Why comedy sequels remain rare, even in a franchise-dominated era

Why comedy sequels remain rare, even in a franchise-dominated era

Something feels a little off about the high-profile, Christmas-season release of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues—and it’s not just the suspicion that we’re living in some kind of beautiful dreamworld, destined to wake just before feasting on the film’s comedic spoils. There’s also the sense that high-profile comedy sequels, even those following flat-out great movies like Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, are the devil’s work. Or, at the very least, just not very good.

For much of the ’70s and ’80s, sequels were rightly disparaged as cheap cash-ins. They were usually made at lower budgets, missing an original star or five, and with the expectation that they might make 50 to 60 percent as much as their predecessor. At some point, the possibility that a sequel could surpass the original film grew beyond infinitesimal levels, goosed by movies like The Empire Strikes Back (whose reputation grew over time), Toy Story 2, and The Dark Knight. Even more typical, middling sequels like The Mummy Returns could, by the dawn of the aughts, at least retain cast members and post bigger grosses.

Pure (non-action) comedies haven’t been entirely exempt from the sequel boom of the past two decades. But the two big comedy trilogies of that time period—the Fockers and Hangover movies, a.k.a. the two biggest comic trilogies ever, a statistic sure to summon bile to the throats of so-called comedy nerds—are exceptions that prove the rule. The Fockers movies are appropriately referred to by the titular surname of the terrible massive hit Meet The Fockers, rather than its tolerable predecessor Meet The Parents; this provides an easy shorthand for the series’ quick devolution from comedy of manners to repetitive shtick. The Hangover trilogy recently concluded with a fizzle, as the supposed originality of the first movie gave way to, uh, two more movies about bros trying to solve a poorly plotted mystery. Even the most popular comedy sequels tend to carry a sour aftertaste.

By the cruel, cold logic of studio executives, comedies should be the most sought-after franchise properties of all. A popular one can generate hundreds of millions from an initial investment comparable to the rubber-tire budget of a Transformers movie. But Anchorman 2 still took nine years to make, in part due to studio reluctance. It seems there’s still a stigma regarding the prospects of comedy sequels.

As it happens, Anchorman 2 arrives during the 20th anniversary of the 1993 holiday season, which saw no fewer than three hastily produced follow-ups to surprise comedy hits from the early ’90s: Addams Family Values (arriving almost exactly two years after The Addams Family); Wayne’s World 2 (a foreboding 666 days after Wayne’s World); and Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit (a mere 561 days after Sister Act). None of these movies grossed even half as much as their predecessors, but their approaches as comedy sequels nonetheless provide a telling snapshot of the transition period between low-yield ’80s sequels and big-ticket ’90s-and-beyond sequels.

First out of the gate in November ’93 was Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family Values. On paper, it’s basically the same movie as The Addams Family: Outside forces threaten the oddball Addams clan, with plenty of morbid pranks and setup-punchline jokes, plus “Addams Family (Whoomp!),” a closing-credits theme song that lacks the staying power of the first film’s “Addams Groove” by MC Hammer. Yet Sonnenfeld also streamlines and improves his first movie’s formula. The Addams Family is one of his longest films to date at 110 minutes; Addams Family Values barely clears 90 before the credits roll. (Sonnenfeld would follow this same fat-trimming model, with much less success, for Men In Black II.) The sequel takes advantage of the first movie’s parade of introductions to get right to the gags; it also brings the Addams children, Wednesday and Pugsley, further into the outside world, stranding them at a hilariously chipper summer camp for maximum contrast with the supposed normals.

Christina Ricci’s Wednesday, then, becomes even more crucial to the thin but effective story. As funny as the whole cast is, Ricci winds up owning the movie, and one reason is her reaction shots. When Sonnenfeld cuts to Wednesday and Pugsley reacting to their new baby brother or any number of camp-based humiliations, Pugsley looks vaguely annoyed, while Wednesday appears, in various shots, stricken, disgusted, or resolved—a surprising range of emotion for the deadpan Ricci. Wednesday also solidifies her role as the Lisa Simpson of the Addams clan, figuring out that Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) is in trouble with his new wife, Debbie (Joan Cusack), while most of her family delivers cheerily oblivious Addams banter. (Raul Julia’s wonderful performance, one of his last, emphasizes this dynamic during his big speech, where he rants and raves to a police officer about his bewitched brother without arriving at an actual conclusion). Audiences turned out to be only mildly interested in a finely calibrated re-tuning of the Addams formula, but these adjustments make Addams Family Values the hands-down superior film—and still Sonnenfeld’s best work as a director, 20 years later.

Wayne’s World 2 can’t really be called an improvement on Wayne’s World. At best, it’s a winking re-appropriation of the same story: Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) attempt to put on a bigger, better show (a concert called Waynestock rather than the cable version of their TV series), while even the subplots from the first movie are mostly replicated. For example, Wayne’s World 2 offers another slick big shot who attempts to woo Wayne away from his girlfriend, Cassandra. The only twist is that the role is occupied by Christopher Walken this time, instead of the more traditionally slick Rob Lowe.

Still, Wayne’s World 2 proves a surprisingly worthy retread—more so than the agreeably slapdash Austin Powers sequels. While the story recycles the architecture of the first film (right down to the alternate endings leading into the “mega-happy” ending), there’s freshness to the set pieces: a spying sequence engineered to climax in a performance of “YMCA”; an extended kung-fu parody; and playful riffs on The Doors and The Graduate, bridging ’60s-revival culture with Wayne’s ’90s-slacker goofiness. It’s about as good as the repeat-formula sequel can get.

If Wayne’s World and The Addams Family were unlikely hits, Sister Act was a bigger and even less likely hit. Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit seems to have been rushed to theaters before too much of its target audience died of old age, yet it also represents the biggest formula change of the three holiday ’93 sequels. While the first film is a fish-out-of-water comedy about a lounge singer hiding out at a convent, Back In The Habit is basically a musical about an inspirational teacher, complete with a climactic all-state singing competition.

The movie opens with Goldberg’s nun buddies from the first movie visiting her new Las Vegas show, which is apparently about six minutes long and features a medley so fast-paced that Goldberg appears to either be inventing the mash-up in front of the audience’s eyes or indulging in Vegas-quality cocaine. The nuns convince her to set aside her lucrative gig in favor of helping them teach at an endangered San Francisco school. This eventually leads to Goldberg training her music students in the dark art of mildly sassy choir-singing.

The inspirational teacher stuff, while hacky, also matches the first movie’s tedious pacing: It takes almost half the movie to get Goldberg’s class to form a choir, just as the first Sister Act has a mercilessly extended build-up to her first encounter with the singing nuns. The second movie, directed by Predator’s Bill Duke, does rehash the nun-masquerade humor from the first, as well as the general idea that nuns singing God-themed oldies could be a transformative experience for urban youth (glimpsed in the first movie; taking center stage in the second). But otherwise, the film shows greater commitment to newness than most comedy sequels.

In fairness, the Sister Act movies—which seem to be missing an inexplicable, years-too-late third entry, à la Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles or Look Who’s Talking Now—are really only nominally comedies, more beholden to such PG-rated clichés than to laughs. Sister Act 2 proves that you can flip the script on a comedy sequel and discover that the other side is just as hackneyed. It was also the highest grossing of this sequel crop—albeit only just barely and basically in the same proportion to Sister Act as its holiday competition. Fortunately, a surefire comedy-sequel blockbuster was already on deck for summer 1994. Who wasn’t clamoring for City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold?

A cinematic comedy series should not be so difficult to pull off. But even when strong encores like Addams Family Values or Wayne’s World 2 turn up, lacking ridiculous subtitles about Curly’s gold, they’re often cast aside for the freshness of, say, Mrs. Doubtfire. As such, whether out of fear or good taste, most comedy stars minted in the past 20 years tend to stay away from follow-ups: Anchorman 2 is Ferrell’s first sequel (excepting small bits in two Austin Powers movies), about a decade into his movie career; Grown Ups 2 was Adam Sandler’s first, 20 years into his.

Practicality may be one reason many comedy stars shy away from sequels. Surprise plays a big role in comedy, and it’s harder for comic characters to offer a stealth attack during a second or third go-round. Before Anchorman 2, Ferrell and his collaborator, Adam McKay, made a whole series of spiritual sequels to their first film: Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys switch up some of the themes, supporting players, and satirical targets, but they maintain a clear shared sensibility. It’s actually the high quality of those other films that gives just the slightest pause over the prospect of Anchorman 2—though they also function as proof of the Ferrell/McKay consistency.

Close study of Wayne’s World 2 or Addams Family Values or even Sister Act 2 could reveal a guide to viable comedy-franchise paths, at least creatively. But the real legacy of the holiday-’93 sequels may the part they played, however small, in Anchorman 2 standing alone this December, rather than surrounded by 51 First Dates, Meet Additional Fockers, and Hitch Harder. Put together, underappreciated sequels like Addams Family Values, successful non-sequels like Talladega Nights, and even widely seen sequels like Meet The Fockers look like cautious encouragement: Comedy follow-ups can be done well, but don’t get too attached to your old laughs.

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