Last week saw the wide release of Keeping Up With The Joneses, which you probably know as that spy movie you’ve seen ads for on TBS, unless you, like me, are a millennial who has long since embraced cord-cutting, in which case you’ve probably never heard of it at all. Keeping Up With The Joneses is a comedy about a couple, Isla Fisher and Zach Galifianakis, who are intimidated by their eerily perfect neighbors. Their inferiority complex is eventually proven right when homebodies Gal Gadot and Jon Hamm — twist! — turn out to be spies.
The movie is sitting pretty at 19 percent on Rotten Tomatoes right now, and the paltry $5.8 million box office was a near record low considering the wide rollout the movie got from from Fox. There are many reasons why Keeping Up With The Joneses isn’t funny — the empty jokes, the stupid pratfalls, the blind trust in the preposterous idea that any person in America actually talks to their neighbors if their neighbors are under 80. Even if you replaced the entire cast of Keeping Up With The Joneses, no amount of chemistry in the world would make up for the movie’s script, though the actors try admirably, if futilely, to revive the material. And maybe none more so than the international man of mystery himself, Jon Hamm. Hamm has been mixing the occasional comedy into his repertoire since surprising people with good humor and a killer James Mason impression in his 2008 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Since then, Hamm has returned to SNL three times, taken recurring guest roles on several major comedy series, and starred in a handful of wide release comedy movies of which Keeping Up With The Joneses is only the most recent. Mad Men ended a year ago — two years if you consider when filming wrapped — and Hamm has yet to return to drama filmmaking. There’s no denying that Hamm is game for comedy... but is he actually funny?
Keeping Up With The Joneses is not Hamm’s first time dipping into the comedy pool but it is his first starring comedy role. Up until Keeping Up With The Joneses, Hamm has been content to play a recurring guest for blue chip comedy shows — a relationship that has mostly proven mutually beneficial with Hamm’s guest spots on series like 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or Wet Hot American Summer. For Hamm, there is the benefit of working alongside some of Hollywood’s finest and most respected comedians, and for the shows themselves, Hamm’s star power and considerable chops as an actOR add a touch of class to the proceedings. Hiring Jon Hamm to show up at a late hour to storm the kitchens and make an alliance with a talking can is a joke that requires little set-up. So long as the writing for Hamm acknowledges the anachronism of his presence, the audience will laugh because they’re watching one of the most respected actors in television act the fool.
What this has meant is that Hamm’s comedy career is based on mocking reverence or egoless debasement. With regard to reverence, Keeping Up With The Joneses is the third time Hamm has been cast as an impossibly suave superspy, if you include his voice acting job on Archer alongside his four episode stint on Wet Hot American Summer. Hamm has also mocked his own douche lothario thespian chops with his turns in Bridesmaids — a breakout role of sorts, and one that played heavily on the idea of his own Jon Hamminess — and Web Therapy, or more recently, as himself in the Absolutely Fabulous movie. But even in mockery, there is a kind of adulation to casting him in detestable roles like his turn as Kristen Wiig’s emotionally and intellectually stunted fuckboy. From the very first scene, we’re expected to understand that she lets him treat her terribly because he’s not just hot, he’s literally Jon Hamm.
Among the shows that have tried to dismantle the myth of Hamm, 30 Rock set the tone by casting Hamm on the show as Drew, the beautiful doctor whose relationship with Liz Lemon ends when she realizes he is permanently trapped in a bubble of his own hotness — a Pretty Bubble — that prevents him from growing as a person. Drew initially appears to be too good for Liz Lemon, in the same way that Don Draper seems too suave for comedy — but Hamm and Drew experience the slide down from reverence together. Drew shames himself by cooking with Tang and being bad at sex, but there is something equally deflating about watching Jon Hamm impotently claw at the walls and flail through a game of tennis. Celebrity guests were common on 30 Rock, but if some stars like Oprah were able to get laughs based on how they actually performed their cameos, Hamm’s laughs are entirely based on the debasement of his persona. Comedy is often based on people embarrassing themselves — see the million and one tumbles taken in Keeping Up With The Joneses. But the problem with Hamm is that he doesn’t display enough skill as a comedian to make a joke appear as more than a signpost upon which there can only be read the simple message, “This Is A Joke.” His line delivery retains the neutral quality it had when he was playing a psychologically tortured pathological liar, and his movements are just as subtle... until he is asked to perform physical comedy, which he approaches with a kind of Promethean awkwardness that’s not uninteresting, but that’s also, unfortunately, not funny either.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is funny, singing “Proud Purple People Eater” to a jury is funny, a cult leader grinding on an ottoman to faux ‘90s R&B is funny. But is Jon Hamm actually funny while he’s doing these things, or are we just supposed to laugh because it’s embarrassing that the person we’re watching is Jon Hamm? As a writer, Fey is a good match for Hamm, considering they’re both objectively good-looking people who relentlessly undercut their good looks with jokes. But as a performer Fey has a particular comic sensibility, a particular understanding of line delivery, a particular way of moving her body that keeps Liz Lemon’s sometimes Cathy-esque humor — chocolate, chocolate, chocolate! Ack! — within the realm of constructed artistry. With Jon Hamm, especially after years of watching him in as iconic a role as Don Draper, it is uncomfortably clear that his gifts for dramatic subtlety are ill-suited to the demands of the broad comedy that he often pursues, and the result is that instead of laughing at the way he moves his body or the way he delivers a line, there is nothing to notice except that there is laugh too low, no scenario too ridiculous, no spy movie too terrible for Jon Hamm not to give it his all. It’s one thing to make jokes about humiliation; it’s another to actually commit to comedy as an act of self-debasement.
Looking back at those initial SNL appearances, there’s no denying Hamm has the potential to be funny. Certainly no one could fault him for a lack of trying, and his taste in projects is impeccable — even Keeping Up With The Joneses was boasting Superbad’s Greg Mottola in the director’s chair. But if Hamm sincerely wants to make the jump from Sunday night prestige dramas to Saturday afternoon comedy matinees, it’s time he pushed himself to tell a joke where the punch line is more than just “Jon Hamm.”