Opinion: Why the Stoner Comedy Genre Needs to Fade Away

Written by BlackbirdGo January 25, 2018
The History

Author: Brian Pietrus

I was around 12 or 14 years I saw my first stoner comedy, a Cheech & Chong movie. When I think back on most of the movies I watched as a child, I tend to assume as an adult that a lot of the humor went above my head during my initial viewings. For example, I loved Mel Brooks’ films like Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles as a kid, but watching them as an adult adds additional layers of humor and character complexity that make it feel like I’m seeing the movie for the first time all over again. When I rewatched the Cheech & Chong classic Up In Smoke in my early 20s, I was struck by the way that nothing had changed. As an adult, I got the jokes - they’re, like, totally stoned, man - it’s just that I still didn’t find them funny.

This isn’t isolated to the burnout humor of the 1970’s and 80s, either. Half Baked came out in 1998. I first saw that film during high school and remembered it as a funny movie well into adulthood. Mostly because I hadn’t rewatched it since I was a teenager. I loved watching Chappelle Show in the early 2000s, so I assumed that his earlier films would offer the same humor and nuanced satire. When I tried rewatching Half Baked a few months ago, I couldn’t even make it through the entire film.

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Fast forward to 2018. 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, with 8 states plus DC having legalized recreational weed. CNN estimates that legal cannabis sales could hit $21 billion by the year 2020, meaning investors have realized that this is a booming industry with big money to be made. As business executives and venture capitalists make their way into the world of weed, it’s clear that a majority of Americans are now taking cannabis very seriously - except those in Hollywood.

There are now law firms, private equity firms and other professional investment entities offering their services to startups, tech companies, and everyday business owners looking to start growing operations and other cannabis-related ventures. And yet, virtually any movie or TV show you see that depicts a character smoking weed or eating edibles relies on the same tired, boring stoner cliches that were already played out by the time the 1970s rolled around.

When Weeds first premiered, the show had a lot of potential. It dealt with the drudgeries of suburbia and showed soccer moms, accountants, and city councilmembers lighting up after an exhausting day in the fictional suburb of Agrestic. But it became evident that some of the writers never fully abandoned the adolescent humor that has stigmatized pot use for so long, and the show at times veered towards becoming yet another overplayed cannabis trope. Much like the amphetamine-addled Breaking Bad, Weeds became less about a sympathetic character trying to provide for their family and more about growing egos and expanding drug territory. Even as the show evolved, Weeds still leaned heavily on cheap stoner laughs. Any time an episode started to touch on something serious, the same recurring stoner characters were paraded around as the show’s burned-out comic relief. As this TV family’s story moved forward, the show’s humor remained rooted in the same elementary school cafeteria sensibilities, and it continued to depict most people who use cannabis as lazy, unreliable, and unprofessional.

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Low-brow adolescent humor doesn’t always have to be unoriginal. Some “stoner comedy” movies and television shows still go for the cheap laughs while managing to be brilliant, entertaining, and fresh. Unfortunately, that seems to be more the exception than the standard. Most of those exceptions are either starring or written by a younger crop of actors and creative teams, which seems to suggest a generational difference in how writers and directors view cannabis and humor.

Broad City is a great example of a show that feels realistic to many millennial-aged viewers. Take the season 1 episode, “The Last Supper.” The girls go to a fancy restaurant for Abbi’s birthday and they get a little too lit during a smoke-break before the main course. When they walk back inside the restaurant, they start to suspect that everyone is watching them with disgust and talking about how stoned they are. But here’s where Broad City gets it right: getting high is never really the point of the show. Within minutes the audience has completely forgotten that the girls are high because Ilana’s allergic reaction to shellfish takes center stage, followed by Abbi accidentally injecting herself with epinephrine. The audience is never alienated, because even viewers who have never smoked weed will laugh out loud at Abbi crushing a wine glass with her hand in an adrenaline-fueled rage and carrying Ilana through the restaurant in what feels like an homage to the ending of An Officer and a Gentleman. In most Broad City episodes, smoking weed is just something that happens along the way, which is why so many viewers find their exploits entertaining and even relatable.

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High Maintenance also seems to reflect a somewhat millennial worldview. Rather than conforming to the tried-and-true sitcom format, High Maintenance got its start as a Vimeo series with a focus on playful storytelling. It focuses on the daily interactions of a weed dealer living in New York City. Instead of getting too caught up in the tumultuous personal lives of its characters, the show follows a (relatively) young protagonist through his dealings with an ever-rotating cast of interesting, often weird individuals. Yes, the protagonist is selling weed, but the show is more about the struggles of being human and the situational humor of people forced to awkwardly interact with one another.

Much like Broad City, the show Workaholics also offers a refreshing take on the buddy comedy format. While the show is a bit more broey than the creative work of Abbi and Ilana, the guys behind Workaholics tend to depict a more or less realistic take on a typical group of 30-something stoners. Stuck in dead-end, white-collar jobs, the main characters often unwind after work by chilling on their roof smoking weed. But the show’s charm is ultimately its downfall as well: the three protagonists are anti-heroes at best. They never really advance their respective work or life situations, and instead seem to settle for mediocrity at every level. Unlike the characters on Broad City, who are not too far out of college and still figuring out adulthood, the guys on Workaholics are decidedly grown adults who just continue to act like juveniles. When all’s said and done, the three main characters on Workaholics are just a bunch of lazy stoners.

What’s really remarkable about the stoner comedy genre’s shortcomings is that Hollywood, the mecca of media, is one of the most cannabis-friendly cities in the country. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was blown away by the sheer number of dispensaries in the city. No matter what neighborhood you’re in, you could pretty much walk three blocks in any direction on Sunset Blvd, Hollywood Blvd, or Santa Monica Blvd and you’d end up passing at least one dispensary (and probably at least one cannabis-friendly doctor’s office, too). It’s generally more of a social faux pas in cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco to smoke a cigarette in public than it is to light up a joint.

Given the societal changes in attitude over marijuana these last few years, you’d think that the film industry would reflect the current state of things. And yet, when it comes to social issues and depictions of people who smoke weed, by and large they still adhere to the same tired old plot points. Stoners are still portrayed as lazy fools with short-term memories and long-term appetites. They bumble through life without ever taking things seriously or living up to their own potential. It’s particularly insulting to the many Americans who rely on cannabis as medicine. Comedy should be able to hold a mirror up to society, but too many writers and directors are still favoring old, cheap gags when it comes to cannabis on screen. It’s 2018, and it’s time for Hollywood to catch up with the times.