'Barb and Star', 'Ted Lasso' and the return of sincere humor
Feel-good comedy is making a comeback.
There’s no easy way to describe Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the latest big-screen outing from comedy duo Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who previously teamed up on Bridesmaids). The trailers are masterfully vague, the online chatter surrounding the movie equally so. Even the promotional photos look like a Lisa Frank fever dream paired with the type of boardwalk caricature-style art that tourists always flock to on vacation. It’s tough to talk about this movie without spoiling any of the twists that occur, but even without delving into all of the frankly bonkers turns the plot takes throughout the course of the film’s runtime, the most important thing to remember about Barb and Star — named for the two best friends (played by Mumolo and Wiig) that the story revolves around — is that it’s one of the nicest comedies that have dropped in recent memory.
Spoilery events aside, Barb and Star really just happens to be about two women who find themselves in need of some fun and excitement after realizing their lives have been stagnating for the past several years. They’ve been living together in a small town in Nebraska, cohabitating after the death of Barb’s husband and Star’s divorce, and working at a local furniture store (aka pretending to make sales while really spending most of their shift camped out on their favorite sectional and talking about everything under the sun the way only true BFFs can). When they learn that they’re losing their jobs due to the furniture company going under, they decide to seize the opportunity for a much-needed break and fly to Vista Del Mar, Florida, where, true to form and without going into spoiler territory, plenty of hijinks ensue.
But what makes Barb and Star so refreshing — not only because it feels like one of those movies that was made with barely any studio fingerprints on it — is that the script presents who they are from the start and never makes any apologies for it, nor does it resort to mean humor or position them as the punchline. They’re two middle-aged women with distinctive Midwestern accents and a penchant for wearing bright colors, big statement necklaces, and culottes, but none of these aspects make them a target for disparaging jokes made by other characters at their expense. In fact, in a particularly memorable scene, it’s the culottes themselves that come in clutch right when Barb and Star need them the most. By the end of the film itself, one character’s story arc — which has largely been fueled by a revenge plot inspired from when they were bullied as a teenager — culminates in a moment that emphasizes friendship and acceptance rather than mocking someone for their physical appearance. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that, even in a movie where Jamie Dornan performs an unexpected musical number while writhing in the surf, audiences are gravitating toward something that is actually, legitimately feel-good comedy.
It’s a concept that similarly drives the Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, which stars another Saturday Night Live alum in Jason Sudeikis as the titular character who was first unveiled in a series of NBC Sports promos. Ted is technically an American football coach, but when he’s recruited to coach a football team of a different kind in England, accompanied by his assistant and friend Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), the hopes of AFC Richmond fans are all resting on his somewhat unqualified shoulders. He’s someone with a seemingly unflinching optimism in the face of all odds who secretly struggles with more personal hardships than he lets on.
As a series, Ted Lasso is equally as charming as its lead because it offers a look at not only non-toxic masculinity but the ways in which people can have open and honest conversations with each other about emotions, mental health, and romantic relationships. (Or the dissolution of them, as Ted himself learns when his marriage ends over the course of the football season.) Even Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), the woman who inherits AFC Richmond after her own divorce settlement, is initially intent on using Ted to run her ex-husband’s football club into the ground — but finds herself unexpectedly won over by her new hire’s contagious confidence in the team, as well as the homemade biscuits he makes to bring into the office for her every morning.
The point of Ted Lasso isn’t even necessarily about winning or losing, or even truly about the game of football, but the inspiration that’s derived from a group of men who become more than just a coach and his team. It’s no coincidence that once Ted and Coach Beard come to town, the lives of the AFC Richmond players improve in more ways than just their skills on the field. They learn to rely on each other as friends and brothers too, and that in turn impacts what they bring to each match. But similar to Barb and Star, audiences have been drawn toward this series at an increasing rate, with word-of-mouth over social media earning more and more viewers in need of positive comedy that isn’t lacking in heart either. Ted, as well as Barb and Star, is an undeniably unique character whose energy might rub others the wrong way, but the show doesn’t turn him into the laughingstock or the object of derision. Even in moments when bullying occurs against other characters — like the team’s equipment manager Nathan (Nick Mohammed) — it’s always short-lived and doesn’t take up the bulk of the season, and more than that, leads to some of the best surprises when two unlikely people become friends.
In years past, characters like these would have easily been lambasted for the very quirks that make them so endearing to watch — especially in many of the vehicles starring some of these former SNL cast members. But with films like Barb and Star and TV shows like Ted Lasso, there really seems to be a growing trend of comedies that offer both hilarious antics and heart in equal measure, nothing mean-spirited that punches down at sincerity or relies on nastiness as a throughline for its humor. Part of the reason Barb and Star and Ted Lasso are so genuinely funny, like a full-belly laugh, is because their characters are free to be exactly who they are without judgment from others — and in some instances, loved and befriended by others exactly because of who they are.
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