There are several genres of film that leave a great impact on my own experiences. I will say that I am partial to the historical drama more than any other, as my favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and I include many other epics as among my favorites as well; like Braveheart (1995), Ben-Hur (1959), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and so on. But, if there were a genre that I can point out that has given me the most consistent entertainment over the years, it would be the Comedy genre. The best feeling to have in a movie theater is the ability to laugh, and it’s the one and only genre where people actually enjoy the communal experience of watching a film with an audience of complete strangers. Laughter is infectious and the more people laughing together translates into a better experience overall. Not every comedy is good though, and sometimes the worst films out there are the comedies that fail to make us laugh in any way. They are extremely hard to make, as comedy is subjective to every individual audience member. But, when a comedy can hit all the right notes and appeal to a huge audience overall, then it can become an instant classic. And for many people, they can easily point out the comedies that have left the best impact on them and have informed their own sense of humor. As a movie fan, I certainly have my own favorites as well. Some are movies that left an impact on my own development as a person and a movie fan, and others are just the ones that make me laugh the hardest. Here, I have listed the comedies that are my absolute favorites.
Before I begin, I do want to list off some comedies that I do love, but just narrowly missed my list; This Is Spinal Tap (1984), The Jerk (1979), The Producers (1968), Caddyshack (1980), Coming to America (1988), Home Alone (1990), Dumb & Dumber (1993), Airplane (1980), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Some Like It Hot (1959), His Girl Friday (1940), Wayne’s World (1992), and Deadpool (2016). And with all that out of the way, let us begin the countdown.
THE SANDLOT (1993)
Directed by David Mickey Evans
There are comedies that make you laugh, and comedies that make you think. And then there are comedies that take you back to a bygone time. When The Sandlot was first released, I was 10 years old, not that far off in age from the characters in this movie. And this comedy was one that really struck home for the pre-adolescent me. Here was a movie that celebrated the simple pleasures of boyhood, and mined it perfectly for all the comedic potential that it could bring. Its about the friendship building experiences of summertime baseball games, getting sick on carnival rides, telling scary stories during tree-house sleepovers, and even faking your own drowning so that you can sneak in a kiss on your first crush. In many ways, it’s a movie that you can identify strongly with as a child, and still look back fondly with as an adult. And it still makes me laugh 25 years later. I love the fact that nearly all of the second half of the movie is devoted to a string of comedic set ups as the boys try to retrieve a Babe Ruth autographed ball from a back yard Wile E. Coyote style, trying desperately to outsmart the fearsome guard dog that patrols it. There’s also a lot of hilarious adult humor snuck in, like Ham’s trash talking behind the plate trying to psyche out the opposing batter. But, also like a lot of other family oriented comedies made at the time, it’s also a sentimental film, mostly touching upon the coming of age of all the boys in the story. Most films like this end up turning sappy by the end, but Sandlot manages to balance it all out and it remains a comedy that I can still reflect back on very well and still laugh at the same way that I did when I was younger.
ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)
Directed by John Landis
This is definitely a movie that could never get made today. Given the #MeToo movement’s widespread influence on the film industry today, a movie like Animal House would have died on the vine long before a single frame of film would have been shot. So, the fact that the movie exists at all, and is still regarded as a masterpiece of comedy today is something of a miracle. Is it racist, misogynist, and nihilistic. Sure, but the entire movie is such a cartoon that it’s hard to make any claim that the filmmakers were at all serious about any of that stuff while they were making it. The clear goal of director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller was to provoke humor through shattering conventional tastes and adding a rebellious sense of fun. The whole movie is anti-authoritarian, and that’s helps to make the movie feel so fresh all these years later. A big part of the movie’s success was largely due to the incredibly funny cast, and most especially to the breakout performance of John Belushi. Belushi had that special ability to get a laugh out of people with just a simple look, something showed off brilliantly like the memorable smile at the camera during the peeping tom scene or the annoyed look he gives right before smashing a guitar on the staircase. Other moments like the Toga party, the horse in the office prank, and the climatic parade debacle are all still just as funny today as ever. I’ll say that another reason why I love this movie so much is because it was shot in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, so it always feels like a homecoming for me when I re-watch it. We Oregonians still hold this comedy up proud (the “Shout” sequence even plays on the jumbo screen during football games) and even if it’s values may not have aged well with the times, it still makes up for it by remaining relentless in it’ s humor.
THE GENERAL (1927)
Directed by Buster Keaton
The silent era was a golden age for slapstick comedy. Since synchronized sound made it impossible to tell jokes in movies, humor had to be communicated through movement, and this in turn led to some of the greatest visual comedies of all time. The era sparked the legendary film careers of famous vaudeville comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, as well as of course, Buster Keaton. Each comic left a profound impact on film in general, sometimes pushing the medium to new heights as they each tried to out do each other with their incredibly complex routines. And while Chaplin is often considered to be the greatest artist among this class of comedy, I actually find myself more partial to the works of Buster Keaton. Chaplin had some amazing set pieces to be sure, but Keaton’s films have comedic bits that still boggle the mind over 90 years later. It can be seen in films like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), where you wonder how in the world he didn’t kill himself performing the stunts in these movies. There are so many amazing stunts in his movies, and they help to make his films still incredible to watch today. But, it’s The General that remains his masterpiece. This Civil War set comedy finds Keaton working with the most dangerous of moving props, real locamotive trains, and using them for some of his biggest stunts yet. There is an especially harrowing moment when he sits on the grill of a train and uses a piece of lumber to knock off another piece of lumber off the rail tracks with only seconds to spare. Had he mistimed that by a second, he would have been dead. It just shows how far some would go to get a laugh and Keaton went further than most, always putting hmself in harms way to do it. And it results in comedy that still grabs our attention nearly a century later. The fact that he also does all this with an unwavering deadpan expression is just another reason why Buster Keaton is one of the greatest comedic minds in history.
HOT FUZZ (2007)
Directed by Edgar Wright
One of the most misused forms of comedy over the years has been the parody. Though pioneered by the likes of Mel Brooks and the team of Zuckers/Abrahams during the 70’s and 80’s, the subgenre has sadly slid off in recent years and has often been associated with the characterization of lazy comedy. But one filmmaker has managed to take the parody film and reinvent it into something new that’s all his own. British filmmaker Edgar Wright doesn’t specifically reference certain movies, but instead pokes fun at the genres themselves. He spotlights the cliches, and spins them around into hilarious bits that drive some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Much in the same vein as Mel Brooks, Wright is clearly affectionate towards the things that he mocks, and his movies often work just as well as any of the other movies from the genres that they are poking fun at. His parody films have formed what has become known as the Cornetto Trilogy, and it includes the Zombie film Shaun of the Dead, the cop thriller Hot Fuzz, and the sci-fi extravaganza The World’s End (2013). While all of them are comedy classics, I would choose Hot Fuzz as my favorite. It’s the most consistently funny of the movies, with the most pointed of genre send-ups. Wright clearly takes inspiration from the hyper-kinetic style of Michael Bay for this film, and using it in the setting of a quaint town in the English countryside just makes it all the funnier. Comedic partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost also relish the humor here, acting perfectly in tune with all the crazy antics that unfold in the movie. The bullet-flying finale is an especially strong highlight as the duo take on many beloved English character actors playing the townsfolk, including a devilish turn by former Bond, Timothy Dalton. Along with Wright’s flashy editing style, this is modern comedy classic that we desperately needed.
Directed by Ivan Reitman
High concept comedies are also especially hard to pull of consistently. Mixing humor into other genres usually doesn’t translate all that well, but when it does, it can create some of the most unique comedies out there. Fresh out of Saturday Night Live, actor and writer Dan Aykroyd had the idea to create a comedy centered around a pair of ghost hunters as a new vehicle for him and his Blues Brothers partner John Belushi. But, Belushi’s untimely death in 1982 put the project on hold, until Aykroyd reworked the script with Harold Ramis and expanded the team to include Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and fellow SNL alum Bill Murray into the mix, and what resulted was a monster comedy hit. What makes the movie work as well as it does is because it manages to blend the comedic styling of it’s cast perfectly with the genuinely scary images produced through some groundbreaking visual effects, making it a perfect genre mash-up. It is interesting watching the movie and jumping back and forth between riotous laughter and uneasy tension from the scary imagery. Honestly, it’s that tension that helps to sell the jokes, because of the stark contrast. One moment that sticks out is the possession scene where Sigourney Weaver’s Dana starts speaking in the guttural voice of the demon Zuul (which is unsettling), and then it is undercut with Bill Murray jokingly complimenting her on a “lovely singing voice.” You also don’t get much zanier once a destructive god appears in the form of a fluffy marshmallow man. There was an attempt to repeat the success of this movie with an all-female remake in 2016, which was well-intentioned but poorly executed. The able cast was undermined by a terrible script that had none of the punchiness of the original. And that’s really because Ghostbusters was a one of a kind phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated, and it still remains so 30-plus years later. Even still, these are the one’s who we are going to call.
DR. STRANGELOVE or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
When comedies come to mind, the last person one would think of as an icon of the genre is Stanley Kubrick. The 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980) auteur worked mostly in darker territories of cinema, with humor coming through as a rarity in his movies rather than the norm. And yet, Kubrick is also responsible for a movie that is not only considered one of the funniest movies ever made, but also one of the most important too. The subject of Kubrick’s one and only comedy could not be more unlikely either; nuclear war and Armageddon. And yet, he managed to find the inherent comedy within the same situations that could drive humanity towards annihilation, and mines it for some incredibly funny moments. Mostly it comes down to grown men acting out their frustrations in a child like matter once they feel inadequate or threatened that becomes the catalysts for war in this movie. A general orders a nuclear strike on Russia after he believes that fluoridation of water has contributed to his impotency in bed; a Russian premier puts his wife on the phone because he feels that the U.S. President hurt his feelings; another general believes nuclear strikes are better than looking weak in front of the enemy, etc. Some filmmakers would believe that such things are no laughing matter, but Kubrick manages to make it hilarious, mainly through the exceptional cast. Peter Sellers commands the film with a triple headed performance as the President, a put-upon lieutenant who might save the day, and as the titular Dr. Strangelove, in a truly demented comedic turn. However, it’s George C. Scott that actually steals the movie in a hilarious over-the-top performance as General Turgidson. And there has been no better image for the absurdity of war than Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco, waving his cowboy hat all the way down. Kubrick may not have been a purely funny guy, but he told one hell of a good joke here; one that still resonates today.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers are likewise not known as humorists, even though they have produced their fair share of comedies. Some of their most noteworthy comedies like O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and Raising Arizona (1987) often include a sense of melancholy underneath the surface, and some of their darker films surprisingly have an unexpected absurdity to them as well, like Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007). It’s probably just a result of their unique style as filmmakers. But there is one all out comedy in their filmography and it is easily one of the single funniest movies ever made. The Big Lebowski was seen as a disappointing follow-up to the critical success of Fargo when it was first released, but over the years it has built a devoted fan base that has made it cult classic. I for one believe that it is the greatest character driven comedy of all time. Every single funny bit in this movie is derived from the ridiculous personalities of the main characters and how each of them interact with each other. It’s a movie of extreme personalities, led most effectively by Jeff Bridges “The Dude”. Bridges created a true original with this character, and it’s just a delight to watch him stumble his way through an increasingly absurd series of events as the movie unfolds. Add into the mix John Goodman’s unhinged and hilariously vulgar role as Walter Sobchak and you’ve got one of comedy’s most hilarious duos ever. I also get a kick out of John Tuturro’s shamelessly zany performance as Jesus (“Eight year olds, Dude.”) A lot of the humor is also enhanced by the beautiful flourishes brought in by cinematographer Roger Deakins; especially in the iconic dream sequences. Some of the hardest laughs I’ve ever had in my life watching a movie have been when I watched this, and that’s why it remains one of my favorites. The Dude abides indeed.
BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
Directed by Mel Brooks
One can’t talk about movie comedies without mentioning the work of Mel Brooks. The legendary humorist all but invented the parody film and is responsible for many of the most acclaimed comedies of all times. Though his Oscar-winning work in The Producers is rightly celebrated, as are other classics like Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), and Spaceballs (1986), I believe the most consistently funny movie in his whole oeuvre is Blazing Saddles. Much like Kubrick’s Dr. Stranglelove, Blazing Saddles stands out so much more as a comedy due to the fact that it’s punches aim so much higher. In it, Brooks pays ode to the Western classics of Old Hollywood, but he does so with an eye to the racial divisions that those movies would have never even dreamed of addressing. It was a risky move to make, but Brooks manages to make the presentation work due to the fact that no group is spared; White, Black, Gay, Straight, Man, Woman, everyone is targeted for ridicule in this movie. And it is hilarious in it’s relentlessness. It helped that Brooks got assistance from another provocative comedic entertainer, Richard Pryor, who helped give the racial commentary the bite that it needed. The cast is also uniformly amazing in the film including Cleavon Little as the hot rod sheriff who stirs up the racial division in the quaint town of Rock Ridge. We also see Gene Wilder at his most restrained playing the Waco Kid, Jim. Harvey Korman is also perfect as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, as is Madeline Kahn in the Marlene Dietrich spoofing role that earned her an Oscar nod. Satire, especially when it touches on a subject like race, can be a tricky one to pull off, and Blazing Saddles is one of the greatest examples of it. It turns Hollywood on it’s head, addresses harsh realities about race in America, and still manages to remain funny as hell all the way through. That’s why Mel Brooks still stands among the best in his league when it comes to comedy. It’s also the only issue film you’ll ever see where a horse gets punched in the face.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam
While I often find myself quoting one or two phrases from many of these comedies in casual conversation on a daily basis (“You’re killing me Smalls.” “That rug really tied the room together.” “Ray’s gone bye-bye Egon”), I would say that the comedy that has gotten the most mileage for me as the most quotable is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The legendary group of British comedians perfectly translated their sketch style comedy to the big screen with this off-kilter take on Arthurian legends. And the one liners are too numerous to list. How many times have any of us gotten a cut on our body and jokingly quipped “Tis but a scratch,” in response? Or have had the absolute urge to shout the word “Ni” for no reason. Some of us have even gone further and have memorized the full passage from the Book or Armaments describing in prayer how to use the Holy Hand Grenade. But apart from it’s endlessly quotable script, Holy Grail is just a rollicking hilarious film to watch. It is Silly with a capital “S”, and perfect utilizes the nonsensical sense of humor that Monty Python was notable for. Whether it’s smashing coconut shells together in place of riding on horseback, John Cleese’s Sir Lancelot slaughtering his way through a wedding party, a Black Knight refusing to loose a battle even as his limbs are chopped off, or King Arthur’s troop getting defeated by a bloodthirsty bunny rabbit, this is one endlessly hilarious ride of movie. No matter how many times I’ve watched this movie, it has never failed to get a strong laugh out of me. Even when I watch it with an audience, I can’t help but repeat some of the lines back at the movie, which doesn’t become a problem, because most of the audiences I’ve seen it with were doing just the same. Both as a comedy and as an experience, there is hardly anything else like Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
Directed by Harold Ramis
This may not be the most consistently funny movie on this list, nor the one that I quote the most or laugh at the most. But, Groundhog Day is my favorite comedy of all time simply because of the fact that it’s also one of my favorite movies of all time, period. Groundhog Day appeals to the part of me that wants to experience a movie that works on so many more levels than just by how funny it is. It is a very layered movie, delivering a dizzyingly cerebral concept of a man living the same day over and over again. This is the kind of thing that you would find in an episode of the Twilight Zone (which I think it might have been at some point), but here it becomes a hilarious set up for the comedic talents of Bill Murray. Murray gives the best performance of his career as a man who evolves through his desperate attempt to escape the same repeating 24 hours of his life. It’s an existential experience that makes the viewer also take consideration as to how they live their own lives, and that’s something that you rarely seen coming through in a comedy. Like many of the other films on this list, this movie was guided by the irreplaceable comedic genius of Harold Ramis, who was never better behind the directors chair, as well as showing off his range as a comedic writer. The movie evokes a bygone era of Capra-esque comedies from the 30’s and 40’s and transposes it perfectly into the modern day without loosing a bit of the charm. It’s a very non-cynical film, which is something rare in comedies today, and I wish that more movies were like this one. I went further into length about this movie in my retrospective here, but I just want to point out how brilliantly Ramis executed the concept of this comedy into the film-making, making every repeated action work to the advantage of the comedy and never once letting it grow weary and stale. I love this movie deeply, and it easily earns it’s place as my favorite comedy ever.
So, most likely my list of comedies will probably differ greatly from everyone else’s. Comedy is subjective and people have their own tastes, which often ranges to varying degrees. But, more than likely, the top names in comedy will be similar on most people’s lists. The names of Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis, Edgar Wright, and the Coen Brothers probably show up very frequently when discussing the Kings of Comedy when it comes to the movies. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in calling The Big Lebowski and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as one of the greatest comedies ever made, as both have their rabid fan-bases that have grown into the millions over the years. Mostly, when I consider what stands out as the comedies that left the biggest impact on me, I look at more than just how much they made me laugh. I grew up with movies like Ghostbusters and The Sandlot, which went a long way towards informing my tastes in comedy. And as I became more literate in the art of cinema, I discovered more about the amazing work that went into creating comedies like Dr. Strangelove and The General; comedies made well before my time. Times and attitudes may change, and stuff that may have been hilarious 10 years ago might seem quaint or inappropriate today. But, if your comedy can withstand the rigors of time and still make people laugh the same way so many years later, that’s when you know that you’ve made not just a great comedy but also a great film. I hope that spotlighting some of these has helped a few of you see how important it is to have a good laugh at the movies. Especially in trying times like the ones we live in now, humor is not only needed, but essential. Humor is the best medicine after all.