Why the 1980s were comedy’s sweet spot
During a recent midnight hour channel surfing session I ended up stumbling on John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles. As Steve Martin and John Candy fought, blundered and eventually bonded on their three day cross country trip I found myself making the usual comments; “They don’t make films like this any more.” and “Why were the late 80s/early 90s such a Golden Age for comedy?” and I came to the conclusion that, in part, the answer was sitting in my trouser pocket.
A smartphone or even a classic Nokia 3310 mobile phone makes at least half the scenarios in thrillers, comedy and action films completely obsolete; give Jodie Foster a mobile and half of Silence Of The Lambs doesn’t happen. There are exceptions to the rule both then and now; the conclusion of Wes Craven’s 2005 film Red Eye hinges on a character’s phone battery dying at a crucial moment, but that’s just that, a coincidental contrivance that reverts the film world backwards to this pre-technology state in order to get the desired scenario to pass.
The late 80s/early 90s sit in this wonderful technological sweet spot where characters have just enough equipment to get by if everything goes swimmingly, but not so much that when your hotel room gets robbed or you miss your cab, they can easily remedy the situation. Budding writers are often taught to make their protagonists “Tom Hanks intelligent” – smart enough to eventually get out of a bind they were too stupid to realise they were getting themselves into in the first place. It’s no coincidence that some of Tom Hanks’ best films came out during this period.
Delve deeper and it’s more than just the contents of someone’s pocket that make the late 80s/early 90s such a cinema sweet spot – it’s the content of their hearts as well. Make Planes, Trains and Automobiles again in the acerbic age of The Hangover and Grown Ups and Steve Martin’s carefully pitched and often justifiably cynical and uptight performance would be transformed into a cartoon jackass beating down his personal assistants and generally acting like some form of harbinger for the Antichrist before going through a Christmas Carol-esque personality transplant in the film’s climax. In the 80s, it was perfectly acceptable for normal people to learn valuable life lessons too.
These films are also set in that time period just after the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, littered with films which seem to rely on an “of its time” joke or character (when is racism not fun!), but still in the position where it was possible to make a joke, not hamstrung by a values-obsessed society. Real jokes. Proper jokes. Jokes that are actually constructed, have a point, and maybe even relate to the plot. Rather than our current state where non-sequiturs, pop culture references and ending sentences with “motherfucker” masquerade as jokes and are eventually mis-quoted into the ground by people having “banter” (the most deplorable word in the English language).
In the end, I think it says a lot that perhaps THE comedy of the 21st century is Anchorman, which is set in the 70s. Perhaps the next biggest is The Hangover – which took the action/horror movie franchise formula to comedy and sold tickets like gangbusters. In fact, the closest thing we have to a modern day Planes, Trains and Automobiles is 2010’s Due Date, which felt like director Todd Phillips trying to take his Hangover formula to Planes, Trains and it came off contrived in its scenarios and a cynical cash grab on the Zach Galifianakis wave.
That’s not to say that there’s no merit in retreading old group and tropes; films such as 21 Jump Street and The Other Guys take some of the lessons from 80s comedies and combined them with facets of modern comedy to make hilarious films (Jump Street in particular was unapologetic about this, even [SPOILER] bringing back Johnny Depp, star of the original 80s TV series, for one of his best comic performances in years). Heart is at the core of any good comedy, regardless of era. Whether it be Steve Martin waking up to find himself being spooned by Candy in a one and done joke, or a modern update in Jonah Hill cuddling up to Michael Cera at the end of Apatow’s Superbad, as long as the heart is there, people will always be laughing.
PS. Please let Anchorman 2 be funny.
PPS. RIP John Candy.