The art of raunchy Hollywood comedy: Why should men have all the fun?
The stories are so formulaic that you can basically fold them all into three categories: men behaving badly (like “The Hangover” series, or “Get Him to the Greek,”); men acting like hapless losers (“Dinner for Schmucks,” “I Love You Man” and pretty much any Will Ferrell movie); and a combination of both (“Arthur,” “The Dilemma,” “The Other Guys” and virtually any Adam Sandler movie).
As the veteran TV comedy writer-producer Ken Levine described it on his blog the other day: “The issues that guys are wrestling with in Hollywood rom-coms these days are ‘Will I get laid?’ ‘Will I get my man cave?’ and the universal: ‘Why am I waking up in urine?’”
Whenever the town’s trade publications run a story about a new comedy script sale, it is almost impossible to get more than two sentences in without seeing the terms “raunchy” and “The Hangover.” But if Hollywood can happily lap up dozens of “Hangover” knock offs, why can’t it make room for female-oriented comedies, given that the R-rated “Bridesmaids” has made nearly $140 million this year and has a legitimate shot at becoming producer Judd Apatow’s top grossing U.S. film?
The answer, like almost everything in this town, boils down to business: Studios don’t need to make comedies for women, because they’ve been lapping up the dumb guy humor (and horror films, Marvel comic superhero movies and any kind of tentpole picture).
According to Universal marketers, the studio’s flock of Apatow-produced comedies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Knocked Up,” even though populated with male stars, attracted an audience that was 55% female, and 45% male. Even the biggest fan boy movie will only skew 65-35 male.
But if guys think a film is just for gals, it is far more difficult to nudge them out of their comfort zone -- or man caves. A chick flick will often skew 80-20 female, though “Bridesmaids” ended up being closer to 60-40.
There have been a couple of “Bridesmaids”-inspired studio script buys in recent weeks. But it’s hardly evidence of a seismic shift. The movies are profoundly slow to reflect broad cultural changes. It’s worth remembering that virtually all of Hollywood’s seminal films about the Vietnam War were made well after the conflict was over. But there are rays of hope.
Maggie Carey, a young writer-director best known for her work at web comedy outlets like “Funny or Die,” is just days away from beginning to film “The To-Do List,” which could be the female equivalent of “American Pie.” Carey’s script has been an underground sensation for several years, having made the 2009 “Black List” roster of hot unproduced scripts and generating considerable buzz when Carey staged a reading at the 2010 Austin Film Festival, with parts being performed by Jessica Alba, Colin Hanks, Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation” and “SNL’s” Bill Hader (Carey’s husband).
The script is a delightful early 1990s coming-of-age story about Brandy, a flat-chested, ultra-nerdy valedictorian who, urged on by her more knowing friends, makes an X-rated “To Do” list of sexual experiments she can accomplish during her summer before college. The graphic nature of Brandy’s comic sexual encounters can’t be described in a family newspaper, nor can its initial title, taken from a slang term for one particular act, be mentioned. Carey says the story was “loosely inspired” by her experiences with her high-school pals in circa-1993 Idaho, where she spent her summers working as a lifeguard.
One of Carey’s shrewdest decisions as a writer is the way she sometimes lets the audience eavesdrop on the girls talking about sex, juxtaposing it with the boys’ wildly different description of the same encounter. The dialogue is tart and knowing, especially when it comes to making fun of male self-involvement. When Brandy is having oral sex with the lead singer of a local grunge band, the guy launches into a windy monologue. When she asks him why he keeps talking during their, ahem, encounter, he blithely explains: “I’m a lyricist, honey. Lamenting is what I do.”
Despite all the heat around the script, Carey struck out when she shopped it to the major studios. “They all passed,” she told me. “As a first-time director, I always knew that the studios wouldn’t let me direct it. It’s not like anyone ever specifically said, ‘No, we won’t make this because you’re a woman.’ But they did say, ‘Our comedy demographic is 18-to-35 men, so we’re looking for movies that guys want to see.’”
Instead of giving up, Carey went outside the system, attracting enough money, with the help of “Austin Powers” producer Jennifer Todd, to allow her to make the movie as an independent production. Even with a budget that’s a fraction of “Bridesmaids,” Carey attracted an impressive cast of comic talent. In addition to Plaza, who plays Brandy, the cast includes Andy Samberg as Van, the grunge band singer, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Duffy, an obnoxious teen boy and Johnny Simmons as Cameron, Brandy’s tongue-tied love interest. Hader is also in the film as Brandy’s lifeguard boss.
Carey has a tight 24-day shooting schedule. “It’s going to be painful,” Carey says. “But I didn’t see a lot of other business models for us, which is why we’re doing this so indepedently and so small.” She’s not enthusiastic about being pigeonholed as a female comedy filmmaker. “I like to think of it as personal comedy, not male or female,” she says. “I’m just writing about what I know.”
— Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Rose Byrne, left, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and Ellie Kemper in a scene from the hit comedy "Bridesmaids."
Credit: Suzanne Hanover / Universal Studios.