A Brief History of Movie Comedy Cliques

It was just a couple of weeks ago that we were singing the praises of Kissing Jessica Stein, one of the rare modern romantic comedies that isn’t terrible, and as if on cue, there’s a new film from Stein writer/star (and now director) Jennifer Westfeldt in theaters tomorrow. There are several reasons to see Friends with Kids — it’s funny, smart, warm, and more than a little dirty — but if it does well, it may very well be because Westfeldt had the good luck of casting about half the key players from Bridesmaids in major roles.

With Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm, and Chris O’Dowd reuniting for Friends with Kids, we may be witnessing the formation of a new (and thankfully estrogen-infused) cinematic comedy “clique.” These groups have always been a part of the film comedy landscape, though there seem to be an awful lot of them these days — primarily because the DIY nature of the current comedy scene lends itself to working with friends and regular collaborators. (There’s also a fair amount of cross-pollination between these groups, which makes classifying them a bit challenging. Crafty, these comedians.)

To be clear: we’re not talking so much about actual declared comedy teams, like the Marx Brothers, the Bowery Boys, or Monty Python; we’re more interested in loose collectives that come together in varying combinations yet still craft a distinctive and recognizable comic style. We’ll take a look at a few of the biggest after the jump.

The Keystoners

REGULAR MEMBERS: Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Marie Dressler, Harry Langdon, Chester Conklin, the Keystone Cops

HIGHLIGHTS: A Film Johnnie, The Rounders, Fatty and Mabel Adrift

LOWLIGHTS: Tillie’s Punctured Romance

IN BRIEF: Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio was a training ground for just about every major silent movie talent — and those who didn’t work there (like Buster Keaton) did their apprenticeships with those who did (like Fatty Arbuckle). The Keystone comedies were rough, knockabout affairs, light on plot and heavy on slapstick, and that’s just as they should have been — when Sennett got ambitious and tried to do a feature-length comedy (Tillie’s Punctured Romance), he was out of his element. But those one- and two-reelers still hold up, particularly those that put together various combinations of Chaplin, Arbuckle, and Normand.