Earlier this year, Joker director Todd Phillips caused a stir online when he told an interviewer that the reason he’d moved from making his brand of proudly irreverent bro comedy to the most self-serious comic book movie to date (a truly prestigious honor when you remember Suicide Squad exists) was... woke culture. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” Phillips told Vanity Fair. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’”
In hindsight, what’s hard to believe about Phillips’s comments is that they provoked a reaction at all, considering how commonplace this particular anxiety is among “funny guys.” Comedians like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, and Jerry Seinfeld have all loudly decried the impact of woke culture on modern comedy. No comedy-affiliated guest can get through an appearance on Bill Simmons’s podcast without talking about the precarious fate of the art at a time when people get offended about things online. On Real Time, Bill Maher does nearly as much anti-PC material as Trump material. Political correctness is widely treated like an epidemic that poses the same threat to humor that climate change does to the planet.
In some respects, the fears around comedy are justified. By most measures, this decade was indeed not a good one for comedy. As box office totals rose modestly, comedy totals plummeted (in 2009, comedies earned $2.5 billion; by 2018, they were only earning $1 billion). No movie comedy launched a blockbuster franchise this decade (the last was Phillips’s The Hangover, which began in 2009). The most-watched television comedy of the decade might’ve been one from the ‘90s. America’s biggest comedian’s sexual misconduct made him persona non-grata, and several other comedians did in fact lose jobs or get in hot water for crossing the line. And that’s to say nothing of all the other very, very unfunny shit that went down off screen and behind the scenes.
But the argument over the impact of PC culture obscures a more significant shift that occurred within comedy this decade. From the late 1970s National Lampoons movies to the comedies released at the start of the ‘10s (The Other Guys, Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids), comedies got quicker and more profane, but largely remained formally unchanged. The name of the game was to find a funny premise (a virgin, but 40!), cast some funny guys (and it was almost always guys), add a bit of sex appeal, and pack as many jokes into a 90-minute, three-act arc as possible. If you watch Animal House and then Old School, you’ll notice that the period fashion and vocal inflection are noticeably different, but in most respects what these movies are doing for laughs is the same. Same applies to Trading Places and Step Brothers. Or The Blues Brothers and Wedding Crashers.
That all changed this decade. There were successful comedies that fit the traditional mold (albeit often with a more diverse group of protagonists), like 2011’s Bridesmaids, 2014’s 22 Jump Street, 2017’s Girls Trip. But for the most part, the best TV and movie laugh-fests this decade shifted what a comedy does, and what one even is. Where previous decades’ comedies tended to produce memorable lines, this decade’s more often produced memorable moments: Justin Theroux going through a penis scanner in The Leftovers’ “International Assassin” episode; the invisible car in Atlanta; Colin Farrell being forced to stick his hand in a toaster in The Lobster; modern art veering out of control in The Square.
Comedy this decade got weirder, more situational, and it blurred genre. (Was Barry a comedy or a thriller? Was Get Out comedy or horror? How about Midsommar?) Off-color jokes could incite a Twitter mob, but most of the jokes that defined past decades’ biggest comedies wouldn’t fly today simply because they’d feel stilted in their construction as jokes. “As a filmmaker, I track where I laugh and where people laugh, and I do find lately that I don't laugh at witty jokes nearly as hard as I laugh when I'm emotionally invested in the human experience, and comical but relatable things unfold,” says Daniel Scheinert, whose The Death of Dick Long crafts a punchline out of the absurd way an Alabama man dies.
If the ‘00s relied on colossal performers like Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn riffing, this decade put a greater emphasis on a creator’s vision. “A lot of what had become comedy was just putting people in situations where they could say a bunch of funny lines,” says Sorry to Bother You writer-director Boots Riley. “I think that that was getting away from what comedy is. When a stand-up comedian is telling you a story, he's being a filmmaker. He's putting this story in your head and setting up these awkward situations.”
This decade brought a more eclectic offering of out-there, inventive content than ever. As streaming became the dominant mode of watching, small but passionate fandoms became valuable currency. It allowed for the creation, for instance, of a Spanish-English hybrid HBO show about a group of Mexico City millennials who perform macabre stunts, and sometimes venture into uncanny territory. “I think that what's allowing shows like ours to be made is that there are so many ways people can consume shows,” Julio Torres says of Los Espookys, which he writes for and stars in. “That opens up more possibility for more different kinds of shows to exist. Outlets are comfortable making shows that are not for everybody, but are seen by a loyal and excited audience.”
Audiences, in turn, have demonstrated a desire for content—like Espookys and Sorry to Bother You—that’s idiosyncratic, slightly surreal, and bucks convention. “Because there were so many of the same comedies being made and the same formulas reinterpreted, when shows came out that didn't fit that mold, it was very exciting,” says Ana Fabrega, who also writes for and stars in Espookys. “You don't have to assume that the only way the audience will understand is if you package it in a way they're familiar with. Shows that played around with format were well received because the audience is smart.” And actually, the more experimental shows and movies got—and the wilder the moments they produced were—the more likely it would be that they’d attract more eyes and attention.
In addition to the advent of streaming, a lot of these changes can be traced back to disgraced comedian Louis C.K.’s former FX show, Louie, which debuted in 2010. Though aesthetically it resembled Woody Allen movies and its premise was in the mold of life-of-a-comedian sitcoms like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, in practice it was a trailblazer—as hard to reckon as that now is. It brought an auteur model and cinematic approach to the half hour comedy, paving the way for shows like Master of None, Atlanta, and The Jim Gaffigan Show. Its gags were spread thin, its tone was bizarre, and it frequently pushed the bounds of reality in memorable ways. Jokes served the story rather than vice versa.
Louie also helped usher in a new type of on-screen comedy star—one who reacted to the world’s absurdity rather than creating it. If Will Ferrell was representative of last decade’s comedy star, a performer like Lakeith Stanfield was representative of this decade’s. Where Ferrell excelled at doing big and childish, Stanfield’s strength is dazed and laconic. He’s the perfect person to throw into a crazy situation because he’s great at playing both bewilderment (he’s got an incredible eyebrow raise) and ironic nonchalance. In shows like Atlanta and movies like Sorry to Bother You or Get Out, his askance perspective is a function of a society gone awry. Where Ferrell is an amusement park ride in himself, Stanfield is the person you want to go on a ride with.
Take, for instance, Stanfield’s accidental discovery of Worry Free Corporation’s Equisapiens in Sorry to Bother You or the moment when his trance is broken in Get Out. These scenes—which are some of the decade’s most indelible—might make you laugh, but they’re also packed with tension and actual stakes. It’s a different type of humor, but one that’s no less funny, cutting, or transgressive. Guys like Todd Phillips might not get it, but ultimately, the joke’s on them.
Introducing the new kings and queens of lol.
In Joker, Arthur Fleck bombs hard, carrying on a proud tradition of shitty cinematic joke-telling.
Originally Appeared on GQ