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The R-rated comedy makes its comeback

‘Virgin,’ ‘Crashers’ prove that you don't have to be PG-13 to make money
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of the unlikely heroes of this summer’s weak box office is a bicycle-riding electronics salesman who responds to his girlfriend’s in-bed question of whether he has any protection:

“I don’t believe in guns.”

Steve Carell’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” has led the box office for two weeks running, taking its total to $49 million. With good reviews and strong word-of-mouth, the movie has profited in part on R-rated freedom and plenty of sex jokes — much the way “Wedding Crashers” did.

In seven weeks, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s romp is up to $188 million, making it the year’s highest-grossing comedy (over “Hitch”).

Together, the two movies represent an unusual triumph for adult-oriented comedy — but perhaps not that unusual. Though the R rating automatically restricts who can see it, the rating allows bawdy humor to flourish.

“These are films that capitalize on the notion of being able to push the envelope and go into territory that you could not go into in a PG-13,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

Historically, PG-13 comedies do better. Five have cracked $200 million, led by last year’s “Meet the Fockers” with $279 million.

Though Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop” is considered the top R-rated box-office draw ($234 million) for comedies, that film is as much action as laughs. Only seven other R-rated comedies have surpassed even $100 million — the three “American Pie” movies, “There’s Something About Mary,” “Scary Movie” and “Analyze This” as well as “Wedding Crashers.”

Hollywood is often criticized for not making movies that appeal to adults, but it’s difficult to argue against the fact that many more PG-13 films have enjoyed big box office.

Still, Rolf Mittweg, New Line Cinema’s president of marketing at New Line, insisted: “We also appeal to older demographics.”

Mittweg, whose studio produced “Wedding Crashers,” said that the appeal of the movie hinged on it being a “soft-R” — in other words, not too distasteful, violent or skin-bearing.

The freedom of the R ratingWilson, Vaughn and Will Ferrell had been mostly sticking to PG-13 territory — with such movies as “Dodgeball,” “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Starsky & Hutch” — so the excitement over “Crashers” was that these actors have full R-rated freedom. The rating became almost a draw in itself.

Like “Wedding Crashers,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was conceived of as an R from the start.

“Virgin” director Judd Apatow had just finished as a producer on “Anchorman” where he remembers “enormous debates with the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and their appeals board about whether or not we were allowed to show Will Ferrell in a state of ... sexual energy.”

“It just frees you to be more honest,” said Apatow, who also wrote for NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks.” (On that show about high school, he said, “the truth would have been pot smoking, a lot of drinking and more sex.”)

“I think it makes things funnier and more believable to people,” he added.

Bob Saget, the former “Full House” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” star who appeared in this summer’s most foul-mouthed movie, “The Aristocrats,” agreed.

“You can talk about things indirectly, but if you want to talk how people really talk, you have to talk R-rated,” said Saget, who’s among the scores of comedians in the documentary talking about or telling their version of one of history’s dirtiest jokes. “I mean I’ve got three incredibly intelligent daughters, but when you get mad, you get mad and you talk like people talk. When a normal 17-year-old girl storms out of the house or 15-year-old boy is mad at his mom or dad, they’re not talking the way people talk on TV. Unless it’s cable.”

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Of course, some of the most famous comedians hardly ever dropped F-bombs: Bill Cosby, Johnny Carson and Jerry Seinfeld among them. Restrictions have also bred many of comedy’s finest hours. The heralded “Master of My Domain” episode of “Seinfeld” was a lesson in innuendo.

Even the not-exactly-innocent kids of “South Park” turned censorship into comedy. Bleeped curses, the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker seemed to realize, might be funnier than the real thing.

But the comedies that “Virgin,” “Crashers” and last year’s R-rated “Old School” model themselves after are “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and “Stripes” — all of which were rated R.

This new crop of tell-it-like-it-is comedies might be ascending to similar cult footing. In its September issue, Vanity Fair ranks “Old School” one of the 50 greatest movies of all-time.