Welcome to yet another Sacred Wall Top Ten! This week, instead of looking at those films that make us love or make us shriek, we are looking at those great films that make us howl with laughter. That’s right, in honor of last month’s BBC list of the Top 100 Comedy Films Ever, I thought I’d respond with my own list, and present you all with The Sacred Wall’s Greatest Comedies Of All Time!
That’s right, I’ve tallied up the films that take comedy to the next level, eliciting the biggest belly laughs, push the boundary of filmmaking and storytelling, and all around just entertain us in a way that films should. In theory, this should be an easy job, because funny is funny. However, anyone who has sat through a bad comedy film knows that not everything is so simple. I mean, I don’t want to tell you to watch The Master of Disguise, but that’s the perfect example of what happens when you forget to add the comedy. In fact, I’d go as far as to say comedy is the hardest genre to pull off. This makes the films that qualify for this list amongst the greatest movies ever made.
Now, obviously I haven’t seen every comedy film ever made, so unfortunately older classics like The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The General, and even more recent ones like Monty Python’s Life of Brian unfortunately fall by the wayside, delayed until I can judge them for myself. I also have to disqualify dramatic films with hysterically funny moments, like Boogie Nights, Pulp Fiction, and Sunset Blvd. Then there are the dozens of hilarious films I wish I could award, but just couldn’t make room for, films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High or The Big Lebowski, like Zoolander, Bridesmaids, Mean Girls, or Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Cary Grant classics Bringing Up Baby and Arsenic and Old Lace just miss out, as does Charlie Chaplin’s magnum opus City Lights and John Hughes’ remarkable Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. A split in the vote between their several masterpieces resulted in snubs for several films by Christopher Guest, including Waiting For Guffman, This Is Spinal Tap, and Best In Show and Mel Brooks, including Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Some of the funniest films I’ve ever seen miss out on the list, including Tommy Boy, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Three Amigos!, When Harry Met Sally… and What We Do In The Shadows, as does my all-time favorite film The Blues Brothers. And I just couldn’t make room for the usual classics, as great as they are, like Some Like It Hot, The Graduate, and Sullivan’s Travels. However, if there’s one film I’m sorely disappointed missed this list, it is the Coen Brothers classic Raising Arizona. If I ever expand this list to a Top 15, that is the first one to make it. With all of that said, let’s take a look at the Top Ten-ish Greatest Comedies of All Time.
10. Team America: World Police (TIE)
As the most recent film on this list, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 satire Team America: World Police has a lot to prove to the world. Indeed, it’s not easy to sell a comedy vaguely representing the Iraq War less than a year in. However, what’s great about the film is that not only is it consistently laugh-out-loud funny in a way few other movies dare to be, but its satire works on three levels, without ever feeling aggressive: an attack on America’s right-wing politics, an attack on America’s left-wing politics, and an attack on America’s love of big-budget Michael Bay films. And yet, while I said that they’re “attacking” America three times in that sentence, it never feels like they have any animosity or ill-feelings – they’re just trying to goof everyone to get them to think outside their own mindsets. The moral of the movie is to use humor to inspire the left and the right to understand each other’s fears and aspirations, and to find their common ground in their love for their flawed, but strong and independent country. Sure, it’s a clear takedown of the rightwing ideology to have them declare victory in the midst of self-created destruction (their battle in Paris bore more than a few similarities to television images of Iraq), but it’s also a takedown of the left to portray specifically selected privileged celebrities (looking at you, Sean Penn) to say intentionally pretentious takes on issues they clearly know nothing about. The film views both sides as childish and naïve, but knows that through compromise, they can make their country strong in the face of tyranny.
However, what I find most fascinating is the film’s take on the formulaic stories of Michael Bay. Parker and Stone studied Bay films in extensive detail in order to capture the exact tone of the movie. They created their own version of Bay’s soundtracks, each funnier than that last (one of which blatantly calls out Bay’s inability to direct a good movie), and throws in clichéd dialogue that spoofs the worst of Bay’s capabilities (“Maybe feelings are feelings…because we can’t control them” being amongst my favorites). The action is portrayed as high-stakes as possible, even if the climax is just two puppets being shaken at each other. Oh, and speaking of the puppet aspect of things, have I talked about the sex scene? Because the escalation of the Michael Bay sex scene from basic puppet missionary to scatological humor is amongst the funniest visuals ever put on screen. Parker and Stone are two brilliant filmmakers who know how to make a funny movie, from the most banal of jokes to the most highbrow of satire, and they can proudly declare that the movie they made about puppets is amongst the finest in modern history.
10. Airplane! (TIE)
What makes Airplane! appeal to so many people across so many generations? On its surface, it’s already a clever concept. The 70s were filled with very specific disaster movies, and Airplane! manages to fit them all in in glorious fashion. A disaster that threatens the lives of an entire ensemble? How about a plane that’s going to crash because all of the pilots got food poisoning? The self-serious doctor who explains the plot? You get Leslie Nielson delivering no-nonsense non sequiturs (“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley”). Pointless cameos meant to draw in a crowd? Fine, here’s June Cleaver speaking Jive and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Roger “Roger” Murdock, at least until some kid calls Jabbar a bad basketball player and forces him to break character. A reluctant hero who is retired after “the incident” and has a drinking problem? Here’s a reluctant hero who will tell his life story to unwitting passengers and literally cannot drink normally. The ground crew who just gave up smoking? Well, what if he not only gave up smoking, but gave up drinking, hard drugs, and huffing glue? And that wide assortment of characters to put into peril? Here’s jive-speaking black men, a priest lined up to slap a hysterical woman, a suspicious wife, a young boy the pilot takes a shining to, and a nun who accidentally murders a sick girl. Each and every choice is a clever subversion of the expectations of the genre, making this one of the greatest spoofs of all time.
However, if this film was only a spoof of 70s disaster films, there would be no way for modern audiences to relate to it the way they do. Furthermore, there would be no difference between it and the terrible Disaster Movie. So why is it that these jokes work? Well, I for one think it’s because of the natural f*ck you-itiveness of the entire production. Every decision seems like a middle finger to expectations. The Jive conversation between the sick African-Americans and the woman who played the epitome of the white suburban housewife is one of the funniest scenes in film history. The random asides to the people listening to Ted Striker’s life story reveal a variety of people committing suicide to escape. And let’s not forget the sheer audacity of Stephen Stucker’s performance, who seems like he has run in from the insane asylum to disrupt the flow of the movie. This movie doesn’t care about anything – not basic story structure, not basic joke setup, and not audience expectations. And because of that, it feels like a breath of fresh air to anyone watching it in any generation, and making it stand out as one of the greatest comedies of all time.
The reason we love comedy is because it makes us laugh. Oftentimes, the best comedies make us laugh in order to keep us from crying. This is perhaps the best way to sum up Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, a film that takes on war, the sixties (via the fifties), and what it means for us to stay positive, even in the worst circumstances. It’s an ode to the importance of the bacchanal, not as a selfish means of pleasure, but as an escape to find the simple joys in life in the face of horror. If war can be absurd, then life can be absurd, and we can escape that overwhelming desire to cry in the face of the horrific downside. We embrace heroes like Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Duke (Tom Skerritt) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould) because they didn’t choose this life – they were all drafted into the war – but they not only perform their jobs perfectly, saving countless lives throughout, but do it their way. And if that means playing (cheating?) at football, golfing during work hours, and having trysts with the nurses in between, all while pranking and torturing the Man, well, by all means, have your fun.
Yes, this movie does get dark. Fellow platoon members threaten suicide. We see the gore in the surgery rooms. We know the cost of life that runs throughout. However, none of this feels like it dampens the mood, or is simply meant to shock the viewer. Instead, it is offered up to help the audience connect to the humor. Because of the more depressing moments, when things turn out ok, or the gang diverts it all with a massive prank, we feel like the weight of the drama is taken off our shoulders. And that’s exactly what Hawkeye’s team (and Altman himself) want us to feel. It is through this revelation we can understand why they are friends with who they like and why they hate the man with such ferocity. Folks like Radar and Father Mulcahy, as square as they may be, understand the importance of human life, and why these pranks are necessary to preserve its wonder. Meanwhile, government stooges like Hot Lips Houlihan and Major Frank Burns see only government assets and jobs that need doing. They’ve forgotten the wonder of human life, and desire to kill the very thing that keeps us human in the face of trauma. So no matter how cruel our heroes can be, we still root for them. Because they’re reminding us that there is still joy in this crazy, crazy world. And it reminds us of why comedy is so beloved in the first place.
8. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Boiled down to its core, comedy is all based on the defiance of expectations. Slapstick is funny because we don’t expect our hero to get hurt like that, wordplay is funny because we don’t expect words to have so many extra meanings, and so on. The comedy troupe Monty Python loves taking this idea to the next level, making sure that not even the plot meets expectations, mostly by barely even having one. That’s what makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail one of the funniest movies ever made, because it is a flagrant offense in the face of basic storytelling. Wherever a normal film would zig, and a bold film would zag, Holy Grail stripes. It is a film where randomness is key, as seen from the very beginning, when the opening credits intentionally take what feels like fifteen minutes as the staff constantly tries to talk about the threat of the moøse population and has to be constantly fired. The very next scene delivers a killer joke involving the replacement of horses with “a servant banging two halves of a coconut together,” but things go to the next level when the action is interrupted to question the stupidity of this visual gag. So not only are they giving us a dumb joke, they’re making us listen to them debate how dumb the joke is. That is a brilliant about-face in the world of joke-telling, and it shows in how every film since wants to capture this sense of nihilistic humor. Everything in this movie is random, and it never really makes a lot of sense, despite the fact that most of the characters question how dumb the movie gets as it goes on (could this be a commentary on the way we look for meaning in the random chaos that is life? Maybe, but why question it when it’s so funny). It opts for random and chaotic wherever a normal movie would try to return to a plot. And to add insult to injury (the only time this expression has ever been used as a compliment), the film just ends. That’s right, it just ends. There’s no credits, there’s no resolution, the police show up and shut down the movie in order to arrest the main character and lounge music plays over a black screen. It may be the funniest ending to a movie ever, all because a group of Brits refused to embrace basic story structure.
However, while many of the film’s best jokes work because they deliver anti-humor, a good deal of the movie works because of the film’s dependency on satire. This is a very smart film that knows the stories of old and subverts the romantic tropes to paint a more accurate portrayal of the medieval times. There are layers and layers of jokes inside even the most minor scenes in the film, criticizing the glorification of a very inglorious time in history. As opposed to the glistening castles of Camelot or the beautiful maidens of the works of Thomas Mallory, the towns and villagers are filthy and off-putting. Instead of fabulous costumes and designs, we get the cart, where dead bodies are removed (“I’m not dead yet!”) Instead of daring swordfights of epic proportions, we get the Black Knight losing limbs and trying to continue the fight (“’tis but a scratch!”). And instead of magic and mystery, we get a bunch of idiots trying to figure out the best way to burn an innocent woman at the stake (perhaps our own justice system would be better served by weighing people opposite a duck). Even the structure is a takedown of the classic legends, as many King Arthur stories involved the random side quests of his knights. Except instead of being brave, strong, and intelligent, here we get the decidedly impure Galahad, the homicidally insane Lancelot, and, in the best takedown of all, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot, played with aplomb by Eric Idle and perfectly satirizing the true nature of humanity in the face of certain death (and penis-splitting): turning tail and running away, pissing your pants while doing so. I’m also partial to the subversion of the damsel in distress myth, here featuring a fey prince instead of a poor virginal princess. This is a smart film through and through, whether it is using its brain or intentionally not, and because of the wit of the cast and crew on this project, Monty Python has created one of the oddest, strangest, funniest movies of all time.
Some comedies come along and just change things forever. Ghostbusters is one of them. Sure, the argument could be made that it’s not the best comedy of all time; nevertheless, its influence and innovation can be felt throughout pop culture. Never before has a film so openly reached across genres to be so many things at once – a comedy, a horror, a business-based drama, a fantasy, and more. Furthermore, few films have created five movie stars, become the most quotable movie of all-time, and had an original song almost as good as the movie itself, all in one go. Ghostbusters changed the game, and there’s no way around that. I think the thing it did that was most special was that it was actually about something. While most comedies had some sort of loose story that the jokes can revolve around, Ghostbusters created a universe and let the humor come naturally. They made a set of rules and allowed things to grow intelligently and humorously. There’s a reason we can remember Zuul, and the library scene, and Slimer, and more. It’s because there’s an actual story people could enjoy built around these humorous moments, not just as an excuse for them. Everything fits into a greater lore and story, from the Ecto-5 to the Gatekeeper/Key Master to the theme song, and it allows for the jokes to come in a more natural, likable way. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a big deal, as we are now used to comedies with plots, like the rom-com, the spoof, and the dramedy. However, what needs to be addressed is the fact that this film came first, forever changing the face of the modern comedy.
However, the strong story isn’t the only reason people have made this film into a comedy staple. There’s the fantastic performances, specifically from Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, and Annie Potts. Each of their characters is an archetype coming from the famous “horror-adventure” films of yore. I mean, our heroes themselves are just variations on the four key heroic archetypes: the reluctant hero (Venkman), the optimist (Ray), the brain (Egon), and the Everyman (Winston). Oh, and speaking of horror, most of the laughs from the film come from allusions or spoofs of the films of old, from The Mummy to Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This means there are some very real scares, like when the hands erupt from the couch or the librarian attacks our heroes, but for the most part, the jokes come from defying the expectations of these classic horror films. Instead of Slimer harming Venkman during his attack, he just covers him in slime. When witnessing a nerdy man being attacked on the street, the rich of society turn their backs to resume their conversation. The mayor is only inspired to save the city when reminded that they are registered voters. And when the city is threatened with an ultimate evil, it appears in the form of a giant, smiling, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, in one of the film’s most laugh-out-loud, What-The-F*ck moments. When combined with jokes as broad as a wonderfully quotable one-liner to the subtlety of one of Ramis’ hand gestures, this becomes one of the smartest, most memorable comedies of all time. While it may not be the greatest of all time, it’s perhaps the one that had the greatest influence over the modern face of comedy, in all the best ways.
6. Duck Soup
There may not be a greater influence over modern day comedy than the Marx Brothers. Establishing a strong four-person shtick, where eldest Groucho was the sarcastic huckster, Chico was the self-serving moron, Harpo was the vaudevillian mime, and Zeppo was the straight man, their act was so solid, it could work across a variety of mediums and plotlines in a string of successful movies and plays. However, no film truly captured their ingenious, game-changing, f*ck-you-itevness quite like Duck Soup, arguably the greatest anti-war, anti-dictator, and anti-government bureaucrats film ever made. Duck Soup was a flop when it first came out, mostly because it was so far ahead of its time. No one wanted a film about spies and inept leaders and entering a war because of our leaders’ own stupidity – we didn’t realize the reality of that for another thirty years. Indeed, Rufus T. Firefly may be one of the film’s greatest satirical creations. Essentially put into power as a puppet of the richer classes who in turn treats the job, his country, and those that elected him with contempt, he is a figure who would have been thought of as too far fetched in 1933 and yet seems incredibly realistic after the past 40 years of politics. Grouch openly lambastes his friends with killer one-liners like “I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows ‘til you came home.” When he goes to war, he changes his outfits in every shot, reflecting different uniforms of wars fought out of the government’s stupidity as opposed to a “higher cause,” capturing the nihilistic outlook in the wake of World War I. And in my personal favorite scene, he observes an enemy spy being off-putting to the world around him, pissing off everyone in his path…and immediately puts him in the highest position of power he can. His reply? “Hey, come up here a minute! I want to scare the Cabinet!” The film wasn’t afraid to satirize government entanglements, the rise of fascism, and even democracy itself.
However, while the emphasis on smart political humor makes this film a classic that rings true throughout the ages, it’s the classic Marxist vaudevillian humor that we remember, gag-wise. There’s the famous scene where Chico and Harpo (or Chicolini and Pinky, as they are named in the film) switch hats over and over with a street vendor, slowly but surely pissing him off. There’s the scene where Pinky stops his quest to impress “volunteers” into the army to spend some time with a woman he meets, and we slowly pan up the bed to reveal him spooning…the horse. You see, while the government had started censoring films and forbid men and women to share beds together (even if they’re married), they had no rules about men sharing beds with horses. That’s brilliant satire. And, above all, there is the greatest joke in the history of film, the Mirror Scene. The scene where Harpo dresses up as a spot-on duplicate of older brother Groucho and tries to trick him into thinking the doorway they’re standing in is a mirror. The sheer brilliance of the timing, the perfection of the editing and camera work, and the subtle hints at breaking the fourth wall are all spot-on. It is the first true gut-buster in film history, as far as I’m concerned, and it changed the game in comedic filmmaking. Duck Soup is the classic comedy, the grandfather that set the table for all great things to come, and is great in and of itself.
5. National Lampoon’s Animal House
I’m not sure there’s been a greater impact on modern pop culture than the National Lampoon. The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, John Hughes, and more all can trace back their roots to the infamous magazine that made the older generations mortified and electrified a generation of creative rebels. Their impact has been seen in film from Spinal Tap and Blues Brothers to Vacation and Caddyshack, but their crowning achievement remains their hedonistic, rebellious magnum opus Animal House. The film exists not only as one of the greatest comedies of all time, but as one of the best college films of all time. It is a film that is surprisingly honest in spite of all its absurdity, and one that preaches a sort of morality inside of immorality (after all, despite their manipulation, sexual desires, and overall awfulness, our Deltas only engage in combat when forced to, and as we learn in a horrifically satiric scene about the correlation between the two, would never take advantage of a drunk woman). These are characters we want to root for, both because they are cartoonish and realistic. Pinto and Flounder are our nerdy Freshman year selves, Boon is our confident Junior self, and Bluto is the worst version of ourselves (more on him in a minute). It captures the nostalgia of our crazy, life-changing college years in all their anarchic, humorous, laughable glory. It’s not afraid to be down-and-out gross, like the food fight scene, the horse scene, or the Vietnam drill-master, but it all speaks to a greater message of finding sympathy with the outcast. For this was the film for the anarchist, the one that called the nerds, stoners, and societal rejects left out of society to come together as a strong fraternity of drinking and bacchanal in the face of the early 60s’ racist, sexist squareness, as portrayed by the bigots of Omega Theta, the Mayor, and the Drill Team that seems too excited by the prospect of the Vietnam War. It speaks volumes that a womanizing assh*le like Eric Stratton (Rush Chairman, Damn Glad To Meet Ya) still treats women better than pricks like Greg Marmalade. Delta may not be perfect, but they’re still the people we should strive to be, as opposed to the repressive reign of Dean Wormer.
This is a film where “adolescent humor” reigns supreme. Its goal is to offend everyone, and in doing so, offending no one. While certain jokes may be deemed as “un-PC” in modern society, such as sequences involving the white people traversing to an African-American bar, the idea of dating a 13-year-old, and the infamous “Greg, honey, is it supposed to be this soft?” may seem offensive on the surface, but they are funny for two key reasons. The most obvious is that they’re just perfectly executed jokes, forcing you to laugh even if you want to seem affronted, but more important is the fact that the film never punches down. The African-American sequence is a sharp critique of the fact that they weren’t allowed to attend college at the time the same way our protagonists can. The joke involving Clorette seems intentionally aimed at the mental and emotional age of Pinto and the rest of the Deltas. And as for the “Greg, honey,” line, it’s a critique of the male-oriented sexuality of the era, where women weren’t allowed to have much say in the sex, and were mostly being used by Alpha Males presumably covering for their latent homosexuality (did I mention homophobic in my takedown of the Omegas earlier)? As much as the film likes to flaunt itself in the face of good taste, it’s heart and brain never leave the right place and the right side of history. And if it does, then it is always through the lens of Bluto. John Belushi’s Bluto Blutarsky is hands-down one of the cinema’s greatest creations. He may be a bit of a prick who does morally shady things and possesses a 0.0 GPA (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”), but we like him because he’s our id, the figure who does the things we wish we could do – and some things we wish we didn’t – and because we all knew someone like him. But above all, we like him because Belushi makes us like him with his incredible performance, and we cheer as he gets his revenge. And the fact he becomes a Senator is just the icing on the satiric cake that the Lampoon is serving us. Look, I can try to dissect why this film is so funny all I want, but at the end of the day, it’s just too impossible to dissect. National Lampoon has simply made a likable, hysterical film, and it’s one that no one has ever matched in terms of pure audaciousness, no matter how hard they try.
4. Annie Hall
I could honestly write about Woody Allen’s Annie Hall for the rest of this article. I mean, we’ve reached the point where we aren’t just talking about the best comedies ever made, but the best films, period. And you honestly can’t do much better than the sheer brilliance of Allen’s take on the romantic comedy. Actually, calling it a romantic comedy isn’t quite accurate – that wasn’t the film Allen sent out to make. Instead, Annie Hall is something of a happy accident, sort of like your younger brother. The film is instead supposed to be a comedy about dealing with your own neuroses and anhedonia, and about an individual who can’t connect to other humans. The result ended up halfway between the two, creating a study about the triumphs and follies of relationships when confronted with our own depression and neuroses. The film is loosely unstructured, shaped as if it is a series of memories in Alvy Singer’s mind as he tries to understand why he is incapable at forming a healthy relationship. It allows us to jump through time to whatever crosses his mind, giving us hilarious glimpses into the life of a miserable man, from a confined childhood of self-doubt to an adulthood of failure, always coming close to the reason he can’t be happy (he’s an egotist), but never fully getting there, forever alluding him like happiness with the eponymous Annie. It even toys with the idea of narrative, breaking the fourth wall to tell us what our characters are really thinking when they’re flirting (“I wonder what she looks like naked?”) and interrupting the action so that Alvy can prove the douchebag in line behind him at the movies wrong. “Wouldn’t it be nice if real life were like this?” he laments, clueing us in to where this fantasy falls in reality. And the answer is yes, it would be nice, but like many things, it is just outside our grasp as humans.
Of course, no one watches Annie Hall for Woody Allen’s narcissistic self-loathing musings. We watch for Diane Keaton’s star-making turn as Annie, and all of the relationship humor that goes along with it. Every joke about relationships in this film work, and has inspired almost every rom-com since, from La La Land to When Harry Met Sally… The little details we see in relationships are blown up to their biggest, most extravagant exaggerations. The first meeting of the couple is the epitome of the meet-cute, capturing the awkwardness of meeting someone you’re attracted to for the first time as Annie and Alvy try to one-up the other in putting their foot in each other’s mouths. The first meeting of the family is taken to the next level, as Alvy feels the anti-Semitic’s eyes on him as she imagines him as a full-on Hasidic Jew, and he’s forced to drive to the airport with Annie’s suicidal brother (Christopher Walken is a gem). And there’s the famous spider scene, where a broken up couple is trying to find any excuse possible to see each other again by having Alvy battle what we assume is an incredibly large spider (or perhaps this is just his sarcastic nature shining through). The film loves breaking down the reasons we fall in love, inside (the mind) and out (the actual relationship), and all as hilariously as possible. In the end, Alvy declares that relationships are like an old joke about a man who thinks he’s a chicken because he “needs the eggs.” The idea of falling in love with someone is dumb, insane, and chaotic, but we do it because we need to, in order to be human. And for a comedy to lay that heavy of a philosophical idea on us is truly, truly astounding.
3. Blazing Saddles
Mel Brooks has, for the longest time, been one of the funniest men in Hollywood. His zany, boundary-pushing comedy can really be divided into three different categories: great stories (The Producers), great spoofs (Spaceballs), and great satires (History of the World: Part I). However, his magnum opus will always be Blazing Saddles, a film that serves as both a spoof and a satire, all wrapped up in a terrific story. Written with the help of the great Richard Pryor, the film tells the story of modern race relations through the lens of African-American and Jewish heroes, which I’m sure has nothing to do with who wrote it. The brilliance here comes from the decision to tell the story as a spoof of the Western, the most traditionally white film there is – in many ways, this film could be considered the anti-John Wayne film. And what’s truly amazing is how funny Sherriff Bart can be, in the face of both racist villains (ones who would rather actively save a cart before saving the African-American workers) and racist townspeople (Bart has the n-word screamed at him as he walks down the street by little old ladies). He has every reason to be angry or aggressive, and yet he channels that energy into becoming the smartest and funniest of the ensemble. He becomes a metaphorical, and in one instance, literal interpretation of Bugs Bunny, perpetually f*cking with the worst of society for his own amusement. In many ways, it’s a lot like Pryor’s stand-up material: a raunchy, aggressive, and hilarious take-down of the forces that be. We laugh at how the rednecks are portrayed, all related and incredibly racist, but it’s still mortifying to see them pull their guns on Bart or sentence them to death for standing up for himself. Hell, in one of the film’s most infamous moments, Bart incites the KKK so he and the Jewish Waco Kid can beat them up. Do you know how refreshing it would be for an audience of minorities and outcasts to see a representation of themselves mocking and beating the KKK? That’s refreshing even today. Every joke Brooks throws at us builds to a higher cause, confronting racism in America in the funniest, most honest way it possibly can.
Of course, what’s also great about this film is how lovingly Brooks takes on the Western genre. It’s all there: the corrupt governor, the plan to steal people’s land, the showgirl who falls in love with the sheriff (the sausage scene is one of the funniest in film history), to the eventual riding into the sunset, albeit the fact that they eventually sneak off their horses and into limos as they ride off the lot. Speaking of the fourth wall, let’s not forget the fact that they perpetually break it throughout as they talk to the audience, reference 20th century ideas (Hedley Lamarr), and the eventual literal breaking of the fourth wall as their final battle carries over onto the set for a Busby Berkeley musical number. Of course, that’s just funny because it allowed for the juxtaposition and eventual takedown of the framework of the “manly genre” of Westerns versus the “gay” genre of musicals. And let’s not forget the theme song, as performed by famous Western singer Frankie Laine. If you’re wondering why it sounds so good, it’s because Brooks famously tricked the reluctant Laine into performing it by telling him it was a real Western. To be fair, this movie could qualify even with all of its humor and satire. Nevertheless, this is a smart film through and through, whether it’s employing brilliant humor like Wilder’s “Morons” speech (a critique that still applies to the “flyover state” fallacy today), or risqué humor like the famous beans scene. Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor created one of the smartest, funniest, most outrageous movies of all time, and it will forever sit in the upper echelons of comedy for its unique accomplishments.
2. It Happened One Night
Few films on this list were so successful they created an entire genre. However, that’s exactly the case with Frank Capra’s brilliant creation of the romantic comedy, It Happened One Night. Essentially a take on the comedy of manners, the film is a Wilde-esque satire of class relations during the Depression era. It contrasted the posh, naïve lifestyles of the rich with the cynical, egotistical-but-proud behaviors of the poor, to great effect. Watching the Academy Award-winning performances of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, you immediately understand the battle of sexes, classes, and beliefs in effect throughout, with each joke building to a hilarious conclusion. Colbert’s Ellie Andrews is the stereotypical spoiled rich girl, and she doesn’t understand the lay of the land, which allowed for a much-needed venting about the rich during the Depression era. Watching as she gets taken down a peg by strangers, her traveling companion, and eventually herself allowed for a catharsis in the audience. Plus, it’s just funny watching a grown woman get mocked by a child. Of course, that’s not to say that the cynical Peter is any better. He may claim that he knows “the real America” better, but that’s only because he’s got the typical male ego. Watching him drone on and on about “the right way to dunk a donut” or “the right way to hitchhike” isn’t supposed to earn your support (if it does, that’s just because Gable’s so charming). Indeed, we’re supposed to realize he’s just a simple buffoon built up by the male ego. Watching him grow more and more frustrated as he gets proven wrong is half the fun, and part of the reason that it’s so fun to watch Ellie top his hitchhiking skills by showing a little leg.
However, just as America needed a lesson about the classes coming together to rise above their woes, the film works best when the duo works together, i.e. falls in love. The Walls of Jericho may not seem funny at first glance, but that final, sexy joke makes it all worth it. Watching them team up to battle a sexist, entitled assh*le who wants to advance on Ellie is one of my favorite jokes in the film. And there may not be a better, more scathing joke about 1930s relationships than when the two of them pose as a married couple in front of a police officer and Peter berates Ellie until she cries. The officer’s response to the owners of the truck stop? “I told you they were a perfectly nice married couple.” The two of them exchange banter like no film has ever come close to matching in the history of Hollywood, as each line bites and leaps with a playful sexiness that everyone, be they an adult male or young girl, can enjoy and chuckle along with. The relationship feels real and honest in a way many films just aren’t, or at least desire to be. And while I mentioned my love for Allen’s film a bit earlier, Capra, Gable, and author Robert Riskin summed up the entire theme of that movie 40 years earlier, and in one simple line. As Gable rants about how crazy and obnoxious the spoiled Ellie is, he’s pressed repeatedly about if he loves her. His response remains one of my all-time favorite movie lines: “[Of course I love her!] But don’t hold that against me; I’m a little screwy myself!” It Happened One Night is that simple perfect film that is oft repeated, yet never copied. It just can’t be: it arrived at the perfect time in history to tell the perfect story, and to capture a romantic feeling that just can’t exist anymore as society becomes more and more cynical. However, if you’re going to determine what the best comedies are, Night is both innovative, influential, and down-right hilarious, making it one of the best comedies of all time.
1. Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
I want you to read all the reasons I’ve given for the films listed so far. The satire, the absurdity, the realism, the trying not to cry, the story-first approach, all of it. If you were to combine all of these descriptors into one perfect film, directed by the greatest filmmaker of all time, with a prescience that will last for years to come, then you have a decent idea as to why Dr. Strangelove is the both the funniest and greatest comedy ever made. This is arguably the only comedy on this list that deserves the label of “great” before it, as Stanley Kubrick directed this film with the utter panache, skill, and absurdity that would go into a regular war film. Indeed, the comedy in this movie is so black, it almost qualifies as a straight film, and that’s sort of what’s brilliant about it. You see, if the film had been played as a regular comedy, such as Airplane!, then people would have just laughed off its themes and messages. This is comedy with a Purpose – a capital-P Purpose, to inform the world of how silly and dangerous their desire to out-weaponize each other will eventually be. It’s quite absurd to imagine a war breaking out because one rogue general couldn’t get an erection, and yet it doesn’t seem outside the film’s logic, mixing the laughter with the groans. The fact George C. Scott considers it a victory to only lose “50, 60 million” lives and would rather debate the dangers of a “mineshaft gap” when trying to save civilian lives is laugh-out-loud hysterical in concept, but only if you choose not to think about the fact that some schmuck in Washington is probably thinking that same thing right now. Kubrick knows how to balance the seriousness of eventual war with the silliness of humanity’s destructive nature – as best exemplified in the famous bomb-riding sequence – and it creates one of the smartest, most surreal interpretations of human nature ever recorded.
As mentioned above, the reason that Dr. Strangelove is one of the best comedies ever is because all of the actors play their roles perfectly straight, and while this is true, there is one actor talented enough to blend straight comedy with absolute buffoonery. I’m talking, of course, about the movie’s hidden gem, Peter Sellers. Sellers is so great in this movie, he plays not one, not two, but three different roles, each more hysterical than the last. The first is Colonel Lionel Mandrake, a commander at the base of General Jack D. Ripper (God, this movie’s clever), the man behind the attempted bombing of the Soviets. He’s sort of the straight man in sequences portraying Ripper’s insanity, which involves a sequence where paranoid U.S. troops fire on the Russian army, which is very clearly the U.S. army coming to stop their treasonous behavior, and billboards everywhere on the Army base declaring “Peace Is Our Profession,” satirizing the gung-ho nature of U.S. foreign affairs a full two years before we became fully embroiled in Vietnam. Sellers’ second great performance comes as sniveling Midwestern president Merkin Muffley (a play on the name for a pubic wig), who spends the entire movie trying to seem strong while doing absolutely nothing at all (not unlike every leader who had preceded him when the film came out). He’s responsible for the infamous phrase “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” He’s also responsible for an improvised sequence where he has to negotiate peace talks with a drunken Soviet Premier, acting as if he’s trying to apologize to a friend at a bar instead of as two distinguished diplomats, adding to the satire of political leaders. And in a crowning turn, he plays former Nazi Dr. Strangelove, who comes up with different Doomsday scenarios in the face of Nuclear Winter, which all seem to involve getting him and the President laid. Oh, and he has a disembodied hand that still thinks it’s a Nazi and wants to strangle the traitor at all costs. Is this demon hand a reference to the hidden evil desires inside humanity that seeks to make us destroy ourselves? Is it representative of a past that we are doomed to repeat unless we learn from it? Or is it just funny to watch Sellers physically battle his right hand to keep from Nazi saluting or strangling himself? There is no wrong answer to that question. Look, this is single-handedly the funniest film of all-time, because unlike the rest of these films that captured a time and place, or a belief that will eventually become unfashionable, Dr. Strangelove’s themes will never go away, as we have experienced in the past twenty years, and experience as a write this with North Korea. This is a film that can have its fun with nuclear holocaust, but like all great satire, it’s funny until it isn’t. Eventually, the terror sets in, and you realize the path humanity is heading down. And all this is from a comedy that says things like “Well I’ve been to one World’s Fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard over a set of headphones.” That’s because this is, all around, the greatest written, acted, and directed comedy ever made, and through its influence, message, structure, and innovation, it’s the comedy that most changed the game, above and beyond the normal call of duty.
I hope you enjoyed this list of comedies! I’m sure I’ve inevitably left off the film that most makes you giggle, so please make sure to let me know in the comments what your favorite comedy is! You can see this Top Ten list, along with other Top Ten lists, you can locate them in the Sacred Wall GOATs, located right here. I’ll see you all later tonight or tomorrow as Sacred Walloween takes full effect!