Last night marked the 10th broadcast of the not-so-esteemed MTV Movie Awards.
The award show has never been much of a barometer for serious creative achievement in Hollywood. In fact, it’s markedly spiraled in terms of the quality of films recognized when compared with the inaugural show, which boasted such nominees as Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Thelma and Louise. But hey, someone’s got to determine the “Best On-Screen Dirtbag,” and if not the network that brought you The Situation, then who?
The point of the MTV Movie Awards isn’t to dish out accolades to envelope-pushing thesps — it’s to take a pulse on the adolescent tastes of the moment. In case it wasn’t yet clear, last night we learned that teenage girls love vampires, wizards and fights to the death. Werewolves abound while classic adolescent comedies barely made the ballot.
In fact, the only comedy nominated in the “Movie of the Year” category was Bridesmaids, this year’s token Judd Apatow farce. Bridesmaids was roaringly funny and more noteworthy still for its female ensemble. That said, it does nothing in the way of speaking to a young adult audience. It just happens to be funny to just about any demographic.
Over the last several decades, teen romps have occupied a healthy portion of the American movie diet. Such movies as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High used a comedic lens to approach shared trials of adolescence like puberty, sex and square parents. And the audience ate it up.
In the last few years, though, the genre has virtually fallen off the grid. According to Box Office Mojo’s yearly domestic gross charts, there was not a single teen comedy in the top 50 highest grossing films in any year between 2008-2011. This year, two successful flicks, 21 Jump Street and Project X, have taken a stab at the void. That’s two successful teen comedies in the last five years.
Compare that with another five year period: 1982-1986, when there were a whopping 17 chart-topping teen comedies.
According to NPR’s Monkey See, another “boomlet” of adolescent comedies occurred from 1999 to 2003, spurred by a prolific franchise’s first installment, American Pie.
Today, high school and college students don’t seem to have much preference for movies made for them or about them. Pubescent sexuality has given way to comedy that’s largely about the politically-incorrect, which isn’t restricted to any generation in particular.
Judd Apatow has set the pace for such “cringe comedy” with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin. There’s one explicitly teen comedy in Apatow’s artillery, 2007′s Superbad. But Superbad’s success didn’t set off a boom of raunchy teen flicks, it was just trailed by a whole lot more Apatow.
So what gives? Why is the box office chock-full of 20-something post-grad slackers and devoid of teen gags?
Television is partially to blame. In the 2000s, networks like the WB (and later the CW) picked up the slack with shows such as That 70′s Show and What I Like About You. Meanwhile, Disney was dishing out content about high schoolers made for aspirational preteens with their powerhouse High School Musical franchise.
Teens define themselves by their tastes. And the ups and downs of adolescence are pretty eternal, as is its tragic hilarity. So there’s a nostalgia about the teenage years and the popular culture that reflected them. For our generation, though, I’d argue the only defining teen movie around is Mean Girls.
The result is that we’re largely nostalgic for another generation’s defining pop culture (i.e. John Hughes and the Brat Pack). That is, unless the Twilight Saga spontaneously ends in a realistic and rowdy farce. Not likely.
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