Best Comedy Movies Of All Time
The funniest movies tend to burrow into our brains like no other form of popular entertainment. Through repeated viewings and earworm quotes, they create unconscious templates for life’s milestones and stopovers — dating, road trips, the college experience, marriage, the working world — and remind us of moments in time as well as entire eras. They’re comfort food and therapy, high art and cultural critique, nestled lovingly amid fart jokes and crotch punches.
The best comedy movies also enjoy a freedom that seems out of place in most other media, with run-times that allow them to develop complicated but self-contained worlds, the full buffet of acting, editing, and musical options, and the (frequent) R ratings that give them the appropriate range of artistic motion. “Comedy is subjective,” we’re constantly told. Maybe, but if something stays funny for decades it’s clearly reaching across cultures and contexts to tweak our collective nipples for a reason.
Here are our picks for the best of the best.
Before Office Space, most people knew about Mike Judge’s crass but perceptive work via Beavis and Butthead, which only hinted at the multi-textured (if equally dude-centric) worldview of Office Space. Fortunately, most people can instantly relate to this terrifyingly beige universe in which TPS reports, mind-numbing repetition, and TGI Friday’s-style team spirit become the occasion for quietly absurdist field notes on corporate servitude. Select jokes, like David Herman (a.k.a. Michael Bolton) turning down his Scarface song when a black guy strolls past his car, turn lazy cultural role-playing into cutting social commentary. Most have become part of the lexicon. All have aged shockingly well.
A handful of films become so successful they birth entire sub-genres, and while Airplane! was certainly the offspring of any number of zany, cartoonish parents, there’s never been a brat like it, before or since. On the surface it’s a parody of the (then) trendy disaster-film craze of the ’70s, but anyone who has memorized its acrobatic dialogue and merciless pacing knows Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers permanently upped the ante on puns and sight gags. The Farrelly Brothers may have tweaked the recipe by dialing up the raunch and treacly romantic subplots, and South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone have similarly leaned on surreal, out-of-nowhere visual gags mixed with unapologetic race, gender and religion taboos. But as a whirlwind of divine corniness that rips the stuffing out of everything around it, Airplane! remains uniquely devastating.
You don’t need a black light to see the fingerprints of Caddyshack on countless contemporary ensemble comedies. But in choosing Caddyshack over its anarchic spiritual brethren, such as John Landis’s Animal House and Blues Brothers, or director Harold Ramis’ almost-as-stellar Vacation, one must acknowledge the unmatched zeal and affection it shows for freaks, misfits, and outcasts of all stripes. Pick any scene in the film and you’re likely to see an example of something Ramis and his cast and crew either invented or perfected in the realm of feature-length comedy. Perhaps it’s not surprising that lead writer Brian Doyle-Murray based it largely on real-life experiences, given how specific most of the situations feel. But it’s also a tour-de-force of improvisational filmmaking, as any Caddyshack buff can tell you, a loosely-scripted lark that evolved significantly as it was created. Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield form the heart of the movie in all their gangly, immature glory, but it remains a loose, youthful, and living thing, as well as the quintessential late ’70s/’80s comedy, because it began as one.
This Is Spinal Tap
Before Best in Show, or the ballsy, genuine awkwardness of Borat, there was Spinal Tap, the film that launched dozens of catchphrases and a handful of brilliant careers. Rob Reiner’s instinct to dive headfirst into hard-rock clichés was spot-on, although watching it now it’s hard to believe this is the same guy who would later make When Harry Met Sally (a film that, to be fair, set its own stylistic templates but did so with far fewer laugh-out-loud moments). Spinal Tap is brilliant not because it’s universal, though you’d be hard-pressed to find a comedy or music aficionado who didn’t love it, but because it achieves perfection in the relatively tiny pond it sets out to drain. Creatively and as an industry, music has devoured and crapped itself out several times over since Spinal Tap came out, but this daddy of all mockumentaries reassures us there will always be a place for big bottoms, love pumps, and anything that goes to 11.
Shaun Of The Dead
The key to Shaun’s success, apart from the dazzling technical proficiency and charming performances, is that director Edgar Wright is far too respectful of the living dead to make fun of them. People are funny, relationships and jobs, too; but zombies are no laughing matter. So when the pub landlord comes after our heroes to eat their flesh, it’s still pretty scary.
But their response – beating him with various weapons, including a cricket bat, in time with Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now – well, that’s funny in anyone’s book. Wright transferred much of the cast and a lot of the style from his excellent TV show Spaced to the big screen with great ease, and there’s an unexpected emotional punch delivered by the older performers, Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy. But it’s the inventive visual gags, the energetic mugging and relentless one-liners from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that seal the deal. This is a film with everything: comedy, romance, action, zombies.