Ted and other R-rated comedies are hitting the box office below the belt

It's a stuffed animal house

Stuffed animal house

Universal Pictures/Tippett Studio

He’s the summer’s most unlikely box-office champ: a beer-drinking, bong-smoking teddy bear who swears like a drunken sailor and whose idea of a good time is ordering in a quartet of hookers. Ted, a buddy comedy that has Mark Wahlberg playing straight man to a plush toy, broke the opening-weekend record for an original R-rated comedy. Since its release June 27, its worldwide gross has surpassed $160 million. It’s been a boffo summer for superheroes. But in their shadow, some raunchy, R-rated anti-heroes have made a surprising splash. While Ted set the pace, women have flocked to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, a comedy-drama starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper. Shot on a G-string budget of just $7 million, it has earned $78 million at the box office. And Tatum is already planning a sequel. Last week he tweeted, “We want to flip the script and make it bigger.” Whatever that means.

(“R-rated” refers to a U.S. classification set by the Motion Picture Association of America, restricting movies to viewers 17 and over, unless accompanied by an adult. Canadian ratings, which are set provincially, tend to be softer. Most films rated R in the U.S., including Ted and Magic Mike, are 14A in Canada, which requires an adult to accompany anyone under 14.)

The novelty of the R-rated comedy depends on breaking taboos that haven’t already been broken, which means the envelope is continually being pushed. The landmarks have ranged from Animal House (1978), Hollywood’s first huge R-rated hit, to Bridesmaids, the movie that broke the gross-out glass ceiling for women. In 1998, Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz scored a romcom breakthrough for bodily fluids with the hair-gel joke in There’s Something About Mary (1998). Now Stiller is starring in The Watch, an R-rated farce out next week about four suburban dads battling an alien invasion. Penis repartee dominates the trailer, which features a scene of the guys comparing the consistency of some alien green slime to . . . well, it’s not hair gel. Clubhouse comedy has come a long way from Ghostbusters. The trailer for next year’s Anchorman sequel has Will Ferrell and Steve Carell riffing on how it’s going to “make you cream.”

“If you’re going to be R-rated, you might as well go for every joke you can get,” says Joe Medjuck, a veteran Hollywood producer who has worked with fellow Canadian Ivan Reitman since Ghostbusters (1984). They’ve made plenty of R-rated comedies, most recently No Strings Attached, starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. “It’s sometimes easier to get movies made when you say last year’s hit was an R-rated comedy. Everyone wants to make last year’s hit.” The R rating, however, can cut both ways. It tends to tantalize younger viewers—especially those so young they have to sneak in. But Medjuck says studio executives once asked him to avoid an R for a film that would have absolutely no appeal for a teenage audience. “They said older people get nervous about going to R-rated movies.” With comedy, Medjuck adds, “all that seems to matter is whether it’s funny.”

Ted is relentlessly funny. And though the comedy consists of guys behaving badly, women seem to be lapping it up. Ted is the first feature written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated TV sitcom Family Guy, who also voices the teddy bear. As a buddy movie trying to find its inner romantic comedy, it works a familiar formula—a hapless guy is forced to choose between his best friend and his girlfriend (Mila Kunis). But when the buddy is an oversexed teddy bear who tries to impress a girl by fellating a chocolate bar, that tends to up the ante.

The paradox with most comedies restricted to adults is that they revel in juvenile behaviour. But what’s smart about Ted, which has its share of poo and fart gags, is how it portrays the failure of a grown man to grow up. Weirdly, Ted seems more mature than his owner, in a dirty-old-bear way. He’s also a more compelling character. There’s a scene where he’s assaulted, and as this hardened critic found himself wincing, implausibly, at the sight of a teddy bear’s hide being ripped apart, the term gross-out comedy took on a whole new meaning.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.