Entertainment

Bad Grandpa and the R-Rated Comedy Boom


Johnny Knoxville, left, and Jackson Nicoll in Bad Grandpa

Photograph by Sean Cliver/Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection

Johnny Knoxville, left, and Jackson Nicoll in Bad Grandpa

With its $32 million opening, the Johnny Knoxville stunt flick Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa did more than just knock Gravity out of the No. 1 spot at the weekend box office. It also helped cement 2013’s status as a pretty great year for R-rated comedies.

“Raunchy comedies have been scoring big cash at the box office this year,” wrote BoxOfficeGuru.com’s Gitesh Pandya, noting that “five of the six top-grossing comedies of 2013 have had R ratings.” Tops among those films so far is the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy femme cop buddy flick The Heat at $159.4 million. Close on its heels are road-trip movies We’re the Millers ($148 million) and The Identity Thief ($136 million) followed by The Hangover Part III ($112 million despite its reputation as something of a disappointment) and the star-studded apocalypse laugher This is the End ($101 million). The only PG-13 comedy in top six, Grown Ups 2, has made $133 million and stars Adam Sandler, who specializes in non-R-rated comedies.

Actually, if you look at 2013’s top-grossing releases, you’ll find relatively few non-R-rated comedies aside from animated films. That speaks to an interesting reversal over the past few years. Once upon a time, the R rating was seen as a box-office handicap for comedies, and it was often confined to such teen comedies as American Pie, spoof flicks like Scary Movie, or the work of select artists such as gross-out rom-com impresario Judd Apatow.

It was the original Hangover’s breakthrough success in 2009, with $277 million in domestic ticket sales, that helped convince Hollywood that R-rated comedies were due for a comeback—especially in the wake of the demise of those aforementioned, once-popular teen comedy and spoof franchises. Two years later, The Hangover Part II made $254 million in the U.S. while Bridesmaids took in $169 million. Both of those films also did sterling business overseas.

The Hangover sequel actually did better abroad than it did in the U.S., cementing the notion that raunchy humor could not only sell across gender and age lines but also travel well. It was hard not to see the writing on the wall: If you were going to make a comedy, it helped if it was an R-rated one. Last year, in fact, even Adam Sandler made a rare foray into R-rated flicks with That’s My Boy …, which crashed and burned.

So where does that leave us? With the holidays approaching, we may still see big non-R-rated comedies. Anchorman 2 doesn’t have a rating yet, but the original was rated PG-13, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t have an off-color bone in its body. There’s also Vince Vaughn’s Delivery Man, with a sperm-donation plotline and a PG-13 rating. So The Heat’s comedy crown may yet be seized by another, more “family-friendly” film before the year is out.

But for the first time in a long while, however successful the upcoming slate of milder comedies turns out to be, their makers may find themselves wondering: “Would we have done even better if we had made the humor more disgusting?”

Ebiri is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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