With the economy in tatters and the last decade's prosperity appearing a sham, some of the most influential tastemakers in comedy are turning to black humor and delusional characters to match the disaffected times.
"Observe and Report," which opened last week and stars Seth Rogen as a brutality-bent security guard who dreams of vengeful glory, has more in common with "Taxi Driver" than "Knocked Up." One of the darkest widely released comedies in years, "Observe and Report" makes direct references to the recession-era Martin Scorsese 1976 film that celebrates its psychotic hero.
The film, written and directed by Jody Hill, follows "Eastbound & Down," the pitch- black HBO series about a washed-up baseball player, played by Danny McBride.
Will Ferrell and collaborator Adam McKay -- a year removed from their most twisted film, "Step Brothers" -- just finished a Broadway run of "You're Welcome, America," in which Ferrell played President George W. Bush.
"Now that the whole system has collapsed and been shown for what it is, if you went and did a comedy like `The Animal' or `Wayne's World' -- a great comedy -- it wouldn't work now," said McKay. "If you're going to do comedy about (today's times), you better get a little dangerous and ugly."
The turn comes on the heels of a dominant run by lovable losers and earnest outsiders, highlighted by "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," "Old School," "Knocked Up," "Pineapple Express," "Wedding Crashers," "Superbad," "Talladega Nights" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."
Often with Judd Apatow or McKay behind the camera, the films have come from an overlapping and likable group of actor-comedians including Ferrell, Rogen, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel and Jonah Hill. On TV, Tina Fey's "30 Rock" and the cast of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" have similarly featured a brand of comedy that suggested you could be both funny and nice.
But there's been a disturbance in the force.
"We like starting with a character that you're disgusted by and hate," McBride says, "but somehow you can't take your eyes off watching his story and seeing where it goes."
No one is pushing comedy into darker territory more than McBride, Hill and their other writing partner, Ben Best. The three went to film school in North Carolina together and first collaborated on the cult comedy "The Foot Fist Way," in which McBride played an arrogant tae kwon do instructor.
In "Eastbound & Down," McBride stars as Kenny Powers, a foul-mouthed relief pitcher, whose 'roid rage and declining fastball boot him out of baseball and bring him back to his hometown as a substitute teacher. Despite a big league ego, he's a small-town failure, resorting to drugs and strippers.
If anyone, Powers is the face of the new dark comedy.
"We don't play the comedy for laughs," said Hill, who also co-wrote and co-directed "Eastbound & Down." "A lot of the stuff that people maybe are going to be shocked about or think `That's dark, they went too far' -- I think that's just funny."
Hill believes "Observe and Report" is best viewed as a serious film with comedy in it. He dislikes broad comedies, and instead cites `70s anti-hero character-driven films like Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy" and Sam Peckinpah movies.
"The Sopranos," Hill said, was "funnier than a comedy."
Clearly, the visions of McBride and Hill appeal to other comedians. Ferrell and McKay's production company picked up "Foot Fist Way" and the two were executive producers on "Eastbound & Down."
"You're seeing more characters who are way out of touch with their lack of success and come down almost in a death thrall," said McKay. "The shading has gotten a little darker, there's no question."
Fans of Rogen who come to "Observe and Report" expecting something in the Apatow vein are bound to be surprised.
"It's always exciting when you find something you really like that you can tell is not what you're doing," said Rogen. "Our movies have some shocking stuff in them but I would never really describe them as dark. `Pineapple Express' has tons of people getting murdered, but I really would never call it a dark movie by any stretch of the imagination. A violent one, but it's all light and in good fun."
Black comedy has never had the reputation of tremendous commercial appeal. Good ones can have staying power, their bitterness still powerful years later -- movies like Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964), Sidney Lumet's "Network" (1976) and Alexander Payne's "Election" (1999).
But persuading studios to bankroll darker material isn't always easy. After all, the more palatable Apatow formula still appears to be working: The recently released bromance, "I Love You, Man," with Rudd and Segel, has grossed $50 million in its first three weeks of release.
An early lesson in commercial success for Apatow was the 1996 dark comedy "The Cable Guy," which he co-wrote and produced. Though the Jim Carrey film made $60 million, it was considered a flop.
Instead, Apatow pursued realistic, warmhearted comedy in the tradition of "Terms of Endearment." This summer, he'll release his most dramatic film yet: "Funny People," in which Adam Sandler plays a standup with terminal cancer.
"Step Brothers," starring Ferrell and John C. Reilly as middle-aged boys still living with their parents, took the comic standby of adolescent adulthood further than it had ever been taken. It grossed just over $100 million, suggesting moviegoers might follow their comic heroes' darker flights of fancy.
McKay and Ferrell are preparing a movie -- already bought by Sony -- tentatively titled "B-Team," to star Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as cops. Said McKay: "Crime has been turned upside down, so we're trying to play with those kind of ideas."
McBride acknowledges that HBO might not have been quite aware of what it was getting when it signed on for "Eastbound & Down." Their pitch, McBride said, suggested his character would learn from his young students.
HBO was initially "very split" on "Eastbound & Down," McKay said. But ratings continually increased for the six-episode series and last week, HBO announced the show will return for a second season next year.
Hill gives every credit to Warner Bros. for giving him freedom on "Observe and Report." But he acknowledges that he has had to listen "a lot" to executives concerned about offending various demographics. In its first weekend of release, it took in $11.1 million, a fair but unremarkable debut.
"Hopefully what 'Eastbound & Down' and now this movie does, it will (be like how) Elvis Presley is not shocking anymore," said Hill. "Somebody else or we'll try something new that will take things up a level again."
Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.