[19 July 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
This is going to be a tough one. Humor, like musical taste or artistic appreciation, is always in the eye… and ear… and funny bone of the beholder. So when trying to pick through the best cinematic comedies of all time, one is bound to bash their clueless noggin against someone’s link to laughter. There will be those who look at this list and smile smugly, feeling superior that their love of Preston Sturges and/or the Farrelly Brothers trumps this troubled overview. Others will rage furiously at a lack of Abbott and Costello, some missing forgotten film, or too much post-modern attention. Again, it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Instead, if we agree to meet each other halfway, we can perhaps agree to reluctantly disagree.
That being said, there are some obvious omissions. Because much of their output is either missing or reserved for some snooty art house revival, we decided to avoid the whole Chaplin/Keaton argument all together. Similarly, we stopped paying attention to so-called comedy classicism around 2000, since it takes a while before humor shows its true Hangover longevity. Finally, we can fiddle with the order all we want, dropping something off the charts completely while considering long beloved titles like Some Like It Hot, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, or anything featuring the Ritz Brothers. So, without further fidgeting, and a guaranteed snicker spit storm, here are our choice for the greatest big screen comedies of all time, beginning with a highly unlikely inclusion…
This was a tough pick. So many movies could easily find their way into the Top Ten that holding up the bottom becomes a bit of a comic crapshoot. On the one hand, this is by far the funniest animated movie ever made, a solid satiric musical with a lot to say about free speech, the MPAA, and outrageous PC reactions to same. On the other hand, it’s also Trey Parker and Matt Stone unleashed, able to let their Colorado kiddies curse for the first time and making the most of it. Still, for consistently loss of breath laughs, for a movie with a memorable tune set almost exclusive to the F-bomb, it’s aces.
The lampoon was getting plenty of legitimate love from the likes of Mel Brooks and company when the ZAZ team—Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker—stepped in and decided to make the spoof silly and stupid again. Applying a joke a minute mentality to the standard disaster movie basis, the result was a new kind of comedy, one where anything and everything could be included in the mix. Thus we have riffs on Saturday Night Fever, takes on race, and a cameo by a man who no one outside late ‘70s California would ever recognize or remember (time to Google Howard Jarvis). And remember, don’t call us Shirley.
The logical conclusion of where post-modern comedy was going in the ‘70s. Though based around the famed magazine and its equally infamous Yearbook edition, this was really the result of the continuing counterculture influence on humor. From Saturday Night Live to SCTV, this outrageous effort is soaked in one too many bong hits and a nutty nostalgia that works against the usual wistful visions of the past. Featuring a series of star making turns as well as characters now carved into our mutual cultural memory, it’s dared to denounce the Establishment while arguing for the equally unsavory nature of the rebels. Oh, and it’s hilarious to boot.
Dustin Hoffman is an out of work actor who dresses as a woman to get a part on a popular TV soap opera, falling for one of the leading ladies in the process while struggling to keep his identity a secret. Not necessarily for formula for a smart, sophisticated comedy, right? After all, drag is almost always more Benny Hill than brilliant. But thanks to the efforts of the star, a stellar supporting cast, and talent behind the camera including screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Elaine May, as well as director Sydney Pollack, what could have been crude became a classic. Hoffman definitely deserved to win an Oscar for his portrayal here.
For many, the Pythons (along with Mel Brooks) was the turning point for modern motion picture comedy. Before, laughter on film was never very bold or hardly ever daring. But when these talented Brits decided to leave the confines of their stream of consciousness TV show and make their own merriment onscreen, they brought their daredevil desire to shock and stun with them. The result subverted the notion of what could be considered funny… and tasteful… and possible within a standard three act narrative. There are some who will never forgive the film for its ‘in your face’ ending. For others, it’s the reason the movie is so magnificent.
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.