Hollywood comedies are dead because of China (and Michael Bay)


A 20-foot-tall Optimus Prime figure at the world premiere of "Transformers 4" in Hong Kong (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

Comedy is dead, and Michael Bay is to blame.

Now, I know what you're thinking: How is that possible when Bay's films are so consistently funny? But, see, we're talking about intentional comedy here — that's what's dead. In other words, movies that have jokes, not are jokes. And by that measure, Hollywood's laugh factory looks a lot like American car factories circa 1982 — in serious decline. As John McDuling points out, comedies have gone from making up 31 percent of major studio releases in 2010 to just 12.5 percent today.

Even if 2014 does turn out to be an outlier — and it might be given that the words "From the guy who brought you 'Ted'" were used as a selling point — that's still a real trend down. Why?

Major Studio Comedies.jpg

Well, the death of the comedy movie has come because the world is flat — and senses of humor aren't. What's funny to an American audience doesn't always translate for a Chinese one. And now that China's box office is the world's largest outside of North America, that's a major consideration.

Remember, Hollywood studios aren't in the business of making movies. Like all financiers, they're in the business of minimizing risk. That's why, as Derek Thompson points out, they churn out so many sequels, prequels and reboots (and unnecessary splits of the last movie of a series into two). They do this because it works, and Hollywood knows it does. And now Hollywood knows that American comedies don't work overseas, but American action movies do — especially if, like "Transformers 4," they suck up to the Chinese government. Indeed, Bay's latest cinematic installment of alien robots obliterating cities in between disguising themselves as cars, and, mercifully this time, not fighting over Shia LaBeouf, is set to break China's all-time box office record.

Bay's bad plots, even worse writing and explosions galore can't be lost in translation, because there's nothing to translate in the first place. It's a kind of universal language that Hollywood can sell to teenage boys everywhere. It's capitalist perfection.

And the joke's on everyone who buys a ticket.

Matt O'Brien is a reporter for Wonkblog covering economic affairs. He was previously a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.
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