The World Can’t Stop Making ‘Fight Club’ Jokes
In 2020, writer-director Emma Seligman made her debut with Shiva Baby, a sharp indie comedy starring Rachel Sennott as Danielle, a college student whose love life is a mess. Shiva Baby was a critics’ darling, and soon Hollywood came calling. “I just thought she was so talented, so interesting, and had such a confident and singular voice,” producer Alison Small said. “I asked her what else she was working on and she said, ‘My friend Rachel Sennott and I wrote this crazy comedy called Gay High School Fight Club.’ I asked her to send it to me and I read it that night. … It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read. It’s so original and weird and wacky and smart.”
That quote comes from the press notes for Seligman’s second feature, which is now called Bottoms and opens Friday. In it, Sennott and Ayo Edebiri play gay high-schoolers who scheme ways to get closer to their crushes, creating a self-defense class that, without warning, morphs into a female fight club. Punchlines and actual punches get thrown in equal measure.
Even if you’ve never seen Fight Club, simply being part of society since that David Fincher movie came out in 1999 would be sufficient to recognize the jokes Bottoms makes. In the last 24 years, Fight Club parodies, memes and references have never gone out of style. It’s easily among the most popular films of its era to still get callbacks in movies and TV shows. Though very much a satire of toxic masculinity — long before that phrase became a buzzy thinkpiece staple — the movie is also a sobering exploration of consumerism, fragile male ego and the inescapable desire to burn everything to the ground. It’s a serious movie with a dark sense of humor, and because its themes still resonate — because it’s a film that still matters — we keep riffing on it.
Put it this way: Nobody’s talking about American Beauty, which opened around the same time and won Best Picture. By comparison, Fight Club is probably going to outlive us all — or, at least the jokes will.
It’s not worth rehashing Fight Club’s history in much detail since you probably know the backstory already. Based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, the movie starred Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, and when it was released in October 1999, the reviews were far from unanimously glowing. Fight Club did decent box office, but not spectacular, receiving a grand total of one Oscar nomination. (Best Sound Editing — I had to look it up.) The film was controversial, with many condemning the story’s level of violence and nihilism. (It ends with Norton and his beloved Helena Bonham Carter holding hands as high-rises collapse around them.) Paul Thomas Anderson hated the movie so much he publically hoped Fincher would get cancer because of it. Misunderstood, overblown, posturing, snide, prophetic, brilliant, overrated and/or underrated — it all depended on who you talked to at the time — Fight Club was the sort of not-quite-hit destined to inspire endless re-evaluation. A quarter-century later, thanks to obnoxious film bros and more reasonable moviegoers alike, it remains a cultural touchstone — one of those “Films that everybody missed the boat on” cult classics.
Fight Club existed in a pre-social media era, back when internet film discourse wasn’t as speedy, frantic and occasionally obnoxious as it is today. Dozens of Twitter memes didn’t show up overnight like they do now when, say, Barbenheimer becomes a thing. Nonetheless, you could quickly feel the film’s influence in the culture. One of the most obvious examples was that different shows, whether dramas or sitcoms, began borrowing Fight Club’s most famous bit, the one in which Pitt’s Tyler Durden explains the rules of Fight Club. Specifically, they’d steal the first rule which is, of course, that you do not talk about Fight Club. That, by the way, is also the second rule of Fight Club, and soon everything from Family Guy to NCIS was paying homage to Durden’s memorable line.
References to Fight Club come in all shapes and sizes. Plenty of online clips are devoted to favorite scenes or explaining hidden meanings within the film. Some involve the creators dressing up as the characters and re-enacting iconic moments, either as homage or as a goof. Even those involved with the movie got in on the joke: When Pitt starred in Mr. & Mrs. Smith a few years later, there’s a scene in which Adam Brody’s character wears a Fight Club shirt, a wink-wink nod to Pitt’s connection to the cult classic.
But the bits that go viral tend to have one common thread, which is that they’re reacting to Fight Club’s bulletproof cool. It’s not just that Durden lets us know what the rules of Fight Club are — it’s that he looks like such a badass while he’s doing it. Now, whether you think his hip wardrobe and antisocial attitude are legitimately awesome or, rather, a self-aware commentary about a particular kind of dick-swinging dude, it actually doesn’t matter, because the joke still applies. If anything, the clueless guys who unironically adopted Fight Club as an ethos made the movie’s satire even funnier, launching parody trailers that mocked the characters’ aggro behavior. These clips are sort of a joke on the movie but, really, they’re targeting men who didn’t get Fight Club’s initial joke. And it’s also a joke on beta males (like the ones who make such videos) who know full well they wouldn’t last a day in Durden’s ultra-macho Fight Club.
Norton’s pushed-around unnamed narrator worships Durden because the guy represents the DGAF edginess he wishes he himself had. (Boy, wouldn’t it be weird if it turned out they’re actually the same person?) But since Fight Club’s release, Pitt’s performance has become a legitimate symbol of the outlaw mindset — he is the prototypical charismatic rebel who plays by his own rules. Sure, the man is a psychopath, but Pitt portrayed him with such flair and sex appeal that even if you recognized that the guy’s meant to be a cautionary tale, there was still something weirdly seductive about him. Alas, most men know we can’t hope to pull off his swagger, so we make ourselves feel better by mocking that machismo. That so many people join in on the joke is a kind of comfort — we’re all laughing at our lack of Durden-ness.
Placing the world of Fight Club in other universes — like, say, a G-rated grade school — is a handy way to goof on the original film’s extremes while acknowledging how unnerving those extremes still are. The brutality of the violence in Fincher’s movie — and the still-pointed observations about class and conformity — remain difficult to process, the societal scabs it picks still fresh. There’s a natural tendency for intellectually disturbing films to prompt us to respond with humor, neutralizing what gets stirred up by falling back on gags. It’s sure a lot easier than grappling with a movie’s troubling ideas head-on.
But sometimes, the homages are much more extensive and subtle, waiting for observant viewers to notice. When Todd Phillips was developing the script for Old School, about a bunch of unremarkable working stiffs who decide to reclaim their lost youth by starting up their own fraternity, he used Fight Club as the model for his satiric bromance. That movie is now 20 years old, but new viewers are still discovering the similarities, posting videos to map out the narrative and thematic connection between the two films. (Ironically, years later critics would draw comparisons between a later Phillips film, Joker, and Fight Club, mostly using Fincher’s movie as a way to bash the Joaquin Phoenix Oscar-winner’s “Are men OK?” portrait.)
Bottoms is hardly the first film to offer a gender-flip Fight Club. For one thing, female fight clubs are a real thing, but back in 2011 Bridesmaids had a funny bit in which the bridesmaids spitball ideas for Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) shower. Things go in a weird direction once Megan (Melissa McCarthy) suggests a surprise female fight club: “We beat the shit out of her! She’s not gonna forget that.” Megan’s proposal doesn’t go over well, but it was another example of how Fight Club had permeated society, even if the movie’s depiction of violence still wasn’t welcome in polite company. That Megan, the most aggressive and uncouth of the bridesmaids, brings up the idea is telling: She would be the one among that group of ladies to think punching someone would be a great bonding activity.
Seligman’s movie, which doubles as a riff on teen comedies, is one of the rare instances in which a Fight Club reference has a more serious purpose. When the gay teen girls start their club, it’s meant to be a women’s self-defense class, attracting the beautiful cheerleaders they’re crushing on — and, to the girls’ shock, a lot of other classmates, too. Soon, the punching gets out of control, with the characters dealing with broken bones and black eyes. Bottoms doesn’t so much parody Fight Club as it examines its milieu from a female perspective.
“We really just felt like, if we’re going to make a movie about a fight club, it needs to look and feel like a real fight club,” Seligman told IndieWire. “We’re not honoring these characters and the audience that we want to make this for if we’re not truly doing this genre correctly. If we were making a high school comedy and there wasn’t any violence, it would be fine … but this is what these characters choose to do in order to get laid.”
So many of the pop-culture references to Fight Club are about the movie’s depiction of macho behavior and the characters’ inability to feel anything unless they’re pummeling one another. But Bottoms provides a feminist critique, showing how women also need a physical outlet for their emotions — and, like Durden’s buddies, seek sanctuary from an outside world that doesn’t understand them. The dichotomy is striking, though: The Fight Club crew are mad because they think that they’re not respected anymore as men, while the women of Bottoms are legitimately afraid for their lives in an abusive society. If anyone deserves to let off some steam, and shed some blood, it’s the ladies.
Next year will be Fight Club’s 25th anniversary, which is sure to generate tons of essays, oral histories and conversation regarding the film’s lasting impact. The movie has been transformed into myriad memes and remains a popular topic on TikTok. In fact, it’s such a lazy comedic trope that the recent Disney+ series Monsters at Work, based on Monsters, Inc., made a “first rule of Fight Club” joke. It’s funny that a movie that was widely disliked and marginalized at the time has now become such a ubiquitous comedic reference point.
In Fight Club, the whole point of the titular organization is that not everybody knows about it — the exclusivity and the safety it provides these self-pitying men is a large part of its appeal. Well, on some level, we’re now all a part of this subversive movie’s club, happy to be included when, so often in life, we’re not allowed to join some super-cool group. But just remember that Fight Club memes and callbacks wouldn’t remain so popular if, deep down, that movie didn’t still get to us. We goof on Tyler Durden but we also understand his dark allure. Violence is everywhere and it terrifies us. Not Durden: He may be a psychopath, but he has no fear. The rest of us have to resort to jokes.