There are certain years in movies where everything comes together. 1982 is often regarded as one of the greatest movie summers of all time. 1999 is often regarded as iconic, with high praise among filmgoers for its eclectic roster of original films. 2008 as a movie season was known for many things — kick-starting the MCU with the release of Iron Man, The Dark Knight becoming a massive event film, and the start of the Twilight series to name a few. Yet for many, 2008 is known as an incredible year for theatrical comedies.
Building off the recent wave of very white and dirty but also sweet Judd Apatow comedies like Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: A Dewey Cox Story in 2007, the director and producer’s influence would have a major impact on a variety of the 2008 comedy films from ones he was involved in, and even influencing the tone and style of films he had no involvement in. Audiences looking for a laugh in 2008 could go to the movies and see a new film from the likes of comedy legends like Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Sean William Scott, Elizabeth Banks, Jason Segel, Will Ferrell, Mila Kunis, Jack Black, and Danny McBride just to name a few. On some weekends, audiences could go down to the cinemas and see many of these films playing at the same time.
While mainstream comedy movies have slowly been phased out of the blockbuster, with many choosing to instead view comedies at home on streaming or through television series, in 2008 comedy movies garnered as much cultural cache as many mainstream big-budget action films. These movies made 2008 the best year for comedy releases and had major impacts for years to come.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Just before the start of the summer movie season, Forgetting Sarah Marshall opened in theaters on April 18, 2008, and while it opened at number two at the box office behind The Forbidden Kingdom it still opened to an impressive $17 million dollars. The film managed to hang on at the box office and grossed $63 million domestically and $105 million worldwide against a budget of $30 million and received critical acclaim and connected audience for its universal theme of dealing with the hardship of a breakup.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s legacy can still be felt to this day. Jason Segel, Mila Kunis, and Kristen Bell had successful television series but Forgetting Sarah Marshall helped legitimize them as major movie stars. The film was a breakout hit for Russell Brand, and Universal Studios released a spin-off film Get Him To The Greek two years later. Segel’s love of puppets showcased in the final film helped land him and Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stroller the job of working on and rebooting The Muppets in 2011. Forgetting Sarah Marshall might not have been the biggest comedy hit of the year, but it might have had one of the longest-term impacts.
After a summer movie season filled with big-budget superheroes like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, and The Dark Knight, the summer began to wind down with a string of high-profile comedies. The first to hit was Step Brothers, released on July 25, 2008. Following Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s successful collaborations on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers won audiences over in part due to a humorous marketing of putting Ferrell and Talladega Nights co-star John C. Reilly in childish sweaters done to look like a 90s staged family portrait.
Opening the weekend after The Dark Knight, Step Brothers took the number two spot in its opening weekend with $30 million and made $100 million domestically and $128 million worldwide. Like Anchorman and Talledega Nights, Step Brothers has become a memetic viral sensation with many of the film’s quotes and images becoming gifs, memes, and images. From the great Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott singing ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ to the phrases The Catalina Wine Mixer, Step Brothers has stayed with audiences years later and will continue to find an audience.
Pineapple Express opened in theaters on August 8, 2008, just two weeks after Step Brothers, yet audiences were still in the mood to laugh. Of all the comedies release in 2008, Pineapple Express was likely the most anticipated because of a combination of being a high-concept stoner comedy featuring Seth Rogen, who had broken out the previous year thanks to Knocked Up and Superbad, and James Franco, who was looking to return to comedy after five years working in dramas (not to mention director David Gordon Green, who was moving from arthouse indie movies to this wacky stoner movie).
Pineapple Express opened to $23 million on its opening weekend (it opened on Wednesday so its five-day total by the end of the weekend was $41 million) earning back its $27 million budget before its first full week of release. Pineapple Express went on to gross $87 million domestically and $101 million worldwide.
Easily the biggest comedy of 2008, Tropic Thunder was directed by Ben Stiller who also starred in the film. It was also the second major film for many of its stars that year, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man having been released at the beginning of the summer, Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda being a surprise hit, Danny McBride’s Pineapple Express opening the week prior, and Steve Coogan, whose underrated Hamlet 2 was opening a few weeks later.
Tropic Thunder opened at number one at the box office with $25 million (it opened two days earlier for a five-day total of $36 million). It held the number one spot for three weekends and finished its run with $110 million and worldwide grossed $195 million. In a rare move for a comedy, Robert Downey Jr. got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (which is odd in retrospect for a hyper-liberal organization, considering his character’s parodic use of Blackface).
Tropic Thunder’s stands as a great satire on Hollywood, movie stardom, and having a good laugh at how serious actors take themselves. It is often said “you couldn’t make Tropic Thunder anymore,” but part of that is because Tropic Thunder was a comedy that was very specific to 2008, which is why it connected to audiences. The movie’s legacy lives on as Tom Cruise’s surprise cameo as producer Les Grossman has remained so popular that the actor is currently working on developing a spin-off film for the character.
Burn After Reading
The Coen Brothers followed their Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men with the comedy film Burn After Reading. Featuring an all-star cast including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Francis McDormand, John Malkovich, RIchard Jenkins, and J.K. Simmons and being directed by the most recent winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Burn After Reading became a breakout hit. It opened at number one at the box office with $19 million and grossed $60 million domestically and $163 million worldwide and is the third highest-grossing film from the directing duo.
Burn After Reading is a smart, clever comedy aimed at an older audience. Its humor comes from the fact that the characters believe they are playing out a high-stakes spy thriller when in actuality it is the most mundane event. The film is a series of errors that escalates to absurdity and tragedy because all the major players are too self-absorbed and ignorant to realize any difference. Burn After Reading was different from every other mainstream comedy that year, and audiences embraced it.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Acclaimed and cult filmmaker Kevin Smith wrote and directed Zack and Miri Make a Porno. The film was centered on high school friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) who, in a desperate attempt to pay their late bills, decide to make a porno and the title characters undertake the difficult task of making a movie while struggling with their own feelings for one another.
Despite having an impressive cast, the film’s subject made it difficult to market, and releasing the film on Halloween day certainly did not help. The movie opened at number two on its opening weekend bringing in $10 million and finished its run with $31 million and a worldwide total of $42 million against a budget of $24 million. Yet like many of Smith’s films, the movie has earned a cult following in recent years, due to the serious amount of heart at the core of the film which serves as a nice contrast to the gross-out humor and high amounts of graphic sex and nudity. It is that contrast that makes it so fascinating, and also acts as a sincere love letter to filmmaking and the community that forms when crafting art. The movie was a break from Smith’s conventional style and the result is a high mark in the director’s filmography.
November was the beginning of the holiday movie season, which saw the release of films like Madagascar 2: Escape from Africa, Quantum of Solace, and Twilight. Yet for audiences looking for a laugh, they got it in the form of Role Models starring Paul Rudd, Sean William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, and Jane Lynch.
Role Models opened number two at the box office with $19 million and grossed $67 million at the domestic box office and $92 million worldwide. While a minor hit, Role Models found a larger audience on home video and cable who laughed at this crude yet incredibly sweet movie about two older individuals who have something to impart to a younger generation. Pairing Paul Rudd, who had become part of the new wave of comedy films from Judd Apatow, with Sean William Scott, who was a comedy superstar in films like American Pie and Road Trip feels like a true union of two different styles of comedy during the decade.