Being funny is easy. Staying funny is not. Neighbors 2 has a tough road ahead as it tries to stake its claim in the patch pantheon of comedy sequels. For every breakout hilarious hit, there are dozens that tried and failed to follow up the success of the first try. Perhaps the only comedy that’s successfully made it through to a trilogy isn’t even a full-on comedy. The Back to the Future movies are iconic, but they’re firmly sci-fi with a dash of comedy. Other than that, the laundry list of lackluster comedy sequels is a sad wasteland of recycled laughs and unfortunate decisions. Caddyshack II, Evan Almighty, Legally Blonde 2, The Hangover Part II, The Whole Ten Yards, Clerks II — you can’t get more unfunny.
There’s a method to the comedic madness. There are rules to abide by that ensure that your comedy sequel could stand the test of time and do the unthinkable: actually be funnier and better than the original. While every step isn’t for every movie, here’s what to know when you want the right formula for a great comedy sequel.
5. Go bigger, but don’t get out of hand.
Bigger is not better, but bigger is probably essential. Giving the audience a reason to come back is harder than just doing the same thing over again, so more often than not screenwriters think up a crazier or more humorous plot device to get the sequel in gear. And it actually works. Rush Hour 2 and Anchorman 2 might not be the best comedy sequels ever, but they’re successful for expounding on the formula that made their previous movies so memorable. The most outrageous example of this, though it’s cheating a bit, is director Sam Raimi’s absolutely bonkers horror slapstick threequel, Army of Darkness. He somehow transported a character caught in a haunted cabin back to medieval times, upped the comedy, and it worked.
4. Make new characters as important as the originals.
Another flaw in comedy sequels is that they simply bring the gang back without any reason for everyone to be back, which renders new characters meaningless when they show up too. Comedies usually tend to be ensemble pieces, so the sequels more often than not fall into this hopeless habit of character obscurity. But it’s as easy as making the new characters introduced as important as the characters from the originals. Toy Story 2 brought in a female companion for its main cowboy character Woody named Jessie, which works with the movie’s toy-centric plot. But more importantly they also made her character essential to the plot itself. Pixar movies tend to rely on drama when they need to move narratively forward, and that’s the case with Jessie. She mirrors Woody because she was once the toy of a child who eventually outgrew her and gave her away. Bring on the tears, but it’s that emotional connection to the story that allows her to function when the comedy gets going too.
3. Stay quotable.
The reason people love comedies isn’t usually the plot, though sometimes that’s the case. Instead, people usually love comedies because they’re endlessly quotable. It’s why people can recite Dumb & Dumber line by line and still not care about what it’s all about. The key is to keep the one-liners coming, but don’t reuse the same material over again. The pinnacle of this is the unfairly maligned sequel, Ghostbusters II. Granted, you have Bill Murray in your movie and you know something memorable is going to come out of his mouth. But perhaps because of the SNL and improv pedigree of the actors involved, the strengths of Ghostbusters II relies on its searingly funny and memorable lines. Watch it again and try not to say “Vigi Vigi Vigi you have been a bad little monkey,” at least once.
2. Make it stand out.
Being bold is a big move, and it’s easy to go overboard a bit. But since it’s so tough for a series to remain funny the best thing to do is to sometimes stir the comedic pot a bit to branch out from the first funny go-round. Movies like Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey or Gremlins 2: The New Batch are beyond weird, weirder than their ridiculously weird predecessor, and it’s a great example of a sequel going farther than expected by embracing a darker side to its comedy. The flipside to this concept is something like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which features the hijinks of the same old disgruntled Griswold family, only it uses other tropes — namely the Christmas movie — as its foundation. They’re all memorable steps up from what came before them.
1. Be the same, but different.
This is a tall order, mostly because filmmakers want to capitalize on the comedy gold that made the original so memorable but still have enough of a difference to justify the sequel. Almost all of the comedy sequels that are considered bad or not as good as the originals sway too much towards either end of this spectrum. They’re similar to the original and not different enough like The Hangover Part II, or they’re so different that they barely register as a sequel to the original like Son of the Mask. But take something like 22 Jump Street, a sequel to a movie that was destined to fail, and you have a perfect example of a meta-comedy that perfectly recaptures the spark from the original and flips it enough to make it count.