Stand Up Specials And The Unintentional Death Of Blockbuster Comedy
Written by Patrick Alexander
The year was 2008. Millions of teenagers flocked to the cinema in the prime of adolescent sophistication with $10 bills and red vines in hand. In a 3 year span, they had witnessed the greatest comedy blockbuster run of their time. Call it youthful exuberance; call it an anomaly; call it what you want; just don’t call it Shirley. From 2006-2008, Hollywood had solved the comedy algorithm dishing out hits and home-runs like Alex Rodriguez in his prime. Personal opinions aside, take a look:
2006: Talladega Nights, Night at the Museum (underrated), Beer Fest, Little Miss Sunshine, The Break-Up , Grandma’s Boy, Accepted, Nacho Libre, Clerks II and Borat!
2007: Knocked Up, Superbad, Hot Fuzz, Juno, Hot Rod, Rush Hour 3, and Blades of Glory (shut up critic).
2008: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Tropic Thunder, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, Semi-Pro, Burn After Reading, and Kung-Fu Panda .
However, little did anyone know, that run concluded an era when the comedy blockbuster mattered. After 2008, the pulse of the comedy blockbuster went dark. The wrong stars got together, in the wrong roles or at the wrong time. Decade long runs of chemistry and collaborative brilliance were traded in for experimentation and solo projects. Comedy sequels and remakes became the norm as studios shifted focus from creating laughs to cashing cheques. Sadly, the real issue might’ve been that the best comedic actors got old. The comedy blockbuster lost its mojo and burned its fans like citizens of ancient Rome. And from its ashes rose the conquistador we call, “Stand-Up Comedy Specials.”
Now, the stand-up comedy special was nothing new. From Eddie Murphy’s ‘RAW‘ to Chris Rock’s ‘Bring the Pain‘ to Dave Chappelle’s ‘Killin’ Them Softly‘, stand up specials were always a readily available plan-B to the critically acclaimed recommendations dished out by your local Blockbuster clerk. Only stand-up specials had never screened in theaters nationwide or sold copies like ‘Titanic’, and therefore, couldn’t carve out an appropriate slice of the pie. The closest to relevance stand-up comedy ever made it was the HBO Comedy Half Hour series of the mid-90s. In August 2012, that all changed. After 5 years spent figuring out their streaming service, Netflix cracked open Pandora’s Box with it’s debut stand-up special, ‘Bill Burr: You People Are All the Same’. The comedy landscape would never be the same.
Following 2008, a half-decade of delivering only a couple solid comedy hits per year had fans losing trust. After dozens of whiffs with underwhelming numbers, the studios began to cede ground to its online and on-demand competitors. Watching Adam Sandler half-ass a smug grin, on a weekend trip to the theater for the comely price of $25+tax, just wasn’t enough for the American people anymore. The opportunity cost of going to the local cinema became too high; the options available became more expansive; the viewing public grew to be more efficient about their time. Overall, a myriad of outside factors contributed to the downfall of blockbuster comedy, but the greatest death knell of all came from the studios themselves – sequels.
In hindsight, it seems simple to speculate that we didn’t need two (possibly 3?) ‘Grown Ups‘ films or four movies about fuckbuddies in the same year, but at the time who would’ve known? Oh yeah, anyone with a pulse. As comedians and comedy writers shifted away from handing over their top-tier material to screenplays for pennies on the dollar, Hollywood turned to its tried and true formula: running it back. One ‘Dirty Grandpa‘, two ‘Teds‘, three ‘Hangovers‘, four Will Ferrell comebacks nobody asked for, and 5 years later…well this is our hell.
To be fair, this hell was not created completely by studios. It was aided by Father Time and Uncle Greed. Guys like Owen Wilson & Ben Stiller started pursuing indie passion projects. Guys like Vince Vaughn & Simon Pegg started cashing cheques as leads in films they couldn’t carry. Guys like Will Ferrell & Adam Sandler became tired versions of their past selves real quick, going through the big-budget production motions. All in all, the stars of yesteryear got old and nobody truly rose to the forefront in their place. The new wave of blockbuster comedians never materialized. God bless Andy Samberg & Ed Helms for trying, but two guys does not a next generation make.
Meanwhile, as the comedy blockbuster sphere started acting more erratic than your average day on the NASDAQ, the millennials of the world slowly shifted their collective attentions to the screens right in front of them. Capitalizing on the streaming boom from 2013-present day, Netflix took over, launching Burr, Mike Birbiglia, Jim Jeffries, Chelseas Peretti, Iliza Schleshinger, Tom Segura and dozens of other comedians into the mainstream. Coupled with Comedy Central’s introduction of Aziz Ansari, Anthony Jeselnik, and Amy Schumer, it was enough for stand up comedy specials to become a regular part of our comedy diet. In under a decade, the stand up special transformed from plate-filling sides to the main course. In essence, our tastes for how we ingest comedy changed.
The average American became filthier given more access to all the grimy, deranged shit on the internet. We love to get dirty, but nobody to know about it which makes stand up comedy such a natural fit for the current climate. As a younger man’s genre, the millennial generation embraced the well-developed, levity-ridden, open dialogue stand-up brings on controversial topics such as race, abortion, sexual assault, and even the raunchier part of our daily lives. You know, the stuff you shouldn’t talk about in public.
Stand-up comedians write jokes that no Hollywood studio in their wildest dreams could green light. Try to imagine a comedy coming out this summer, starring David Spade and Melissa McCarthy, about rape. You can’t. It would be the most merciless beheading of actors, directors, writers, producers, studio, and everybody involved on down to the key grip 4, in film history. Stand-up might have been raised in that dirty niche under the noses of high society, but nowadays it’s your rich Uncle’s favorite house guest.
And just when Hollywood thought they’d earned our trust back with a balanced, more original 2016 filled with a few budding comedic actors, Netflix delivered “The Block“…aka Dave Chappelle. Game, set, match. With comedy legends Louis C.K., Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Sarah Silverman all slated for potential 2017 releases, stand up comedy specials have become appointment viewing. Combined with the paltry options of comedy blockbusters due out this year , stand-up specials ain’t giving the trophy back.
In an age of constant newness, the consistent discovery and evolution of new comedians with fresh material runs through the arc of open mic-er to stand-up regular to instant streaming special. A system set up to unleash a steady stream of hungry newcomers and thankful lifelong comics finally getting a fair shot. It’s automated for infinite future success and a winning formula developed over decades of stand-ups fighting for their right to air time. Comedians getting the pay off they deserve. Finally, something we can all agree on.