Most Friday nights in high school ended the same way. We’d return in the wee hours from a desolate stretch of Marin County wilderness we’d decided would make for an ideal party location and cram into someone’s living room with a mountain of Jack in the Box tacos. Then we’d watch Half Baked.
The film, which stars Dave Chappelle as a janitor who loves to get high, was filled with all the popular tropes of stoner life: A man who is perpetually asleep on the couch flies off into the night sky, snacks at a 7-Eleven appear oversized and extra-delicious, and Jon Stewart insists that everything is enhanced “on weed.”
We watched this film incessantly, and other cannabis-themed cinema later joined our repertoire. There was How High, where Method Man and Redman literally smoke the ashes of their deceased genius friend and somehow find themselves at Harvard. Later came Harold and Kumar, who love to get “not low” and hang with Neil Patrick Harris while on a quest for burgers from White Castle.
For decades, weed has served as a simple comedic device for films — a portal for delving into absurdist humor that is both relatable and harmlessly illicit. It was a path Cheech and Chong first forged in the 1970s, and one that continued until the early 2000s. It was only then that filmmakers and show runners decided to combine the inherent humorous properties of cannabis with a more sincere look at a supply chain that, until recently, operated outside of the law.
Most notably there was Showtime’s Weeds, which placed star Mary-Louise Parker into increasingly unbelievable scenarios as she rose from a suburban drug dealer into an industry kingpin. Like a ganja Grey’s Anatomy, Weeds had drama, but not the kind one finds in reality. Supporting characters Doug Wilson and Andy Botwin — played by Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk, respectively — hung around to ensure an element of stoner humor remained in each episode.
Following the announcement in February that Netflix would not renew Disjointed — a series starring Kathy Bates as a cannabis dispensary owner in Los Angeles — a question that has long plagued Hollywood has once more re-emerged: Why don’t series and films about marijuana work?
While Weeds ran for eight seasons, critics and fans alike noted that the show began to lose its spark midway through its tenure. Stoner comedies like Pineapple Express — which blended a bit of action with its bong-rips — have certainly enjoyed cult followings, but the box office dollars and lowbrow humor handcuff the potential of this subgenre to have true longevity. Disjointed was Hollywood’s attempt to take an authentic look at our modern-day cannabis industry, but despite Netflix’s track record of showing patience with its original programming, it was given a hasty burial.
What do all these things have in common? It’s simple: Weed isn’t funny.
Don’t get me wrong — Cheech and Chong driving a bong-car is hilarious, but it’s not because of cannabis. That’s slapstick humor wearing a marijuana costume, just as Half Baked is a wonderfully imaginative view of New York City through the red eyes of an outsider looking in. Smoking weed may make everything funnier, but the plant itself is just that — a plant. The more Hollywood tries to focus on cannabis, the clearer it becomes that marijuana may be a viable plot device, but it is not a source of humor.
Likewise, Disjointed failed because it did too good of a job at reflecting the day-to-day life of a dispensary owner. Cannabis enthusiasts don’t need a Netflix subscription for that; they can just walk down the street and experience the conceit of the series firsthand. This isn’t to say that there isn’t an opportunity to do a show about a dispensary, but if Hollywood still hopes to do one properly, there has to be much more to it than the fact that it’s a store that sells weed.
There’s also a bit of a closed cycle system that aids cannabis-centric programming. Back in those high school days, it would’ve been considered downright sacrilegious if we didn’t toke up before pressing “play” on Half Baked. If comedies and TV focused on weed often enjoy the added benefit of their audiences being high, it’s not hard to see why easy jokes and soft plots were sufficient. However, it also explains why those who aren’t fans of marijuana may not find much with which to relate.
So what’s the solution?
Perhaps, instead of creating characters who are experts in the world of cannabis, it’s time to explore stories that more closely mirror the real-life exploits of people who are just now coming into contact with marijuana for the first time.
HBO’s High Maintenance is a series that’s started to toe these waters. Its narrative — which follows a Brooklyn man who delivers weed on his bicycle — offers the seeds of a story that uses cannabis not as a punchline, but as a jumping-off point.
Hopefully, more Hollywood projects will follow in its bike tracks, with the result being stories that stop using marijuana as a comedy crutch, but instead embrace a wider audience by ironically resorting to weed’s ultimate cliché: a gateway to something more.
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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