It Is Unfair To Call A Comedy ‘Too Millennial’

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Joy Ride (2023) © Lionsgate

Problems and limitations of genre aside, the ability to categorise tropes, references and plot points into easily identifiable groups has always been useful to film. The ability can signal to an audience that a particular film exists within the wider genre it aims to be a part of.

When it comes to mainstream films, for the most part, there is some level of desire from studios not to mess too much with the established rules of genre and form. Not wanting to impede a film’s box office potential, studios generally use genre as a starting point from which chartered territory can be explored, all done with the certainty that audiences will pay to see it. Not every film wishes to exist within these categories, not wanting to forget its own identity away from genre. However, for as long as cinema has existed, the industry has been informing itself on what to make.

The Issue Of Genre 

Within the complex web of genres and subgenres is comedy. There is no film genre that has simultaneously flourished and suffered as much at the hands of human subjectivity, leaving movie studios with no reliable template to follow. For any other genre, whilst there is not a set story or structure there are an implicit set of tropes that signal its identity. A drama, for example, may be shot more naturalistically than an action film. Its dialogue might be less stylised, and its themes more human. The comedy struggles to establish a set of tropes to make a genre because its very foundations are built on something so non-objective that a reliable structure for success cannot be found.

If you asked a hundred people what a comedy’s primary job is, they would most likely say to make them laugh. However, if you asked that same group what it is that makes them laugh, you will get a multitude of answers. In these most simple terms, this is the problem that comedy has always faced; and, as we enter an era that demands new things from their comedy films, studios are finding it even harder to keep up.

The Missing Pattern

Without a set formula to follow, comedies tend to be reflective of the time they were made and, despite initially positive responses, are often unable to find much success after the fact. There are very few cult comedies when compared to other genres, and this is because comedies can rarely outlive their own time—mainly because comedic styles are in a constant state of evolution. The things that made people laugh in the 1980s are not going to have the same effect in 2023. Jokes have a shelf life, and whilst good comedies are able to capture their zeitgeist, they are equally unable to exist outside of it.

The most recent victim of this phenomenon is Joy Ride (2023), a film about four Asian American friends who go on a journey of discovery as they travel through China to find one of their birth mothers. The film has received positive reviews and has been praised for its mixture of raunch and heart.

Despite its success, there have been some criticisms that Joy Ride’s humour is too millennial. This statement ignores the fact that the disparity between comedic styles is more disparate than ever, with modern comedies unable to anchor themselves to a universally popular approach. In 2023, this is mainly because of the new ways in which the young audiences being targeted consume their comedic entertainment.

Memes and Comedy Films

With young people consuming entertainment on their phones more than ever, specifically through apps like TikTok, a new type of comedy has formed that studios cannot successfully respond to. Online, a meme that was funny two weeks ago—take the recent memes surrounding ‘Barbenheimer’—quickly fades from fashion as the next set of popular internet jokes come into rotation. A film seeking to capitalise on a particular meme will come out a year after the joke has already died its grim and inevitable death.

There are a few examples of this. Take He’s All That (2021), starring TikToker Addison Rae. The movie tries to translate Rae’s internet fame into movie fame and was critically panned. This strategy can never work, because feature-length films and social media celebrities exist within different comedic worlds with different comedic currencies. On TikTok, jokes can be made quickly and with very little cost, riding the wave of virality before users move on to something new. With movies, the time delay between an idea and the finished product can make a comedy appear out-of-date to the very audience it is aimed at.

Saying that Joy Ride is too out of touch for a Gen Z audience is a sign that today, more than any other time in recent cinematic memory, the standard for comedies has shifted. This is due to the changing ways that Gen-Zers consume their comedic entertainment. With the increase in accessible entertainment comes the increase in those trying to use these emerging platforms for comedy. This is not a bad thing, and there is no doubt that apps such as TikTok have, at times, enriched the comedic landscape, but it has changed how we think about comedy. It no longer comes on the big screen but is instead, for most Gen-Zers, found both easier and cheaper on their phone, just a few taps away. This is something that studios can never compete with, and should not be blamed for. 

Failing to Capture the 20-Something’s Experience

Comedies will always be at a disadvantage with how quickly our culture picks things up and swiftly lets them go again. Joy Ride might seem too millennial at the time of its release, its humour more likely capturing the moment of its conception. This is not to say that a comedy written a year ago will seem completely outdated now. Joy Ride tries to capture the experience of the young 20-something, but the 20-something is not a definable figure. Our conception of who they are is always shifting because they exist in a world that is always shifting, too. It is because of this that comedy is always playing catch up when trying to represent them on screen, and whilst Joy Ride’s questions of self-discovery are applicable to any age demographic, the world that the audience is discovering themselves in will not be the same world that the film was conceived in. It is not the audience that is changing, it is the world they live in.

Self-Awareness in Comedy

I am not a fan of most comedies. I have a few favourites, like Dr Strangelove (1964) or Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). These titles in particular, in my opinion, have the self-awareness to create their plots with a generality that could fit into any time period. Dr Strangelove’s jokes about world domination will always be a relevant joke, and Holy Grail’s classic adventure structure is as old as time. Comedies that position themselves as a blank slate for the audience to imprint their specific culture onto find the most success. Too many modern comedies, like He’s All That (2021), base their jokes around things that can only be seen as relevant to one generation at one specific time.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) © Python (Monty) Pictures

Studios need to see that the key to success is creating comedies that centre themselves on ideas that will outlive the film. Situating comedy within age-old questions and concerns will give it a shelf life that a lot of modern comedies lack. This is not an easy task, and nobody can know for sure how to make an iconic comedy, but for today’s generation, a comedy that speaks not to who they are but to the world that they live in will have a greater chance of success. Well, at least until the world becomes irrelevant and we all go to live on Mars, that is.

Words by James Evenden


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