November 30, 2012

Popularity of comedy movies, 1915 - 2011

When the world gets you down, you need a little comic relief. The comedy genre helps you cope and move on not only by allowing you to re-frame stressful situations in a more lighthearted way, but also by causing you to bust a gut laughing, triggering your brain to release pain-killing endorphins.

So we might expect to see an increasing demand for comedy movies during rising-crime times, and a decreasing demand in falling-crime times. The graph below shows how many of the box office top 10 movies released in a year had "comedy" listed in the Genre field of their IMDb page. I eliminated those that also had "animation" listed because that's just unfunny kiddie crap, not comedies that would help adolescents and adults cope with stress. I did let Who Framed Roger Rabbit squeeze through, though, since it's mostly live action and is more like the old bawdy and violent Looney Tunes cartoons that were aimed at teenagers and grown-ups.

During the rising-crime period of the early 20th C., comedies were fairly popular, other than a dry spell in the late '20s. After a peak in the early '30s, they fall through a bottom in the early-mid '50s. Once again the Great Depression is invisible in the cultural record. The early '30s look like the rest of the Jazz Age, and the increasingly prosperous period of the mid-'40s through the '50s look like they were just continuing the trend begun in the mid-'30s and into the early '40s. What does separate these two periods is the peak in the homicide rate in 1933, before which it was rising and after which it was falling.

The murder rate began rising again in 1959, and there were smaller signs that it was around the corner even by 1957 or so, with the somewhat wilder and more delinquent youth culture of the late '50s compared to the earlier stretch of that decade. This sense of growing disorder put audiences in more of a mood for comedy, bringing about a re-birth of the genre that continued through the '60s.

After a brief sputtering out in the early '70s, comedies began climbing again, remaining popular all throughout the '80s, reaching a peak they had not seen since the tail-end of the Jazz Age in the early '30s. Whether they made it into the top 10 or not, just about all of the funniest movies ever made come from the late '70s and the '80s -- Vacation, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Heathers, Back to the Future, Weird Science... just to name a few. It's also striking how many were not just knee-slappers but also got your adrenaline pumping (the long defunct action-comedy), or juxtaposed a heavier and lighter approach to the subject matter (the "dramedy").

Starting in the '90s, comedies have virtually disappeared from popularity. Counting the inoffensive kiddie cartoons would only nudge the numbers up a bit in the past 10-15 years, and the genre would still show a sharp decline over the past 20. The comedies that we do get tend to be more one-dimensional yuk-yuk movies, and most of them, like Superbad, don't even excel at this limited goal.

In a falling-crime period, people feel so much safer and more stable that they go into a more vegetative mode, compared to the earlier rising-crime period. Procrastination pays off more when the deadline is felt to be farther into the future. With so little excitement in their lives, they don't feel like they need cheering up -- at least not to the level of laughing until it hurts.

Kids these days seem to whine more frequently about being stressed, but the magnitude of it must be pretty low, since they're not killing themselves at higher rates than before, or lashing out. A steady, low-intensity stream of stress does not call for occasional yet cathartic releases, but instead for a steady stream of low-dosage pain-killers -- bland reassurances from friends that they're stressed out too, the fleeting rush they get from leveling up a video game character or accreting likes on their Facebook status update, low-key spacey music, and other not-very-arousing addictions.

Watching a great comedy movie is fundamentally a joyful experience, so it offers little appeal to a population of joyless treadmill joggers.


  1. What are video and DVD sales comparisons like?

    I would guess comedies aren't really so much the kind of thing people these days want to go and buy an expensive ticket to go and see (as opposed to vegging out on their sofa to watch)...

  2. Also, box office total by genre might be more interesting than top 10!

  3. I think it's also that people don't want to experience catharsis in a public space surrounded by strangers. They feel uncomfortable letting go of themselves and merging into the group, so watching a gut-splitting comedy in the theater would be a major threat to their self-consciousness and emotional isolation.

    If they don't have to do it in public, and if the comedy isn't that hilarious but more low-key / snarky, then they might go for it.

    I think even there, though, most people rent DVDs, stream Netflix, and tune into TV for serial dramas, documentaries, reality TV, musical / dancing variety shows, and quiz shows, than to laugh out loud to a sitcom. Comedies are way down in popularity for TV too, not just movies seen in theaters.

  4. Box office revenue is more unstable because hit movies can vary so much in how much they bring in. Taking the ratio of two unstable things is even dicier (ratio of comedy revenue to total revenue).

    Number in the top 10 is pretty straightforward -- was it popular enough to rank that high.

  5. Yeah. I don't even think popular comedies, like the Judd Apatow movies, quite ranked in the top 10.

    I have looked at top 10 movies for the past 20 years. They're all Harry Potter movies, superhero movies, or children's cartoons.

    The last comedy which was in the top 10, which I can remember, was "There's Something About Mary" in 1997 or 1998.

  6. Well I was somewhat wrong about that. The last one was 2004 "Meet the Fockers". Still, though..


  7. In general, it seems that the dearth of comedies didn't start until 2005. the 90s and early 00s consistently have at least one comedy ranking in the top 10 each year.

    The crime rate started falling in
    '93. So there might be some sort of difference between the '93-2004 period vs. 2005-present.


  8. I'm going by when comedies began to fall, rather than when they reached zero.

  9. I hated Disney as a kid, and never cared for Toy Story. But I have to admit that "Up" is a genuinely good movie.

    As a Warner Bros partisan (also Stooges, Laurel & Hardy), I think comedy seems more naturally fit for shorts. Hence why there are "sketch" comedy shows, but not much comparable for other genres. I guess Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone/Outer Limits had the serial thing as well, although typically of something like an hour in length.

  10. Comedy movies are a lot shorter than other types, thank god. No way you could make a tedious 3-hour movie whose main goal was to keep getting laughs.

    That's part of the cause for trends toward longer vs. shorter running times that I posted on not long ago.

    As for shorts and sketches, those can be pretty funny. But they lack the movie-length comedy's ability to explore human life in detail.

    You couldn't do Vacation or Planes, Trains and Automobiles in a sketch or short because they're looking into the funny parts of long-term patterns in human behavior, like trying to captain the family road trip and bring everyone together. Or explore the humor as relationships develop for the first time, or respond to a series of challenges.

    Short / sketch-length comedy tends to be more conceptual, gimmicky, novelty-based, taking pot-shots, etc. Again not that it can't often be hilarious, but they can't really touch on human nature. "Foibles" implies a more lengthier treatment, though not ponderously long.

    The shorter forms are prototypically Jewish humor, while the longer forms are prototypically Celtic humor. Of course when one form is dominant, members of the other group can put on a different hat, like Woody Allen putting on an Irish hat when making Hannah and Her Sisters, or Chris Farley doing his best Jewish caricature of a goy bumpkin.

  11. "The last comedy which was in the top 10, which I can remember, was "There's Something About Mary" in 1997 or 1998."

    That felt very lame even at the time.

    The last funny movie I remember being shown in theaters was The Big Lebowski. I think I saw that three or more times with different groups of friends. Then bought it on VHS right when it came out.

  12. Hannah and Her Sisters is an incredibly depressing movie.

  13. "No way you could make a tedious 3-hour movie whose main goal was to keep getting laughs."
    It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from 1963 was 210 minutes in it's preview showing, cut down to 192 for the premiere, although it was further cut without the director's involvement once the studio saw how big a hit it was (in order to fit in more showings). Rat Race, from 2001, is pretty much the same movie but runs 112 minutes.

    I can't think of any other extremely long comedy films. IAMMMMW seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

  14. No way you could make a tedious 3-hour movie whose main goal was to keep getting laughs.

    Hmm... Are Shakespeare's comedies any good?


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."