Hot Guy/Funny Guy: A New Comedy Dynamic?

With this month’s hilarious comedy Neighbors, starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, and next month’s 22 Jump Street (the sequel to 2012’s hit, 21 Jump Street), starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, my friends and I began to notice a kind of trend emerging. The duos at the forefront of these films exhibit a kind of hot guy/goofy guy dichotomy— a sort of binary between a traditionally funny actor and an actor who is, traditionally, considered eye candy.

I wanted to explore this dynamic a little further, but I found it difficult to think of films besides these recent ones that truly fit. In the past, I think it was more common to see a straight man/silly man dichotomy, more generally: Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) might be a good example of this binary. But more recently, I feel like the comic successes of such films are at least partially resulting from the very fact that one of these things is not at all like the others; one of these main players, in other words, seems too attractive to even be funny.

That should be a problematic assumption in itself. When Jonah Hill asked Channing Tatum to co-star with him in 21 Jump Street, Tatum replied that he wasn’t funny enough for the role. Hill allegedly told him to just play the part honestly and earnestly, and the result was indeed funny. This anecdote made me wonder if it isn’t so much a question of genre as it is a question of talent and star text. When I saw Neighbors last weekend, I didn’t know what to expect from Efron; not because he didn’t do comedies but because I didn’t deem him talented based on what I’d seen him do thus far. Both his and Tatum’s turns in these respective comedies then were all the more impressive to me; not only were these actors funny, but they could also actually act.

At first glance even in these comedies, it is the looks of these actors that seem to outshine their other merits. But, in a way that other genres do not allow for, these comedies allow their attractiveness to serve as the butt of the jokes, which seems to be more liberating than roles which highlight hotness as nothing more than a shallow selling point. Efron, in Neighbors, is hilarious, and Rogen’s character frequently brings up the frat boy’s fit body and model-like face, also conjuring gay readings of the film for some. Efron plays with his own image and somehow makes fun of it through his playing the character so genuinely and seriously.

Tatum’s character in the narrative of 21 Jump Street, meanwhile, finally experiences how hard life is for people who, like Jonah Hill’s character during high school, don’t fit in, the joke being that in today’s high school environment, being hot simply isn’t enough to ensure popularity anymore—cool isn’t what it used to be, and Tatum’s typical attractiveness no longer actually fits the new norm of what is attractive or likeable, whereas Hill’s character somehow suddenly does. The experiment is actually more interesting and poignant than one may think initially, the role reversal proving quite effective: not only is it the film’s source of humor, but it also gives the film equal parts heart and cleverness.

So, what can be said for this new comedy dynamic? Is it less of a trend and more of an anomaly, which only these specific films seem to exemplify? I think the self-referential nature of these films—the way they directly acknowledge and riff upon the appeal of certain actors—is a good thing, over all, for comedy cinema more generally but for the actors themselves especially. I think it’s another question worth exploring, after all, what genre a “hot” actor is meant to dominate: Romantic comedies, for women who want to be with them, or action thrillers, for men who want to be them? I think those options are horribly limiting and don’t allow the actors to flex any kind of muscles besides those that are perfectly sculpted upon their bodies. Comedy, on the other hand, and particularly playing against or alongside an actor who represents and even embodies the genre itself, gives these actors the room to have fun with and actually be free of the images Hollywood has assigned to them.

Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way.