Two weeks ago, it was announced that the recent-yet-already-cult-comedy-classic What We Do In The Shadows will be getting a sequel. For fans of comedy films, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Shadows is easily one of the funniest movies in years and more of Vladislav, Viago, and Deacon is certainly appealing. On the other, the success rate of comedy sequels is slightly worse than recovering from pancreatic cancer.
Comedy sequels are notoriously difficult to pull off. This is especially strange considering how many sitcoms have lasted nearly a decade and put out hundreds of episodes while still gaining/retaining fans and earning most of their success by living for years in syndication. While we’ll stick with Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for season after season and readily rewatch the same episodes over and over again, movie comedies lack this level of viewer dedication, particularly their sequels. Three recent notable movies show the ways that comedy continuations can lead to significant diminishing returns.
This year’s Ted 2 is an important example. The writer, director, and voice of Ted, Seth MacFarlane has a very specific sense of humor that has been known for over 15 years at this point (Family Guy first premiered in 1997) so what he offers shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. While A Million Ways To Die In The West bombed with $86 million worldwide ($46 domestic), the first Ted was a bonafide hit that grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide. Obviously, audiences found a certain kinship in that foulmouthed stuffed animal. Yet Ted 2 did less than half of what Ted made without being all that significantly different in style. The jokes were still pop culture reference-based and devoid of both setup and punchline, and the bear still cursed and said off-color remarks. Why did it fail so notably? Maybe the gag of a foul-mouthed teddy bear had a one-movie welcome. Or maybe it was Ted 2‘s bizarre attempt to try and do something a bit smarter without being serious enough about it. The material relating to Ted’s civil rights struggle was played with an actual level of earnestness without rising to an appropriate level of legitimacy; the movie unsuccessfully tried to have its cake and eat it too when it came to focusing on whether or not Ted should be considered a sentient creature. Unlike most sequels, which are pure retread, Ted 2 tried (on occasion) to take its characters down a mildly different path, it just happened to be a horribly misguided journey. Who would have thought that the heart and warmth brought by Mark Wahlberg of all people could have made the difference?
Speaking of pure retreads, last year’s Horrible Bosses 2 is the most typical example of why comedy sequels tend not to work – they are pretty much the exact same movie as the original. As likeable as the trio of Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman can be, the original 2011 movie succeeded by pitting them against clever rivals played with gusto by Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, and Jennifer Aniston. The sequel just utilized the same exact premise with essentially the same jokes. Sure they had new (and less interesting) villains in the forms of Chris Pine (who has proven himself remarkably adept at unhinged comedy with Stretch and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp) and Christoph Waltz, but it contributed nothing new to the formula. Novelty is an essential element of comedy because (with rare exception) the bulk of a joke’s success comes in hearing the punchline for the first time and being greeted with something unexpected. Horrible Bosses 2 took the expected in a wholly predictable way.
2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was one of the exceptions to the “first time” rule. It was the type of comedy film whose success came from re-watching it and picking up on nuances in both jokes and characters. The first film earned its biggest success after its initial theatrical run, and 2013’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues became a victim of well, its own legend. The original adventures of San Diego’s Channel 4 news team gained its popularity by being something different. Its free-flowing nature and combination of improv and direction enhanced its mythology rather than detracting from it. However, like most movies that give birth to countless quotes and memes, this was lightning in a bottle. Having no expectations enabled Will Ferrell, director Adam McKay, and the rest to experiment and produce something unique. With the decade-long awaited sequel (which naturally brings a set of its own problems), Anchorman felt constrained by its own mythos and reputation. The latest movie gave a sense of simultaneously trying too hard and not trying hard enough. A classic sequence like the newscaster battle in the first one is something that can only happen once because it’s unexpected; doing it a second time feels like an obligation.
Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen comedy franchises fail on multiple other occasions. While Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me introduced some fun concepts to the series (e.g. Mini-Me), the “Yeah Baby Yeah” shtick had worn very thin by the time we met Goldmember. The Osbourne family making a cameo appearance in the third one (back during that shameful period when they were actually a thing, thus immediately dating the film) transformed the International Man of Mystery from a fun iconoclastic throwback to the Bond movies into part of the zeitgeist that it initially parodied. Todd Phillips imbued his third Hangover film with a sense of resentment that he was making another one without going dark enough to make that component interesting. And these are still more positive examples than even earlier comedy sequels – none of those trilogies even come close to the catastrophes of Caddyshack II, which lost most of the best players from the original golf comedy, and Weekend at Bernie’s II, which turned Bernie into a Caribbean zombie who came back to life whenever he heard a calypso beat. And who could forget the seven-movie Police Academy franchise?
Yet for all of the problems in doing legitimate sequels, comedies, more than any other genre, have a built in structure for continuing adventures. The key is the strength of the main character(s). From the earliest days of film, it didn’t matter if the plotlines connected as long as the dominant figures had a strong enough presence to be worth watching. What mattered was seeing how that persona reacted in vastly different circumstances, not seeing them play in the same universe again and again. It was irrelevant if Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp was the same in The Gold Rush as he was in Modern Times; The Marx Brothers were The Marx Brothers regardless of their character names; Rodney Dangerfield only needed to be Rodney Dangerfield – audiences rightfully care more about the act than the continuity. And this trend continues to this day. Seth Rogen/James Franco don’t need to be the same characters in Pineapple Express and This Is The End but they need the same chemistry for the films to work; ditto Simon Pegg and Nick Frost particularly under the direction of Edgar Wright.
So does What We Do in the Shadows 2 (What We Still Do In The Shadows?) have a chance at avoiding the fates of most of its brethren? Possibly, because the New Zealand mockumentary has an entirely different vibe than most of its American counterparts. The film’s slightly more laid-back, low-key, and character-based approach is closer in spirit to the ongoing comfort of sitcoms. We like spending time with these characters and seeing the specific ways they would react in a myriad of situations, and the film utilizes a vignette-style more than throwing all in on a third act action sequence. A fair amount of comedies (both film and television) share talent both on screen and behind-the-camera (even Anchorman and Ted), and Shadows follows this trend. It is is clearly the creation of writers-directors-stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi from start to finish, and they have set up a universe whose surface they have barely begun to scratch. Let’s have tentative faith in them to successfully tap into the werewolves, vampires, and Stu mythology for a second time.