In the modern era of comedic filmmaking, few feature-length comedies are released that aren’t touched by Judd Apatow. He’s everywhere. But as the genre trends towards short and shorter-form comedies, fewer comedy movies are made, even with his golden touch. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that Apatow puts on the shoulders of the studios that are increasingly reluctant to shell out the cash for a piece of art that’s not only really hard to make well, but turn a profit on.
And so, comedy writers are gravitating towards TV or the internet and studios are mitigating the risk for loss by only producing what they perceive to be as sure winners. In a lengthy conversation with Vulture, Apatow explained the state of the industry and why truly great comedies like Airplane! or The Naked Gun aren’t being made today. It’s part risk, part the ability of the filmmakers, and partially because the studios want to get behind a sure-thing like a tear-jerking drama that will be well-represented come award season.
“I feel like the studios don’t buy as many scripts now. It used to be you’d open up Variety, and you’d see a movie studio had just bought a big high-concept comedy. Now it seems like they’d rather things come in packaged: a script, a cast, a director. As a result, a lot of great comedy writers are going to television instead of sitting at home and trying to write a script for a film, write the way I was.
When you make the list of the best movies of all time, you’re always going to put Airplane! on it. And if movies like that aren’t being made right now, it’s because people aren’t smart enough and funny enough to make them. I don’t think it’s a result of studios or audiences rejecting anything or trying to copy anything else. If someone made a movie as funny as Airplane! right now it would make a billion dollars. Occasionally people try; most of the time they fail. When you do a big, broad comedy and it fails, it’s an easy target for criticism. I also don’t think critics have a great respect for the effort it takes to make people piss their pants laughing. They think it’s more honorable to show someone in torment, but being able to do that doesn’t make you more of an artist than being able to make The Naked Gun. It’s not hard to make people cry. Kill a dog.”
There’s a reason why so many actors with a comedic base can pivot to drama, and why so many comedy writers can write critically-acclaimed thrillers — writing comedy is arguably the hardest thing you can do. The Wrestler was written by ex-Onion writer Robert Siegel, and hell, Adam Sandler’s best movie might’ve been Punch-Drunk Love. Those movies were loved by critics, but when it comes to truly brilliant comedies, they’re ignored and get no gold statues.
Maybe one day someone smart and funny enough can come around to make the next Airplane! and a studio will give them enough cash to make it. Hopefully, it’s not a reboot.