Few types of films get less respect than comedy sequels, which have a nasty history of not being very good for one reason or another. Maybe they copy the original film too closely. Maybe they change too much. Maybe they’re just not funny anymore. Whatever the reason, films like this weekend’s Bad Santa 2 have a bit of a stigma about them.
But that doesn’t mean they’re all bad! In fact, many comedy sequels are just plain wonderful. This week on The Best Movie Ever we’re challenging our panel of film critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold, and Collider’s Brian Formo – to each pick one and only one movie that represents the best comedy sequel ever produced. As usual they couldn’t agree on a thing, although two of our critics seem to think that horror sequels have a leg up on the rest of the competition!
Find out what they picked and let us know your favorites from this Thanksgiving edition. And then come back on our regularly scheduled Wednesday’s for our highly debatable installments of The Best Movie Ever!
William Bibbiani’s Pick: A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Tell somebody a joke, and if they laugh, try an experiment. Tell them the same joke again, and see if they react the same way. They’ll probably just be confused. Maybe you’ll get a tiny giggle. But either way, comedy doesn’t recycle well, so the best comedy sequels have a tendency to take the characters or basic premise of the original movie and let them grow in organic ways.
The best example of this: The Pink Panther, which was ostensibly about David Niven’s suave jewel thief, even though Peter Sellers’ befuddled Inspector Clouseau was obviously the breakout character. This led to a sequel called A Shot in the Dark just one year later. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it doesn’t have the number “2” in the title. Sequels didn’t start doing that until the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was a refocusing of the Pink Panther franchise on a bungler who thinks the world of himself, a comedic goldmine who evokes laughs in any situation. Throw Inspector Clouseau in a nudist colony and he’s hilarious. Let him stay at home with his violent manservant, it’s equally chortle-worthy.
Most of the Pink Panther movies are good, but between the first one and the second Peter Sellers and director Blake Edwards perfected their comedy routine. Just watch the veins throbbing in Comissioner Dreyfus’ head as Clouseau insists that the woman who obviously committed the murder is innocent, for no reason whatsoever, throughout the whole movie. It’s the perfect alchemy of frustration and whimsy, with a hero whose capacity for heroism is all just a good-natured accident, and a competent competitor that tries to stop him for all the right reasons, only to be stymied by fate. It’s an insidious commentary on the ineffability of our complicated, stupid existence, and it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.
Brian Formo’s Pick: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Most comedy sequels tend to recreate the point-by-point story flow of the first film’s comedic scenario but adds local flair and gags by setting the sequel in a different location. From The Hangover series to Home Alone, that’s been the blueprint: make ‘em laugh the same way but use the location gags just enough that hopefully people won’t recognize that the story is the same. Gremlins 2: The New Batch follows this template—but it also destroys it. And that makes it the best comedy sequel of all time. Director Joe Dante follows his every cartoonish whim down a plot-less rabbit hole and effectively blows up movie plot structure entirely—even though The New Batch is also a self-aware love letter to movie escapism.
The New Batch takes our young hometown sweethearts of the first film (Zach Gilligan and Phoebe Cates) away from the Americana small town dreamland of Kingston Falls and has them working in the middle of Manhattan. Dante’s location gags actually build on the father figure of the first Gremlins movie—who was an inventor—as Manhattan’s businesses are all innovating new technological advancements to make people’s lives “easier” by further complicating them. A building conserves energy by monitoring every staff’s movements and shutting off the lights the moment there’s a few seconds of inactivity. Cameras monitor every corridor to fire someone on the spot for taking an unsupervised break. A laboratory is infusing electricity into cheese to turn NYC’s rodents into batteries. Etc. Etc.
When the caretaking rules of the cute-‘n-furry Mogwai are broken and thus spawn the chaos-loving reptilian Gremlins, The New Batch does begin the plot repetition of imaginative anarchy of the first film. But around the time that Gremlins remove the film can and stop the movie we’re watching, causing audience member Hulk Hogan to threaten them into submission, The New Batch then becomes a collage of cartoonish mayhem and abandons all plot movements entirely. Thankfully, Dante also has the “Brain” Gremlin to vociferously and eloquently explain the meaning behind the destruction. In the Brain’s presence, The New Batch is essentially a term paper on cartoon lunacy.
Witney Seibold’s Pick: Army of Darkness (1992)
There are so, so many bad comedy sequels in the world. Comedy, it shouldn’t need reiterating, is often based on surprise, and when one is following up on a gag, the surprise is gone: What’s less funny than a joke simply repeated for its own sake? As such, carbon-copy comedy sequels – I’m looking at you, The Hangover Part II – tend to be limp and lifeless and, well, unsurprising. It takes a certain amount of gumption and drive to ensure a new, creative, startling approach to a comedy follow-up. Very occasionally, you’ll get a film like A Shot in the Dark or even a Wayne’s World 2 that manages to find a fresh take on the material. For the most part, however, you’ll find rehashing more than laughter.
Luckily, the world has Army of Darkness in it. Sam Raimi’s follow-up to his hilarious splatstick classic Evil Dead 2 is expansive and broader and way, way sillier than its two forebears, easily entering the realm of comedy classic. Whereas the first two films were at least staged like modest, low-budget horror films, they were always possessed of a comedic undertone (especially the second) that has more in common with The Marx Bros. than they do to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
By the time Raimi came to the third film, he dropped almost all of the horror pretenses (despite the geysers of blood and skeleton monsters), making instead a weirdo, nothing-like-it mashup of medieval action, silly haunted house cartoon visuals (some of the skeletons are very clearly made of rubber), and goofy characterization; Ash – played by Bruce Campbell – truly becomes an indelible sendup of action stereotypes in Army of Darkness, ensuring his unmovable place in the pop culture consciousness. Army of Darkness is still hilarious, as still has the power to overtake the consciousness of any enterprising teenage boy aching for something silly.