Comedy Films Aren’t Dying. They’re Just Much Darker Now
Despite David Zucker and PragerU’s protestations, comedy films aren’t actually extinct — just Zucker’s brand of them.
While the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s produced endlessly quotable, 60-laughs-per-minute features that flaunted their outrageous, over-the-top humor, the last decade and change have been decidedly slim on films that could be compared to classics like Zucker’s Airplane! or the masterpieces made by the late, great Harold Ramis.
The decrease in straight comedy movies has been attributed to many factors, such as the decline of mid-budget movies in general, the oversaturation of blockbuster action-comedies or Zucker’s own run on repulsively bad spoofs. However, the overall reduction in joke-per-minute, endlessly quippy pure comedies from modern film has coincided with the rise of a different kind of comedy movie: the ineffable “black comedy.”
The “dark comedy” genre is hard to define since it often includes films that fit other descriptors — sci-fi, horror, historical fiction, etc. — but the generally agreed upon meaning of the phrase is that it encompasses any work of art that makes light of serious, troubling or taboo subject matter. In 2022, the black comedy came in many different flavors: M3GAN made campy horror sickly funny with about a dozen quality dead parents jokes to rival even the best Batman parody. The Banshees of Inisherin and Triangle of Sadness earned Oscar nominations with both subtle and decidedly obvious political satire. Barbarian was simultaneously one of the best horror/thriller films in recent memory and a deliriously dark character comedy, thanks to Justin Long’s standout performance.
Though each of these films are unique in tone and intention, they all utilized dark comedy as a tool for enhancing the narrative and strengthening the themes. These aren’t films that make jokes for jokes’ sake — the comedy is interwoven with all the other elements that make the movies work. Dark comedies co-opt humor similarly to the action-comedy genre that has become the template for every modern megahit, but, unlike with the Whedonism of the Marvel franchise and the tendency to yuk up otherwise unremarkable scripts, dark comedy serves a storytelling purpose beyond the breaking of tension.
That’s not to say that laugh-out-loud, start-to-finish pure comedy films don’t exist today — last time we checked, Kevin Hart is still one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and Will Ferrell will still crank out a comedy from time to time. The rise of dark comedy simply shows that the hunger for humor that is interwoven into the story instead of inserted into otherwise uninteresting scenes is growing.
The comedy movie will never disappear, it’s just taking on a new hue.