In “Late Night,” a new comedy written by Mindy Kaling, a senior TV staff writer played by Reid Scott reacts to a recent hire — played by Kaling — with a combination of disgruntlement and disbelief. “I wish I was a woman of color so I could get any job I want,” he whines to anyone within earshot.
At a recent screening, the audience reacted to the line in a variety of ways. A few women could be heard talking back to the screen, while a few others scoffed knowingly. But just as many viewers sat silently, seemingly unsure of whether the correct response was a belly laugh or an eye roll. Was this guy kidding? Like, kidding kidding?
That uncertainty has been a common feature of the filmgoing experience this past spring, as movies produced in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up have folded in — with uneven success — feminist critiques and expressions of “we get it” solidarity. In April, a climactic all-female scene in “Avengers: Endgame” became instant fodder for debate: Was the sequence a blatant attempt at pandering on the part of Marvel? Or was it a welcome salute to sisterhood and empowerment?
The writers of Disney’s live-action version of “Aladdin” faced their own quandary: If the drama of a princess marrying the man of her choice flew by like so many magic carpets in the 1992 animated cartoon, in 2019 that dilemma would be seen as hopelessly retrograde. In the latest iteration, she wants connubial autonomy, sure, but she also wants to run the kingdom.
So far, so woke: Both “Endgame” and “Aladdin” prove that their creative teams are down with social progress, and understand how audience expectations are changing. But when it comes to humor, the road to enlightenment has been a little bit rockier, as viewers find themselves checking their reflexes in real time and having to make split-second judgment calls: Funny? If so, at whose expense? Not funny? If so, is that because it’s offensive, cruel or just hackneyed?
Although standards and tastes have always evolved, over the past two years they have undergone seismic shifts, enforced with merciless speed on social media. While Hollywood scrambles to respond accordingly, spectatorship has become something of a social engineering experiment, with viewers internalizing the changes not just philosophically but physiologically: Material that we’ve long been conditioned to find amusing may now ring cruel or false, while jokes that dare to challenge old, maybe even sacred norms might feel tonally off, starchily polemical or awkwardly shoehorned between otherwise familiar tropes.
The mismatch-romcom “Long Shot” made some sharply on-point observations about the impossibly narrow channel female politicians are expected to navigate, from the scourge of relatability to having to pretend they don’t eat in public. (One of the film’s funniest scenes has Charlize Theron’s ravenous secretary of state scarfing down an appetizer at a fancy reception, behind a defensive scrum of aides.) But for every politically astute zinger in “Long Shot,” there was an equally sophomoric gag playing to the lowest common denominator of dude-centric wish fulfillment.
“Booksmart,” a charming coming-of-age comedy about two girls looking for fun and lust on the last day of high school, was directed by Olivia Wilde from a script that had been written in 2009 and subsequently overhauled: Although most critics (including this one) found it to be a charmingly revisionist take on a genre usually reserved for libidinous boys, some critics and not a few filmgoers have taken “Booksmart” to task for doubling down on virtue signaling at the expense of credibility.
Both “Long Shot” and “Booksmart” were made from scripts that had been around for several years, then were punched up to meet their social and political moment, a provenance that may account for their occasionally awkward attempts at relevance. By far the smoothest and most organic of the bunch — both in responding to and reflecting the current zeitgeist — is “Late Night,” in which Kaling’s satirical jibes at bro culture in writers’ rooms and women’s own internalized sexism feel like they’re rooted in experience rather than checking boxes. The best lines in “Late Night” aren’t messages: They’re the normative wallpaper of modern life.
Still, even the wittiest among them might take a minute to connect: A request from Emma Thompson’s talk-show host for a “tight five on menstruation” sailed over at least half the audience’s heads, for any number of reasons. After all, an individual’s sense of humor might be the most subjective of human traits, the one we have the least control over and have the most trouble justifying: We simply can’t account for what we find funny or not.
But it could be — and I’m just spitballin’ here — that the same audiences who have been delighted by movies catering to the experiences, tastes and points of view of their own race and gender might be absolutely flummoxed or even offended by comedy framed through a different lens. Some of the most hostile reactions to “Booksmart” feel awfully similar in tone to screeds about why women can’t have careers in stand-up and how feminists lack a sense of humor. As a wise person once said, when you’re accustomed to unquestioned privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Put another way, punching up can sometimes land right where it hurts. As Reid Scott’s aggrieved writer puts it in another throwaway line: The world that was once his oyster now feels like “a hostile environment in which to be an educated white male.” Quick, is that joke funny? Not funny? Actually, the correct answer is neither: It’s hilarious.