A Brief History of Movie Comedy Cliques

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It was just a couple of weeks ago that we were singing the praises of Kissing Jessica Stein, one of the rare modern romantic comedies that isn’t terrible, and as if on cue, there’s a new film from Stein writer/star (and now director) Jennifer Westfeldt in theaters tomorrow. There are several reasons to see Friends with Kids — it’s funny, smart, warm, and more than a little dirty — but if it does well, it may very well be because Westfeldt had the good luck of casting about half the key players from Bridesmaids in major roles.

With Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm, and Chris O’Dowd reuniting for Friends with Kids, we may be witnessing the formation of a new (and thankfully estrogen-infused) cinematic comedy “clique.” These groups have always been a part of the film comedy landscape, though there seem to be an awful lot of them these days — primarily because the DIY nature of the current comedy scene lends itself to working with friends and regular collaborators. (There’s also a fair amount of cross-pollination between these groups, which makes classifying them a bit challenging. Crafty, these comedians.)

To be clear: we’re not talking so much about actual declared comedy teams, like the Marx Brothers, the Bowery Boys, or Monty Python; we’re more interested in loose collectives that come together in varying combinations yet still craft a distinctive and recognizable comic style. We’ll take a look at a few of the biggest after the jump.

The Keystoners

REGULAR MEMBERS: Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Marie Dressler, Harry Langdon, Chester Conklin, the Keystone Cops

HIGHLIGHTS: A Film Johnnie, The Rounders, Fatty and Mabel Adrift

LOWLIGHTS: Tillie’s Punctured Romance

IN BRIEF: Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio was a training ground for just about every major silent movie talent — and those who didn’t work there (like Buster Keaton) did their apprenticeships with those who did (like Fatty Arbuckle). The Keystone comedies were rough, knockabout affairs, light on plot and heavy on slapstick, and that’s just as they should have been — when Sennett got ambitious and tried to do a feature-length comedy (Tillie’s Punctured Romance), he was out of his element. But those one- and two-reelers still hold up, particularly those that put together various combinations of Chaplin, Arbuckle, and Normand.

The Sturges Company

REGULAR MEMBERS: Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, Frankin Pangborn, George Anderson, Georgia Caine, Chester Conklin, Robert Dudley, Byron Foulger, Robert Greig, Harry Hayden, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, J. Farrell MacDonald, Geoge Melford, Torben Meyer, Charles R. Moore, Frank Moran, Jack Norton, Emory Parnell, Victor Potel, Dewey Robison, Harry Rosenthal, Julius Tannen, Max Wagner, Robert Warwick

HIGHLIGHTS: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, Sullivan’s Travels

LOWLIGHTS: The Great Moment

IN BRIEF: Preston Sturges was one of the first screenwriters to make the transition to filmmaker, offering Paramount his brilliant screenplay for The Great McGinty for a single dollar if they’d let him direct it. The ploy worked, and on that film, he started assembling the “stock company” of zippy character actors who would populate an astonishing (if sadly brief) run of sparkling screwball comedies in the early 1940s.

The Rat Pack

REGULAR MEMBERS: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford

HIGHLIGHTS: Ocean’s 11, Robin and the Seven Hoods

LOWLIGHTS: Cannonball Run II

IN BRIEF: True, the Rat Pack movies were less straight-up comedies than cool capers and the like, but it seemed a sin to even contemplate omitting them here — particularly since so many of the cliques that followed used variations on their name. And while Bishop may have been the only straight-up comedian in the bunch, Martin and Davis infused plenty of humor into their personas and film roles. Frank, of course, was too cool to play for laughs.

The Brooks Crew

REGULAR MEMBERS: Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Dom DeLouise, Dick Van Patten

HIGHLIGHTS: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie

LOWLIGHTS: Dracula: Dead and Loving It

IN BRIEF: Mel Brooks was an unstoppable force in movie comedy in the 1970s, when his broad, Borscht Belt-style spoofs met with huge box office and surprisingly enthusiastic reviews. Incredibly, his two best and most successful pictures — Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein — both came out within the same year. Alas, those were also his final collaborations with Gene Wilder, who left Brooks to make parody features of his own (including The World’s Greatest Lover and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, the latter of which co-starred Feldman and Kahn); Feldman did the same shortly thereafter. Members of the original crew would pop up in later efforts like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but the magic was long gone.

The Guest Company

REGULAR MEMBERS: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Ed Begley, Jr.

HIGHLIGHTS: This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show

LOWLIGHTS: For Your Consideration

IN BRIEF: When Christopher Guest teamed with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer to star in Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap, the “mockumentary” format was still a fairly fresh one, and few performers had successfully pulled off a feature-length comedy that relied so heavily on improvisation. The film was a critical and cult hit, but it took Guest 12 years to return to the format, this time directing as well as starring in the uproarious Waiting for Guffman. He assembled a top-notch band of character actors for that picture, and would sift in more (as well as his old Spinal Tap bandmates) for the projects that followed. The group hasn’t made a film since 2006’s slightly off-the-mark For Your Consideration, though they did appear in a brief filmed sketch for this year’s Oscars.

The Frat Pack

REGULAR MEMBERS: Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson

HIGHLIGHTS: Anchorman, Old School, Wedding Crashers

LOWLIGHTS: Envy, The Big Year, Little Fockers

IN BRIEF: Probably the most prolific of the comedy cliques over the past decade or so, the “Frat Pack” (given the name for their fraternity-boy sensibility, as well as after one of their biggest hits, Old School) came to dominate not only the multiplex; they’d occasionally show up in the art house as well (don’t forget, three charter members are in The Royal Tennenbaums). The heavy output also means a fair amount of turkeys (hi there, Fockers series) — but just when you count them out, they pop up with something solid like Tropic Thunder. (And, as we mentioned last week, the Stiller and Vaughn summer comedy Neighborhood Watch looks pretty promising.)

Team Apatow

REGULAR MEMBERS: Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Leslie Mann, James Franco, Michael Cera, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, Martin Starr

HIGHLIGHTS: The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall

LOWLIGHTS: Year One

IN BRIEF: Writer/director Judd Apatow — who has also worked with multiple iterations of the Frat Pack — started assembling his “Apatow Mafia” on the short-lived but beloved NBC series Freaks and Geeks (which he produced with creator Paul Feig). Franco, Starr, Segel, and Rogen were regular cast members on that show; the later two appeared on his second, equally beloved, equally short-lived series, Undeclared. When Apatow started directing films, he brought those guys with him, peppering in folks like Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, and wife Leslie Mann; he also encouraged his actors to write their own projects, and several (Rogen, Wiig, Segel, Hill) did just that, spreading the tentacles of Team Apatow across the film comedy community.

The Brits

REGULAR MEMBERS: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jessica Stevenson, Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, writer/director Edgar Wright

HIGHLIGHTS: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz

LOWLIGHTS: None — yet.

IN BRIEF: We don’t have as much output to go on here, unfortunately; Pegg, Frost, Stevenson, and Wright first collaborated on the wonderful BBC comedy Spaced, then took their act to the cinemas with the zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead (Nighy and Freeman played small supporting roles in that film and its follow-up, the action/comedy Hot Fuzz). Pegg and Frost split off from Wright to make Paul while he directed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but the trio worked together again on The Adventures of Tintin (the pair lent their voices; Wright co-wrote). Within their limited body of work, however, this crew has honed a specific style of giddy, energetic, pop culture-obsessed comedy; here’s hoping we see more from them, and soon.

The State

REGULAR MEMBERS: Michael Ian Black, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, David Wain, Paul Rudd

HIGHLIGHTS: Wet Hot American Summer, The Baxter, Role Models

LOWLIGHTS: Wanderlust

IN BRIEF: Okay, so maybe this one is (or was, at least) an officially declared comedy team, starting as a campus comedy troupe and moving on to the MTV series that bore their name. But we’re looking at their film work, which has consisted of various clumps and combinations (with an extra dose of Rudd), so there’s our out. Both David Wain and Michael Showalter have directed feature films that featured members of the group; the biggest box-office success was Wain’s Role Models (which he co-wrote with Marino, and which features Rudd, Kenney-Silver, Lo Truglio, Marino, and Wain), while the biggest cult hit was the ever-popular Wet Hot American Summer, which not only features Black, Lo Truglio, Marino, Showalter, and Rudd, but early roles by Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Elizabeth Banks (who co-stars in The Baxter).

Happy Madison

REGULAR MEMBERS: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Rob Schenider, David Spade, Chris Rock, Kevin Nealon, Allen Covert, Nick Swardson, Steve Buscemi

HIGHLIGHTS: Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer

LOWLIGHTS: Pretty much everything else they’ve done

IN BRIEF: When Adam Sandler started making movies, his goal was simple: to have fun with his friends. At the beginning, that fun was infectious; the energy and enthusiasm of the star and his buddies made their first few efforts lightweight but enjoyable. At some point, however (we’d place it around Little Nicky), they started getting lazy, and the actual quality of the comedies took a backseat to just grinding out comedy “product,” especially when Sandler started his own “Happy Madison” production company to produce his films and those of his hangers-on. The output since is staggering and depressing: two Deuce Bigelow films, Grandma’s Boy, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Bucky Larson: Born to Be A Star… Basically, if you see a Happy Madison mark, stay away — and if you see a title that consists of the lead characters name, a colon, and a descriptor, stay far, far away. The company has also given us Sandler’s absolute worst pictures: Mr. Deeds, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Grown-Ups (the Ocean’s 11 of Sandler’s “Fart Pack”), and his crème de la crap, Jack and Jill — all of which have raked in buckets of cash, and that’s what matters. Sorry to end this post on a sour note, folks, but it’s important to remember that comedy cliques can be used for both good and evil.