4 Things Created A Perfect Storm For '80s Teen Sex Comedies
Welcome to ComedyNerd, Cracked's new deep dive series on funny folks and things. Today's topic: examining the world of ‘80’s horny teen comedies (Also, the ComedyNerd newsletter just launched. You can sign up for it by submitting your email below).
The Man Who Voiced Every '80s Movie Trailer said it all:
At T&A High, the student bodies got a lot more bounce to the ounce! And the Screwballs only have one thing on their minds. If you’re looking for something different but can’t quite put your finger on it, it’s Screwballs! Yes, everyone’s trying to hide the salami in Screwballs! Where homework takes on a whole new meaning. Screwballs—the nuts who always score!
In case you missed it, we’re talking about Screwballs. And if you were around in the '80s, chances are your local video store was graced by the presence of Screwballs (maybe even Screwballs II), along with any of the dozens of other teen sex comedies that dominated the VHS shelves.
The reason for the movies’ popularity isn’t hard to deduce. “By 1982, if you were a teen male," says The New York Times’ Wesley Morris, “your fantasies no longer had to live under a mattress.”
Viewers had a lot to choose from. Want to watch behind closed doors? You had Private School, Private Lessons, and Private Resort. There were food-themed titles: Hamburger: The Motion Picture and Hot Dog: The Movie. Hop in your Pontiac Firebird to go on Spring Break, a Fraternity Vacation, or visit a Hot Resort. If you’re in Cali, jump in Hollywood Hot Tubs with a Valley Girl, or enjoy a Malibu Hot Summer at the Malibu Bikini Shop. Maybe you’d meet The Last American Virgin at the Last Resort. If you could come up with a movie name that had some combination of the words hot, bikini, school, or resort, you likely had a hit on your hands.
It all sounds spicy, but truth be told, the “sexy” content was incredibly tame by today’s standards. The plots were cookie-cutter, almost always revolving around high school or college kids trying to hook up. More often than not, some goofy obstacle – a nosy gym teacher, a faulty car, an ill-timed food reaction – got in the way of doing the deed. You’d catch obligatory shots of bouncing boobs (often framed so that no face was attached), but today you’d see more action in a tweet promoting a rando OnlyFans account. “Sex comedies,” writes Andy Salsberg, “are like the nonalcoholic beer of porn.”
So if sex was teased but rarely delivered, what accounts for the multitude of raunchy titles released during the 1980s, arguably making teen sex comedies the decade’s most popular form of video entertainment? A perfect storm of pop culture phenomena – emerging technology, swelling social demographics, and of course, mind-blowing profits – help explain just what the eff happened.
Put All The Blame On VCR
Just like technology (creepily) helped Louis and Gilbert watch naked co-eds in Revenge of the Nerds, the introduction of space-age machines for the home helped a generation of young people get sneaky peeks at bodacious bare bottoms.
Like much technology, erotic content was the driver to the VCR’s mainstream success. The higher quality Betamax format eventually lost out to VHS because Sony elected not to put out adult films on its version. A dumb decision, since by the time the 1980s rolled around, erotic films accounted for more than half of videotape sales.
With Mom and Dad asleep upstairs, watching a sex comedy was as simple as pressing play. Renting them was easy too. While porno mags were kept out of reach behind a convenience-store counter, movies like Joysticks and Hardbodies were featured on video stores’ main shelves, available to anyone who could pass for 17. (So, pretty much anybody over five feet tall.) You could even take the videos home in generic plastic cases, keeping oblivious parents in the dark if they even cared in the first place.
You Say You Want A Sexual Revolution
It was good to be a teen in the 1980s. The previous decade’s Sexual Revolution had made the world safe for adult theaters, which showcased mainstream porn movies like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas for curious audiences.
With full-on sex films like these breaking down the doors, comedy romps like Goin’ All the Way and Pick-Up Summer practically seemed like wholesome Friday night fare.
While young people of earlier generations were sexually active, shame and societal expectations kept such hijinks on the down-low. Now the pretending was over, and that progressive attitude was reflected in the movies. Sex, no longer dirty and forbidden, actually seemed attainable, even for dorks like Porky’s Pee Wee. When the boys set up a peeping scheme in the girls’ locker room, it’s with the girls’ implicit permission (or at least in the garbage guys’ eyes). As the excited runt proclaims, “They want us to look! They want us to look!”
The Revolution also made it okay to star in movies with sexy content. Young mega-stars-to-be like Tom Cruise (Losin’ It and Risky Business), Sean Penn (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), and Tom Hanks (Bachelor Party) got their cinematic starts chasing girls around high school halls and drunken parties.
Want more? How about Nic Cage, Val Kilmer, Matthew Modine, and Jennifer Jason Leigh? Demi Moore, Tim Robbins, even Johnny Depp? For 1980s Young Hollywood, sex comedies were practically a rite of passage.
Who Knew Sex Was Profitable?
Exploiting young deviants has always been lucrative, and more teens meant more money. The early '80s saw the last wave of the Baby Boom hitting their teens and early 20s. The math is simple: Millions of horny young people multiplied by disposable cash equals big-time profits.
Watch two minutes of , and you can see movie studios weren’t spending big dollars on production values or even basic lighting. Porkys, for example, had a $2.5 million budget and peeped its way to $111 million at the box office. Ka-ching.
Even the movies that didn’t score as huge blockbusters delivered substantial returns. “Parents of adolescent boys weren’t quite sure how to operate VCRs or cable,” says Selsberg, “so sex comedies that failed in theaters could still be made and routed to their proper audience.” After a month or two at the local drive-in, these movies were virtually guaranteed to thrive on the rental shelves. Consider that it didn’t particularly matter if the films had big stars or thumbs-up reviews. All it took was some bouncing body parts to ensure rentability, often over and over again.
The bucks didn’t stop there. Teen sex comedies came into their own right about the same time as MTV, the greatest teen exploitation tool of its day. It wasn’t hard for huge media companies to connect the dots: Your hot new band, Modern English, has a bitchin’ track called "Melt With You." Work the song into the middle of a teen sex comedy (in this case, Valley Girl), lose the dialogue, and now you’ve got a ready-made music video at no extra expense. Run the hell out of the video on MTV, which in turn becomes free promotion for the movie, the movie’s soundtrack, and the band Modern English. Might as well fill your bathtub with $100 bills.
Soundtracks were another profit center. The Last American Virgin’s soundtrack featured 1982 up-and-comers like The Cars, The Police, Devo, and Oingo Boingo – groups that had not yet reached household-name status. If your band was cool enough, it got called out in the trailer. And a kid buying the Virgin soundtrack was likely getting his first introduction to the next wave of music superstars.
And As Quickly As It Began, It Ended
Teen sex comedy producers must have believed they’d discovered a gold mine. But like most sources of gold, it was completely mined not long after as it was discovered. For a few years, new sex comedies were released every month. By 1990, the genre was as extinct as the Jurassic dinosaurs that would replace them at the local theater.
Ironically, the reasons for the sudden collapse of the teen sex comedy are nearly identical to the factors responsible for their rise: Technology, societal changes, and profits.
First came the modem. Though the late 1980s were still a couple of years away from the heyday of America Online and the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, geeks in the know discovered a world of pixelated porn just a few clicks away. Sure, downloading took hours, but it was a lot more anonymous than sheepishly handing a copy of H.O.T.S. or Beach Balls to the nice old lady behind the video rental counter. As download speeds increased and the porn world turned its eye to online profit centers, the need for R-rated softcore fun diminished.
Then came AIDS. The reality of the disease made hard-up acts of horniness a hell of a lot less funny than it was just a few years earlier. Plots that seemed harmlessly naughty in 1984 seemed downright irresponsible by 1988, a year that saw 32,000 new cases and more than 10,000 deaths.
One final reason for the decline of low-budget sex comedies? According to Just One of the Guys director Lisa Gottlieb, the answer is “the obsession that Hollywood had during the late '80s and the '90s for the biggest celebrities, you know, paying $20 million to people whose names were worth $20 million. There was a very narrow list of people who would be in movies. The studios kind of stopped making the movies that were the $5 to $10 million ones, and started migrating to the big ones with big, big stars.”
That trend is even more exaggerated today, where the only movies Hollywood deems worthy of showing on the big-screen feature massive special effects and even bigger IP. The rest can go to streaming. Teen sex comedies weren’t completely dead by the end of the 1980s, but they were definitely on life support. The films made a short-lived comeback with 1999’s American Pie and its myriad direct-to-video sequels, but that was a generation ago. Even streaming services aren’t cranking them out these days.
Does that mean teens are no longer interested in sex? Okay, that was rhetorical. The explanation once again lies in technology, as young people have never had easier access to watching sex onscreen. And what they’re watching would blow peeking Pee Wee’s perverted mind.
After all, who needs a hole in the girls’ locker room when you have a phone and an incognito browser tab? It’s easier than ever, though some say all this unfettered access to erotic content leads to addiction or diminished relationships.
It’s no wonder some people are nostalgic for the simpler days of Stewardess School.
Top image: 20th Century Studios
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