“Everyone is too touchy,” Phillips, the director of “Joker,” tells me — but “Bombshell” filmmaker Roach feels otherwise
I have been obsessing lately over the decline of big-screen comedies and the fact that some of the leading comedy directors of our time have turned serious in recent years, from “Hangover” creator Todd Phillips with his dark global hit “Joker” to Jay Roach, going from “Austin Powers” to “Game Change” and now “Bombshell.”
This fall, “Joker” has powered its way to $1 billion at the global box office, the benchmark usually set by superhero sagas rather than social commentary, while the mid-December release of “Bombshell” takes on sexual harassment at Fox News. Neither film is funny, and both are ambitious swings by two top directors.
I raised the issue with each of them in recent interviews. Phillips has been quoted saying that “woke” culture, a hypersensitive and reactive political correctness, has driven people like him from the comedy genre. He went deeper on this with me. “Everyone is too touchy,” Phillips told me. “Everyone is so effing touchy.”
Roach had a different perspective. He called on the studios to loosen their purse strings, to fund comedies at the levels of years past so artists like him can find the excitement in ambitious comedy again. He said the studios are to blame for putting comedies into a death spiral.
Both views are a study in a changed landscape in Hollywood. Comedies from “Stuber” to “Holmes and Watson” have faltered at the box office in the last year, leading to both hand-wringing and theories about why this is the case.
When I asked Phillips why some of my favorite comedy directors — including Roach and Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “The Big Short”) — are turning to more serious-minded material, he told me, somewhat aggressively: “Do you want me to tell you why it is? Comedy is based in truth. Truth has become offensive. You get crippled trying to do comedy if truth is offensive…. I can think of 10 jokes from the nine studio comedies I’ve made that would cause an issue on Twitter nowadays.”
Then he cited Dave Chappelle’s latest stand-up special, released on Netflix in August to almost immediate outcry over jokes about transgender people as well as abuse allegations against Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. “Dave might have done the most brilliant hour of stand-up called ‘Sticks & Stones.’ It’s literally called ‘Sticks & Stones’ — think about it,” Phillips said. “He’s getting this whole thing where the far left sounds like the far right when it fits their agenda.”
In making “Joker,” Phillips said, “I was like, ‘OK, let me go over here and play in this sandbox a little bit.’ Maybe with Jay and Adam, it’s politics. Maybe it’s me with messing around with comic book movies, messing up that sandbox. I’m not speaking for Jay and Adam, but for me the things people like about ‘The Hangover’ — the outrageousness — or the things people like about ‘Old School’ — the irreverence — is based in truth. If truth is now offensive, which it seems to be, let’s just put that aside for a minute.”
When I spoke to Roach earlier this month, he disagreed with Phillips. It’s not political correctness that’s killed big-screen comedy, Roach said, it’s the studios’ business model.
“I do wonder what’s happened to the studios’ ability to rally the right people, get the right scripts and make comedies,” he said. “And one of the things that I have noticed is that there’s been a tremendous trend, it’s kind of a self-perpetuating spiral downwards in budget on comedies: They don’t do quite so well, then you make them come in for less, then they do less well.”
The result, said Roach, is a vicious cycle. “It takes money and time and room for actors to try things and experiment and fail and fail again, and fail again and then you succeed,” he said. “The studios feel like… we’ll just keep making them for lower money and that reduces the risk. But I’ve found, in the comedies I made — because we had 50 days, or 55 days of shooting, the actors could try things and we would cut at a three-hour movie and just use the best half of it. Now you only get to shoot an hour-and-a-half movie.”
So how do you make a successful movie comedy? “You get really funny people and hire possibly expensive actors to come in and do their best work and give them a ton of time to do it and then let them go for some spectacle,” he said. “I remember when ‘Something About Mary’ came out, it was around the time that our Austin films came out, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so happy they did this and that it made a lot of money’ because it meant we could keep doing that.”
Roach admitted that the current state of the U.S. is driving him to focus on politics. “I don’t have anything against going back and doing comedy. I’m just for some reason driven, just freakin’ driven, to understand what’s going on in our world,” he said. “And these films are what make me work twice, three times as hard as I might on something else.” (That said, he added, “If I had a great comedy script right now and it had great characters and was about something, I would be so quick to do it.”)
While it might not be a shock that Phillips and Roach have matured into more sophisticated subjects, it is surprising that Hollywood has not found a new generation of comedic filmmakers to fill the void.
Phillips insisted that younger directors are finding other mediums. “There’s many types of comedies,” he said. “There’s ‘Austin Powers.’ I’ll laugh at ‘Austin Powers,’ but that’s not my kind of comedy. My type of comedy has always been grounded in reality, and then make the situations absurd. I guess my point is it’s not a big of leap coming from ‘Hangover’ or ‘Old School’ to this (‘Joker’), to me, as it appears for some other people.”
So you think what you’re doing is safer than comedy?, I asked Phillips. His reply: “I did think it was safer than R-rated comedy at this moment.”
He went on: “I don’t mean to be reductive, but these papers like TheWrap and Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, I’ve seen articles over the last few years of like, ‘What happened to the R-rated comedy? That’s what it is. Everyone is too touchy. Everyone is so effing touchy.”