The names entertainment journalists assign to movements are usually so amorphous as to be basically worthless. What, exactly, was grunge? Who actually wanted to admit they were a mumblecore filmmaker? Same goes for the Frat Pack, a loose term that came to represent a certain type of actor in a certain type of film that, for a while, was pretty popular. You couldn’t necessarily describe these guys or their movies, but you knew what they looked like.
This Friday, Apple TV+ launches The Shrink Next Door, a new series starring Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd, two men who were lumped into the Frat Pack category. I haven’t seen the series yet, but the reviews so far suggest it’s not what you’d call a Frat Pack comedy. (In fact, it’s a true story, which was originally turned into a podcast, about the unhealthy relationship that develops between a psychiatrist and one of his patients, with critics noting that the series balances between humor, pathos and even thriller elements.) But now that the Frat Pack heyday is over, it’s worth glancing back at what the big deal was at the time — and why it’s over now.
Best as anyone can tell, the term was first dreamed up by entertainment reporter Susan Wloszczyna, who in a June 2004 piece in USA Today focused on the forthcoming year’s Wedding Crashers, noting how Entertainment Weekly had previously described that film’s stars, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, and their Hollywood peers as the “Slacker Pack,” a riff on the old Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra’s crew — which then morphed into Emilio Estevez and his 1980s buddies being dubbed the Brat Pack. Wloszczyna suggested that the Frat Pack also included Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Jack Black and Will Ferrell among their ranks. Her inspiration was 2003’s Old School, about Luke Wilson, Ferrell and Vaughn trying to relive their youth by starting a fraternity as adults. The six reluctant members of the Frat Pack didn’t necessarily love the label, but they certainly felt a comedic kinship. “You get comfortable with people, the people who you admire and think are funny, and so you naturally seek them out,” Owen Wilson told Wloszczyna. “A big part of comedies is being on the same wavelength.”
There’s endless debate about who is or isn’t in the Frat Pack — sorry, I don’t buy Wes Anderson being part of the official circle — but actors like Rudd and Steve Carell certainly seem like honorary members, along with filmmakers such as Judd Apatow or Adam McKay. But I don’t want to get hung up on such arbitrary assessments. What matters is that movies like Old School and Wedding Crashers (and Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and…) helped create a template in the audience’s mind of a certain kind of 21st-century comedy. It was full of broad laughs and a lot of male tomfoolery. It was about men-children learning that they had to grow up.
In retrospect, the gold rush of Frat Pack comedies isn’t so hard to understand. Prompted by the over-the-top antics of Jim Carrey in the 1990s, these movies often focused on unbridled ids run amok. (You can almost see School of Rock as an endearing family-friendly version of a Frat Pack comedy starring a similarly big-kid character.) Whether it was the exuberance of a new century, the desperate need for huge laughs in the wake of 9/11 or a response to the wannabe cowboy who was president, these films were often proudly, smartly stupid, featuring men who weren’t paticularly bright but, deep down, had good hearts. This was happening during the rise of the ‘Murica-zation of the country — the slow acceptance that we were a nation of gun-totin’, freedom-lovin’, fast-food-eatin’ dolts — and so a movie like Talladega Nights tapped right into the collective consciousness. If the guys in these movies were often massive dummies, well, look at the guys all around us — they didn’t seem much better.
But the movie that gave the Frat Pack its name really helped explain the genre’s appeal. Old School was a story about getting a cosmic do-over, allowing its irresponsible, disillusioned characters the chance to relive the hedonistic exploits of their college years, but from the vantage point of men saddled with jobs and relationships and commitments. It was an adolescent fantasy that resonated with lots of working stiffs: Who among us wouldn’t like to abandon the shackles of adulthood to enjoy one last kegstand?
Old School’s anti-authoritarian bent paid spiritual homage to the slob comedies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which were led by anarchists like John Belushi and Bill Murray, except now the female characters were better written and the male characters eventually cleaned up their act. That strong whiff of getting-away-with-it misogyny was mostly a thing of the past: Maybe the plots were still “boys will be boys,” but in Anchorman and Wedding Crashers, the filmmakers at least tried to create the appearance that they recognized that women were sentient, complicated beings also worth portraying in three dimensions.
In other words, it was a less-enlightened time about to crash headfirst into the #MeToo age, which profoundly shifted what we deem to be funny. Upon reflection, the lovable, commitment-phobic scammers of Wedding Crashers suddenly came across as creepy and manipulative. The dudes in Apatow comedies tearing down each other’s manhood by making homophobic digs started feeling cruel and ugly. That’s not a judgment so much as it’s a reflection of how societal changes can have seismic effects on how we perceive comedy. We wise up and realize that some humor is punching down, and filmmakers adjust.
Of course, it wasn’t simply society that impacted the Frat Pack. It was the Frat Pack themselves, too. As long ago as 2015, columnists were wondering why Vaughn and his buddies were struggling to keep producing hits. Subsequent, tired comedies like The Internship tanked. Some of the Frat Pack crew, like Stiller, tried going into more serious terrain, failing to earn Oscars or commercial success with his ponderous remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Also, it’s simply a fact that waves crest and audiences get tired of the same old thing. The Frat Pack captured a very specific kind of turn-of-the-century dude. Then it was time for a new version.
Which is what exactly? One of the challenges facing comedy in general is that, in a world full of superhero blockbusters, studios are less likely to invest in modestly budgeted comedies, which can’t hope to make as much as an Eternals or even a Free Guy. Speaking of Ryan Reynolds, in another era, he could have been a Frat Packer, but his persona is more wiseass, and more dreamboat, than that crew. (The fact that he started off doing movies like Van Wilder suggests he’s Frat Pack-adjacent, but has found himself by channeling Deadpool’s sarcastic demeanor in just about every movie now.)
But also, the dominant comedic perspective has changed. The white men we saw in the Frat Pack glory days have now been replaced by other voices: teen girls (Booksmart), actresses of color (Plan B), zany female friends (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) or adorable kids (Good Boys). Even a Frat Pack comedy juggernaut like the Hangover films now seem sorta old news. Who wants to see another comedy about white guys being dipshits?
Not surprisingly, the members of the Frat Pack have diversified. Stiller earned some of his best reviews ever for directing the Showtime drama series Escape at Dannemora. McKay won an Oscar for The Big Short. Owen Wilson was part of Loki, joining Rudd in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Apatow has taken on the aura of an auteur, mixing comedy with pathos in recent films such as The King of Staten Island. Vaughn has starred in gritty crime-dramas like Brawl in Cell Block 99 and was very amusing in the body-switch horror-comedy Freaky. And now, Rudd and Ferrell are doing The Shrink Next Door.
One of the things these men also have in common is that they’re almost all in their early 50s, way too old to keep pretending they can reconnect with any sort of rambunctious frat-house youth. Baked into so many Frat Pack comedies was the notion that their immature protagonists had to let go of childish things and embrace the realities of adulthood. In some ways, you can look at the men that masterminded this genre and see that they’ve done just that. (Outside of Ferrell, who last year made the deeply silly Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, broad comedies just aren’t really in their wheelhouse anymore.)
Like all blanket terms for fleeting entertainment trends, the Frat Pack was more a marketing hook than a clear ethos — it was just an easy way to describe some similar stuff done by like-minded folks. There aren’t many movies like that around anymore, but that makes a certain amount of sense. The guys who were the heroes in those films are fun for a while, but eventually you’d want to get on with life. You have to move out of the frat house someday.