American Teen Comedies Come of Age

American Graffiti

When American Graffiti was released in August, 1973, it set in motion a chain of events that would be felt across the entertainment industry for years to come. Set in 1962, its success brought on a nostalgia craze for late-50s/early-60s music, influenced contemporary music, and reenergized the careers of such period icons as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, and Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. It also helped get the similarly-themed Happy Days onto ABC’s primetime schedule, a decisive first step in turning the perennially last-place network into a ratings king in just a few short years. And, it greatly advanced the careers of several future movie and TV stars, as well as that of one of the most influential filmmakers of our time.

My brother and I really wanted to see American Graffiti when it came out, but living in a small town, the opportunity never seemed to arise. Back then – before VCRs/DVD players, cable TV and pay-per-view – if you missed seeing a movie while it was in theaters, you really missed it. At that time, hit movies might play in theaters for a year or more, but once you missed that theatrical run, it meant waiting several years before you might catch it on network television, minus “the good parts.”

When my brother and I were invited by friends to go with them to finally see it, we were immensely psyched. By that time, it had already been a surprise Oscar nominee for best picture (and had lost to The Sting) and was nearing the end of its run. Could it, however, live up to our considerable expectations? To our delight, it didn’t just meet those expectations, it obliterated them.

What an impact that film had on us! We’d never seen anything like it. The setup was simple: one long, late-summer night of various teenagers cruising the strip of a mid-sized California town. Oh, but what a night! American Graffiti was hilarious, exciting, and occasionally raunchy. The world created onscreen was so enticing that we longed to give up our own comparatively humdrum lives and somehow become a part of it. That world was the creation of an unknown young writer-director named George Lucas. It was just his second film and we couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. It wasn’t until 1977 that Lucas’ next movie finally came out. If I remember correctly, it was something called Star Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Aside from the reasons discussed above, American Graffiti was foremost a watershed film because it was the first successful modern, teen comedy. Sure, there had been plenty of movies featuring teenagers previously and some of them had jokes. The truth is, however, that before the cultural shift of the mid-sixties and the creation of the MPAA’s film ratings system in late-1968, those movies were generally lame, family-friendly, second-tier fodder about first kisses, hot rods, or surfboards. OK, American Graffiti actually has first kisses and hot rods, but it has so much more, even though there are no surfboards in sight. Lucas proved that an intriguing story and a good directorial eye could trump the perceived deficit of a low budget and a cast of little-known, if talented, young actors. Among those young actors whose careers were greatly helped by the film were Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, and Suzanne Somers.

Ever since American Graffiti, unproven filmmakers (like Lucas had been at the time) have tried to capture that same lightening in a bottle, hoping that their off-screen talents will combine with the untapped charisma of onscreen neophytes to create the breakout teen comedy of their era. Frankly, it seldom happens. Every few years, however, a teen comedy comes along that helps define a generation. Like American Graffiti, they have large fresh-faced ensemble casts, myriad intersecting storylines and just the right amount of good-natured humor and raunchiness to strike a chord among the targeted demographic.

Here are a few teen comedies that have carried on the tradition of American Graffiti:

Fast Times at Ridgemont High Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) was helmed by first-time director Amy Heckerling (Look Who’s Talking, Clueless). On release, it became one of the biggest hits ever directed by an American woman. The movie boosted the careers of Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage, and Anthony Edwards.

Dazed and Confused (1993) was the third film directed by Richard Linklater (The School of Rock, Bernie). After a relatively minor theatrical release (but with lots of special late night shows), it gained momentum through rentals, premium cable airings and VHS/DVD sales. It provided early roles for Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Joey Lauren Adams, Adam Goldberg, Renée Zellweger, Cole Hauser, and Milla Jovovich. 

American Pie (1999) was the directorial debut of Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company). A huge summer hit, it spawned a series of films of variable quality. It gave acting early acting opportunities to Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Alyson Hannigan, Shannon Elizabeth, Seann William Scott, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, and John Cho.Superbad

Superbad (2007) was just the second feature film for director Greg Mottola (Adventureland, Paul), though he’d had extensive seasoning in television between then and his debut feature eleven years prior. Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Emma Stone, and Martha MacIsaac all benefited from their being cast in starring roles.

American Graffiti is the blueprint for just one type of teen comedy. Other great teen comedies of the modern era that were made in different styles include Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Clueless, Mean Girls, and Easy A. Along with the titles above they make a solid list of teen comedies that shouldn’t disappoint any fan of the genre. Visit the Des Moines Public Library and get in touch with your inner teen by checking out these ten terrific titles.