An Analysis – Hollywood’s “It” Comedies

There has been a trend of each year having an “it” comedy movie: the comedy that everyone ends up talking about, even at the year’s end. Now, there can be more than one great comedy a year, but there is usually only one that both appeals to the critics and gets into the complete public consciousness. Here is a list of some of the most recent “it” movies: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Juno, Tropic Thunder, The Hangover, Easy A, and Bridesmaids.

I personally do not like all of these movies, but there is no denying that they each made an impact the year they came out. So, what makes these movies strike such a cord not just with audiences, but also critics and industry people alike? Here are some of the things these movies have in common:

Tropic Thunder Movie Poster1. They have strongly written characters.

The essence of a good comedy is that we have any feeling about the characters. It doesn’t matter if we love them and want good things for them, hate them and can’t wait to see them foiled, or are just annoyed. Not having any feeling is the worst thing, because then nothing that happens to them matters to us. In these particular comedies, the characters do not have to be fully defined, but we are given enough that we know who these people are and what their quirks are. Robert Downey, Jr.’s character  in Tropic Thunder, Kirk Lazarus, is a blank slate beyond being an intense character actor, but this is enough for us to see the absurdity of him trying to be a black man. It isn’t much, but it is enough to define his character.

Juno‘s Juno MacGuff is fun for us to watch because we have such a clear view of her personality and how she sees things. It makes her jokes that much funnier, because she feels real even in those moments. Emma Stone is the same way in Easy A. A big reason that film works is that Stone dominates the screen. Even in the scenes that do not work as well, Stone is still fun to watch, because she as a character is strong and well defined, and her reactions work.

This works just as well in the most ridiculous circumstances. When we see Steve Carell getting his chest hair waxed off in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it works because of his reaction to it and his friends around him. It just makes the situation more funny. Or having Borat‘s title character chased around the hotel naked. We know who this character is and the ridiculousness of why he is in this situation. The fact that it is all real makes the situation that much funnier.

Bridesmaids Movie Poster2. The stars and writers of these films are usually new to movies.

Before their big screen debuts, The 40-Year-Old Virgin director Judd Apatow, Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat, The Hangover cast, and Kristen Wiig and the Bridesmaids cast were more known for their TV work than for movies. Juno was the first script from Diablo Cody and only the second movie for director Jason Reitman, and it launched Ellen Page. Easy A made Emma Stone a full-on star and one of the most sought-after leading women currently. The only exception here is Ben Stiller and his crew on Tropic Thunder, which was made up of well known stars (though it did help resurge Tom Cruise’s and Robert Downey, Jr.’s careers).

Why so many new faces each year? Possibly it is that seeing someone different makes audiences excited. It isn’t just the same comedy actor time and again doing their routine. There is a freshness and new look for starters, and we do not yet know them well enough to anticipate the jokes or their behavior on screen. Another factor is when others involved who are new—the writers and directors—have such a distinct story or idea that they want to bring. They can bring originality for at least that one time.

Juno Movie Poster3. The films have more dialogue and situational humor than physical comedy.

While physical humor is used in most of these films (the scene in the wedding dress store in Bridesmaids comes to mind), most of the humor is based on the dialogue. Juno has basically no physical humor and is instead made up of fast-paced discussions and one-liners from the characters. The rest of the aforementioned comedies all do have levels of physical humor, but they are not the strongest things about the films. It is the way the characters bounce off of each other and the situations that result that make for the funniest moments.

This balancing act is useful, because then there is a universality to these movies. For those who find the more gross-out humor either dull or vulgar, there is the dialogue and the strong characters for them to hold on to. For those who just want a quick laugh, the scenes of physical humor keep them interested. Borat has several gross-out scenes, yet in between there is the social commentary that Cohen makes about American culture and how it sees the rest of the world.

The end result: most of those involved have had a good career, at least for a while after these movies came out.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin Movie PosterThe 40-Year-Old Virgin literally launched a film movement of Apatow-type comedies for him and his group of actors. Emma Stone is currently one of the biggest Hollywood stars and is greatly sought for comedy and drama roles. Ben Stiller is still a big name in comedy, and while he hasn’t had the same level of success as the rest, he still has a movie coming out each year. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody are still making movies. Etc. Being a part of an “it” comedy launched careers for many of these individuals and made them very sought-after.

The big problem comes when these artists try to repeat the success of their first effort by doing the same thing. Sacha Baron Cohen had less success with his film Bruno, using another one of his characters from Da Ali G Show. The Hangover‘s creators literally did the same movie again. While these movies did make money, the impact they had on audiences was reduced. What made the original movies work was that there was something original and different that they were trying to do. Both audiences and critics responded more strongly when there was this kind of effort put into these movies, instead of trying to make a sequel, a spin-off, or literally the same movie.

Those individuals who have the most staying power are the ones who try to move on afterward. While Apatow still has his bromance films, he does try to change up how his characters interact and their situations. Reitman has taken on several different types of characters and humor, with not as much commercial success, but with critical and industry love. Emma Stone is trying many different kinds of roles, from romantic lead to race drama to comic book movies. Kristen Wiig has already stated she is not making a sequel to Bridesmaids.

Here is the lesson these movies bring: never forget that challenging the expectations of the audiences and showing something new is what makes audiences not just fill the seats, but has them talking and enjoying the film well beyond the time it was in the cinema.


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

You can reach Benjamin via email or on twitter

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