Why Are Comedies Today So Dark? And Why Do You Like It?
Millennial absurdism in media is becoming more and more popular - and effective. If you love comedies as much as I do, from the likes of Monty Python to Judd Apatow, you may have noticed a steady move in the genre towards absurdism. Content like The Good Place (2016-2020) and Rick and Morty (2013-), which are popular with audiences under 30, effortlessly blend the existential dread we all feel with absurd and bleak humor that enraptures audiences. The growing hopelessness with politics and frustration with the absurdity of the mundane is specific to Millennial and Gen Z humor. It’s wildly decontextualized and random, much like the nihilistic overtones in new comedies. Let’s take a look at some absurdist comedies from the last ten years - and what made them so damn good. Spoilers ahead!
1. Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s directorial debut was nothing short of shockingly brilliant, with the hysterical weirdness of his exaggerated world. He draws us in with a seemingly familiar ladder-climbing story: A young black man, who doesn’t have direction, discovers his ‘White Voice’ is a godsend for telemarketing, and is sucked into the creepily autocratic world of WorryFree, a company exemplifying the monopolistic exploratory nature of conglomerates. But there is nothing remotely familiar or day-to-day about what he soon discovers to be keeping WorryFree's profit margins up. Let’s just say that some things can’t be caged up, no matter how hard you try.
Everything about this movie is hilariously unnatural, from Lakeith Stanfield’s dubbed white voice to a popular reality TV show in the movie called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me” that thrusts the audience into a world that is so entertaining that the satire gets away with being exceptionally overt. The criticism of exploitative employers hits home with a generation that is losing faith in authority and feeling more rootless as they move away from traditional structures such as marriage and religion. Riley’s subtly enjoyable comedy uses fantasy and visually striking elements in the best way: to shock the audience into laughter.
2. Palm Springs (2020)
Two lovable icons, Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg, come together in this rom com turned sci-fi movie to pull out all the stops. Nyles (Samberg) and Sarah (Milioti) meet at her sister’s wedding and immediately hit it off, but the spell is soon broken when she gets stuck in a time loop with Nyles, who’s been in it longer than he can remember. She goes through all the motions: denial, embracing the consequence-free world, and eventually getting frustrated enough to find a way out of it, all while her and Nyle’s banter slowly becomes something more. Palm Springs takes elements from ‘Groundhog Day’, like a time-loop, and character dynamics from every other wedding rom-com, but never seems cliché or easy for a moment.
The absurdism and comedy here take the form of quick beats, rhythm changes, and extreme situations that force the characters to reflect on the cynicism and darkness within them – and then joke about it. The self-destructive behavior and sense of dread adds to the audience’s experience: it acknowledges all the bleakness and frustration we feel with life, especially in a time of staring at screens all day, and then makes it hilariously ridiculous. Nyles and Sarah’s reckless adventures lull the audience into a world of teenage invincibility – Until we’re pulled back to Earth when Nyles and Sarah can barely live with themselves day after day. And that reflection on the lack of meaning in daily life is what makes this movie so brilliantly self-aware and funny. Because if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can?
3. It’s a Disaster (2012)
There is so much to say about the subtlety of this movie’s brilliantly slow, awkward rhythm that encapsulates painful social situations. As a couples’ brunch group welcomes a new member (David Cross), secrets and confessions come out – your standard comedy set up. But just as things hit the fan, a deadly explosion puts them in lockdown, knocking out service, Wi-Fi, and electricity. As they scramble for information about the outside world, relationships are broken and forged. The mounting information gets more and more absurd: the gas from the explosion is deadly, they’d be dead in days, and no one was coming to help them. And through it all, there is an undertone of hilarity from the characters’ lack of priorities. To top it all off, the climax unveils unexpected character development for Glen (Cross); when Tracy (played by Julia Stiles) discovers him putting rat poison in their wines, it comes out that he is a religious cult member who wants to ensure their place in heaven.
To say the audience doesn’t see this coming is an understatement. This moment made the movie for me, really cementing the tone of secrecy and distrust. The circumstances are absurd enough, but the unpredictability of the characters combined with the cliffhanger ending tells the audience, “We’re going to lie to you, confuse you, and completely trivialize the apocalypse trope. And you’re going to love it.” Oh, and David Cross is criminally underrated in this.
Like the slapstick of the 50s, or the glossy sit-com rhythm of the 90s, absurdism has established itself as a strong and hilarious force in film today. We may not know all the answers, and life may have no discernible meaning, but, hey, at least we’ve got the fantastic movies that come out of these realizations to pass the time.