The Marx Brothers. Comedy surrealists at their best. Like Salvador Dali transposed into a series of slapstick and vaudeville sketches, the four real life brothers and their crazy onscreen personas—smart aleck, mischievous mute, conniving immigrant, and ‘other’—rewrote the rules on how to approach humor. This, their second feature film, is nothing more than their original Broadway triumph transposed to the silver screen. Yet even in its infancy, their career as crafty Hellsapoppin’ entertainers was in full swing. Certainly, some 81 years (!) later, a few of the references are dated and the timing a little tame, but this is the birth of a legend, and a stellar delivery at that.
One could literally free associate all day on the film career of Woody Allen. Many might choose his later, more serious laughers (Annie Hall, Manhattan) or champion his solid, second phase treats (Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days). But this, the last of his so-called straight comedies, remains his best. Using Russian War Epics as his backdrop and riffing on everything from contemporary issues to Ingmar Bergman, it is his most consistently irreverent and introspective work. Allen would never really return to the laugh-a-minute mannerisms of this masterpiece, reminding those who first fell in love with his intellectualized burlesque that no one can or could do it better—not even him.
The Coen Brothers can do no wrong—well, MOSTLY can do no wrong—and choosing their best comedy is indeed difficult. Many would bet on the Dude and his current cult of Lebowski, but for nonstop laugh out loud lunacy, nothing beats this amazing 1987 effort. Featuring some of the best work ever done by a soon to be scorned Nicolas Cage and a crackerjack plot involving the ‘friendly’ kidnapping of a famous businessman’s baby, the entire film is a work of wonky genius, from the lead character’s unusual way with words to the villainous biker known as the Warhog from Hell. Just terrific.
Andrew Bergman got his start working for the man responsible for our number one pick. After coming up with Tex X, the basis for Blazing Saddles, he went on to try his hand at a solo screwball comedy. The result was the flawless funny business of this Peter Falk/Alan Arkin treasure (not the awful remake). The plot, revolving around an upcoming wedding between a conservative dentist’s daughter and an oddball spy’s son shouldn’t work, but does because Bergman makes the inanity/insanity part of the characterization. Then he throws in a surreal subplot involving the overthrow of a South American dictator, just to keep things jumping.
No list of great comedies would be complete without a nod to Mel Brooks. After all, the man practically set the standard for post-modern humor with his pointed spoofs on the Western (Blazing Saddles), horror (Young Frankenstein), and Hitchcock (High Anxiety). Yet this, his first film as writer/director, remains a true funny bone benchmark. Look beyond the brilliant casting—Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn—for a moment and consider the fact that Brooks won an Oscar for this absolute gem of a screenplay and it’s easy to see why, some 43 years later, it remains a laugh out loud riot.