With 'Blockers,' Kay Cannon Joins the Smallest Club in Hollywood: Women Directing R-rated Comedies

FROM LEFT: Kathryn Newton as Julie, director Kay Cannon and Gideon Adlon as Sam on the set of 'Blockers.' Quantrell D. Colbert

Kay Cannon was on vacation in Maine when she was offered a new job: directing Blockers, an R-rated comedy about parents trying to "cock-block" their daughters that hits theaters on Friday. It would be her directorial debut after a decade of writing scripts nonstop, including three Pitch Perfect movies and back-to-back gigs on 30 Rock, New Girl and the short-lived Netflix series Girlboss. Cannon had sworn to her husband and his parents that she wouldn't work on her first vacation in six years, so she read the entire script on her phone in the middle of the night.

It was as funny as some of her favorite boundary-pushing comedies. "I will never forget my first experience watching American Pie in a sold-out theater in Kansas," says Cannon, who doesn't like the phrase "raunchy comedy" because it undersells the genre. "Everyone was laughing so hard, and they were so happy when they left the theater. Isn't that what you want?"

If she took the job, she would be adding her name to a very short list of women who have directed R-rated comedies: Lucia Aniello, for 2017's Rough Night; Jamie Babbitt, for 2000's But I'm a Cheerleader; Tamra Davis, for 1998's Half Baked; and Amy Heckerling, for 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And Cannon did say yes, but with extensive caveats, particularly regarding the teenage girl characters. "They were basically interchangeable," she says.

Kay Cannon on the set of "Blockers," her directorial debut. She rewrote the script as she directed, to give the three daughter characters larger and more nuanced roles. Quantrell D. Colbert / Universal Pictures

She started updating the script, working closely with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the producers behind Superbad, This Is the End and Sausage Party. "They are amazing at writing male friendships," says Cannon, but clueless about the kind of jokes or situations that can lead to scathing feminist takedowns.

Blockers stars John Cena, Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz as parents who uncover a "sex pact" made by their high school daughters to lose their virginity on prom night. "There was a big conversation about consent," says Cannon. "I said that before one of the girls can take a sip of alcohol, she has to say that she wants to have sex that night. [Some of the male producers] were like, 'Well, no, they can be partying...' I was like, 'No! She has to say it before she has a sip. As soon as she's drinking, it's no longer consent. We have to be that clear.' That was eye-opening for them. Men just don't have to worry about the things we do."

Cannon also had to point out the "antiquated but still very real" double standards young women face when it comes to sex—issues she wanted the script to address. This included Cannon's favorite line in the movie, delivered to Cena by his on-screen daughter, who doesn't understand his obsessive protectiveness: "Why is sex bad?" she asks him. Cannon was told to cut the line; she refused. "I said, 'No, this is really important to me.' That's the question young women are asking their parents: Why is the thought of me having sex so crazy terrifying to you?"

Cannon, who has a 4-year-old daughter, sees both sides. "I'm a progressive parent. She has to make those decisions. However, if Jack from Vanderpump Rules started dating my daughter, I'd lose my mind."

Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz pouring beer into a funnel for the "butt-chugging" scene in "Blockers." Quantrell D. Colbert / Universal Pictures

Cannon was coaching track at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, when she started doing improv on Chicago's comedy scene. She met Jason Sudeikis there, eventually married him, and, when he landed Saturday Night Live, they moved to New York. Not long after Tina Fey read Cannon's half-done spec script for an
episode of The Office, she was hired as a writer on 30 Rock. (Cannon and Sudeikis split in 2010; she's now married to comedy writer Eben Russell.)

"I owe Tina everything. I learned to trust my instincts by watching her trust her own," says Cannon, who then went on to work with Liz Meriwether on New Girl. "I don't know how Liz will feel about me saying this, but she's dirty! She'll go there—as much as she can for a Fox show."

For female creators, going from TV to film is like leaving the oasis for the desert. Cannon is one of three women directing a studio film in 2018, along with Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle in Time) and Jennifer Yuh Nelson (The Darkest Minds). That works out to just 3.3 percent of the films from Hollywood's six major studios. Cannon had thought the turning point for women was in 2015.

"We had Spy, Pitch 2, Trainwreck, Hot Pursuit, Mad Max. We broke records with Pitch 2 —I was the writer, and Elizabeth Banks directed it. You would have thought that would translate into lists getting longer, more chances for the ladies. But the numbers went down!"

Cannon's seen an uptick in studio interest since the beginning of the year ("ever since Frances McDormand mentioned inclusion riders" at the Oscars, she claims), but actual job offers follow strong box-office, and that's doubly true for women. While it's doubtful Blockers will make history, like Deadpool or The Hangover (still the top-grossing R-rated comedies of all time), don't underestimate an underserved audience. "There's this idea that women don't find this genre funny," says Cannon, "but women laugh at the same things men do. I find butt-chugging hilarious."