The Year was 1994. I was five-years-old, and even at such a young age, I had a tried-and-true passion for movies. It would be years until my love affair with cinema would blossom into a full-blown obsession, catching the essentials like Jaws, Star Wars, and more, but for the time, I had gone through every VHS in my household. In any case, I remember my first clear video store memory from around this time. With walls lined top-to-bottom with video cassettes, I was more than occupied looking at the various box covers enveloped in plastic security containers. But the reason this memory, in particular, resonates with me over twenty years later is that I saw something for the very first time that I would never forget: a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a bizarre, flipped-up hairstyle. The oddity of it all fascinated me, and next to the cutout was a stack of VHS tapes with the title Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
As much as I remember seeing that cut-out, I remember even clearer that—at the time—Ace Ventura was the funniest thing I had ever seen. I remember my five-year-old body trembling with laughter, and at that moment, realizing that I had to watch it again. I must have watched Ace Ventura half-a-dozen times that weekend, and even though some of the raunchier elements were completely lost on me, I could have recited the jokes of that movie back and forth. Looking at the sales numbers for the film, I wasn’t alone.
Following that day, I went on a comedy binge, something my parents were happy to oblige. I watched Airplane, Young Frankenstein, Ghostbusters, Mrs. Doubtfire, and much, much more. I became familiar with the names of the stars who had me tearing up with laughter, and even at that young age, I needed to see their next efforts, sometimes even in the theater. Soon enough, I was quoting The Mask and Jumanji while the coming years led me to discover comedy stars old and new, including Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Rick Moranis, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, and Adam Sandler. These were not just comedy actors; they were stars, and for years, they dominated the box office while changing our pop culture lexicon forever.
Fast forward two decades, and suddenly, it’s a different picture entirely. The most successful comedy film of 2016 was a hard, R-rated, ultraviolent superhero film that breaks the fourth wall and makes references to an extended cinematic franchise. Comedy stars still exist, but outside of a select few modern comedy moguls like Kevin Hart and Tyler Perry, the results of their big-screen fare vary: Seth Rogen found more success with an original, R-rated animated film than the sequel to the well-received Neighbors, while Melissa McCarthy rallied her base for The Boss yet fell flat with Ghostbusters. And for the comedy megastars of the new millennium, the past couple of years provided some of their biggest commercial misfires to date, such as Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby, Zach Galifianakis in Masterminds, and Ben Stiller with Zoolander No. 2.
With the comedy film market being as unpredictable as it is, it’s no surprise that many of yesteryear’s comedy icons are nowhere to be seen. Eddie Murphy hasn’t made a comedy since 2012’s A Thousand Words, Mike Myers since 2008’s The Love Guru, Jim Carrey since 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To, and Steve Martin since 2011’s The Big Year. Meanwhile, Adam Sandler has skipped the big screen entirely thanks to a six-film deal with Netflix, while Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Amy Schumer, Seth MacFarlane, Chris Rock, Steve Carrell, and Bill Murray all skipped starring roles on the big screen this past year.
However, don’t be confused in thinking that comedy is in trouble. In fact, the genre itself is flourishing exponentially outside of the theater. On the one hand, you have television, where daring voices such as Louis C.K., Donald Glover, Dan Harmon, Eric Andre, Maria Bamford, and more continue to rack up some of the most brilliant and acclaimed comedy on the medium. On the other hand, you have the business of live comedy, which has become more popular than ever thanks to the meteoric rise of improv comedy and high-profile stand-up headliners. Even in the digital space, comedy has become a huge business: comedy podcasts ranging from Comedy Bang Bang to My Favorite Murder have found phenomenal success while Netflix—in addition to their publicized Sandler deal—debuts new, exclusive stand-up specials on a near-weekly basis.
So why, save for Deadpool and Bad Moms, are audiences avoiding comedies at the multiplexes? Why are all the marquee names of humor rejecting the crown of comedy megastar? Is it simply that they prefer a simpler life, akin to Jerry Seinfeld or Dave Chappelle? Or have they grown weary of the broad studio comedies that offer little artistic fulfillment or awards consideration?
While each of these reasons may be among the contributing factors, there’s no denying that the audience who turned these performers into comedy icons has changed in recent years. As studio comedies languish against big-budget competition, comedy fans are turning toward more subversive titles to get their laughter fix as well as something beyond run-of-the-mill dick and fart jokes. Meanwhile, as social and political issues heat up in America, the power players in contemporary comedy have been the late night talk show hosts, with Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, and Bill Maher gaining social media momentum over their more commercial and traditional competitors.
But perhaps the most prescient reason would be that these comedy megastars don’t want to have their worst fears confirmed—they are afraid people will no longer find them funny. Considering the actual physical call-and-response mechanisms of comedy, these performers have been turning toward Oscar-bait dramas for the same reason they have been avoiding high-concept comedies—the feeling of validation among your peers. As studios try to find the next big comedy stars to fill their shoes, they have ended up going to the same “party movie” or “weird outsider” well to diminishing profits. To icons of comedy, the big fear isn’t that the movies are stale, but their particular brand of comedy is stale as well. And with many of the proven comedy directors turning toward the dramatic sector, including Todd Phillips, Adam McKay, and Jay Roach, these megastars are turning toward behind-the-scenes producer roles over the comedic leading roles.
There’s no doubt that, sooner or later, the next generation of comedy film icons will emerge, and one day will impact some young comedy fan the same way the old guard had with myself and countless others 20 years ago. But whether or not the likes of Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, or Steve Martin ever get back in the saddle for one more major comedy film is still in the air, and they very likely could settle into retirement without the arbitrary need to go back to their bread and butter. However, as risky as comedians can be, cementing their legacy is no laughing matter, so don’t be surprised if, just when the world has counted them out, these one-time comedy kings return to get the last laugh.