Let Comedies Be About Nothing Again

Netflix has a new comedy out, called The Lovebirds, directed by Michael Showalter, which is like a lot of recent-ish movies. Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae play a bickering couple on their way to a party, who, just as they’re breaking up, hit a guy on a bicycle with their car. Suddenly they’re thrust into a kooky blackmail conspiracy.

It’s one of those movies where it’s sort of an action movie, because it has the skeletal plot of a thriller, but it’s sort of a comedy because the actors act “funny” and kind of half-ass their way through the thriller parts. It’s sort of like the Kardashian show, where the plots are like discarded sitcom B-story but the draw is people with “compelling” real-life personas bumbling their way through them.

The Lovebirds leverages the audience’s love for Kumail and Issa Rae (both of whom I too enjoy on their respective shows, Insecure and Silicon Valley) in the same way. For some, simply seeing these two interact is enough to carry a movie. To me, these kinds of double-half-assed hybrids, where unfinished action meets character arc-free comedy movie, are a waste of talent and energy. Laziness can work in comedy, but these kinds of movies — Knight and Day and Snatched and The Tourist et al among them — seem to expend their energy in all the wrong ways.

The jokes sound like improv jokes, extemporaneous and semi-topical and built upon puns or fourth-wall breaking, but clearly they aren’t improvised because this is a big, high-concept plot with car chases and people getting killed and constant life-or-death situations. You probably recognize the joke cadence, mimicking a sitcom, with lots of arch, faux-contentious back-and-forths, where every micro action is stretched and dissected and analyzed and commented upon, and then dredged up again five minutes later for a callback. Again, it feels like improv, and they’re the kind of jokes that work well in semi-improvisational shows, like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Trip series.

But the stakes in Curb or The Trip are kept intentionally low. It’s easier to enjoy jokey conversation when the characters are just sort of lazing around, situations where you might expect people to joke. Low stakes allow us to appreciate Seinfeldian riffs about how people like to say “salsa” or why cars still have cigarette lighters in them. The latter is one of Nanjiani’s character’s riffs in The Lovebirds, which he delivers while he and Ray’s character are supposedly on the run from police after they’ve just witnessed a murder. Is that meant to be his character trait, guy-who-can’t-stop-doing bits even when he’s running from the police?

Comedy lives on a different plane of reality than thriller. When a stand-up comic does a bit about his mother-in-law or airline food, we don’t need to believe in the literal reality of him having bad in-laws or having experienced bad airline food to enjoy it. It invokes a kind of shared reality. Whereas if someone at a party told you a story about getting framed for murder and then you later found out he was lying, you’d be disappointed and upset. The latter is a specific reality. Movies like these attempt to live in both realities at once.

It’s not that an action movie or a movie with car chases and murders can never be funny, plenty are — Burn After Reading or Lethal Weapon 2, for instance. But generally those aren’t funny because they cast a comedian in one of the roles and had him do a hot five on dating apps in the middle. They live in their specific realities. They don’t keep invoking the shared, relatable reality every time they want to make a joke.

Plenty of people want to see more Kumail and Issa so badly that they don’t mind. I suspect these movies exist largely for the pitch. They exist because the people holding the purse strings feel more comfortable shelling out for some high concept like “they’re about to break up and then they witness a murder!” than for “it’s kind of a show about nothing, but trust me it’ll be funny!”

But please, studio execs, I beg of you: can we let some of the shows and movies be about nothing again? Or at least be about… less? These are not great displays of American comedy. There are four Trip movies. I’m willing to bet that there won’t be more Lovebirdses.

‘The Lovebirds’ is available now on Netflix. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.