Comedy films and comedians often don’t get the respect they deserve from film buffs.
Think of the last pure comedy or comedic performance to walk away with an Academy Award or to top an end-of-the-year list. People often mistake “serious” for “good,” and neglect to acknowledge that making people laugh often takes more skill and calculation than making them cry. To this day, I’ll insist that “Borat” should have been nominated for an Oscar, and that Sacha Baron Cohen should have walked away with at least a nomination for best actor. Even when comedies gain critical respect or awards, they’re often darker, edgier or satirical films. Maybe that will change some day (I’d love to see this year’s “The Big Sick” recognized at year’s end), but I have a hunch it won’t. Serious and resonant seems to speak more to the prestige critics look for.
Which is why I was so happy to read the BBC’s list of the top 100 comedies of all time this week. Prestige be damned, it’s quite an eclectic and broad list, including everyone from Quentin Tarantino (even if I think you have to squint a bit to see “Pulp Fiction” as comedy) to Edgar Wright to Adam McKay to Monty Python. I haven’t seen every film on the list, but I’ve seen the majority….and every one has made me laugh. Plus, you have to love any list that lumps together Ron Burgundy and “The Big Lebowski.” You can read the whole list at the link above, but here’s the top 10:
1.) Some Like It Hot
2.) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
3.) Annie Hall
4.) Groundhog Day
5.) Duck Soup
6.) Life of Brian
9.)This is Spinal Tap
10.) The General
It’s a great list. I’m not going to argue with any of those. But just for fun, I thought I’d list my own 10 favorite comedies.
Here’s the deal, comedy is subjective. What makes me laugh might not tickle your funny bone. And while the BBC list seemed to focus on the best movies that were also comedies (and, honestly, I’m still scratching my head over “Pulp Fiction” — but how do you classify it?), my rule was simple: the harder and more often a movie makes me laugh, the higher it is on my list. I’m also a child of the ’80s and ’90s, so I’m sure there’s a bit of a recency bias. I’m not saying these are necessarily the best comedies ever made, but they are the ones that I return to over and again that still make me laugh. What are yours?
- Step Brothers: Where even some of the best comedies lose their punch over time when I’ve memorized every gag and run every quote into the ground, that’s never happened with Adam McKay’s 2008 film. When I first saw the movie, I was put off by its bizarre humor and comedic pieces that felt shaggy and improvised. But on repeat viewings, that unhinged, aggressive and seat-of-the-pants humor has kept the film fresh, even when I know it by heart. On the surface, this is a Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly arrested development comedy. But dig deeper and it’s a story about Apatowian slackers who never took Apatow’s path to maturity, and parents too content to coddle their kids past the point of comfort. But potential depth aside, it’s just hilarious, to the point of tears. Whether watching Ferrell sing “Por Ti Volare,” Reilly shout “Boats and Hoes,” or Adam Scott play a preening prick, the comedy still hurts my sides well into my dozenth viewing.
- Ghostbusters: Because it shouldn’t work. Because you shouldn’t be able to get three of the biggest names in comedy into one movie and fit it among their egos, let alone butting heads with the biggest comedic director of that time. Because the film was a totally different beast when written for John Belushi. Because high-concept and comedy never seem to work. Because audiences might like spectacle, but aren’t always fans of deadpan humor and blue-collar satire. And yet, “Ghostbusters” is hilarious, energetic, endlessly quotable and just flat-out one of the best comedies ever made. It shouldn’t have worked, which is why its sequel and any other followups/remakes were doomed to fail.
Groundhog Day: My favorite Bill Murray performance. He’s smarmy, funny and heartfelt as Phil Connors, a TV weatherman cursed to live the titular holiday over in a small town over and over. Harold Ramis (again) takes a smart script and injects it with humor, insight and spirituality. The sheer repetition of the days and the subtle changes to each cycle get big laughs, but dig deeper and this is a better “Christmas Story” adaptation than Murray’s own “Scrooged.” As I’ve written before, it’s Ecclesiastes as a romantic comedy. It’s about existential angst and despair, but with our favorite sad clown at its center. It’s a genuinely moving and joyful story that just happens to have Murray doing some of his funniest and most memorable work. Comedy that sticks to the soul, there’s a reason why critics like Roger Ebert compared it to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
- This is Spinal Tap: When done right, the mockumentary can be the funniest of all genres. There’s something about the technique, the way it marries absurdity to mundane reality, that delivers really big laughs when in the hands of a capable director. “Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman,” “What We Do in the Shadows”…all films I deeply love. But the king, of course, is Rob Reiner’s 1984 look at a ban renowned for their exuberance, raw power and punctuality. The performances by Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean are all-timers…totally dedicated stupidity. And there are just too many great gags to decide on one. Stonehenge. “You can’t dust for vomit.” “These go to 11.” “None more black.” The movie is a masterpiece.
- The Naked Gun: From the Files of ‘Police Squad!’: I know that “Airplane!” is the go-to spoof for these lists. And surely, I love “Airplane!” (and don’t call me Shirley). But stupid lines delivered in Leslie Neilsen’s hard-boiled voiceover (“Like a midget at a urinal, I was going to have to keep on my toes”) are my weakness. The gags come every second, whether it’s broad comedy (O.J. Simpson in pain is both silly and cathartic nowadays) or clever dialogue (“Mrs. Nordberg, I think we can save your husband’s arm…Where would you like it saved?”), and I’d say 99% of them hit. It’s a film that wallows in silliness, whether it’s Frank Drebin’s X-rated escape from a burning room via statue, a press conference ruined by a toilet and a live microphone, or the world’s worst rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The sequels lost a bit of oomph by letting Frank in on the joke; he’s better when he’s oblivious, as Neilsen plays it here. A film that gets better on rewatch because you’ll probably catch a joke you missed when you were laughing the first time around.
- Back to the Future: In recent years, I’ve seen Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 time-travel film become renowned as a great science-fiction franchise, which it is. But what too many people miss is that “Back to the Future” is science-fiction as storytelling, but at its heart it’s a comedy. And a very funny one at that. It’s a movie predicated on the idea of going back in time and having to set up your parents on their first date. Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown is one of cinema’s great comedic characters, the prototype for so many dysfunctional geniuses to come. Crispin Glover’s George McFly is a weird, whiny take on the nerd and Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff Tannen is possibly the best dunder-headed bully put to film. And Michael J. Fox is the perfect every-kid to bounce all the time travel and fish-out-of-water shenanigans off of. Bob Gale’s script is a model of efficiency and meticulousness, and as the film’s various plot threads, paradoxes and dilemmas converge, the movie turns almost into a screwball sci-fi adventure. Great Scott, is this movie good.
- Shaun of the Dead: This is actually a hard choice because here’s the simple fact: Edgar Wright has never made a movie that is not great. This year’s “Baby Driver,” while not an out-and-out comedy, is one of the most energetic and enjoyable films I’ve seen in ages. “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is a mixture of videogame, music video and comic book tropes that tells a very funny story of navigating modern relationships. But obviously, it’s the Cornetto Trilogy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that he’ll (rightfully) be remembered for. And while I think “The World’s End” might be the most thematically successful and “Hot Fuzz” tickles my love for action movies, it’s the first film in the trilogy that makes me laugh the hardest. “Shaun of the Dead” is a successful zombie film in its own right, but it’s also hilarious. In an age of comedy directors who like to let their cast riff, Wright’s meticulous, with every gag and quote adding something more to the plot or underlining the joke. Pegg and Frost had cemented their chemistry in the wonderful sitcom “Spaced,” but they’ve never been a better buddy duo than here, where their co-dependent friendship both saves and threatens their lives. When I first saw “Shaun,” I knew I wanted to immediately see whatever else Wright had in store. Five films later, he has yet to disappoint me.
Life of Brian: I know everyone has a soft spot for “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and I won’t begrudge you that love. It’s a funny movie (though it didn’t hold up quite so well on my most recent viewing). But this is the Pythons’ masterwork. A bold, brass, raucous story of the baby born in the other manger one night in Bethlehem. I know Christians who won’t touch it because they consider it sacrilegious. But pay attention to the fact that the few scenes that actually feature Jesus (always in the background) treat him with respect, and you have a better idea as to what’s up here. This is a movie that’s blistering about the way humans get carried away with dogma and rules, and will blindly follow anyone so long as it helps their cause. And it’s done with the Pythons’ wonderfully silly sense of humor powering it through. So much here is just so funny, and it helps us religious folk see how petty our divisions often are.
- The 40-Year-Old Virgin: The first time I saw Judd Apatow’s directorial debut, on its first day of release, I knew I was watching something special. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” may be crass, but it’s one of the most heartfelt, sweetest and old-fashioned romantic comedies we’ve had. Steve Carrel wrote himself a big blank check for the rest of his career as the titular character, managing to navigate sweet and dorky without being off-putting. Apatow came out of the gate in command of his knack for finding a great cast and just letting them riff. Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Jane Lynch…every single person here has at least one scene, maybe more, where they flat-out kill. The movie delivers giant laughs without every feeling too polished or overly thought-out; there’s a scrappiness this big studio comedy that you don’t always find. Apatow’s moved on to more ambitious films, but I don’t think he’s ever directed a funnier one than this.
- Young Frankenstein: This is how you do parody. When the direction’s not spot-on, Mel Brooks’ Borscht-belt jokes can feel as dated and corny as they were even when he made the films. But when the director’s on, he’s on. And in “Young Frankenstein,” he’s on. The look and sound of this is straight out of a Universal Monsters movie (Brooks used props from the original production), which only accentuates the jokes that come fast and furious. Gene Wilder is a miracle here; no one does slow burns and frustration better than him. Peter Boyle’s bellow of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” still makes me howl with laughter. That final joke, so surprisingly dirty for a PG rating, caught me off guard when I watched it again last year (for the first time in two decades). How good was Brooks? He did this the same year as “Blazing Saddles,” which could arguably swap places with this on my list (I went with “Young Frankenstein” just because its parody of monster movies is more in my wheelhouse).
I want to hear your thoughts about the comedies you love. And next week, on a special bonus episode of CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC., Joe and I will be talking about this list and our personal favorite comedies. Hope you can tune in!