My friends and I had a long conversation on New Year’s Eve about our favorite comedies of all time. It was interesting to see what each of us consider essential comedies; one man’s clever is another man’s corny. So, as you can see, I made a list of my top ten. I’m not trying to define the greatest comedies ever, I am simply trying to explain which mean the most to me personally.
- Memorability: Does the movie have quotable lines? Do you bring the movie up in conversations, because it reminds you of real-life situations?
- Watchability: Can the movie we watched over and over again? This isn’t necessarily a make-or-break criterion, but it certainly plays a role. Some movies get better on repeat viewing, as the layers of the jokes reveal themselves to you. Some movies get worse.
- How hard did it make me laugh the first time I saw it?: Some movies make me howl out loud when I see them, while others are more of a slow build. Ultimately, a truly great comedy makes you laugh out loud, not just smile to yourself.
- What is the story/funny ratio?: Ultimately the best comedies have a strong story with well-drawn characters and plot lines, while also being hilarious. However, the ratio can swing away from character and plot and still succeed, if the movie is incredibly funny. Likewise, it’s easier to excuse a movie with fewer jokes if its plot is engaging.
- What does the movie mean to you?: The list I’ve prepared includes some movies my wife insists aren’t that funny, and I’ve realized that she might be right. But to me, on a personal level, they will always be great, because I first saw them when I as a kid. As an adult, I still appreciate them, but my judgment on their quality is clouded by sentimentality.
I mulled over all these elements, and have settled on my top ten comedies of all time. Here they are:
T-10. Borat and Spaceballs
Is it a cop-out to have a tie for number 10, thereby allowing me to choose 11 movies for my top 10 list? Yes. But it’s my list, so back off.
Borat falls into the category of “laughed hysterically the first time I saw it, but lost a lot of luster on repeat viewing.” That said, I have never laughed harder in a movie theater, or been in one that was more raucous. The shock value of that movie is obviously through the roof. Sacha Baron-Cohen was brilliant in this movie, and his follow-up, Bruno, showed how difficult a movie like this is to pull off. Where Borat gave me a pleasant “what will happen next” feeling, punctuated by laughter, Bruno left me feeling tense and unsatisfied.
Best Quote: “Her vazhïn hang like sleeve of wizard’s robe.”
Mel Brooks, to me, has made about 4 classic American comedies: The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Spaceballs. Although I know many of you might argue that the last one doesn’t belong, I realized today that it’s my favorite among them.
First, it’s one of those movies that I adored as a kid. But watching it again as an adult, I still laugh. Bill Pullman is great in it, and it’s one of Rick Moranis’s best performances. I’m a Star Wars fan, and I like that Spaceballs pokes fun at the ridiculousness of those movies.
What really sold it for me is that Spaceballs has one of the greatest commitments to a joke in movie history. It named the second-in-command bad guy “Colonel Sanders,” which is smile-worthy in and of itself. That’s not the joke, however. Halfway through the movie, Dark Helmet commands the Colonel to put the ship into Ludicrous Speed, which is faster than light speed. Colonel Sanders is clearly afraid, so Dark Helmet taunts him, “What’s the matter Colonel Sanders? Chicken?” This line gets me to laugh every time.
Best Quote: See above
9. Office Space
Office Space is an interesting case, because I actually didn’t really like it the first time I saw it. I think the reason was that I was 18 and had never really had a job.
It really clicked for me the second time I saw it. The satire of the workplace is spot-on, and the jabs at restaurant chains and mega-apartment complexes ring true. Although there’s lots of great acting, the performances by Ron Livingston and David Hermann in particular really stand out. That movie, on top of its great jokes, also does a fabulous job of building momentum. At heart, it’s a heist movie. A really, really funny heist movie.
Best Quote: “I’m thinking I might take that new chick from Logistics. If things go well I might be showing her my O-face. ‘Oh… Oh… Oh!’ You know what I’m talkin’ about. ‘Oh!'”
8. Wet Hot American Summer
This little-seen gem is one of those movies that grows infinitely more funny on repeated viewings. It’s a satire of those 80’s summer camp movies, written and directed by Stella, the hilarious comedy troupe comprised of Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain. It also stars Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks (before they blew up), Janeane Garafalo, Molly Shannon, and David Hyde Pierce. The rest of the cast is awesome, too. You’ve seen most of them in other, more well-known movies. They’re the “oh, it’s that guy! I love him!” kind of actors.
The comedy is wry and gentle, generally coming from clever interactions between the various characters. The plot is more or less irrelevant, which works out just fine. Watch it once and chuckle. Watch it again and laugh out loud.
Best Quote: “If you wanna smear mud on your ass, smear mud on your ass – just be honest about it. Look, Gene, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I can suck my own dick, and I do it a lot.”
What can you say about Caddyshack that hasn’t been said a thousand times? It’s essentially a terrible, formulaic teen sex comedy… until you factor in three comedic actors at the height of their power. Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray take what should have been instantly forgettable and make it memorable. Don’t forget Rodney Dangerfield, either.
It’s another one of those movies where the plot is more of a hindrance than help. I don’t give a damn about Danny and his inexplicably Scottish girlfriend (I think her dad is the groundskeeper, who is Scottish, but that’s never really explained).
There are so many reasons this movie shouldn’t work, but it does. I think that the perfectly hammy performances by Knight and Dangerfield are balanced out by Murray and Chase’s underplayed brilliance, giving the movie a blend of slapstick and wordplay that’s tough to resist. Caddyshack is a lot like Murray or Chase: it gets by on confidence and charm.
Best Quote: “Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac… It’s in the hole! It’s in the hole! It’s in the hole! “
6. That Thing You Do!
Laugh at me if you will, but I find this movie delightful. It’s funny, engaging, romantic, and a little exciting. Tom Hanks is a great comedic actor, even though he’s never starred in a really great comedy. To make amends, he wrote and directed That Thing You Do!, which is consistently funny. Sure, he has a supporting part in the movie, but the focus is on the cleverly-titled Oneders (Wonders), who live up to their name as one-hit wonders.
This is truly an ensemble piece, and the cast members all do a good job at playing their parts. The humor in this movie generally comes from within realistic situations, which makes the jokes feel natural. I love how the movie avoids the whole set-up/punchline dynamic when it can. Steve Zahn really shines as the wiseguy drummer. This was the first time I ever saw Zahn, and I think he always brightens up whatever he’s in with his witty delivery.
Best Quote: “Oh, I’m not here with these fellas. I’ve got a pig in competition over at the livestock pavilion, and I am going to win that blue ribbon!”
5. Hot Fuzz!
Simon Pegg is one of my favorite comedic actors, and I think this is his best movie. Don’t get me wrong, Shaun of the Dead is great, but I think that Hot Fuzz! has more laughs. I love the action-comedy spoof at play, and while that is a source for really funny stuff, the best jokes in Hot Fuzz! come in-between the action, as the colorful characters interact.
Best Quote: “If we don’t come down hard on these clowns, we are going to be up to our *balls* in jugglers! “
I think that the film works amazingly well as both an action-comedy, and as a spoof of them.
4. This is Spinal Tap
As I pondered this list, I thought a lot about the Christopher Guest mockumentaries, and where I would rank them among my favorites. I nearly included Waiting for Guffman on the list, but I just couldn’t do it. I love that movie, and most of his others, but none of them are quite as good as This is Spinal Tap. Of course, Spinal Tap is a Rob Reiner film, not a Guest film, but they share sensibilities and it’s pretty obvious that Guest had a big hand in making Spinal Tap.
Spinal Tap is a shining example of how strong performances can outweigh light plots, especially in comedy. As a viewer, I feel like the actors are having fun, and it’s contagious. They are sharp, yet silly. The plot elements introduced throughout the movie, such as the black album cover or the arrival of Jeanine, feel less like major shifts in the movie than new opportunities for the band members to joke around. It’s a risky move, as weak performances could have stopped the movie in its tracks. It’s a credit to Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer that the film continues to move along at such a hilarious clip.
Best Quote: “But this one goes to 11!”
It was hard to decide which Wes Anderson film to put in this list. Although The Royal Tenenbaums is his most accessible comedy, Rushmore is always the winner to me. One could make an argument that his films don’t belong on this list at all, as they all share a bittersweet quality that could place them in a different category altogether. I disagree.
Yes, Wes Anderson’s movies all contain sadness, but I think that emotional resonance enhances the comedy. Would Max’s outburst at the nurse at the restaurant be nearly as funny if he wasn’t lovesick?
Another reason I rate Rushmore so high is purely sentimental: this was one of the first movies Marisa and I saw together when we first started dating, all the way back in 1998.
Best Quote: “These are O.R. scrubs.” “Oh, are they?”
I will admit, part of the appeal of Anchorman to me is its setting. I worked in TV news for several years, and it’s fun to see my industry made fun of in such an ingratiating way. But really, this movie is all about the undeniably charm and smarm of Will Ferrell. Arguably his funniest film, Anchorman is a fine example of how a movie can sort of amble along plotlessly for long stretches of time, and still keep viewers engaged.
The movie has less of a plot than a series of sketches strung together, but it all works based on the performances by the cast. Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Christina Applegate, and David Koechner are quote machines.
I saw Anchorman with a group of news coworkers in the theater after we got done doing the morning show, at the first matinee time of the day. We laughed so hard, some of us were crying. The movie maintains its enjoyability after the first watch, as the layers of silliness reveal themselves on repeat viewing.
Best Quote: “Look, the most beautiful rainbow ever!” “Do me on it!”
1. Ghost Busters
This movie really has it working on all cylinders for me. It has a funny and compelling script, great actors at the height of their comedic powers, quotable lines galore, and it also happened to come out when I was a kid, which means it has that extra something to put it over the hump to the number one spot.
Ghost Busters is the best of the dozens of action-comedy movies that began coming out in the 80’s. You can make an argument for Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys or other similar movies, but none of them are as truly funny as Ghost Busters. Jokes in other action-comedies have a tendency to be punctuation marks to action sequences, something the writer threw in there to lighten up the fact someone was killed. The humor in Ghost Busters comes from both situation and personality, which makes it more engaging; you feel like the characters are funny, yet real people.
Unlike those other action-comedies, the jokes don’t stop in the middle of the big action set pieces. When the Staypuft Marshmallow Man is bearing down on our heroes, the movie remains funny.
Ultimately however, the thing that gets me about Ghost Busters is the way the characters all feel fully developed. None of them feel solely like a plot device. For example, Dana and Louis, who live in the haunted apartment building, could just be chess pieces to move the movie forward. But the movie gives you flashes of their lives and forces you to invest in them just a little. And if you care about the minor characters as well as the main ones, the movie is a success.
Oh, and it’s really funny, start to finish.
Best Quote: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”
- Blazing Saddles
- Major League
- Naked Gun
- Liar Liar
- Dumb and Dumber
- Animal House
- Happy Gilmore
- Ruthless People
- Three Amigos
- High Fidelity
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
- 40-Year-Old Virgin
- Waiting for Guffman
- Groundhog Day
- The Princess Bride
- Old School
- South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
- Team America: World Police
I can hear you nerds now. “No Monty Python? The Holy Grail is so great!” Sorry. I like that movie, and I like Monty Python, but I don’t think that it has aged particularly well. That was a problem with lots of movies I considered. Comedy is such an ethereal thing. What’s funny now may not be funny in 10 years. That’s why most of the movies I chose were made in the last 20 years. Every time I see a list like this, they always include Some Like it Hot or The Apartment or other old movies. I have seen them, but I don’t think they translate to our age. I loved Duck Soup and other Marx Brothers movies when I was a kid, but they just don’t do it for me anymore.
I would love to get some feedback on this blog. What do you think about my list? What are your top ten comedies?