10 of the Greatest Comedies Ever Made
Everyone has a different idea about what is funny. Comedy is a very personalized taste, though those tastes tend to overlap. Comedy can be gentle, dry, edgy, shocking, and even offensive. More often than not, though, comedy fans tend to gravitate toward a certain era. Mine spans from the early 80's to mid-90's, when the first two decades of Saturday Night Live Alumni started to branch into films. They brought their witty writing styles and over-the-top characters to the big screen in films that had sophisticated story lines with jokes stuffed neatly in between the narrative. Then, there is comedy legend Mel Brooks who can provide constant laughs in an original story spoofing classic tales or eras. Below is my list of my 10 favorite comedies and why they make the cut.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Premise: The grandson of Victor Frankenstein visits Transylvania where he recreates his grandfather’s work and brings to life a new, misunderstood creature who wreaks havoc on the town.
Why it’s the best: The premise sounds like a dark horror movie, but do not be fooled. Mel Brooks is the master of taking a familiar story and turning it into an original, hysterical farce. Some movies fall apart when the jokes become overly absurd and stray from the confines of their universe, but Brooks’ films are so elastic that can always find their way back to normalcy while maintaining their originality.
Young Frankenstein is Brooks’ masterpiece in my opinion. It might be my affinity for classic horror movies and the care that was taken to treat the source material seriously. It also takes risks, being shot in black and white and featuring a melancholy score to offset scene after scene of classic jokes that still haven't gone stale after 40 years. You can show this movie to your four-year-old nephew or your 80-year-old grandmother with the same results: laughter. People still reminisce about the big dance number in the middle of the movie and Frederick’s run-in with a secret passage hidden behind a bookshelf. The actors are so well attuned to each other’s styles and timing. The physical comedy flow like a dance, and the verbal jokes hit like music notes. Every character gets a joke in every scene, the women are as funny as the men, and the laughs continue until the final scene despite its dramatic, heartfelt ending. Young Frankenstein will always make my top 10 list.
Premise: After being fired from their research jobs at a university, three paranormal scientists start their own business in which they trap and remove unwanted ghosts throughout New York City. When an ancient Sumerian god comes back to earth to bring about the end of the world by unleashing the dead from the grave, it’s up to the Ghostbusters to save the world using their brains, their courage, and their proton packs.
Why it’s the best: Some movies are just destined to be classics. From a grounded director, to an exciting story to a cast of the greatest comedians to ever appear onscreen, Ghostbusters is just a perfect execution of a great idea. Mixing horror and comedy was common in the 80’s, but Ghostbusters stands out from the mix. It is not only a great comedy but a great film. You could take out 90 percent of the jokes, and you would still have an epic action or science fiction movie. You can’t go to any kind of horror or comic book convention without seeing a group of Ghostbusters marching around in homemade costumes, keeping the crowd safe from rambunctious spirits.
Despite that, the film does not rely on its jokes or iconic tools, cars, and villains. It is a well crafted script that made these comedians into legends. The success and love of this film is something that wasn't anticipated and couldn't be planned. It just has to happen, and it did.
Listen! Do you smell something?
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1986)
Premise: When Pee Wee Herman’s bike is stolen, he sets off across the country to find it, engaging in a road trip filled with quirky characters and hysterical experiences.
Why it’s the best: It’s hard to say what to expect from a Pee Wee movie. There is no one like him, but luckily, the man needs no explanation because there is no explanation for him. Audiences just take him as he is, and in this movie, he’s just a guy (kid, man-child?) looking for his bike. The loss of his beloved bike wears him down and almost breaks him, but his determination and drive to get it back makes the audience buy into this strange, materialistic premise.
What makes it fun and interesting is Pee Wee’s interactions through different parts of the country. From watching the sun rise from inside a red T-Rex to showing off his crazy dance moves on a bar counter to keep from getting pummeled by an ornery biker gang, the laughs are as infectious as Pee Wee’s froggish laugh. Pee Wee takes you on a ride just by being Pee Wee, innocent, determined, and a cultural icon of the 80's.
Why don't you take a picture; it will last longer!
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Premise: A popular high school senior skips school along with his eager girlfriend and paranoid best friend while dodging his strict high school principal, determined to take him down. The three of them spend the day riding around Chicago in a borrowed Ferrari and make the most of one of their last days together before graduation.
Why it’s the best: John Hughes was the master of 80’s comedies. He knew how to blend comedy and drama to create a relatable storyline with exaggerated truths about teen and adult life. The funniest, though, I would have to say, is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It substitutes some of the heavy dramatic scenes of his other films, like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink for more laughs, without losing any credibility. It works for a film where the point is Ferris’ philosophy: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Ferris’ attitude is one that we all strive to maintain yet inevitably lose the older we get. The film is a nice reminder that sometimes you have to take a day for yourself. It’s his confidence and drive to slack off that sets up the hilarity in this movie. Hughes also isn’t afraid to over-exaggerate Ferris’ world without getting out of control. For example, Ferris’ faked illness spirals out of control when rumors start that he is dying. By the end of the day, the quest to “save Ferris” escapes from the confines of the school and becomes a campaign that meanders its way throughout the entire Chicago area, much like the teenager himself.
The one liners in the movie are made iconic by their delivery from Ben Stein’s monotone role-taking utterance of, “Bueller…Bueller” to Ferris admitting of his clarinet-playing skills, “never had one lesson.” Ferris is easily able to escape the shackles of the monotony of daily life, and he takes us along for the ride, at least until it all (literally) goes out the window.
They bought it.
Premise: After small town couple Adam and Barbara Maitland die in a car accident, their ghosts become trapped in their beloved home which is quickly overtaken by a family of New York yuppies. So, they call on a bio-exorcist named Beetlejuice to help them scare the new family away. When Beetlejuice gets out of control, however, the couple is forced to take him out and save the very family that they were trying to scare away.
Why it’s the best: This movie probably should not work, but for some reason, it does. The jokes still have me laughing after nearly 30 years, the effects are dated but stylish, and the mood is so fun and upbeat. This is a movie that I can watch any time of day, any time of year, and in any type of mood. It pokes fun at both death and the living without trivializing either. It doesn’t get weighed down by a complicated plot. The rules of death are skimmed over and easily accepted, and it stays on focus with the occasional off-the-wall scene, such as a sudden, crazy dance number at a stuffy dinner party.
Michael Keaton is at his comedic best, Winona Rider is the perfect odd and moody teenager, Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones balance being both self-absorbed yet still likable parents, and Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis take it all in with the perfect panicked and horrified reactions, despite the fact that they’re the ghosts in the house. Anyone who hasn’t seen Beetlejuice does not know what they are missing, and as long as the fans (like me) who are showing them the movie don’t blurt out all of the jokes ahead of time, they’re likely going to have a good time.
Premise: A holy terror of a TV station executive, Frank Cross, is put in his place by three ghosts on Christmas Eve while trying to produce a live version of the classic book, A Christmas Carol.
Why it’s the best: A Christmas Carol is one of the most widely adapted stories in history. You could spend the whole of December watching or reading them all. So, what makes this one my favorite? It's Bill Murray's acting, Richard Donner's directing, and that 80's concept of materialism being turned on its head. This decades-old movie is a "modern" retelling of the Charles Dickens classic that is stuffed full of hilarious moments and funny lines that you won't find in the original story. There is also that dark comedy element that I love. It uses the age of television to show how materialistic the entire world is, not just Cross, and in the end, he becomes the voice of the Christmas spirit, delivering an over-dramatic but genuine monologue about his change of heart.
The Birdcage (1996)
Premise: When their son proposes to the daughter of a strict, ring-wing politician, a gay nightclub owner and his drag queen partner must pretend to be straight when the daughter and her parents drive down to for dinner to meet them and flee from a political scandal.
Why it’s the best: This may not be the obvious choice for a Robin Williams movie on a top 10 list, but if you go back and view this movie, almost every scene has you laughing. From the eccentric Albert, to the dimwitted Agador, to the panicked Armand, to the uptight Keeley family, this film makes light of gay culture without poking fun at it. It introduced me to the premise that a kid could have two dads and have a household just as loving and just as screwed up as your own.
The scenes are well choreographed as the various characters try to meet their own expectations of the family dinner without colliding into each other. Needless to say, they are not successful, though this does not cause the film to veer into an overly dramatic or dark direction. Everything falls into place once everyone comes clean with who they are, creating a catharsis after a buildup of tense but hilarious hijinx that occur in the events leading up to the disastrous dinner party. However, you don't get there without some nail-biting laughs.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Premise: After being frozen for 30 years, British spy Austin Powers is defrosted in order to stop his greatest enemy, Dr. Evil, from taking over the world.
Why it’s the best: Mike Meyers ruled comedy in the late 90’s when Austin Powers came out. People were “yeah baby-ing” each other all over the place. The film poked fun at the spy genre, Mel Brooks’ style, while showing off the dance moves and laughs that made Mike Meyers a household name. Repeated viewings and dated jokes kept me away from the franchise for a number of years, but after a period of absence, the jokes become funny again, and it makes you appreciate the physical comedy brilliance that occurs in the film.
The first movie in the franchise is also the most plot-driven, while its sequels rely mainly on the comedy to get them through. That’s not to say that they are not funny, but as I've said, I like my comedies to have a solid structure on which to build the laughs. If you haven’t watched this movie in awhile, pop it back in to remind yourself what you first loved about it. It will take you back to a simpler time when a pinky held up to the corner of Dr. Evil’s mouth was enough to make you roll on the floor laughing.
Dr. Evil is out of touch.
The Wedding Singer (1998)
Premise: When local wedding singer Robbie Hart is dumped at the altar, he loses faith in weddings until he befriends waitress Julia and falls for her while helping her to plan her own wedding to a despicable stockbroker.
Why it’s the best: Adam Sandler may have made a name for himself by playing immature characters with funny voices, but The Wedding Singer is probably his greatest film because he ditches all of that for a nice guy role with a fun 80’s vibe. He gets laughs as Robbie Hart by pulling back and taking in the hilarity around him. The time period creates a nostalgic backdrop where the jokes are pulled from the now bizarre pop culture references of the day, from friend Sammy’s red Michael Jackson jacket to bandmate George singing the same song over and over again while Robbie is on break.
Drew Barrymore adds a sweetness factor in one of her signature 90’s comeback roles, and Sandler’s Happy Madison gang all kill it in their roles, including Steve Buscemi as the drunk best man in the opening scene and Jon Lovitz as the creepy Jimmie Moore looking to capitalize on Robbie's heartbreak. The Wedding Singer is fun and simple without trying too hard, and it includes a romantic comedy aspect to make it a comedy that both guys and girls will agree to watch and love.
Orange County (2002)
Premise: When a guidance counselor’s submission error keeps a high school senior from getting into Stanford Unversity, he, his brother, and his girlfriend set out to right the wrong so that he can study with his mentor and become a great writer.
Why it’s the best: Kids today are told how important it is to go to college, but what happens when one of the smartest kids in school gets cheated out of going? Orange County is a movie that pokes fun out of teens' desperation to get into the right school so that they can get their dream jobs. For Shaun Brumder, things do not go according to plan. Sometimes one person’s pain can mean a movie full of laughs for the audience. Made by MTV Studios, you don’t expect the material to be treated as seriously as it is, but the jokes are smart and well-timed. The movie is short and sweet, packing in the laughs with a simple plot line but well rounded characters that Shaun bounces off of like a pinball.
Seasoned comedians, like Catherine O’Hara, John Lithgow, and Harold Ramis, help steer the younger characters’ to and from their quest to help Shaun get accepted into Stanford. Jack Black is in his element turning his comedic knob from 1 to 10 at crucial moments in the story, and Colin Hanks plays Shaun as a sickly, desperate high schooler torn between the life he knows and the life he wants.
Romeo and Juliet
Which film above is your favorite? What are your favorite comedies, and what type of comedies are they? Who are your favorite movie comedians? Share your answers below.