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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With the U.S. economy slogging through a recession, Hollywood expects comedies to rule the box office as moviegoers try to escape their woes.
The strong showing for the Reese Witherspoon movie "Four Christmases," which topped the box office last weekend with $31 million, reinforced the conventional wisdom among moviemakers that bad economic conditions make comedies good performers.
Movies have always offered escape but comedies in particular provide solace to audiences when times are tough.
"If there isn't enough laughter in real life we seek it in entertainment," said Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York.
"What this means as we proceed through this recession is that one thing which will certainly not be hurting will be comedies," he said.
With the U.S. economy in a year-long recession, a half dozen comedies including "Tropic Thunder," "Step Brothers," and "Get Smart" have crossed the key $100 million mark in recent months in U.S. and Canadian theaters, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media By Numbers.
More funny business is on its way with "Yes Man" starring Jim Carrey and "Nothing Like the Holidays" with Debra Messing opening later in December, and "Bride Wars" starring Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson set for a January release.
The success of comedies in troubled times was demonstrated during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when families flocked to madcap movies by Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
Hollywood came of age as an industry in those times when movies did not have television or the Internet as competition.
Despite the recession and the cheaper attractions of TV and videogames, box office revenues so far in 2008 stand at $8.6 billion, edging past totals for the same period of last year, Media By Numbers said.
Richard Zanuck, producer of "Yes Man," said its prospects were rosy partly for regrettable reasons.
"Because of the situation in the country and the world, this happens to be a better time than we would like to release a comedy," Zanuck, 73, told reporters this week.
"Right now I think is a good time, and I think you've seen that with 'Four Christmases' doing the kind of business that it did last weekend, (it) shows the audience's eagerness to laugh," he said.
Comedies are doubly attractive for Hollywood producers when money is tight because they are often light on special effects and can be made cheaply, Dergarabedian said.
Carrey, the star of hit comedies "Bruce Almighty" and "Fun with Dick and Jane," was jokingly upbeat about how "Yes Man" will play with audiences when it opens December 19.
"That weekend they're going to go, 'You know what? There is no recession, there is no problem.
"'I'm going to spend my money, I'm going to go in there, I'm going to walk out with a smile on my face and say yes to life as is,'" he said.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Eric Walsh