By tracking the big frat boy, teen and stoner films of the 2000s, one can track the shifting cultural tastes of Western comedy. At the beginning, these films were earnest and unselfconscious (boys will be boys, after all). Comedies like American Pie represented and championed the mischievous middle and upper-middle class white boys of the era, whose fun and games would one day be someone else’s ‘Me Too’ story.
In the early to mid-2000s this trend was already beginning to run its course. Films like Not Another Teen Movie took aim at the stale nature of these formulas, and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle cast two non-white leads and democratized the stoner genre for weed-loving men of all races. But, as the 2000s were rapidly coming to an end, so was the 2000s era of comedy. Enter, Judd Apatow. Apatow’s hand would ultimately guide and shape comedy as a whole, and in particular the stoner sub-genre, for the next decade to come, with overlong and heavily improvised comedies, like Knocked Up (2 hours and 13 minutes) becoming the norm.
10 ‘American Pie’ (1999)
In a sense, American Pie set the blueprint for the teen or frat sex-comedies that would follow. The film tells the story of five high school friends, four of whom have yet to lose their virginity. In what is now a cliché, the boys make a pact to have sex before their high school graduation.
This game-ifying of sex and the objectification of women that happens as a result is as pervasive in reality as it is in cinema; particularly in films from this period of time. American Pie is a time-capsule of Western values and cultural attitudes surrounding virginity, women’s sexuality and the obsession with sex-as-conquest.
9 ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ (2000)
After a long night of partying, Jesse (Ashton Kutcher) and Chester (Seann William Scott) wake up to find that they have no idea where they parked their car. While Dude, Where’s My Car? doesn’t follow the typical beats of a frat or stoner comedy, it is certainly of a piece with these films and shares significant DNA with other comedies of the time.
While the film had middling success critically and financially, Dude, Where’s My Car? is the poster boy for ‘The Himbo’s Journey’. This storytelling structure is a staple of bro-comedies and is one that chronicles the lives and plights of the chronically hot and chronically dumb. Despite the uselessness of the Himbo Hero, audiences love them all the same, and they are perfectly embodied in Jesse and Chester.
8 ‘Not Another Teen Movie’ (2001)
Unpopular Janey (Chyler Leigh) is lifted out of anonymity when popular jock Jake (Chris Evans) bets his friends that he can make her prom queen. Even by the early 2000s, the writing was on the wall. Teen movies, frat comedies and stoner romps had been abundant for years. However, this abundance didn’t encourage creativity, in fact, it was quite the opposite.
The tropes were stale, the story beats were pedestrian, and while the white characters were broad archetypes, the POC or LGBT characters were caricatures or tokens (if they weren’t absent altogether). While Not Another Teen Movie is hardly a groundbreaking or laudable piece of cultural criticism, its skewering of the tropes of the time are evidence of just how low hanging some of the comedic fruit was in the early 2000s.
7 ‘National Lampoon’s Van Wilder’ (2002)
National Lampoon’s Van Wilder follows Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) as he lives on campus year after year, refusing to graduate and instead planning parties and cementing his status as a campus legend.
Unfortunately for Van Wilder, it was released not too long after Not Another Teen Movie and engaged in many of the tropes which had already been parodied, particularly the clichés relating to POC. Teck Holmes plays the film’s only Black character, while Kal Penn is stuck as the international student character, unfortunately named ‘Taj Mahal Badalandabad’.
6 ‘Old School’ (2003)
Old School follows a group of friends who, all approaching middle-age and in varying stages of their own midlife crises, decide to relive their glory days and start their own fraternity in a house near their former college campus. Old School walks a fine and is able to engage in all the tropes and good humor associated with the genre, while also standing slightly outside the norm.
Todd Phillips‘ film is a light critique of the frat lifestyle that highlights the childish and immature nature of frat culture. Despite the college setting and party-centric story, the film manages to avoid some of the less tasteful tropes of traditional frat comedies, and instead focuses on the wholesome comradery a frat can provide.
5 ‘EuroTrip’ (2004)
After graduating from high school and promptly being dumped by his girlfriend, Scott (Scott Mechlowicz) and his friends take an eventful trip around Europe. Despite its raunchy and crass nature, EuroTrip manages to dodge many of the distasteful trends that leave modern audiences cringing when they rewatch comedies of the 2000s.
The trick to this is that the film’s protagonists are typically the butt of the joke. While there are some broad generalizations drawn about specific European countries (e.g., Brits loving football, the Dutch enjoying marijuana and the Germans having a history with fascism) these stereotypes typically don’t verge into poor taste too often.
4 ‘Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle’ (2004)
Uptight investment banker Harold (John Cho) and laissez-faire medical student Kumar (Kal Penn) may have their differences, but one thing they have in common is their insatiable desire for White Castle. This desire is the inciting incident in the aptly titled Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.
Although Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle was one of the final bastions of the mighty stoner genre, at least the stoner genre in its mid-2000s form, it is a memorable one. It helped put John Cho and Kal Penn on the map, reintroduced the world to Neil Patrick Harris (who hadn’t yet broken out as an adult on How I Met Your Mother) and would link the fast-food chain White Castle to the stoner genre in perpetuity.
3 ‘Knocked Up’ (2007)
After a regrettable one-night stand leads to a pregnancy, ambitious TV presenter Alison (Katherine Heigl) tries to make it work with Ben (Seth Rogen), the stoned and unemployed father of her unborn child. While things don’t always go well for the characters, Knocked Up was a box office hit, a breakout role for Seth Rogen, and a film that would unintentionally shape comedy as a genre for years to come.
Written, directed and produced by Judd Apatow, Knocked Up is in many ways a pure distillation of all of his trademarks. These trademarks notably include his use of loose structure, the presence of his frequent collaborators (like Rogen) and his obsession with the death of stoned and care-free youth in favor of family and career focused adulthood.
2 ‘Superbad’ (2007)
About to graduate high school, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are determined to get their hands on some alcohol, attend a high school party and have sex for the first time. While the plot sounds like that of a hundred frat and teen comedies of yore, Superbad somehow managed to break the mold while also emulating it closely.
The film also launched the careers of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as well as featuring memorable performances from up-and-coming Emma Stone and scene stealing supporting roles for Bill Hader and Seth Rogen, who also wrote the film. Superbad became the touchstone for teen, frat and stoner films for years to come and its raw style and authentic dialogue would be poorly imitated time and time again.
1 ‘Pineapple Express’ (2008)
Working as a process server for the courts, dating a high school girl (Amber Heard) and under the influence of marijuana at all times, Dale (Seth Rogen) is a dropkick and a burnout. His weed dealer (James Franco) isn’t much better, and the two are ill-prepared to deal with the hitmen and corrupt cops who begin hunting them down after they witness a murder.
Pineapple Express represents the absolute zenith of stoner comedies within the 2000s. It is also representative of the stranglehold that a few key players had on the comedy industry at the time. With a screenplay from Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, story help from Judd Apatow, and a stacked cast of comedy mainstays, Pineapple Express is emblematic of everything comedy filmmaking would become in the 2010s.
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