Of the 30 highest-grossing movies at the box office in 2015, almost a third were comedies. Minions, Pitch Perfect 2, Hotel Transylvania 2, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, The Peanuts Movie, Spy!, Trainwreck, and Daddy’s Home together brought in almost $1.3 billion in revenue.
Comedy movies are loved by fans and financiers alike, and every year there are guaranteed to be more, with the likes of Baby Driver, Fist Fight, and Animal Crackers set to light up screens in 2017. What is it that makes movies like these so appealing and why do we find them so rewarding?
The great escape
Escapism has always been an important part of the appeal of the cinema. Even though movies can be fun to watch at home, there’s something about having fun as part of a crowd – much as one might do at a concert or a baseball game – that adds to the magic. Humans are social animals and have evolved to enjoy sharing emotional experiences. Hearing and watching others laugh increases our own propensity to do so, and there’s some evidence that pheromones – chemical signaling agents that pass between bodies – let us share directly in one another’s happiness.
Just as watching depressing films together can bring everybody down, watching comedies can lift the mood and provide an escape from the stresses of day-to-day life. The most successful comedies at the box office are warm-hearted and inclusive and can be shared by all the family. They also tend to be energetic and very involving, commanding the attention so that there’s no time to worry about tomorrow’s commute or the presentation due on Friday.
Types of comedy
Though these hit comedies have broad appeal, there are many other types of comedy with niche audiences. Movies focused on particular groups, such as Woody Allen’s several observations of Jewish family life or John Hughes’ high school comedies, can have strong niche appeal reinforced by the use of in-jokes that make viewers from the same group experience a warm feeling of belonging, but the best of them are also successful in entertaining outsiders. Intellectual comedies can reward those with a lot of education, while broad comedies are great for audiences that want to relax by switching off their brain. Slapstick comedy is easy for young children to understand and can be a great way for parents and kids to bond. For those who are a little more cynical about life, there’s black comedy, which finds redemptive humor in the darkest of situations.
Comedy also appeals to viewers because it’s a very personal genre, with many comedies inviting us to sympathize closely with a particular character. This is partly why it has such great sequel potential – something the studios love – and it’s the reason why comedy can create enormously popular stars. This goes right back into movie history – to Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin. It was a big part of the success of Marilyn Monroe, and today it gives us stars such as Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Jason Segel, and Adam Sandler. Viewers have a good idea what kind of thing they’re going to see when they choose to watch a film with a star like this, which increases the odds of them having a good time.
There’s one other reason why comedies are produced in profusion by film studios: they’re cheap. After accounting for the cost of a star, there’s no real need to spend a lot – they don’t generally rely on special effects or fancy locations. If they hit the spot, they can achieve their promotional aim through word of mouth. This makes comedy a great place for talented filmmakers to start out. Writers looking to create something with a comedic twist can find endless material in funny news stories or simply in observing everyday life, so for those with talent, there’s never a shortage of things to say.
The other great thing about comedies is that they can be built around almost any storyline, so it’s easy for them to expand into different genres. From Westerns such as Blazing Saddles to horror comedies such as Ghostbusters, sports comedies such as Leatherheads, disaster movie comedies such as Airplane!, and endless rom-coms, cross-genre comedy is a reminder that humor can be found everywhere – and it helps to keep other filmmakers from taking themselves too seriously.
With so much going for them, comedies are destined to remain big at the box office for a long time to come.