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Why we should limit our expectations for comedic sequels

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With the approaching 'Anchorman 2’ and ‘Dumb & Dumber To’ sequels for two of the most beloved comedies of the past 20 years - the uncertainty of fans has reached a boiling point. One abysmal sequel after the other has caused film geeks to become quite cynical, and rightfully so. As much as we hope that these sequels will retain the charm that made us fall in love the first time, we have to ask ourselves an honest question.

What are the chances either of these sequels stacks up to its predecessor? Based on the evidence at hand, not very good.

Let’s try a little test. Go to your search engine and type “great film sequels”. You’ll see that the resulting lists are practically endless; many of which contain anywhere from 50 to 100 movies.

Now change one word in your search and type “great comedy sequels”, and…uh oh.

You’ll immediately notice that the results contain much smaller lists, usually ranging from five to ten movies, and it can be argued that many of the films that you find on these lists aren’t truly comedies. Just because a movie makes the audience laugh doesn’t mean that it’s a comedy. Two good examples are the films ‘Sideways’ and ‘Thank You for Smoking’; both of which deliver tons of laughs yet are undoubtedly dramas.

I have a theory on how to test whether a film is a comedy or not. Take out the actor who plays the funniest character and replace them with, oh let’s say Henry Kissinger. If that reference is too old for you, try Ben Stein. If that reference is also too old then pick the dullest teacher at the high school that you currently attend.

The basic idea is that far too often films are considered comedies because of one great performance. Take the ‘Back to the Future’ films for instance. Should they really be considered comedies? Replace Christopher Lloyd with a less gifted comedic talent and it would change the tone dramatically. He was the comedy in that franchise. Likewise, take Bill Murray out of the ‘Ghostbusters’ films and see what you end up with. Both examples probably lie somewhere in the sci-fi/adventure category.

When the longest lists of good comedy sequels includes disasters like ‘Hot Shots! Part Deux’, ‘Clerks II’ and ‘Crocodile Dundee II’, it becomes painfully obvious that comedies have a very difficult time producing decent sequels. Likewise, when animated children’s films top any list not focused primarily on animated films, you know you are treading dangerous waters.

The main purpose of a comedy is, first and foremost, to make the audience laugh. That is why comedies have historically been evaluated much more leniently than films in other genres, aside from perhaps Horror films.

By their very nature, comedies have the luxury of forgoing aspects like theme, plot and character arches in lieu of generating as many laugh-out-loud moments as possible. Will we find out if Sherman Klump can hold onto Jada Pinkett - wait, now he’s dating Janet Jackson? Talk about outkicking your coverage. Why should Eddie Murphy distract himself with creating an authentic, continuous story-line when he can just pack in a thousand fart jokes?

Comedies most often follow the same story structure of the (lovable loser/losers), overcoming the (odds/adversaries) to (get the girl/save the day). So…what next? How do you move the narrative forward for generally one-dimensional characters? Have them re-get the girl or re-save the day?

The makers of ‘The Hangover’ certainly didn’t worry about this problem and shat out a sequel that was a carbon copy of the first and a clear money grab; which sadly enough succeeded in that goal by grossing over a quarter-million dollars, but at the same time angering a lot of fans in the process. Even though they may have had some laughs in the theater, most people walked to their cars feeling cheated. The third installment barely broke even.

I call it the “Caddyshack Quandry”. When a film is successful, the production company’s first thought usually involves a sequel. For an action movie, add more violence. For a horror movie, add more victims. For a comedy, add more laughs. That’s what the audience expects. They’re not spending their money to see a sequel that’s merely entertaining. It has to be more entertaining than its predecessor.

That is the dilemma of the sequel. From the opening scene, it is being graded against the original. The better the original, the more difficult it is to produce a sequel that measures up.

Sadly, this doesn’t deter most production companies from trying. We have to remember that filmmaking is a business - money is the bottom line. So, if they know that people will line up to see a sequel based on the popularity of the original, then a sequel it is. As funny as Will Ferrell is and as much as I love the original ‘Anchorman’, I highly doubt that they’ll be able to catch that lightning in a bottle twice.

Will we go see these sequels? Of course we will. But we shouldn’t leave the theater upset if they don’t stack up to the originals. This should not surprise us anymore.

Here is my list of comedic sequels worthy of your time:

‘A Shot in the Dark’ – Far too many people know far too little about Peter Sellers.
‘Austin Powers 2 & 3’- I actually enjoyed the third installment the most. Myers portrayal of Dr. Evil in ‘Goldmember’ is one of the better comedic performances I’ve seen.
‘Wayne’s World’ – Mikey Myers or Eddie Murphy: Started on Saturday Night Live, made great films for a decade, now only makes good animated films or bad live-action ones? Speaking of...
‘Beverly Hills Cop II’ - Watch the first two and stop there. Trust me.
‘Harold & Kumer: Escape from Guantanamo Bay’ – The hillbilly’s one eyed son is all I have to say about that.
‘Naked Gun 2 ½’ – Few comedic actors in history could match Leslie Neilson’s dry hilarity and perfect timing.
‘Ghost Busters II’ – I know this goes against my theory, but I’m including it anyway. It’s my list.
And the best comedy sequel ever goes to:
‘National Lampoons: Christmas Vacation’ – This is the only comedy I can think of that not only eclipsed the classic original, but also wiped away the sour taste of the horrible sequel that came in between.

What good comedy sequels do you enjoy? I'll add it to the list if you can convince me it's worthy.

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