Imagine a pitch meeting at a movie studio. Executives excited to hear the latest idea from a filmmaker who’s made them a ton of money in the past. They wait with baited breath as he begins to explain the premise. A group of actors making a war movie wind up having to actually become soldiers. But it’s a comedy, so the pitch goes on to explain how it will satirize Hollywood and the actors who take themselves too seriously. In fact, there’s one actor who is so “method” that he dyes his skin for his character. He’s a white guy, dyeing his skin black.
Now, obviously this is meant to make fun of the actor. In 2019, however, Ben Stiller would not have gotten Tropic Thunder through the pitch meeting, let alone been able to make it. And Robert Downey, Jr. would have one less Oscar nomination under his belt.
It is interesting times for films, particularly comedies. Things are both the most permissive they’ve ever been, with no violent act being too shocking, and the most conservative they’ve ever been, with more and more taboo subjects, words and sacred cows. Whether you call it political correctness or common decency, there’s no doubt the cultural climate has shifted considerably over the last few years. To the degree that some of our most popular, favorite films would never have a shot of even being made by a studio today.
Obviously Tropic Thunder is a 2019 no-go. Not only because of the de facto blackface, but the whole idea of Simple Jack and the conversation debating the merits of an actor going “half retard” or “full retard” would enrage Twitter.
The Farrelly Brothers pushed the envelope of bad taste to the limit for years (read: Dumb and Dumber). There’s Something About Mary was a huge hit and gave us a few iconic scenes, most notably those including hair gel or a zipper. Underneath all the craziness, though, was a sweet story. But that would get lost today, amongst the outrage of the film making fun of people with physical disabilities, as one character feigns needing crutches designed for disability while being able-bodied. The Farrellys are obviously aware that they can’t get away with all they once did, since Peter Farrelly put the insanity behind him and made an “important”, Oscar-nominated film about race this year.
Steve Martin is one of the most witty, observant and elegant writers the New Yorker has ever published. His novels, like Shopgirl and Object of Beauty, are pensive and poignant. Before he could show his skills as an author, though, Steve first had to write some films. His first, The Jerk, is a seminal comedy for a whole generation of fans. Silly, but again with a very sweet core. However no one would ever know that because they would have stopped reading on page one with the line “I was born a poor black child”, spoken by white character Navin R. Johnson. Navin lives with his black family, unaware there is anything different about him or that he was adopted, trying so hard to get rhythm like his family. This amount of cultural appropriation would never fly with today’s cultural watchdogs, and we would only know Steve Martin as a comedian who put an arrow through his head.
Abrahams, Zucker & Zucker were the Farrellys before the Farrellys. While their films were more like Family Guy, with minimal plot and character in exchange for rapid-fire jokes, they were also influential to a number of future writers and directors, most notably the creators of South Park. If Abrahams, Zucker & Zucker tried to make Airplane today, though, it would have a run time closer to four minutes and thirty-one seconds than the eighty-nine minutes it is. Between having to remove the Captain’s child molestation inferences, to the subtitles under two black men speaking “jive”, to a little girl wanting her coffee black “like my men”, there would barely be enough content for a short film.
Mel Brooks has made a career out of using comedy as a means of social commentary. Starting with The Producers and the idea of a musical called Springtime for Hitler, Mel has skewered the self-important, pompous and haughty. With Blazing Saddles, he also took on the bigots. On the surface, the plot of a black man being made sheriff of a town in the old west sounds like something that would be celebrated today. A person of color is being given an opportunity usually only afforded to a Caucasian! While the plot may be contemporary, the jokes certainly aren’t. Racial stereotypes abound (“they said you was hung” “and they was right”). And so does the n-word. Richard Pryor was one of the writers, so it’s not as though Mel wrote in a bubble. But even though the intention is to make fun of racists, if it was today and the script was leaked, people would be protesting and boycotting and force the studio to close production.
Revenge of the Nerds gave a lot of people a sense of empowerment in the time before nerds and geeks were celebrated, and when jocks ruled the earth. It’s full of stereotypes about both “nerds” and “jocks”; nerds can’t get women, jocks are loud and dumb. But the reason the Nerds wouldn’t get their Revenge today is because their idea of revenge is to install cameras in unsuspecting college girls’ rooms and watch them while they sleep. And to have sex with a woman while wearing a mask and posing as her boyfriend. If anything, today’s version would be Revenge of the Cheerleaders.
At a time when no comedian will go near hosting the Oscars because they know someone will be offended about something they said, whether they said it 20 years ago or yesterday, and Chris Rock is afraid to be funny, we are at a cultural crossroads.
What will be the Animal House for future generations? The films that inspire comedy writers, that everyone “in the know” quotes? Somehow it doesn’t seem like Crazy Rich Asians will fit the bill.