It was the first comment my mother said to me after watching Set It Up: “The female lead is going to be a star.” The woman in question is Zoey Deutch and her chemistry with co-star Glen Powell drastically elevates Netflix’s cheerful rom-com. The film itself is one of my favorites from 2018. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, and has a nuanced understanding of its characters and the social pressures they face. Plus, one joke gives a name to a bad habit I do practically every week, which was weirdly helpful. And my praise isn’t unique: Set It Up currently sits at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, above half the films nominated for Best Picture that year. In 2019, the comedy Booksmart would receive 97% on the site, above every Best Picture nominee except the eventual winner, Parasite.
Which is a bit weird, even if Rotten Tomatoes is a deeply flawed ranking system. Not that these films weren’t nominated for Best Picture, because there’s always snubs, but that they weren’t even in the conversation. Nor did I see any buzz about the performances in these character-driven films, or for their impressive comedic directing. People didn’t watch Set It Up or Booksmart and decide they’re unworthy; they just aren’t “Oscar films.” Specifically, because they’re comedies.
Comedies were being told by the ancient Greeks right alongside their tragedies (though fewer survive, because this is a very old bias). It’s as ancient a genre and as difficult to pull off. We all know the agony of a bad comedy, but there’s also probably a few among your favorite films. Comedies like Monty Python And The Holy Grail, You’ve Got Mail, and The Big Lebowski are among the most beloved movies ever made, and none of them got Oscar nominations.
Likewise, famous comedic actors like Hugh Grant, Will Ferrell, and Bill Murray have never won an Oscar, though Murray was nominated for Lost in Translation. The comedic stars who do win, like Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, are usually giving mostly serious turns in dramas or comedy-dramas. And yet numerous comedic actors have become household names though fresh, iconic performances that they made their own. Daniel Day-Lewis has won best actor 3 times, but I can’t imagine him playing Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, because Bill Murray embodies that role as surely as Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln.
Consider the case of Notting Hill, a movie that in a just world would be perfect Oscar bait. Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant are A-list performers at the top of their game. The characters they play are emotionally rich and the story offers a nuanced, sensitive portrayal of how fame can dehumanize and isolate. Yes, it’s also wish-fulfillment, but they’re not dangerous wishes, so what’s wrong with that? The screenplay keeps the story concise with scores of memorable lines. Scenes like a walk through the markets as seasons pass are visually stunning and the pacing avoids ever feeling slow or rushed. The film’s still beloved two decades later and the only part that feels outdated is William having a bookstore. Something in there should be worthy of an Oscar nomination.
And this isn’t solely a matter of fairness. The Academy Awards influence which films get made, who gets new jobs with higher salaries, and what people consider “real” filmmaking. By regularly excluding comedies, they’re making comedies a little riskier to greenlight and nudging quality talent towards dramas.
Films that make us laugh can be as difficult to make and as meaningful to watch as those that make us cry, with the best usually doing both. But year after year, it’s the dramatic films that win Oscars. Parasite is considered a comedy by some, but these people are psychopaths. Parasite is a great movie that understands how humor can be harnessed for dramatic effect, and one that’s far from a traditional comedy. That leaves Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s Best Adapted Screenplay winner and Best Picture nominee, to represent the genre. Jojo Rabbit is one of my favorite films of 2019, but the film’s dark setting, Nazi Germany, is a shock that instantly makes you wonder what the film is trying to convey. Most comedies never have that chance to be taken seriously, so it’s likely not setting a precedent.
Comedies only win Oscars if they are also dramas. Comedies themselves aren’t considered serious art, despite the immense skill and effort required to make them. Chances are, next year the Oscars will come and go with another slate full of dramas. Truthfully, it almost feels like Groundhog Day.