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Whatever Happened to Raunchy Sex Comedies?

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Twenty years ago, American Pie hit theaters and became an iconic film for Xennials, leading to something of a boom of teen sex comedies. You really couldn’t even turn around without bumping into a film like Road Trip or Van Wilder, and American Pie itself had three direct sequels and five spin-offs under the American Pie brand.

The early 2000s is not the only time raunchy teen sex comedies were popular, though; the genre was huge in the 80s with films like Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and then 2007’s Superbad led to another minor revival.

But two recent moderately successful sex comedies, Blockers and Booksmart, haven’t really resulted in anything. Booksmart was a critical darling with a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but it failed to really connect with audiences. This is also arguably the case with Ladybird The Edge of Seventeen; R-rated coming-of-age comedy-drama films that were loved by critics and got a lukewarm reception from audiences.

So how did these raunchy comedies go from being one of the biggest film genres in the 1980s to being essentially indie films that are only seen by critics today? Let’s take a look at some of the best films in the genre over the years and see if we can find an answer.

Fast Times in the 80s

Fast Times at Ridgemont High might be the most classic example of teen sex comedy. At age 22, Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe enrolled in a local high school, undercover as a teen, and wrote a book about the experience. He then adapted that book into the screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Much like today’s teen sex comedies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High wasn’t a big success at first, though it was far from a critical darling. Roger Ebert called the film a “scuz-pit” and thought the frank nature that the film discussed sex crossed from funny to uncomfortable, noting the audience he was the film with, a sneak-preview held by a rock radio station, appeared uncomfortable as well, and he compared it unfavorably to National Lampoon’s Animal House. Here’s a particularly insightful portion of his review:

The movie’s cast struggles valiantly through all this dreck. Rarely have I seen so many attractive young performers invited to appear in so many unattractive scenes. Leigh, for example, plays a virginal young student at Ridgemont High. She’s curious about sex, so the script immediately turns her into a promiscuous sex machine who will go to bed with anybody. And then her sexual experiences all turn out to have an unnecessary element of realism, so that we have to see her humiliated, disappointed, and embarrassed. Whatever happened to upbeat sex? Whatever happened to love and lust and romance, and scenes where good-looking kids had a little joy and excitement in life, insteadof all this grungy downbeat humiliation? Why does someone as pretty as Leigh have to have her nudity exploited in shots where the only point is to show her ill-at-ease?

That sounds a lot like the modern attempts at teen sex comedies to me. Writer Crowe and director Amy Heckerling set out to make a movie that showed teens acting the way they really acted while still having the fun of previous hits like Porky’s. It largely succeeded, and like today’s raunch-coms, fell flat at the box office, but became a cult classic thanks to the emerging VHS market and the ability to pause and rewind that scene of Phoebe Cates taking her top off in slow motion.

After Fast Times, the genre chugged forward with more films in the vein of previous hits Porky’s and Meatballs. We got films you’ve definitely heard of if you haven’t seen them, like Revenge of the Nerds, Risky Business and Weird Science. These films leaned more into sex as a fantasy than the realism of growing up Fast Times strove for and were much more successful.

Today people look back at films like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds and wonder how people missed the sexism and borderline sexual assault that they were steeped in, but the truth is people did realize that at times. Roger Ebert’s review of Porky’s doesn’t say much aside from calling it a bad movie that hates women.

Still, people really liked some of these movies because they were genuinely funny or charming. Siskel and Ebert both liked Revenge of the Nerds despite being tired of the gross-out sex comedies by that time; the idea that the nerds got even with the bullies and the performances by the actors made the film enjoyable and appealing; sometimes it’s okay to just enjoy something stupid.

Jason Biggs Fucks a Pie

In the late 80s and 90s, teen coming-of-age films got a lot less smutty. She’s All That, Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait and 10 Things I Hate About You were all great films but they all kept it PG-13, getting away from nudity and profanity and centering romance over sex. Even legendary flop Trojan War, which paired Boy Meets World hottie Will Friedel with Party of Five hottie Jennifer Love Hewitt and centered on Friedel’s character’s desperate search for a condom opted for a PG-13 script.

And then Jason Biggs fucked a pie and Alyson Hannigan stuck a flute in her pussy.

American Pie came out of nowhere in the summer of 1999 and reignited the market for teen comedies that acknowledges that teenagers are basically obsessed with sex. Especially the ones who aren’t having it, which is the kind of teenagers that American Pie and most of these movies are about.

American Pie focused less on realism or gross humor (though it did have its moments) and more on embarrassment. The main characters were, essentially, idiots who made fools of themselves at every turn doing things like getting caught by their father having sex with a pie.

The films that followed in this second wave largely focused on lovable losers who set out to get laid and ended up falling in love, usually not with the girl they spent the movie pining for but instead a new love interest who is more suitable and likes their quirks. Pretty standard stuff.

The most important and successful of the post-American Pie sex comedies was The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was not only a massive hit but cleverly applied the formula of a teen coming-of-age film to a group of adults who had not yet grown up. This would basically be the only sort of movie Judd Apatow would make for the rest of his career.

The End of an Era

2007’s Superbad made Jonah Hill and Michael Cera into stars, but people actually really like it anyway. It had a lot of classic gags, like one of the characters buying a fake ID with a name that just says “McLovin’” but it’s pretty much the last sex comedy to be anything resembling a mainstream success.

Booksmart drew a lot of comparisons to Superbad when it debuted in 2019 and it was beloved by critics, but failed to do much business at the box office. There have been a number of similar stories recently, rated-R teen romps, mostly starring women, that critics loved and audiences didn’t see. So what is causing the death of this genre that was once a staple of the movie-going experience? In my opinion, there are three things contributing to this.

The first, and probably the smallest factor, is that we’re in a pretty conservative, puritanical time when it comes to sex. There’s so much discussion about the changing social mores around sex that it just doesn’t seem like a fun topic. This is especially true when it comes to teenagers, traditionally the only group of people who are horny enough to do really stupid and entertaining things to get laid. But look at how many people say Leonardo DiCaprio is some creepy pedophile for dating women in their 20s, any movie that’s honest about teen sexuality, especially for laughs, is going to get lambasted sight-unseen by a certain sections of Twitter.

The elephant in the room, though, is that four-quadrant blockbusters are pushing everything else out of the cineplex. That’s something that’s been going on since the 70s but it gets truer every year. There’s basically always a Marvel movie in cinemas and Marvel films aren’t the only blockbusters that get produced. People have limited entertainment budgets and if they’re going to go to the theater to see a movie, they’re going to see what everyone else is seeing and be part of the conversation.

I did say there were three reasons we weren’t seeing these sorts of films as much, though, and the final reason is just that the popularity of any film genre is cyclical. The sex comedy genre has waxed and waned before, and that’s what it’s doing now. Studios are still trying them here and there, and one of them is bound to come around at the right time and take off, leading to another boom in the genre.

Personally, I love these sorts of movies. When you’re younger, something about seeing them feels a bit naughty, like you’re doing something wrong but that thing is very small. As an adult, it’s fun to look back and remember how stupid  you were as a teenager. We’ll eventually see another golden age of raunchy comedies, maybe on streaming services since theaters seem to be an increasingly closed avenue. Until then, there are plenty of classics to go back and revisit.

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