When Steve Carell hosted the season premiere of Saturday Night Live back in 2005, he was riding pretty high on the comedy hog.  Not only was he starring in The Office just as the show was hitting its stride, but he also headlined The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, an out-of-nowhere $100 million box-office blockbuster. 

NBC

Carell auditioned for SNL, but didn't get the gig.  Lorne cast some idiot named Will Ferrell instead.

This was rarified air. Carell was now one of those guys:  The Vince Vaughns. The Owen Wilsons. The Ben Stillers. It was enough to make Carell break into song:

I’m one of those guys now

Raking the box office numbers.

I’m not bragging, but it’s not bad to brag

When you’re just like Jack Black but better!

Hey, move over, Will Ferrell

Vince Vaughn, out of my way.

I hear Stiller’s a big kiss-ass

And Owen Wilson is gay!

Everyone, out of my way!

(Everyone, out of his way!)

Old ladies and has-beens and children

I’m on the top, and I can’t be stopped.

So stand back, Wilson!

Stand back, Ferrell!

Stand back, Vince Vaughn!

Stand back, Stiller!

I am one of you now, I’m gold! Box-office gold! I’m gold! 

So yeah, SNL was still making “(Some Guy) is gay!” jokes in 2005. Boo! But let’s look at the bigger picture -- there really was a boys club making a load of huge freaking comedies in the aughts.  While the Avatars and Dark Knights still dominated, testosterone-fueled comedies were also making serious bank.  Consider:

Meet the Parents (2000): $330 million

Meet the Fockers (2004):  $279 million

The Hangover (2009): $277 million

Night at the Musuem (2006): $250 million 

Bruce Almighty (2003): $242 million 

Elf (2003): $233 million

Wedding Crashers (2005): $209 million

The Break-Up (2006): $205 million

Tropic Thunder (2008) $195 million

Along Came Polly (2004) $178 million

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) $177 million

Starsky and Hutch (2004) $170 million

Dodgeball (2004): $168 million

Talladega Nights (2006): $163 million

Shallow Hal (2001): $141 million

School of Rock (2003) $130 million

You, Me and Dupree (2006) $130 million

Step Brothers (2008): $128 million

Holy smokes.  Eighteen comedy blockbusters, and every single one starring some combination of the handful of goofs in Carell’s song.  That’s … not like today at all, when movie studios will barely release a comedy in theaters, much less expect it to turn into a smash. This list doesn’t even include Anchorman, which made less money but is endlessly and obnoxiously quoted even today. It’s hard to remember that a smattering of silly stars -- mostly white guys in their 30s -- could reliably deliver both laughs and loot just a little more than a decade ago.

So -- what happened?  Did someone just turn off the comedy spigot of the aughts? Did the stars lose their mojo? Let’s check in on Carell’s fellas and see how they’ve been doing since the heyday.

’Those Guys’ of the 2000s

Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up, Dodgeball)

Vince Vaughn used to be a huge movie star!  Heck, even Fred Claus nearly made $100 million. But his 2010s were quiet, especially on the comedy front.  Lately, he was a killer in Freaky, which is just like the Lindsay Lohan/Jamie Lee Curtis version except with more, you know, killing.

Could Vaughn get back in the comedy game? As recently as September, it looked like he and Owen Wilson were about to film a sequel to Wedding Crashers for HBO Max.  “It’s always fun to make people laugh and go to work with people who are funny,” Vaughn told ET

But Wilson’s commitment to a Haunted Mansion remake (surely there are other Disney rides to desecrate) and the unexpected greenlight of Loki 2 have put the Vince laughs on hold for now. 

Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, Anchorman)

Ferrell was a comedy 3D printer in the 2000s, manufacturing big hits like Talledega Nights, Elf, and Step Brothers while also spitting out big-screen debacles based on barely beloved TV properties (Land of the Lost and Bewitched). 

His ubiquitous Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy somehow only made $90 million in 2004, but in 2013, the less-remembered Anchorman 2 brought in $173 million. The occasional flop aside, it was good to be in the Will Ferrell business in the aughts. 

Ferrell started the 2010s strong with The Other Guys and Anchorman 2, but things went south from there. A string of comedy clinkers followed: Get Hard, Daddy’s Home, and Holmes and Watson.  His producing partnership with Adam McKay, Gary Sanchez Productions, was wildly successful -- but what’s next for Ferrell now that their partnership has splintered? 

Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum, Meet the Whoevers, Tropic Thunder, Starsky and Hutch)

Stiller might be the most successful comedy guy of the aughts if you’re basing “success” on dollars alone.  He has six movies on our 2000s comedy hits list and they all made more than $150 million.  And that’s not counting cult classics like 2001’s Zoolander.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtQq0T3ExLs

You know audiences love you when you’re making Along Come Polly into a megahit. But did Stiller love them back?  He leaned hard into directing in the 2010s, first in comedy (Zoolander 2, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), then into the dramatic prison-break miniseries Escape at Dannemora.  Twelve Emmy nominations says Stiller made the right choice, so don’t expect his return to comedy anytime soon.

That’s right, fanboy -- Dodgeball 2 isn’t happening.  

Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers, Starsky and Hutch, Shanghai Noon

More than anyone on this list, Wilson is still going comedy-strong. 

In addition to his 2000s mega-hits, Shanghai Noon (2000) came within a few hundred thou of breaking the $100 million mark; its sequel, Shanghai Knights came close as well.  If you want to count 2008’s Marley and Me as a comedy, throw another $255 mill on to Wilson’s box office total.   

And no one was more of a comedy cameo king in the 2000s.  When he wasn’t taking the starring role, he showed up in bit parts in Anchorman, Night at the Museum, and Meet the Parents, plus pretty much every movie Wes Anderson has ever made. 

And today? Owen Wilson is having a moment.  His turn in the Marvel series Loki was an unexpected delight, he was the funniest thing in The French Dispatch, and he’s locking lips in pretty much the only major studio romantic comedy likely to be released in a theater this year -- Marry Me with Jennifer Lopez.  Sure, the movie looks ridiculous, but it’s Owen Wilson!

Jack Black (School of Rock, Tropic Thunder, Nacho Libre, Shallow Hal)

Steve Carell included Black in his song, but he’s probably not quite at the same Aughts Comedy God level as others on this list.  That said, School of Rock only works with Jack Black and he somehow dragged the moronic Nacho Libre to a $99 million gross.  So give the man his props.  

The 2010s were mostly quiet for Black with a lot of TV cameos.  But if you count the Jumanji movies as big-screen comedies?  Then Black may be the biggest comic star still shining.

Wait -- what about Eddie Murphy?

Murphy had a weird decade, y’all.  From a box office perspective, he’s up there with all of the guys in Carell’s song -- but only if you count his turns as Donkey in the mega-successful Shrek movies. 

Otherwise, Murphy’s aughts are littered with critical pinatas like The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Daddy Day Care, Norbit, and Meet Dave. Things were better for Murphy in the decades before and since, but he wasn’t one of Those Guys in the 2000s. 

Where Did the Comedy Stars Go?

It’s not that weird that the biggest comedy stars of a given decade fade over time.  They get older, comedy tastes evolve, and bright new talents burst onto the scene.

Except -- where are the new talents to replace the aughts guys?

The early part of the 2010s held some promise.  And unlike the White Guy Club of the Aughts, the early part of the decade was dominated by women.

Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids (2011) was an Oscar-nominated breakout hit, while Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck (2015) brought in the big bucks.  

But the biggest comedy star of the 2010s was undeniably Melissa McCarthy. First of all, nobody gets Oscar nominations for comedy roles -- McCarthy nabbed one for Bridesmaids.   Her Spy (2015) took in $235 million, The Heat (2013) with Sandra Bullock made $229 million, and Identity Thief (2013) stole $173 million.  

That kind of box office mojo puts McCarthy in the same class as any of the 2000s heavy hitters -- except that it all stopped. McCarthy followed up with a couple of flops like the Ghostbusters reboot (no, the other Ghostbusters reboot) and The Happytime Murders. But so what? Will Ferrell and Eddie Murphy had their share of stinkers.

So what’s happened since 2015?  From a box office standpoint, the only comedies that have come close to the glory days of the 2000s are the Jumanji movies. Which, to be honest, are action thrillers with some Kevin Hart and Jack Black splashed at the nape of the neck like comedy cologne. 

Want to count Deadpool or Shazam? Well, OK, but those are clearly superhero flicks with a sense of humor.  We’re looking for straight-on comedies -- the kind at the top of this article that dominated the aughts. 

Your favorite big-screen comedy of the past five years? Could it be Booksmart? The Big Sick? Enjoyable movies, but they hardly captured the zeitgeist in the same way that the Anchorman or Hangover movies did.  Seriously, when was the last time you heard someone quoting funny lines from Game Night? By our reckoning, the last full-out comedy blockbuster -- non-animated, non-superhero, non-action -- was probably 2017’s Girl Trip

(Wow, the ladies really killed it in the 2010s!)

No, the problem isn’t McCarthy or the world’s dearth of comedy talents.  It’s the movie studios.  Or maybe it’s us?  Here’s the chicken-and-the-egg problem:  Movie studios no longer believe that audiences want to see comedies in movie theaters.  And because there are no comedies to see in theaters, that prophecy has come true -- we aren’t seeing them. 

Is this all bad?  Probably not.  Streaming services like Netflix (with its endless stream of Adam Sandler movies), Amazon Prime (it gave us the sublime Borat sequel), and HBO Max (Zac Snyder’s Justice League -- we kid, we kid!) will no doubt rush to fill the vacuum.  After all, it’s not like people don’t want to laugh anymore. We likely need it more than ever.

But we’ll lose something intrinsic to the comedy experience if all funny movies go straight to streaming -- that infectious, rowdy rumble of a crowd experiencing a classic comedy for the first time.  Laughter feeds laughter -- there’s something funnier when we’re all guffawing together.

So do all comedy fans a favor and try to see whatever funny features that do make their way to your multiplex.  It’s the only way to convince the studios we still want that experience. And if that means we all have to sit through … sigh … Marry Me, then so be it.  

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Top image: New Line Cinema

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