(REVIEW) “Go West” is a rare modern comedy that is interested in making you laugh rather than serving a message, and–even better–actually brings the laughs.
Comedies aren’t as common at the movies as they used to be. Superhero movies rule the day and what comedies there are are, such as “Don’t Look Up” and “Barbie” are more rightly described as social satires where the comedy is more of a vehicle for its social comedy than built around making people laugh. Not everyone is happy about this, with comedians like Adam Devine bemoaning how comedies can’t just be comedies; they have to have a message.
“I feel like nowadays, you get to the end of what you think is a comedy, and you’re like, ‘Is that about global warming? Is there some sort of deep hidden message that I’m supposed to recycle more? My job now … is pitching a lot. And every executive is like, ‘but why should we make this now?’ Because it’s funny. Whatever happened to just like, we want to make people laugh?”
It’s understandable why pure comedies have fallen out of favor in the entertainment world. As Mel Brooks said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”. In an action-comedy (like most superhero movies are), if not all the laughs land, you still have the action, in a social commentary comedy, if the laughs lag, you still have the commentary. Furthermore, as fewer and fewer Americans have close personal relationships or identify with a religion, they are looking to movies to explain their place in the world to them. And if they do want to just turn off their brain for a while, there’s plenty of YouTube videos and TikTok memes to choose from. In that environment, doing a pure comedy is a big risk.
“Go West” takes that risk, and it pays off.
“Go West” follows Widow Aveline Jenkins (Natalie Madsen) and her sister Cora (Mallory Everton) as they travel the old west to save Aveline’s daughter from marrying an outlaw. On the way they encounter a whole host of wacky and dangerous characters on a series of sometimes dangerous and sometimes hilarious adventures and misadventures.
This film is genuinely one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time. The strength comes largely from its writing, which is razor sharp and first off deadpan one-liners and absurd visual gags a mile a minute every minute. Best of all, most of the jokes land, whether they’re making fun of the time period of the old west, “you can do anything if you believe” platitudes, or how being a young man means you’re always the workhorse for whenever people need you.
The movie’s previews describe “Go West” as “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” meets the old west. But it actually has more in common with movies like “Airplane!” and “Top Secret”, parody films which create just enough plot and character that you care about the heroes and want them to succeed, and then focus on jam-packing each minute with as many belly laughs as possible. This was always a favorite kind of movie for me and my college buddies to bond over. So it’s great to see someone bring it back.
This is part and parcel of JK Studios’s brand. JK Studios was a group founded by the original cast of Studio C, a family-friendly sketch comedy show co-developed by original cast member Matt Meese and produced by Brigham Young University, an LDS university in Provo Utah.
The show became viral on YouTube for its smart, family friendly humor based on relatable premises like dating, family drama, and painful sports injuries, taken to absurd heights. Their most famous video, “Top Soccer Shootout Ever With Scott Sterling”, about soccer goalie who can’t stop getting hit in the head with a soccer ball no matter how hard he tries, has been viewed over 90 million times. Since then, the original cast has gone on their own to start their own group “JK Studios” which has produced sketches, a TV show, and has now put out “Go West” as its first movie.
Studio C was always a favorite of me and many of my friends. There was something truly validating about their style of comedy, which seemed to resonate with how absurd the world could feel sometimes, and when the cast on Studio C would use their deadpan humor to call out how absurd it was, there was a great deal of catharsis.
Stacey Harkey, one of the original Studio C cast, explained how they feel that making straight-up family comedy for everybody is deeply meaningful, even without an overt political or social message, because of the very fact that it brings people together.
“We talked about this as a company and we met over the course of two days and put hours and hours and hours into what do we want to accomplish with our content? And, yes, there’s commentary, and yes, there is activism work and all these things are really important and different ways to explore comedy, but we’ve always wanted to do comedy that is inclusive.
We want everyone to watch it and feel like they’re part of the team, to feel like the friendship that we have with each other. We want it to be belonging. Just invite you in for an hour and 20 minutes. You could just shut off your brain. Forget about how stressful life is, how much everything sucks sometimes and just have a good time. And I feel like nowadays there’s so much good work going on, but so much of it is like, everything’s the worst, everything’s bad, everything’s falling apart, and sometimes it’s nice just to be like, but what about just laughing?
The feeling of being with your family, forgetting about time. People are laughing and you’re laughing, their laughter is making you laugh, and you’re just having a good time, we want that feeling. And so, as we went into the brand of this movie we were like, how can we use our sketch comedy, our scene writing background and just have a good time?”
This radical inclusivity is a huge part of how the JK Studios cast interpret their faith. All the cast identify as LDS (or Mormon), and Stacey describes believing their faith desires to give everyone a seat at the table is one of the reasons they wanted to keep their content family friendly.
“We’re all Mormon or LDS. And I think in some ways what that started with us was this joy of having fun with the communities we belong to. It’s like, we belong to this community, it’s okay to laugh. And I think there’s a range of what is considered secret or sacred and what is considered free game. And sometimes, because we’re different people, we have different lines on what that looks like, and so we have a good mesh.
And maybe I do think there are a lot of elements that we feel come from our roots as far as religion goes is like, and that first and foremost is like, we’re all siblings here, we’re all on the same team. And once again, you look at like, oh man, and obviously we’re all different people. So, we have different ranges of belief, and some of us consider ourselves way more actively religious than others. But, at the end of the day it’s like, we are all on the same team. And so, how do we really embody that with our content? And when it comes to family, it’s like everyone has a seat at the table, you know what I mean? And if we do make fun of a certain group or something, we try to show the balance”
Of course, this radical inclusively also runs into controversy with their LDS community In one of their early sketches as part of JK Studios after leaving Studio C, titled “Emma Stone Tinder Match”, Stacey Harkey came out as gay. This did not sit well with many of their more conservative fans, which include many Christians and many in their own LDS communities, who believe that homosexuality is a sin, or at least a sign of the world’s brokenness. But Stacey was mostly grateful for the support that he got from his group and from the fans of felt validated by his coming out.
“I brought it to them, and I was like, this could be bad for business. And they were like, listen, when we say this is a place of belonging, we don’t mean it’s just a place of belonging of people who act like us or look like us. If we are going to say there’s a seat at the table for everyone, there is a seat at the table for everyone. And sometimes that means acknowledging that people are different and you know what I mean? And obviously we respect people who were like, if they’re like, hey, I don’t feel like that’s for me or my family, we’re like, hey, you do your thing. We respect you and we empower you. But, what we’re not going to do is we’re not going to exclude others because you feel like that’s how we should handle ourselves.”
It’s hard not to see signs that leaving Studio C to form JK Studios was, at least, in part, a desire to have more freedom to be themselves and say what they think outside of religious pressure. Certainly, their content, even in JK studios, has gotten more critical of religion and more overtly feminist. Early jokes that dealt with religion in the Studio C days were things like “shoulder angel”, which made fun of the image of a full-sized angel trying to sit on someone’s shoulder but still left orthodox religious beliefs untouched. “Go West” makes more overt fun of religious people’s superstitious beliefs (talking about “the devil’s number”) and the picture of heaven and hell they show allows for a get out of jail free card into heaven that doesn’t include Jesus. Quite a few jokes are directed at the sexism of the time—far more than typically back in the Studio C days—including the main motivation for the main villain’s backstory.
In that sense, the navigation of faith that JK Studios has done is part of the same trend we see of “deconstruction” with many young people of faith in the Evangelical community—often called “Exvangelicals”—who try to navigate their faith outside of their more politically and religiously conservative family and communities.
Yet, just like with the deconstructing evangelicals, JK Studios’ newfound freedom has come at the cost of some of their countercultural uniqueness. The more overt jabs at or deconstruction of religion and politics and more overt gross out humor in “Go West” feel less like stretching their creative wings and more like imitating the least creative jokes I’ve heard a dozen times in other comedies. Likewise, the church denominations which have adopted the more progressive and inclusive stances have declined in membership the most and fastest—because they had nothing to offer the rest of the culture wasn’t already offering. It’s possible to radically include yourself out of existence.
The movie is incredibly funny, but it’s not perfect. As with every straight up comedy, “Go West”’s biggest weakness is not every joke lands. The (brief) visual gross out gags (such as spitting up animated blood) are particularly the weakest. Also, like many comedies, the climactic ending (which I won’t spoil) doesn’t quite pack the laughter punch as the earlier scenes, and it would have been nice if the romantic male lead hadn’t been quite so useless in the ending.
That said, for every joke that doesn’t land, there are five more that do. So if you’re looking for a casual throwback zany comedy to a time that comedies were meant to be comedies, and the style of humor hits you like it did me, this one will absolutely be just what the doctor ordered.
Perhaps the reason that the JK Studios cast feel like they can make a comedy that’s just a comedy and isn’t about a message is that their lives and relationships with each other are already meaningful without making a message through their content. One of the unusual things about Studio C is that, when they left Studio C, they left all together. Typically when a band breaks up, they break up. But not these people. They left Studio C but they didn’t leave each other. They left to start a new business together. They still do some of their own side projects, but they also continue to work together.
“We’ve been working together over 10 years and we really still like each other, which I think is wild. But, there’d be times where we would be together the whole week, 12 hour shows, exhausted. And then, at the end of the show it’s like, so are we hanging out? What’s happening? And so, being on set for 10, 12 hour days, and then hanging out, and we were just hanging out the other night, we just really, really like each other and we really respect each other.
And I’m so excited to see people doing their own thing and spreading their creative wings, and they know from me that I will always be a supporter of them. So, if they call me and they’re like, hey, we’re making this big movie, it’s huge. Will you bring food? You don’t have to be in it. They know I’m going to show up with chicken nuggets from Chick-fil-A. You know what I mean? We support each other and I feel that from my team, and no matter if they’re involved or not, will have my back. And I feel so fortunate and it’s uncommon. And that’s why we want people to feel it. That’s why we want to put it out there. It’s good stuff.”
Let’s hope JK Studios can keep giving us “good stuff” for a long time to come.
“Go West” premieres nationwide August 11th. Go to JKStudios.com/gowest to find out if its in your area or request it.