What Happened to the Comedy Stars of the 90s?

If you’re here it means you’re on the Internet. If you’ve been on the Internet this week you’ve probably digested a lot of thoughts, memorials and lists dedicated to the late actor Robin Williams, who committed suicide at age 63 on Monday. In those memorials, or maybe on your own, you probably fondly remembered lots of different scenes and films from his prolific career: reliving the Carlton Fisk World Series home run from Good Will Hunting, Ethan Hawke standing on his desk to recite a poem to Williams in Dead Poets Society, wrestling an octopus in Popeye, throwing fruit at Pierce Brosnan in Mrs. Doubtfire, and pulling up a microphone to shout R-rated broadcasts (Good Morning, Vietnam; “Robin Williams Live on Broadway”) or G-rated plaudits (Aladdin). But most likely your fondness was rooted in the 80s and 90s, maybe to the very start of the 2000s.

Related: 15 Robin Williams Films We’ll Never Forget


After a very dark and serious 2002 (InsomniaOne Hour PhotoDeath to Smoochy), the prolific comedian-come-Oscar winner struggled to get decent parts. He showed up in a few quirky indies (World’s Greatest Dad, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn), and part of larger, aging ensembles (such as Old Dogs, The Butler and The Big Wedding). Williams, once the star of “Mork and Mindy,” even went back to TV. First, on “Law & Order: SVU” and then on a fantastic and somber episode of “Louie” (one regarding a funeral, but one that is so tender it should be re-watched to appreciate Williams’ emotions, even when they’re not the exact ones we came to love from the performer) before taking on his own program, “The Crazy Ones.”  Which was canceled after one season.

This article is not meant to put down the twilight of a great career. But during the week in which a franchise built on old action stars getting together, The Expendables, is set to release the third (and largest) installment, we wanted to examine how comedy has changed for both aging stars, and new stars. Action used to only be for the young studs, but now, with Liam Neeson becoming an action box-office draw in his 60s and Sylvester Stallone revitalizing his career (and others) with The Expendables, it’s become a revitalized genre. Comedy, however, has not been kind to the big stars of the 80s and 90s. 

If you look at the big comedy hits of the 80s and 90s most of them were built around one bona fide comedy star — Beverly Hills Cop, Jumanji, Liar Liar, City Slickers, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer, etc — and the star was the main attraction. And their salary reflected that. By 2000, Williams made $20 million for Bicentennial Man, Eddie Murphy got his first $20 million salary for The Klumps and Jim Carrey had made $20 million four times over (for The Cable Guy, Liar Liar, Me Myself and Irene and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas).

Flash forward 14 years later and the highest grossing original comedy of the summer was Neighbors and its entire budget was $18 million. The Hangover, one of the most successful comedies of all time, was made for $35 million, but the “wolfpack” (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifinakas) collectively only made $1.5 million. And director Todd Phillips waived his fee for a back-end earning deal. So most of that film’s budget went to the immense set destruction from multiple crazy scenarios.

We’re not saying Williams, Murphy and Carrey’s career went downhill because they were greedy, but just that comedy has changed. It’s shifted from the star being the reason why people will go — because they trust them as a comedic performer — to being just comfortable enough with certain stars to see what wacky situations will happen to them. We’ve shifted from a single star comedy to crazy situational comedies that involve multiple characters, or at least a strong top-leading duo that complements each other in different ways (which Hollywood often interprets as differences in weight and comparative attractiveness, see: The HeatNeighbors and Identity Thief).

“If you want to draw an audience to the theater, you’ve got to create a conversation, and the things that get people talking are those moments in a movie that really push the limits of the genre,” Paul Dergarabedian, media analyst, told Variety. Which means that if it’s a sex comedy, you can’t just show the goods, you’ve got to escalate what happens to the goods (see: Neighbors star Seth Rogen doesn’t just have sex with his wife, played by Rose Byrne, but he also has to milk her). And if its a wild night comedy, a precedent has been established for setting aside a budget to pay for tigers and building demolition.

It used to be that comedy hits were just hits in the US and we had local comedy stars that could open a big movie here. Foreign receipts were an afterthought. The idea was that humor doesn’t translate well. But as big comedy movies have shifted toward a humor that’s more physical, more painful and places less emphasis on language and punchlines, comedy is finally translating in foreign box office receipts. For instance, the 2005 runaway hit The Wedding Crashers only earned a quarter of its gross from foreign markets. Last year’s ensemble, We’re the Millers, made half of its gross in foreign markets.

So, of the 80s and 90s comedy titans, who’s been left in the dust? How have they adapted? And with an emphasis on duos or larger casts, who might be able to breakaway into the familiar mold of Hollywood Comedian Megastar?

Salutes: Bill Murray and Adam Sandler

So who’s still going strong? Against all odds, Bill Murray and Adam Sandler.

Murray, for becoming a recluse who has no agent and has some elusive post-office box where he sometimes picks up scripts and sometimes informs the director that he’ll show up on time, has carved out a nice second-act career niche as a go-to character actor. It all started in 1998 with a neck brace and a childish grudge. The neck brace was for Wild Things where, as an ambulance chasing lawyer, Murray appeared to be the only one who was aware of what a hoot the film was. His desire to, seemingly, not even be there actually gives the film an oddball looseness that elevates the movie a shade higher than it elevates your trousers. More importantly, also in 1998 was Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, where he forms a grudge against and then a bond with a teenager. Which might very well be his best performance, and was the first of many collaborations with Anderson. Lost in TranslationBroken Flowers, occasionally popping up somewhere to bartend, Murray might not be box office dynamite, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s playing the playboy at the indie pool.

And while Sandler is just as reviled by critics as he always was, he still gets people to show up at movie theaters. How? He never veered from his trusty persona. And he seemingly caters to an entirely different crowd of knuckle-dragging group-think dudes who will follow him all the way to the retirement home. Good for him. No seriously.

Sandler has two outliers on his resume: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Judd Apatow’s Funny People, which might not have been hugely successful in comparison to his overall work, but there’s an affection to him as a performer that is felt strongly enough — that even though the tones might be different from his standard Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Grown-Ups fare — that his casting isn’t a gimmick, and yet they’re each still very much “an Adam Sandler film.” While his bread and butter in the 90s was a PG-13 comedy that doesn’t really exist anymore, Sandler has been able to adapt, get down to the R-rated nastiness for some projects, and get kid-friendly for others. This year he has films with Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), continuing the spirit of the Indie Spirit directing world that’s fascinated by a popular star who revolts many, but keeps making money for most. Especially for himself.

Who Needs Counseling?

Jim Carrey

Pre-2000 Highlights: The Truman Show, The Cable Guy, Dumb & Dumber, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Man on the Moon, Liar Liar, The Mask and Batman Forever

Films since 2000: Me Myself and Irene, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Majestic, Bruce Almighty, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Number 23, Yes Man, I Love You Phillip Morris, A Christmas Carol, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Kick Ass 2

Upcoming Films: Dumb and Dumber To

A sequel that’s filming 20 years after the original was released is just how far Carrey has fallen. The gift of Carrey’s comedy run of box office hits was that everything he did with his limbs, voice and face felt so over the top that it seemed to belong in a fantasy film. But he could do it straight, in our world. While audiences are still going out to physical humor films, they’re not going for elastic human body theatrics. And that PG-13 comedy where Carrey made his mark isn’t the box office draw that it used to be. It’s all about the R-rated escalation-of-events comedy. You can get all the PG-13 situational hijinks on TV now. Unless it involves a fantasy element (17 Again, or Adam Sandler’s Click and Bedtime Stories were all successes), then profanity, nudity and bursts of violence are the key to the comedy box office.

Carrey also had a good run of balancing drama with his broader comedy films. But post-Almighty‘s almighty pay-day, it’s been a decade since Carrey has done a mainstream drama (hardly anyone saw Phillip Morris, but it’s worth checking out). Once the most expensive and bankable star of a ten-year period, Carrey, who is adept at drama, should take a page from Williams’ book: go supporting in a drama to build the goodwill back up. 

Eddie Murphy

Pre-2000 Highlights: Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America, Harlem Nights, The Golden Child, Trading Places, Boomerang, Bowfinger, A Distinguished Gentleman, Mulan (voice), The Nutty Professor, Life, Eddie Murphy: Raw and “Saturday Night Live”

Post-2000 Films: The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Shrek (voice), Doctor Doolittle 2, Showtime, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, I Spy, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, Shrek 2 (voice), Dreamgirls, Norbit, Meet Dave, Imagine That, Tower Heist and A Thousand Words

Upcoming Films: Beverly Hills Cop 4 (maybe) and Triplets (maybe)

While the lead-up to Norbit wasn’t close to a spotless run of films, that film (and apparently his temperament), released during the Oscar campaigning season, probably cost him an Academy Award for Dreamgirls (he’d already won a Golden Globe and SAG award). It’s even had an effect named for it (“The Norbit Effect”) and studios are now smart to bump potential blemishes on an actor’s record out of that influential winter Award-campaigning window.

Ultimately Norbit was the tipping point of a series of cash-grab movies that Murphy made before and around Dreamgirls. But even though the film is awful, in a way it’s become a little harsh (uh-oh, can you feel some Norbit sympathy coming on?). Because if you can say anything about Eddie Murphy, yes he may make cash grabs, but he doesn’t just phone it in. Even post-multiple-Oscar disappointments, Murphy appears committed to every atrocious film that he makes.

What were the other Oscar disappointments? Murphy has never been actively chased an Oscar like Carrey appeared to be doing for whole six years, but he was close to hosting the Oscars. It was mounted as a comeback. He had the gig. Then his Tower Heist director, Brett Ratner said some back-to-back sexist (concerning Olivia Munn) and homophobic (concerning rehearsal) remarks on “The Howard Stern Show” and in a public Q&A and Murphy had to resign hosting duties. Wait, what? Oh, Ratner was hired to produce the telecast that Murphy would’ve hosted and Ratner had to resign, thereby forcing Murphy to resign. And since the gig was touted as his big comeback, he never got to walk down the aisle. We’d still like to see him host an upcoming Oscar telecast more than another Ratner movie (the Cop sequel) or the contrived Twins sequel (Triplets).

Speaking of the Oscars, what about the Oscar hosts…?

Steve Martin

Pre-2000’s Highlights: The Jerk, Roxanne, Parenthood, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Lonely Guy, L.A. Story, Bowfinger, Three Amigos!, Father of the Bride, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Films since 2000: Novocaine, Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen, Shopgirl, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pink Panther, Baby Mama, The Pink Panther 2, It’s Complicated and The Big Year

Hosted the Oscars in: 2001, 2003, 2010

Upcoming Films: Voice acting in the DreamWorks animated film, Home.

Martin won a lifetime achievement Oscar this year, but it wasn’t televised, which is unfortunate. We’d have loved to have seen Martin’s blend of verbal wit and gee-whiz affability, which — perhaps — would have aided him more than his hosting gigs actually did. (The only real benefits of hosting the Oscars seem to be when the gig is announced; then viewers are always pretty divisive on the actual job performed. But at least you’re seen, we suppose.)

Martin hasn’t made many films in the past 15 years, but he’s been a lead (or co-lead) in most of them without actually having to go the indie route. Oh and he really raked it in on that Pink Panther reboot, making $28 million between acting and writing duties on a series that made $235 worldwide, almost 50% of which came from international receipts. With that project, Martin adapted to both the physical humor and tentpole ideology of modern box office. But the most popular thread on his page at IMDB is “why isn’t he funny anymore?” So, critics (both Panther films hover around the 20% mark on Rotten Tomatoes) aren’t the only ones displeased.

Billy Crystal

Pre-2000’s Highlights: “Saturday Night Live”, When Harry Met Sally…, City Slickers, Analyze This, Throw Mama From the Train, Deconstructing Harry and The Princess Bride

Films since 2000: America’s Sweethearts, Monsters, Inc. (voice), Analyze That, Cars (voice), Parental Guidance and Small Apartments

Hosted the Oscars in: 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2012

Upcoming Films: None. “The Comedians” is a television show on FX with Larry Chales (a creator of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”).

With the exception of When Harry Met Sally… Crystal is probably best known by this generation of moviegoers as “the guy who sings and dances at the Oscars.” Which — having noted that the job is pretty thankless — isn’t very good, because Crystal is mostly pleasing the same audience that liked to go see him at the theater before. And they’re getting older. Like Martin, Crystal, similarly has been very choosy, taking lead roles or voice work in favor of supporting turns in other fare.

“The Comedians” will be an interesting one to look for. On that program Crystal will play a comedian who tours with a younger, edgier comedian (Josh Gad) and has to update his routine. Which sounds pretty appropriate for how Crystal’s career is right now. If he wants to engage a current audience that appreciates the escalation of nastiness, he’ll have to shed the song and dance routine. “The Comedians” also will be airing on FX which has edgier programming for comedy (“Louie”, “The League”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, etc).

Whoopi Goldberg

Pre-2000’s Highlights: Ghost, Sister Act, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Color Purple, The Player, Soapdish, Theodore Rex (for its home video art) and Made in America

Films Since 2000: Kingdom Come, Monkeybone, Rat Race, For Colored Girls, Toy Story 3 (voice), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a lot of television, cameos as herself and — a combination of both of those — as a host on the chat show “The View”

Hosted the Oscars in: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2002

Upcoming Films: An omnibus film called Black Dog, Red Dog which has James Franco as one of the multiple directors, and a drama with Ashley Judd and Patrick Wilson called Big Stone Gap

For more than a decade now, Whoopi Goldberg is probably most known for being Whoopi Goldberg and she probably doesn’t care about much other than being asked to appear. Which includes television, web shows, Oscar telecasts, movies, student films, etc. And many of those just want her to be Whoopi. Which, honestly, bodes well for her. Oh, and she is in the number one movie at the box-office right now. And on television every week.  

Who’s Next?

Currently the studios aren’t giving too much breathing room for their comedy stars to branch out on their own like all of the above did for most of their careers. Seth Rogen did Observe and Report, Jonah Hill did The Sitter and Melissa McCarthy also did this summer’s Tammy and all three of those underperformed (most likely because they were indie films at heart, but studios will see the stars as not being big enough to carry a film all by themselves). 

But Rogen, Hill and McCarthy have all done great business when they are in a duo, so expect that cycle to continue. And expect to see a lot more of Rose Byrne with them. The Aussie actress has quietly climbed the Apatow ranks as an old-schooled stable performer, from Get Him to the Greek, to Bridesmaids, to Neighbors — in Marvel-like, world-building fashion — and Byrne will be getting her own starring comedy film soon: in space. In something called, The Something, to be directed by 22 Jump Street co-writer Reed Rothman. Byrne will also be co-starring with McCarthy in Paul Feig’s lady-spy franchise attempt, (lazily) titled Spy.

Apatow will also attempt to launch Amy Schumer next year in her very own starring vehicle, Trainwreck. And while not all comedy is branching from Apatow, the producer-writer-director has shepherded many of this generation’s elite comedy performers to a position of being the next big thing. Including all the performers listed above, plus Jason Segal, Lena Dunham and the second-career arc of Paul Rudd. And it’s exciting to be talking about this number of women, while the list of 80s and 90s stars above is almost entirely men.

Will Ferrell will continue to march to his own drum and as long as John C. Reilly or Adam McKay are around, he’ll have a strong duo as well.

Two performers that studios have tried to make happen, but never fully took off after their initial big-time arrival — Sacha Baron Cohen (with Borat) and Russell Brand (with Forgetting Sarah Marshall) — have smartly moved into supporting roles recently. And to get back to the beginning of this article, one of them, Brand, penned an incredibly human memorial to Robin Williams about mental health, after the initial shock had dissipated.

Brand’s note is not only a reminder about the difficulties of a performer and of maintaining an emotional balance, but also a reminder that the comedy world is very close. Most of the 1980s and 1990s performers were close friends. The above current comedians are also very close. Comedy is such an insular bubble and many performers will pop up in each other’s work. And we get to witness that warmness as viewers. That itself is part of the reason why Williams’ death was so shocking: he felt closer to us because he made us laugh. And comedians feel closer to each other for that very same reason.

Actually, on that note. Maybe we should continue to want them as duos. Everyone needs someone next to them. 

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.


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