Bart: Here’s a suggestion for Adam Sandler, Seth MacFarlane and James Franco that none will appreciate: Guys, you should think about taking a sabbatical. All of you have been working too hard, trying too hard, and you’ve become predictable. Why not take a place on the sidelines for a while and think about life? I know the whole concept of “the sidelines” worries you. They’re already occupied by the likes of Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Mike Myers; it’s much more fun being in the middle of the action. Even too much action.
Fleming: Wow, that’s a buckshot blast. Those three fall into different categories. Let’s take them one at a time, starting with Sandler. I loved his Saturday Night Live character creations, from Opera Man to Canteen Boy and miss the edge he carried into his early films. I wish Adam would stop pandering to the four quadrants and challenge himself to write something less predictable. Audiences are losing interest.
Bart: My problem with Sandler, MacFarlane and others is that “raunchier” doesn’t necessarily mean “funnier”. Scatalogical humor already has been pushed over the edge this summer and we are yet to see Melissa McCarthy’s new road movie, Tammy, or the next Cameron Diaz epic, Sex Tape. By the standards of the moment, the Diaz-Ben Stiller hair gel moment in There’s Something About Mary seems like a Disney picture. The R ratings for movies like Neighbors were saved only by some eleventh-hour manipulation in the cutting room — “frame-f*cking,” it’s called, and it’s a flourishing career.
Fleming: Don’t you go ragging on my girl Melissa McCarthy, hands down the funniest physical movie comedienne I’ve ever seen. But this brings me to Sabbatical Subject number two: Seth MacFarlane. A Million Ways To Die In The West failed because of hubris (I think his name was on five of the first six title cards at the start of the movie) and pushing the scatological envelope completely in the wrong direction by having actresses Charlize Theron and Sarah Silverman say and do vile things. Unless he is voicing a foul-mouthed stuffed bear or an animated Brit-accented baby, MacFarlane shouldn’t be carrying a comedy. Though gifted writing and doing voices, his smirking pretty boy act lacked the idiosyncratic self deprecation Larry David, Woody Allen and Albert Brooks put into their performances. As I watched MacFarlane mug in the Old West, I pined for Blazing Saddles‘ Gene Wilder. It’s a pratfall these comedy creators sometimes make, appealing more to their vanity than getting laughs.
Bart: After studying the raunch level of recent movies, I think audiences deserve the sort of “trigger warnings” now deployed for college students and even some in high school. Trigger warnings alert students to material they may find gory, sexy or violent and may therefore offend their sensibilities. On the one hand I tend to agree with those media critics who attack trigger warnings on the grounds that they impinge on academic freedom and seem overly protective. If you’re in college you should be able to fend for yourself on these issues. On the other hand, much of the material in film or cable TV today may legitimately violate the sensibilities of a substantial portion of the audience. Not that these scenes are too sexy; they’re simply too vulgar. I’ll admit it: I start squirming when fleshy Seth Rogen flashes his naked body to perform sex acts in Neighbors. I want you to have good sex, Seth; I just don’t need to be there when it happens.
Fleming: I love raunchy humor if it is balls out funny and wrong in the right ways. There were moments in There’s Something About Mary (showing the results of Ben Stiller getting his franks and beans caught in the zipper of his prom slacks), Bad Grandpa (Johnny Knoxville in the corner of a diner booth trying to leverage himself to explosively pass gas), Austin Powers 2 and 3, Step Brothers, Borat, Bruno (getting an unwitting Paula Abdul to sit on a live Mexican gardener posing as a chair), Bridesmaids and The Hangover that left me laughing so hard it was a struggle to breathe.
The makers of all these movies are at their best when they don’t care who they offend. I like your sabbatical idea for comedy creators, because it is harder than making drama and these guys destroy themselves under the weight of having to surpass touchstone efforts. You owned the rights to Fun With Dick And Jane and got a glimpse into the pressure Jim Carrey puts himself under when he starred in the remake. What did you observe?
Bart: I put together a movie titled Being There some years ago, which gave me a chance to observe Peter Sellers in action. Sellers was the polar opposite of Carrey. He knew when to say nothing, when to make us laugh with a gesture or a glance. Sellers was a master of comedic understatement. That gift has been lost on some of today’s performers. By the way, the director of Being There, Hal Ashby, also specialized in understatement. After a take, the longest sentence he would give to an actor was “try it again.”
Fleming: Jim Carrey has taken his career in a daring direction, using Twitter to hammer the NRA over senseless gun violence and refusing to promote Kick-Ass 2. As a man, Carrey’s stance is laudable, but as a comedy star, he’s supposed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and not polarize it. Even the new crop of guys like Rogen and Jonah Hill are losing their happy-go-lucky vibe. Rogen and Judd Apatow raged against a dopey Washington Post op-ed blaming Hollywood for the Elliott Rodger murder spree, by showing average Joes like Rogen getting beautiful girls. Hill spent his 22 Jump Street promo appearances falling on his sword for hurling a homophobic reference at an aggressive paparazzo. Lighten up, guys, and don’t swallow the bait.
Bart: Surely you’re not saying that funny guys have to be funny in private life. As you well know, most comics are serious people, if not downright depressives. I attended small dinner parties with Johnny Carson on two occasions, and he went out of his way to be unfunny. He rarely even smiled. It’s as though he were telling us, the comic you see on the TV screen is not me. That’s a person I invented who only occupies my body when the cameras roll and the audiences applaud.
Fleming: Getting back to the last name on your sabbatical list. James Franco doesn’t need a time out. He, Mark Wahlberg and Channing Tatum are the lucky ones. They aren’t defined by the genre like Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell and Mike Myers, so they can do serious turns in 127 Hours, Lone Survivor and Foxcatcher and then come back to play in comedies. It’s the guys who torture themselves to come up with the laughs who have it hardest.