Comedy's smutty/silly/sleazy season has erupted.
Hollywood is presenting a shocking 15 R-rated yuk-fests on its crucial summer slate, which started last week with Elizabeth Banks playing a woman after a one-night stand in Walk of Shame. The raunch resumes Friday as Zac Efron and Seth Rogen do battle in the booze-and-pot-fueled Neighbors, and it continues non-stop through Aug. 13, when Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson gun for fake-out gags in Let's Be Cops.
Why the veering toward vulgarity? Given a movie calendar crowded with tent-pole movies featuring PG-13-rated superheroes, makers of comedies turn the earthiness up to 11 to gain attention — even if it means foregoing young ticket-buyers.
It's a formula that has been used with growing frequency and success in the summer: 2013 featured films such as The Hangover Part III ($112.2 million domestic box office), We're the Millers ($150.4 million), The Heat ($159.5 million) and This Is the End ($101.5 million), according to Box Office Mojo.
"Going for the R-rating goes against conventional wisdom. But when it comes to comedy, particularly in the summer, it's the R rating which gets you the street cred," says Paul Degarabedian, senior analyst for the movie tracking company Rentrak. "To get noticed these days you have to get raunchy, so take it up a notch."
Melissa McCarthy will do just that on a bawdy road trip with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother (Susan Sarandon) in Tammy (July 2), and Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel will let it all out with Sex Tape (July 25).
Director/co-star Seth MacFarlane already has proven that depraved behavior, even from a seemingly adorable teddy bear, can lead to summer box office success with 2012's Ted ($218.8 million). This year, he tries crude-cowboy with A Million Ways to Die in the West (May 30).
The creator of TV's Family Guy says it's crucial to push the offense to the next level in film, especially with language.
"That's the advantage of the R ratings, to say whatever you want and not be constrained," MacFarlane says. "Comedy has to constantly be pushing the lines to be funny. It cannot be soft."
Neighbors director/screenwriter Nicholas Stoller traces the roots of summer debauchery to 1998's There's Something About Mary. Over-the-top scenes such as Ben Stiller's hair gel mishap invited the R-rating — and got people buzzing. In Neighbors, Stoller features an infant who digests a used condom (actually a fruit roll-up snack converted by the prop master).
"Audiences need a compelling reason to go to the movie theater," Stoller says. "You need something that's sort of shocking, something you haven't seen or experienced before."
There are clear risks associated with restricting the audience. But that's countered by keeping budgets lean and the promise of huge returns. Stoller says he kept his Neighbors budget under $18 million, which kept the studio brass calm.
"That's my whole theory: a small budget and you stay under it," Stoller says. "Even if your movie doesn't do that well, you've made your money back. It just makes me a lot less nervous."