WHAT WAS YOUR first R-rated comedy experience? You might’ve snuck into a theatre as a teenager with nothing better to do than circumvent age restrictions. You could’ve been at a sleepover, waiting until the elder residents of the household went to sleep before exposing yourself to content you were far too young to see. Or maybe you simply had far more relaxed parents who couldn’t care less what you watched, so long as you were staying out of trouble. Either way, that first experience definitely left an impression.
Whether it’s the constant profanity, in-your-face violence or occasional nudity, R-rated comedies have the power to truly resonate with audiences, and a handful have even ascended to coveted cult-classic status. However, spicy storytelling has failed to consistently translate to box office success. For every R-rated hit, there’s a more than healthy helping of flops, and that trend is holding true in theatres right now.
Teen sex comedy Bottoms had one of the strongest limited releases of 2023 and has received widespread acclaim, with a 94% ‘fresh’ score on Rotten Tomatoes. Cocaine Bear also brought in $89 million USD against a $30 million USD budget. These fall under the category of R-rated hits, destined to become key cultural talking points for years to come.
At the other end of the spectrum, Strays has been a colossal failure. The film, which presents Jamie Foxx and Will Ferrell as the voices of stray dogs hell bent on revenge in an expletive-laden adventure, hasn’t connected with audiences or critics. Grossing just over $32 million USD on a $46 million USD budget and garnering a lacklustre 54% ‘fresh’ score on Rotten Tomatoes, Strays is the quintessential R-rated flop.
We challenge you to think of an R-rated comedy that has received only middling acclaim and box office success. The genre seems to only produce blockbusting phenomena or forgettable snooze-fests. So, why is that? There’s rarely any middle ground when assessing the disparate quality of R-rated comedies. Let’s investigate why that is.
Defining the genre
By definition, an ‘R-rated’ comedy doesn’t actually need to be restricted to audiences aged over 18. R-rated comedies share common themes, usually centring around a campy premise and more-than-moderate swearing, but above all, they push boundaries. This doesn’t always necessitate an R-rating, but usually indicates the incorporation of a taboo element that’s less than acceptable viewing for wider audiences.
With boundary pushing the only real requirement of the genre, it’s easier to see how an animated film like Strays, which could easily be rebranded as a kids’ movie if some unsavoury language was removed, falls under the same umbrella as a film about LGBTQI+ teenagers starting a sexually motivated fight club like Bottoms. We’ll let you decide which premise is more intriguing.
Why are R-rated comedies never average?
Being involved in the production of an R-rated comedy might be the most fun you can have in the film industry. A less serious tone, a focus on over-the-top sequences, and the prospect of cult-classic status would certainly appeal, but the genre carries a number of inherent risks.
The unique qualities of an R-rated film are what separate it from the pack. Those qualities encompass the ability to push boundaries, which lies at the crux of the genre. But while boundary pushing can make a film stand out, it can also alienate an audience by going too far, dooming any hopes of commercial success.
Alison Small, head of film at Brownstone Productions, which gave us Bottoms and Cocaine Bear, detailed the difficulties of toeing the line between tastefully challenging cultural norms and wandering into socially unacceptable territory in a recent interview. “No one knows where the line is. There’s always that question of, ‘If it’s R-rated, will that audience be able to go see it? Or do we need to make it PG-13 so that audience will see it?’” Small said, before summing up the challenge more simply, “It’s just hard to know what works.”
When an R-rated comedy finds that sweet spot which combines just enough raunchiness with tasteful humour, that’s when audiences flock to cinemas. But they rarely find that sweet spot. It’s easy to push things too far and be branded as morally reprehensible, or conversely, to not go far enough and make a film that might as well have been PG-13. That dialectical relationship is precisely why there’s no middle ground when dealing with R-rated comedies. They either go too far or not far enough, and can only succeed when they find the elusive place in between.
How is the future of R-rated comedies shaping up?
In addition to the struggle to achieve tasteful boundary pushing, the number of flops in the R-rated comedy genre have piled up, likely leaving studio executives hesitant to back similar productions in the future.
R-rated comedies are at a crossroads. Hollywood chases trends, and without a consistent flow of solid R-rated comedies mitigating the impact of the many flops, the genre could soon go the way of spaghetti westerns and erotic thrillers—can’t say we miss the latter—and be consigned to the cinematic garbage bin.
Luckily for fans of the genre, films like Bottoms are proving pushing boundaries can still be profitable, and at least for now, there’s a place for R-rated comedies on the big screen.
What are the best R-rated comedies?
The R-rated comedy genre is loaded with side-splitting hits, and cringeworthy misses. Looking for the perfect film to lighten the mood? These flicks will have you in stitches.
10. American Pie
9. The 40 Year Old Virgin
7. Coming To America
6. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
4. 21 Jump Street
3. The Hangover
1. The Big Lebowski
What are the worst R-rated comedies?
We won’t do you the disservice of forcing you to laboriously slog through a list of the biggest abominations the R-rated comedy genre has produced. Just know that Movie 43 is undeniably the worst and we won’t hear any debate on the matter.