Today, the Criterion Collection continues doing God’s work by releasing, in glorious, bonus-filled DVD and Blu-ray editions, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 classic To Be or Not To Be, surely one of the funniest films ever made. But when we throw around a label like that, what exactly are we talking about? Rankings of the funniest movies ever are, it must be said, an inherently personal thing — comedies may well be the most subjective of all films, since everyone has very specific notions of what they find funny, and nothing I can say is going to convince you that, say, Casanova’s Big Night is uproarious and Jack and Jill isn’t, if you’ve made up your mind. But there’s a fair number of films that we all seem to have agreed are the funniest — and by that I’m talking sheer number of laughs, as opposed to being great movies that also happen to be comedies (i.e., Groundhog Day is a better movie than Stripes, but Stripes has more laughs, just to give one example which many people will probably disagree with). So with all of those disclaimers out of the way, here’s Flavorwire’s picks for the 50 funniest movies of all time.
It’s all but impossible to parody comedy; unlike the dead-serious Universal horror films that Mel Brooks sent up in Young Frankenstein, for example, the idea of spoofing what is already funny is usually an exercise in futility. The again, the subgenre of early-’80s summer camp comedies (with the exception of Meatballs) were often strained and desperate anyway. This 2001 comedy — from several of the minds behind the cult comedy The State — took an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, parodying not just those movies, but the time period, romantic movie conventions, gender roles, and more.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s gonzo stunt comedy is deliriously, gloriously over the top in its search for the darkness at the center of the American soul — and finds its many uncomfortable belly laughs in tiptoeing up to the line of good manners and good taste, and then spitting on it.
Keenan Ivory Wayans sent up the “Blaxpoitation” action films of the ’70s in high style with this 1988 spoof, enlisting several legends of the era (including Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, and Bernie Casey) while creating inspired comic sequences of his own making. Even if the rest of the movie were a dud, this would still make the cut for Chris Rock’s legendary rib order.
The big comic set pieces — the aborted flight to Vegas, the notorious trip to the bridal store — are like little seminars in comedy construction. But on repeat viewings (and there have been many), it’s the little throwaway moments that sing: Annie with the cake in her teeth, Brynn with the frozen peas, and Becca’s proclamation that Rita is “more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles and have a face like sunshine!”
The fact that the Farrelly brothers have spent 15 years trying and failing (often miserably) to recapture the success of this 1998 gross-out rom-com might can easily sully one’s memory of how masterfully they captured lightning in a bottle, just that once. One of my fondest movie-going memories, swear to God, is seeing the film a good two weeks before its release, at a preview screening; expectations weren’t particularly high, but when the Farrellys unleashed their particular flavor of unadulterated raunch and take-no-prisoners comedy, the audience could only surrender to it.
When Amy Heckerling’s film appeared in the summer of 1995, it looked like every other dumb high school comedy. It ended up being a clever bait and switch; Heckerling crafted a witty and knowing modern take on Emma that both reveled in the tropes of high school comedy and slyly satirized them.
Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron teamed up to tackle the question of whether men and women could really be friends without sex getting in the way, and the result was one of the most energetic and casually funny movies of the ’80s. Everyone remembers the Katz’s Deli sequence, but the films is full of perfectly realized comic sequences and killer throwaway lines (“No, but ‘Baby Fishmouth’ is sweeping the nation”).
43. Office Space
Mike Judge’s live-action debut is a ramshackle affair, a thrown-together narrative borrowing liberally from Superman III (and admitting it), with thin characters and a visual flair with barely more dimension than the animator’s drawings. And it couldn’t matter less: with simplicity and directness, Judge captured the hopelessness of life as an office drone and made comic gold of it. Now don’t forget to put the cover on your TPS reports.
In 1941, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello launched their reign as cinema’s top comedy team with a simple concept: funny guys join the army. It’s a venerable notion; 40 years later, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis did the same thing, transplanting Murray’s well-honed detached smartass (and Ramis’s brainy sidekick) into the armed forces, with killer results.
In the years following This is Spinal Tap, co-writer/co-star Christopher Guest struggled to make his name as a director, and ended up helming forgettable efforts like HBO’s Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman remake. So he went back to his roots, creating a Spinal Tap-style improvised comedy in a “mockumentary” style, with a cast of gifted comedians — vets like Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Eugene Levy, who’d been cast off into the abyss of day roles and sitcom guest shots, proving ably that they weren’t going anywhere just yet.
40. Some Like It Hot
Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag. Marilyn Monroe vamping it up. Curtis’s Cary Grant impression. “Nobody’s perfect!” What else are you looking for in a great movie comedy?
By the time A&C Meet Frankenstein was released in 1948, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had been cranking out movies for seven years, often as many as four a year. They weren’t crafted with the care of Laurel & Hardy or even the Marx Brothers; they were programmers, filling out double-bills, made quickly and efficiently. But the speed and economy of their production often gave their films a chaotic energy and manic, roughhouse style — particularly in this wickedly funny and surprisingly creepy mash-up of Universal’s most prolific comedians and most profitable monsters.
38. Road to Morocco
The team of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby weren’t quite as productive as Abbott and Costello, since these two kept pretty busy on their own. But the seven pictures Hope and Crosby teamed up for from 1940 to 1962 were among the most playful of the era, a gloriously batty funhouse of running gags, inside jokes, and meta-movie humor. The best of the bunch is probably this 1946 entry, the fourth in the series, by this point supremely confident (and supremely silly). Typical moment: Midway through, Hope runs down the entire plot to that point, prompting Crosby’s incredulous, “I know all that!” To which Hope replies, “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t!” To which Crosby asks, with great concern, “You mean they missed my song?”
37. Wayne’s World
And one more great comedy duo, equally enamored of the self-aware (“Contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor!”) and the running gag. The film adaptations of Saturday Night Live sketches are often dreary, depressing affairs (how ya doin, Night at the Roxbury), for one simple reason: what’s funny for five minutes often isn’t for 90. But director Penelope Spheeris and writers Mike Myers, Bonnie Turner, and Terry Turner figured out how to expand Wayne and Garth’s universe, making it a movie about the show (and, in a way, the SNL sketch) and tossing in several inspired spoofs and left-field comic bits.
You are a smelly pirate hooker. I don’t know how to put this but I’m kind of a big deal. Stay classy, San Diego. Go fuck yourself, San Diego. Give her two tickets to the gun show. I love Scotch. Milk was a bad choice. Cannonball! Few modern comedies are quoted, as frequently or as enthusiastically, as Adam McKay’s 2004 true story of a legendary TV news anchor (“Only the names, locations, and events have been changed”) and the woman who tamed him. There’s something about the sheer peculiarity of McKay and Will Ferrell’s script, coupled with what remains the best of Ferrell’s egotistical blowhard morons and a perfectly-tuned supporting cast, that makes this one grow funnier with each passing year (though perhaps not with each quote-printing T-shirt).
35. Bringing Up Baby
Few films define “screwball comedy” as deliciously or as entertainingly as Howard Hawks’ 1938 treat, in which bespectacled paleontologist Cary Grant and fast-talking heiress veer from loathing to affection with the help of pet leopard. Snappy, smart, and running 100 delirious miles per hour; basically remade by Peter Bogdanovich as What’s Up, Doc, and pretty great that time too.
Sometimes, in the right hands, comedy can take on just about anything. Exhibit A is Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, a ruthlessly funny combination of backstage farce and Nazi satire, which hit theaters in 1942, when Hitler was not all that funny. Yet Lubitsch and stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (possibly the best performance by either actor) proved what Chaplin’s The Great Dictator suggested: that perhaps the best weapon against pure evil was the simple act of pointing and laughing.
If you’d like to see what airtight comedy construction looks like, take a gander at Steve Gordon’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for this 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle. Every line sings, every joke lands, and some scenes (like the three-way conversation between Arthur, his future father-in-law, and a stuffed moose head) seem like little miracles, for the skill with which Gordon mines every possible gag, and then comes up with four more. Moore was never funnier in a movie, yet even he had the whole thing stolen by Sir John Gielgud, who won an Oscar proving that there’s nothing funnier than a totally straight face and an arid-dry way with a line.
32. The Birdcage
Mike Nichols and Elaine May were one of the most influential (to say nothing of the funniest) of the 1960s nightclub acts, but that partnership never really translated to film until 1996, when they teamed for this uproarious Americanized take on La Cage Aux Folles that’s full of impossibilities: a genuinely great Robin Williams comedy, a rare remake that equals the original, and breakthrough performances for talents like Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria. The dinner sequence that makes up the second half of the picture is farce at its finest — every action inevitable, every reaction funnier than the last, building to a fever pitch of comic perfection.
File this away in the “how the hell did they get away with that” file: in 1942, the great Preston Sturges wrote and directed a movie about a small-town girl getting knocked up by a soldier on his way to the war. It’s all about the approach with stuff like this: Sturges staged it as knockabout farce, but with a sweet heart and a gentle touch, and the whole thing is done so innocently (yet so uproariously) that they somehow got it past the censors.
When people talk (in his own movies, even) about Woody Allen’s “early, funny movies,” this is what they’re talking about. Allen’s second film has none of the nuanced characterizations or sophisticated style that would come to define his work; these early movies were basically extensions of his stand-up act and New Yorker “casuals,” filmed gags and live-action cartoons hung on the flimsiest narrative scaffolding. But when you’ve got Woody ordering food for the entire rebel army at the local deli (“Do you have any grilled cheese sandwiches?… Well, let me have a thousand”) or Howard Cosell doing play-by-play on a political assassination (“This crowd is going wild. He’s caught in a crossfire of bullets. And down! It’s over! It’s all over for El Presidente!”), who needs plot?
Star/writer John Cleese and director Charles Crichton (a vet of the immortal Ealing Studios) created this 1988 comedy as a hysterical hybrid of British and American sensibilities. The former came courtesy of Cleese and his Monty Python compatriot Michael Palin (as K-K-K-K-Ken), the latter from Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, who won an Oscar for his side-splitting performance as Otto — who will not be called stupid, despite any and all reasonable evidence to the contrary.
Maybe it’s cheating to put a stand-up performance film in a list like this, but look, Himself was released to theaters back in May of 1983, and nearly every line in it gets a laugh. It represented the culmination of Cosby’s comic evolution, from his roots as an observational comic and dramatist of the childhood experience to someone on the other side of the parent/child divide; the recasting of Cosby’s persona from the precocious, overgrown kid to the stern but lovable dad would result in the massive hit of The Cosby Show (and its pilot episode includes several lines and situations pulled directly from Himself).
27. Lost in America
The idiosyncratic, confessional, and often groundbreaking output of Albert Brooks never matched the commercial success of a Mel Brooks or the critical kudos of a Woody Allen, to whom he was often compared. But his occasional efforts as writer/director/star (only seven since 1979) are quiet little masterpieces; the best of the bunch, most agree, is this 1985 examination of yuppie ennui. It’s full of great bits, but the scene in which he pleads — begs, really — with a Las Vegas pit boss (played by Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall) to give him back their nest egg, well… this is as good as Brooks gets.
26. Safety Last!
When he’s considered at all (which is too rarely) the great Harold Lloyd tends to be thought of solely as a “stunt comic,” for the death-defying on-screen feats that helped make him a star — like the iconic image of him hanging off a skyscraper via a clock on its face, which comes from the magnificent climax of this 1923 classic. But he was never just about the stunts (just as Buster Keaton never was, either); in the hour before that sequence, Safety Last is bursting with ingenious comic bits, and even that sequence is less about thrills than creating a clothesline — albeit one several floors above ground level — for clever gags.
25. The Gold Rush
Chaplin would go on to make films that were more moving (City Lights), more political (Modern Times) and more provocative (The Great Dictator). But he never made a funnier picture than this 1925 masterpiece, and describing it amounts, really, to a laundry list of its great bits: the tipping cabin, the walking chicken leg, the dance of the bread rolls, and (most famously) the eating of the shoe. Care for a tongue?
24. The Producers
TV writer and Grammy-winning 2000-Year-Old Man Mel Brooks made his feature screenwriting and directing debut (and, incredibly, won an Oscar for the effort) with this uproariously vulgar and decadently funny picture in which nothing is taboo, from sex for money with little old ladies to a high-stepping Broadway dance number about Adolf Hitler. Brooks would go on to make pictures with more sophistication and even more laughs (see further in this list), but he would never again make one as bursting with the sheer joy of getting away with something truly transgressive.
23. Love and Death
It’s a hot topic for debate (okay, among comedy nerds, but still), yet this fan maintains that Woody Allen’s funniest movie ever is also the last “pure” comedy he made before braving rockier and more serious terrain with 1977’s Annie Hall. His 1975 laugh riot Love and Death parodied not only the Napoleonic era and War and Peace, but the exact Ingmar Bergman works that he would later pay serious homage to in dramas like Interiors. It’s a spot-on Woody comedy, with his horny coward persona honed to perfection, and Diane Keaton (an oft-underrated comedienne) every bit his equal.
22. Trading Places
Saturday Night Live break-out star Eddie Murphy was barely 21 when he turned in one of his most inspired performances to date in John Landis’s 1983 Wall Street-based, have-and-have-nots comedy. Pairing the brash, ballsy, live-wire Murphy with a riotously uptight Dan Aykroyd, Landis created something less like the often interchangeable comedies of the ’80s and closer to the golden age of screwball.
21. Sherlock, Jr.
No disrespect to The General, which remains Buster Keaton’s masterwork — a fully formed, ingeniously worked-out historical epic and the forerunner to the modern action/comedy. But for sheer laughs-per-minute, you can’t beat this slim, subtle, yet beautifully imaginative 1924 effort, in which Keaton merges cinema and “reality,” with his customary grace and wit.
20. The Jerk
Steve Martin’s first starring vehicle (and his debut as screenwriter) remains his most hysterical. Like Woody Allen’s early works, The Jerk is a patchwork quilt of wild comic inventiveness, outrageous gags, and expansions of Martin’s stand-up act, but director Carl Reiner (who would direct three more terrific Martin vehicles) modulates the picture beautifully, masterfully helping his young star discover his “special purpose.”
Few directors managed to harness the mad genius of Peter Sellers as successfully as Stanley Kubrick, who coaxed three perfect performances out of the brilliant British comic for his 1964 pitch-black war comedy. Everyone has their favorite moments, but for my money, there are few comic sequences as quietly perfect as Presient Muffley’s pained phone call to Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov (“Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?”).
There’s something about the desperation and darkness of war that can provoke, incongruously, the biggest laughs. Dr. Stangelove is one example; another is Robert Altman’s smashing 1970 Korean War comedy M*A*S*H, which features gallons of blood, sets caked in mud and fog, and the lurking off-screen shadow of the then-contemporaneous Vietnam War. Yet there’s Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, wisecracking their way through Korea like martini-ed up Marx Brothers, complete with a football climax straight out of Horse Feathers.
17. The Big Lebowski
No one was quite sure what to make of the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to their Oscar winning Fargo when it was first released back in 1998; critics were indifferent and box-office was modest at best. But it became a cult sensation in the years that followed, mostly due to its high rate of re-watchability; the running jokes (it really tied the room together), repeated lines (“Shut the fuck up, Donnie”), and Zen affability of Jeff Bridges’s The Dude made this quirky noir bowling comedy into one of the duo’s most beloved pictures.
There’s an old adage that the smoothest productions lead to the least memorable films, and this seems to hold especially true for comedy, where a sense of relentless perfectionism and the tension of stubborn personalities can lead to contentious sets but a remarkable final product. That’s the case with the 1982 cross-dressing comedy Tootsie: director Sidney Pollack and star Dustin Hoffman could barely get along, Hoffman’s prickliness in the film a thinly-disguised take on his own reputation, while the script was reworked by several high-caliber script doctors (including Elaine May and Barry Levinson). Whatever it took to get it done, the result is indisputably one of the great comedies of the modern age.
Few film tropes are as reliable as the road movie — hell, this was John Hughes’s third time tackling it, after the first two Vacation movies. But few are as expertly constructed and magnificently played as this 1987 effort, in which Steve Martin’s fussy businessman and John Candy’s gregarious road warrior try, against all odds, to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a film of considerable heart, but not at the expense of laughs: the morning cuddle, the highway fire, and (of course) Martin’s tirade at the rental car counter.
Eddie Murphy was the biggest movie star in the world when he re-teamed with Trading Places director John Landis, five years later, for this story of an African prince looking for his queen in the only logical place: Queens, New York. Though it would become a rather tired standby in his bag of tricks (hello, Norbit), the expert multi-character work by Murphy (and his co-star Arsenio Hall) and the absurd playing of their supporting characters — particularly in the barbershop scenes, with Murphy playing not only an aging barber but a Jewish kibitzer — resulted in Murphy’s highest achievement as a comic actor.
Most people do well to put out one great, funny, timeless movie in a lifetime, let alone a year. Mel Brooks put out two in a year. In February, he released Blazing Saddles (more on that one later); the film was still filling theaters when Young Frankenstein was released that December. The film was a lesson in the value of comic incongruity: sure, no matter how Young Frankestein looked, it was going to be a funny picture. But because Brooks took such pains to make it look like the movies it was sending up, from the moody black and white photography to the authentic props used in the original films, the whinnying horses and candle-bookcase bit and talk of the monster’s “enormous schwanzstucker” are that much funnier.
In one of the bonus features on the Caddyshack DVD/Blu-ray, co-writer/director Harold Ramis talks about how they tried (and, I’d argue, succeeded) in making Caddyshack something of a modern-day Marx Brothers movie, with Rodney Dangerfield in the brash, anti-authoritarian Groucho role, Chevy Chase in the shoes of smooth-talking (and piano playing) Chico, and Bill Murray doing the slapstick of Harpo. And the film works in many of the ways that the Marx comedies did: there’s something for everyone, no matter how broad or sly you like your humor to be.
The entire wave of 1980s comedy — rude, crude, and heavy with Saturday Night Live personnel and Harvard Lampoon alumni — was borne out of the smashing success of this 1978 comedy hit, which took the gentle campus comedy form of movies like Good News and College Humor and gave it a juicy shot of candor and crassness. And Belushi is perfection.
10. The Bank Dick
The great W.C. Fields not only starred in but wrote (under the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves — taken from the exit line of English drawing room dramas, “My hat, my cane, Jeeves”) this often bizarre, beautifully inspired, and always uproarious portrait of The World According to Fields. It was one of his last starring vehicles, and one of his best, filled with weirdo wordplay (“Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl!”), bad parenting (“Don’t you dare strike that child!” “She’s not gonna tell me I don’t love her”), inside jokes, and wild slapstick.
You can’t dismiss Pryor’s 1979 performance film as just a “stand-up special” or a “concert movie” — this is no ordinary comedian, and this was no one-man show. Over the course of Live in Concert’s 78 minutes, Pryor transforms himself into dogs, spider monkeys, white guys, his heart (during an attack), his wife, his car, his relatives, his kids, and Leon Spinks. Each transformation is astonishing; each laugh packs the power of a truth being told.
The Coen Brothers tried the formula that would eventually work so well for The Big Lebowski in this, their second feature: intricate plot, broad comic characters, non-stop gonzo energy, oddly literary dialogue (“Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase”), and John Goodman yelling a lot. And we were unified in our response: Okay, then.
It’s just sort of accepted that Ghostbusters is a beloved and revered cultural phenomenon. But in his initial 1984 review of the movie, Roger Ebert immediately understood why it was a great comedy. “Everybody talks to each other like smart graduate students who are in on the joke,” Ebert explained. “In the movie’s climactic scenes, an apocalyptic psychic mindquake is rocking Manhattan, and the experts talk like Bob and Ray.” And weirdly, that’s the key: somehow, director Ivan Reitman (and co-writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) make a movie that employs special effects without letting them take over the movie, using them as comic props that create the real laughs via the responses of Ayrkroyd, Ramis, and (in what may be the definitive performance of his early career) the unflappable Bill Murray.
The funny thing is, Inspector Clouseau wasn’t even supposed to be the lead. Peter Sellers was cast in a decidedly supporting role in The Pink Panther, but it was clear on the set that he was stealing the picture wholesale from David Niven and Capucine. With remarkable foresight, director Blake Edwards got to work on a follow-up before Panther was even released, re-writing a French stage farce as a Clouseau vehicle and creating the richest, funniest film in the series, filled with outrageous accents, misunderstood dialogue, and perfectly executed slapstick by Sellers, Herbert Lom (as Commissioner Drefus), and Bert Kwouk (as manservant Cato, master of the surprise attack).
Mel Brooks knew an injustice when he saw one. You see, the sitting-around-the-campfire-eating-beans scene was a standby in every Western — but all they ever did was eat beans. “I mean, you can’t eat so many beans without some noise happening there,” he said at the time, and thus, a classic scene was born. Low-down and vulgar, maybe; funny, undoubtedly. But that sequence was indicative of the anything-for-a-laugh nature of Brooks’s 1974 smash; he’d do anything for a laugh, from double entendres to racial humor (some of it provided by co-writer Richard Pryor) to punching horses to rather literally breaking the fourth wall, busting out of the movie and across the Warner Brothers set in the climax. Brooks knew that when there are no rules and no niceties, humor will follow.
4. Duck Soup
The Marx Brothers were popular in their 1930s heyday, but not among the top comic earners; Laurel & Hardy and Mae West, for example, frequently outgrossed them. They found their true audience in the anti-authoritarian 1960s, where their brand of organized chaos and comic anarchy fit right in — never more than in this 1933 classic, in which Groucho is brought in to lead a country on the whim of a rich donor, and war is waged over tiny egos and personal insults. Satire, eh?
The rock documentary — and rock music, for that matter — would never be the same after director Rob Reiner and stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer took them on in this 1984 “mockumentary.” In doing so, they proved the essential rule of comedy: what’s funny isn’t people trying to “be funny,” but going about their business totally straight-faced and utterly oblivious to how ridiculous they are. Or, to put it another way, you can’t fail when creating a world in which “no one knows who they were or what they were doing.”
British TV comedy troupe Monty Python’s second feature film was shot in cold discomfort on a shoestring budget (with funds provided by fans like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd) — hence the use of cocoanuts for horses, heavy fog to cover locations, and the like. And it couldn’t have mattered less: the script had been written, tightened, and refined for months, and the Pythons’ signature brand of intellectual silliness was a perfect match with the self-importance of Arthurian legend, creating a work that is dark (“It’s just a flesh wound!”), goofy (“Ni!”), and insanely funny.
Where do you even start? Lloyd Bridges’s running “looks like I picked the wrong week to quit…” bit? Julie Haggerty’s indecent encounter with the autopilot? The Saturday Night Fever parody? “Excuse me, stewardess, I speak jive?” David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker’s whiz-bang spoof of disaster movies (and movies in general, really) never skips a bit, wringing a laugh out of every stock character, dialogue cliché, and cinematic convention, right up to and including the closing credits (“Author of A Tale of Two Cities: Charles Dickens”). Any movie that has so many gags it has to stuff them into the end credit roll deserves the title of funniest movie ever made—a point which I’ll conclude, just as the movie’s copyright credit does, with a firm “So there.”