There was something surreal about watching John Cena shuffle across the stage with nothing but an oversized envelope covering his junk, and it wasn’t just the fact that a dude with more muscles than an anatomy dummy was standing buck naked in front a billion people.

It was the sounds of the laughs he was getting.

To be clear, he deserved the laughs. Cena, a WWE wrestler turned film and TV star, is a very funny guy. And his bit at the Oscars, a nod to the 50th anniversary of the infamous streaker incident at the 1974 Academy Awards, was clever. Host Jimmy Kimmel mentioned the anniversary and then bullied Cena into awkwardly tiptoeing to the microphone, where he delivered a killer punchline based on the Oscar category he was there to present.

“Costumes ... they are so important.”

Again, Cena’s nudity was not the surreal part. (Okay, not the only surreal part.) The surreal part was the fact that 48 hours prior I had watched John Cena be just as funny throughout an entire feature-length film and get no laughs at all except from me — because I watched the film alone in my house.

The movie was Ricky Stanicky. Cena stars as “Rock-Hard Rod,” an alcoholic actor eking out a meager living on the fringes of showbiz in Atlantic City. That’s where he meets a trio of lifelong buddies — Dean, Wes, and JT (Zac Efron, Jermaine Fowler, and Andrew Santino, respectively) — who use an imaginary scapegoat they invented during their childhoods named “Ricky Stanicky” to ditch unwanted plans and responsibilities. Don’t want to attend a baby shower? Oh, well, Ricky Stanicky has cancer, and they need to go visit him to see how he’s doing. And so on.

When their rampant lies come back to haunt them, the men need someone to physically play the role of Ricky at a bris. They turn to Cena’s Rod, who is such a Method actor that he goes cold turkey off alcohol to play Ricky — who is supposedly a recovering alcoholic — and suffers from horrifying (and hilarious) withdrawal symptoms as a result.

Rod makes a surprisingly convincing Ricky — and Cena is an unsurprisingly hilarious comedic leading man in the role. In his free time, Rod sings parody versions of pop songs with lyrics about masturbation, like an X-rated “Weird Al” Yankovic. Those scenes are hysterical too. As is a sequence at the bris where Cena has to bluff his way through performing the job of mohel after the actual mohel becomes indisposed.

Ricky Stanicky
Prime Video

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Cena’s performance alone makes Ricky Stanicky worthy of a theatrical release. But the movie isn’t playing in theaters. It’s streaming right now on Amazon’s Prime Video service. This isn’t the first time this has happened to Cena, either. He was also the main bright spot in the 2021 comedy Vacation Friends that went straight to Hulu.

Meanwhile, Cena’s action movies keep making their way to theaters whether they are any good or not. And lately, they haven’t been very good at all. He co-starred in the miserable Fast X last summer, and began 2024 with a small role in Argylle, a high concept thriller that was low on entertainment value. In between he appeared in Freelance, which held the distinction of being one of the few films in history to debut on Rotten Tomatoes with a 0 score from critics. (In the months since it’s gotten two positive reviews, for a total score of 6.)

It’s a strange situation; if you only follow Cena’s career by what plays in theaters, you’d have a totally different opinion of his talents (and maybe his tastes) than if you catch these streaming films. He’s become a strange case study for post-pandemic Hollywood, which has increasingly narrowed in on this simple calculus: “Big” movies play on the big screen. The rest get dumped on streaming.

Rom3 Limited
Rom3 Limited

Some of this belief is founded in the fact that the films that do best in theaters these days are generally blockbusters made on the largest scale possible. The #1 box-office winner of 2024 so far is Dune: Part Two, whose whole marketing campaign was built around convincing people that they needed to see the film on the largest scale possible, whether that was IMAX or 70mm or some other premium format. And it worked; the film has already earned more in the U.S. than the first Dune did.

But blockbusters aren’t the only films worth seeing them in a movie theater. Laughter is infectious. It’s the reason movie comedies are tested in front of audiences, and why sitcoms have traditionally always been filmed in front of a live studio audience, and why standup specials are almost always recorded in theaters filled with raucous crowds. You want to hear the crowd gasp, cheer, and cackle — and then join in with them.

Ricky Stanicky
Prime Video

That’s part of the pleasure of a movie comedy too. Sure, a funny movie is funny whether you watch it with one person or 100. Like I said at the start of this piece; I laughed out loud numerous times watching Ricky Stanicky alone in my house. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more if I had seen it with a crowd.

When I think of all my favorite movie comedies, I think of the ones I watched in those conditions; where a sold-out audience communally lost their minds together. Like when I saw Wayne’s World on the big screen and laughed so hard I literally out of my seat. (That also happened to me during the original Naked Gun.) Or when I watched Jackass: The Movie on opening night with a bunch of kids from Northwestern University and the laughs were so huge you could barely hear the film over them at times.

Yes, comedies are making less money in theaters than they used to. But studios are also making far fewer theatrical comedies than they used to. In 1994, there were 24 comedies in the top 50 grossers of the year — including films like The Santa ClauseAce Ventura: Pet DetectiveThe Little RascalsNaked Gun 33 1/3: The Final InsultJunior, Major League IIA Low Down Dirty Shame and more. Last year, I’m not sure Hollywood even released 24 comedies in theaters over the course of the entire year. So when I say only four of those titles wound up in the 2023’s top 50 earners, that’s an important point.

Let’s not forget that the #1 movie of 2023 was a comedy. Barbie had some special effects, but at its core that was a satire about gender roles in society. It grossed almost $1.5 billion worldwide. (It also featured John Cena in a small cameo role.) When Hollywood deigns to give us a big-screen comedy lately, it often does pretty well (Cocaine BearAnyone But You)The audience is still there; they’re just not being served regularly by the studios.

Vacation Friends
20th Century Studios

Although data can be hard to come by, I’m sure comedies do well for streaming services.  Cena’s own Vacation Friends generated enough views for 20th Century Studios to make a sequel — which also went straight to Hulu. In an interview with The Hollywood ReporterRicky Stanicky director Peter Farrelly credited Amazon with the way they gave him “all the freedom to make this movie” and noted that “more people are probably going to tune in the first week watching this movie than would have gone to the movie theater.”

He did add, though, that his brain is still “stuck” on this question: “How come this isn’t in a movie theater?”

So is mine. After all, Farrelly made one of the 24 comedies from 1994 that hit the top 50 grossers list (Dumb and Dumber, which was the sixth biggest film in the U.S. that year). His movies over the last 30 years have grossed $1.7 billion worldwide. And now they are reduced to streaming fodder.

We’ve gotten so worked up about seeing big movies big that we’ve are in danger of forgetting that little movies benefit from that venue too. Comedies deserve to be seen beyond an audience of laundry folders and people playing Monopoly Go on their phones. An actor as funny as John Cena shouldn’t need to stand naked in front of a billion people to get our attention.

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