Everyone knows failure, but for comedians, defeat is almost always a crushing public phenomenon. And there’s nothing like getting caught with your Zubaz down in front of a crowd.  Or in the case of a “funny” TV show or movie, in front of America. 

But here’s the good news: Today’s comedy catastrophe might just be tomorrow’s laugh legend. True, not every pile of comedy crap transmutes into gold -- but here are four examples that prove it’s possible.

Freaks and Geeks

To completely fail was devastating to me.”

That’s Judd Apatow after learning about the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks.  Rather, this was Pre-Judd, the moderately successful yet mostly unknown Judd who had not yet transformed his freaks and geeks into massive movie stars.  

By most measures, Freaks and Geeks was a complete flop. The ratings for its initial episode were decent but dropped like a meteor in week two. “We were the lowest-rated show on NBC several weeks in a row,” says the show’s creator, Paul Feig. 

NBC didn’t help.  Partially in reaction to the low ratings, the show was pinballed all over the network’s schedule. On for two weeks. Off for a month for the World Series. On for six weeks, then gone for two months. Scheduled against the blockbuster Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (Why the Regis Philbin doofus quiz show was such a monolith is a story for another day).

At least Apatow saw it coming. He advised Feig to write the series finale and they filmed it before the show was officially axed. Then again, Jason Segal didn’t really need to be told the show was on death row. “We watched the craft-service table: it started out with, like, cold cuts and delicious snacks, and it was reduced to half a thing of creamer and some Corn Pops by the end.”

How Freaks and Geeks changed comedy history:  Judd Apatow became JUDD APATOW, the king of early-aughts movie comedy, casting many of his young minions along the way. Freaks and Geeks’ tasty shake-up of comedy and pathos became a recipe that worked even better on the big screen. Segal, James Franco, and Seth Rogen blew up into movie stars. Linda Cardellini was cast on half the prestige shows on television. John Francis Daley, just a kid when the show was filmed, co-directed Game Night and co-wrote Spider-Man: Homecoming (with a memorable science-teacher turn by Martin Starr). 

“Everybody was so talented,” marveled Cardellini. “And nobody knew it yet.”

This is Spinal Tap

According to some accounts, This Is Spinal Tap was released to
“modest commercial success.” Um … we guess? It earned just over 30 grand on its opening weekend, on its way to a grand total of $4.4 million at the box office. Maybe pretty good for 1984?  Consider how other comedies fared that same year.  Ghostbusters? $220 million. Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop?  $226 million. The lowbrow Police Academy? $81 million. Compared to these comedies, Spinal Tap’s take was modestly terrible.  Made for next to nothing, the movie made, well, next to nothing.

How did This is Spinal Tap change comedy history?  We can start with the run of Christopher Guest comedies, from Waiting for Guffman to Best in Show.

But as for history, the most popular sitcoms of the 21st century, from the BBC Office to Parks and Recreation to Abbott Elementary, owe their faux-documentary style to Spinal Tap. Gervais cites the movie as a direct influence on The Office, which in turn became the model for so many hits that followed.

When I first saw This is Spinal Tap in about 1983, I immediately watched it again,” he says. “I can't remember a film I've done that with, before or since. To get so deep into the genre that they were spoofing, the details of human behavior, and then to do it all in someone else's native accent just blew me away.”  

The impact went beyond comedy -- musicians revered it as well.  When Kurt Cobain complained that no one had ever made a good rock and roll documentary, Dave Grohl quickly interjected, “Except Spinal Tap.”  Cobain agreed, and Nirvana even covered the film’s Stonehenge at a Melbourne concert, presumably with amps turned up to eleven. 

Wet Hot American Summer

In 2001, Wet Hot opened in a single theater in New York, bringing in seven grand for the weekend.  “That’s not bad!” thought director David Wain, “because it was only in one theater.” The studio sort of agreed -- it was good enough to open the movie in one more Los Angeles theater.  And … that’s about it.  The cult classic basically didn’t get a release at all.

In other words, “not what any of us had hoped,” confesses Janeane Garofalo.  Joe Lo Truglio put it more bluntly:  “It was a punch to the gut.”

Unlike Freaks and Geeks and Spinal Tap, which at least got some critical love, Wet Hot American Summer was greeted like a kid’s accident at a public pool. The people who saw it “hated it with real hostility,” says Wain. “And (they) were like, ‘This is so, so unfunny.’”

How did Wet Hot American Summer change comedy history? Well, a weird thing happened.  The unknown stars of Wet Hot American Summer, including Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper,  Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Rudd, became freaking huge. And suddenly, midnight showings and DVD sales started blowing up.

In hindsight, The New York Times describes the movie as the “alt-comedy ur-text,” signaling the first time that the 90s alt-comedy sensibility found its way to the big screen. It established a template for meta comedies that followed, goofing with genre conventions without spoofing them Wayans-brothers-style. 

It eventually spawned a sequel, as well as Rudd’s undying love. “It was the only script,” he says, “that I ever kept around and reread out of pleasure, like a book.” 

John Oliver

"It's very rare that someone makes it in the States and has almost no profile over here,” says Steve Bennett, editor of British comedy mag Chortle.

And yet, here’s John Oliver, English comedy failure and winner of fifteen frickin’ Emmys here in the good ol’ US of A.  His HBO show, Last Week Tonight, has a stranglehold on the title of best comedy talk show going, something his countrymen would have never seen coming. 

Brit critics weighed in on early Oliver comedy, and the collective opinion sounded a lot like “meh.” Reviews of 2001 shows in Edinburgh didn’t see much of a future for Oliver, and apparently audiences didn’t either.  “I’ve bombed on stage enough as a comedian,” says Oliver. “I’m used to audiences not liking me.”

"If John had stayed in the UK, he'd probably still be doing Radio 4 topical shows and earning meager money,” says the BBC's Shane Allen. “Good on him making the career leap he has."  UK press outlets now publish stories with titles like “John Oliver: the British comedy failure who makes America laugh.” 

How did John Oliver change comedy history?  There aren’t many acts tougher to follow than Jon Stewart’s Daily Show run.  But with his mentor’s blessing, Oliver’s Last Week Tonight picked up the torch, demonstrating that it’s possible to go deeper into tough political stories without losing the laughs. He’s got six straight Emmy wins for Best Variety Talk Series -- and counting. 

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

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5 Forgotten Comedy Bits You Should Get To Know ASAP

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