiences uproarious laughter together. 

It's far from easy to cultivate an audience for anything these days, and that's even more true for comedy, especially with the primary demographic getting their laughs in bite-sized memes and TikTok videos. But if show business was easy, then it wouldn't be one of the most exclusive industries in the world. The current roster of studio executives would do well to see the writing on the wall and recognize that now is the time to give audiences something different from the blockbuster fodder they've been trying to line their pockets with. With all due respect, to paraphrase one of our comedic heroes, instead of spending $100 million on another superhero movie that isn't worth a velvet painting of a whale and a dolphin getting it on, maybe spend $100 million on half a dozen comedies that simply have a chance to make us all laugh together in theaters again.

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