These kinds of things are always hard to say definitively, due to rampant deterioration and poor documentation, but Harold Lloyd’s 1925 masterpiece The Freshman may well have been the cinema’s first sports comedy. It was certainly the first sports comedy to prove a monster hit, setting up nearly 90 years of athletics-related laughs at the movies. In celebration of The Freshman’s Blu-ray and DVD release today (thanks to our good friends over at the Criterion Collection), here’s a look at some of the finest and funniest sports comedies ever made.
George Clooney’s 2008 football comedy was widely dismissed by critics, who seemed disappointed he didn’t deliver another serious message movie like its predecessor, Good Night and Good Luck. But viewed with an open mind, it’s a likeable and frequently hilarious screwball comedy throwback, as well as a rather eye-opening look at the rough-and-tumble nature of pro football, circa 1925 (coincidentally enough, the year of The Freshman’s release).
24. The Best of Times
The name of Ron Shelton is one you’ll see a few times on this list; in the 1990s, he became something of a poet laureate of American sports movies, writing and directing a series of comedies and dramas that examined romance, friendship, and masculinity through the lens of the sporting life. It all started with this, his second produced screenplay, which he wrote for director Roger Spottiswoode (who also helmed Shelton’s first script, the excellent, underrated Under Fire), in which a poor schmuck (Robin Williams) who’s spent his whole life trying to live down a fumbled ball at his high school’s Big Game manages to restage the event and try to make it — and his life, and his marriage — right. Kurt Russell is terrific as the former quarterback and BMOC whose life hasn’t turn out exactly as planned; he and Williams get a good buddy chemistry going, and Shelton shows an early flair for the sex-and-sports set pieces that would become his trademark.
23. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh stars Julius “Dr. J.” Erving and Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, concerns the reorganization of a faltering team via astrology, and features a wall-to-wall disco soundtrack. In other words, in addition to being a thoroughly enjoyable basketball comedy, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is also a strong contender for the Most ‘70s Movie Ever Made.
22. The Great White Hype
Shelton again, co-writing this boxing farce for director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang). Samuel L. Jackson stars as a flamboyant, Don King-style promoter who puts together a blatantly race-baiting heavyweight title fight between a Tyson-style champ (Damon Wayans) and the white boxer who beat him as an amateur (Peter Berg). Wildly uneven, but its impressive ensemble cast delivers, and the satire of simplistic sports marketing (Berg’s character is dubbed “Irish Terry Conklin,” decked out in green and accompanied by a little person in full leprechaun gear, in spite of the fact that he’s not Irish) is spot-on.
Naked Gun and Airplane! co-director David Zucker’s collaboration with Matt Stone and Trey Parker was a surprise box-office bust when it was released in summer of 1998, at the height of South Park mania, and critics, to put it mildly, were not kind. But it’s an awfully enjoyable drunken-Saturday or hungover-Sunday movie, tackling the commercialization of sports and the culture of celebrity with a disarming vulgarity and utter lack of subtlety.
20. Major League
Its flat sequels beat the premise to death (and PG-rated it to boot), but David S. Ward’s original 1989 Major League remains a raucous and entertaining telling of the oldest story in the sports movie playbook: the ragtag group of underacheivers who get their shit together and show the world what they’re made of.
19. Tin Cup
In 1996, smarting from a string of high-profile bombs, Kevin Costner returned to a safe haven: he made a romantic sports comedy with his Bull Durham director Ron Shelton. And Shelton proved up to the task of reminding everyone why they once liked Kevin Costner; the character he cooked up for him, Roy McAvoy, is a rumpled, beat-down charmer, a talented yet stubborn and unambitious golf teacher who ends up in the U.S. Open.
The clichés of the sports movie have been around for about as long as the genre itself — and few films sent up those clichés as adroitly as Stanley Donen’s delightful 1978 comedy, which presents a “double feature” in the classic Hollywood style. The first half of that bill is Dynamite Hands, a spot-on parody of black-and-white boxing melodramas, in which a talented kid (Harry Hamlin) turns to the ring to help support his kid sister, but is seduced by the spoils of big money and big fame.
17. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Rawson Marshall Thurber’s 2004 comedy also parodied the clichés of the form, presenting a ragtag crew of slackers who take on the supergym down the street and discover the power of teamwork along the way. It’s goofy and dumb and funny from end to end, though particular praise must be paid to Rip Torn’s uproarious turn as the crusty old coach, Patches O’Houlihan (“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!”).
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis hit the links in this 1953 golf comedy from director Norman Taurog, with Jerry playing the son of a golf legend who tries to prove his own worth (a plot suspiciously similar to their 1951 football comedy, That’s My Boy). It captures the duo at the height of their comic powers, while featuring a host of cameos by contemporary golf legends and, on top of all that, good ol’ Dino crooning his signature tune “That’s Amore.”
15. Whip It
Sports comedies have a tendency to be a bit of a boys’ club — with a couple of notable exceptions, including this terrific 2008 comedy from director Drew Barrymore about the camaraderie, action, and food fights of the roller derby set. It adheres closely to formula, but formulas are funny; when a movie is limply done, then you can all but hear the gears grinding into place, but when a movie has wit and enthusiasm, as Whip It does, you go right along with it. It’s a warm, happy, and, yes, very funny picture.
14. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Will Ferrell re-teamed with his Anchorman co-writer and director Adam McKay for this 2006 satire of commercialism in sports (in general) and the culture of NASCAR (in particular). After its remarkable commercial success, Ferrell continued to carve out a niche in sports comedy, with quickly diminishing results (see Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro). But Nights is a fast, funny, stealthily smart, and eminently quotable picture — I swear to Dear Lord Baby Jesus, lyin’ there in his ghost manger.
Jay Baruchel (Undeclared, This Is the End) and Evan Goldberg (Seth Rogen’s frequent collaborator) co-wrote this brisk, scrappy, warmhearted tale of a sweet lug (Seann William Scott) who parlays a gift for brawling into hockey stardom. Liev Schreiber all but steals the show as the aging scrapper our hero initially idolizes, and then must face on the ice; the big climax treats their long-awaited slugfest less like a hockey fight than a boxing match, giving us two sports comedies for the price of one.
12. Happy Gilmore
Like Ferrell, Adam Sandler’s attempts at sports comedy are often painfully inept (how ya doin’, Longest Yard remake). But he too is working from a promising starting point: his second starring vehicle, this 1996 golf comedy, which gave us Shooter McGavin, “Why don’t you just go HOME?,” and that immortal round of Bob Barker fisticuffs.
Buster Keaton was one of our most magnificently able-bodied silent clowns, and this 1927 collegiate comedy (seemingly inspired, in no small part, by the success of The Freshman) finds him playing against type as a bookish scholar who turns his nose up at the scourge of college athletics — until he falls for a girl who loves jocks. Keaton’s impressively flexible athleticism allows his onscreen counterpart to try his hand at everything from baseball to track to rowing, with frequently uproarious results.
10. The Longest Yard
Burt Reynolds plays a former pro quarterback in the clinker for drunk driving; Eddie Albert is the football-loving warden who gets him to form and coach a team of convicts to play his guards in an exhibition game. No points for guessing whether grinnin’ Burt whips the unruly crew into fighting shape, but this 1974 favorite is rude, crude, and lively as hell.
Here’s about all you need to know about this one: the Marx Brothers play football. Groucho is the dean of Huxley College, who can’t win a football game to save their lives; when he tries to bring in a couple of ringers, he screws up and drafts Chico and Harpo instead. The big game climax is a free-for-all of Marxist anarchy, with hidden balls, nutjob plays, giggly signals, and a big game-winning run in a garbage wagon.
8. A League of Their Own
Because one thing must remain absolutely, positively clear here: THERE IS NO CRYING IN BASEBALL.
Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) is a freshman at Tate College, “a large football stadium with a college attached,” trying a bit too hard to become the Big Man on Campus. And part of that equation is athletics (“I’d like to play on your football team, if you don’t mind,” he tells the coach), though poor Harold is only used as a benchwarmer, waterboy, and tackling dummy. Lloyd’s giant hit is full of inventive comic bits, and its big climax — the inevitable big game where our man steps up to save the day — remains joyfully funny, in spite of the countless imitators it inspired.
6. Bull Durham
Ron Shelton again, nailing the feel, sound, and even the smell of a minor league baseball team where everyone’s either on their way up or their way down. Tim Robbins is the former and Kevin Costner is the latter; Susan Sarandon is the dedicated fan and object of their desire. First-time director Shelton effortlessly balances the (literally) inside baseball satire and the slinky sex comedy, and coaxes terrific performances out of his flawless cast.
Paul Newman re-teams with his Butch Cassidy and The Sting director George Roy Hill for this rowdy, raw, and raucous hockey comedy. Newman is a player/coach on the doorstep of retirement, guiding a losing team as they limp through their final season, who discovers throwing a few punches on the ice can not only win games but fill seats. Some of the gags come off a little sour these days, but the picture’s got a boisterous spirit and frisky energy that still plays.
And one more from Mr. Shelton, whose brief post-Durham sabbatical from sports comedies (via 1989’s Blaze) ended with this wickedly smart and laugh-out-loud funny 1992 con man comedy, matching up Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes as a pair of basketball hustlers who first pair up, and then face off. Shelton’s tart, biting screenplay captures the zing of good trash talk, and his stars have seldom been as funny or winning.
Walter Matthau may have found his most iconic role when he stepped into the worn-out shoes of Morris Buttermaker, the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, washed-up former baseball player who coaches the titular Little League team, made up entirely of the freaks and oddballs that no one else wanted (along with a couple of well-chosen ringers). Director Michael Ritchie (who also helmed the football-themed Semi-Tough and Wildcats, the baseball comedy The Scout, and the boxing comedy Diggstown) enjoys the crude pleasures of dirty-talking kids without relying solely on them, and Matthau’s beer-soaked leading turn keeps the playful picture on course. (And contrary to popular opinion, the Billy Bob Thornton-fronted 2005 remake isn’t half bad either.)
Woody Harrelson is a former bowling golden boy turned seedy hustler, Randy Quaid is his Amish prodigy, and Bill Murray is a sleazy bowling superstar with an increasingly ridiculous hairpiece. Working their way towards There’s Something About Mary, the Farrelly brothers took their first crack at hard-R comedy with this 1996 bowling farce, deploying a crude sense of gross-out humor that would be off-putting if it weren’t so consistently, embarrassingly funny.
The late, great Harold Ramis directed and co-wrote (with his Animal House co-writer Douglas Kenney andBrian Doyle-Murray, Bill’s brother) this anything-goes slobs-vs.-snobs comedy, set on the exclusive greens of Bushwood Country Club. Young caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) was supposed to be the central character, but his scenes kept getting cut thanks to scene-stealers Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Murray, whose entire role was improvised. They seem like they’re dropping in from entirely different movies than either Chevy Chase (doing his smug charmer routine to perfection) or everyone’s favorite blowhard, Ted Knight; the movie, in fact, is all over the damn place, wildly unruly and laughably undisciplined. But somehow, it all works, resulting in one of the most riotous, quotable, and re-watchable comedies of all time.