50 Best Comedies of the Past 50 Years: 10-1
And with a final burst of adrenaline-fueled belly laughs, we cross the finish line in our definitive countdown of the top 50 comedy movies of the past 50 years. If you’re shaking your fist and cursing our names, we’ve done our job. Please share your pick for top comedies, but first, dig our final ten laughers.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
On the surface, Fast Times looks like any number of 1980s teen sex comedies like The Last American Virgin, Private School, or Losin’ It. But director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe had a lot more on their minds than Animal House-inspired hijinks. Yep, there was nudity and sex, but there were also consequences like Stacy Hamilton’s unplanned pregnancy. Sean Penn’s definitive surfer/stoner is played for laughs, but he also develops a legitimate relationship of mutual respect with stern teacher Mr. Hand. While other teen comedies played with tropes and teen archetypes (she’s the nerdy one, he’s the chubby one, she’s the virgin, he’s the stud, and so on), Fast Times set the gold standard for teen movies that tell stories about actual teens. Somehow, it also manages to be hilarious.
When it premiered in 1980, there had never been a movie like Airplane! but there sure have been a lot like it in the years that followed. Jim Abrahams and the Brothers Zucker (Jerry and David) packed more laughs per minute into Airplane! than any movie in history. That’s not just science fiction, it’s science fact-- Lovefilm, a UK streaming service, calculated audience giggles for top-rated comedies and determined Airplane! was the all-time chuckle champ. Part of the movie’s genius is the decision to lift a plot from a deadly serious disaster movie, then hire a bunch of B-movie dramatic actors to deliver the punchlines with straight faces. If you’ve enjoyed other parody movies over the past few decades, surely you have Airplane! to thank for the blueprint. We'll let you fill in the rest.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Somehow, Mel Brooks followed up his masterpiece Blazing Saddles with an even better comedy, the horror homage Young Frankenstein. It works as a loving parody, it works as a laugh-out-loud comedy, but mostly it works due to the wigged-out performance of Gene Wilder, arguably the ne plus ultra comic star of the 1970s. Between his mesmerizing turn as Willy Wonka, his collaborations with Brooks (they turned out Blazing Saddles AND Young Frankenstein in a single calendar year!), and his odd-couple pairings with Richard Pryor (Silver Streak and Stir Crazy), no one was doing it better. As with Airplane!, one key to Young Frankenstein’s punch is its straight-faced approach. Mel Brooks laid down the law with his actors: “We’re making a riotous comedy here but you don’t know it. At times it’s gotta be touching and at other times really scary. And it’s got to be very real—no heightened acting. When it’s funny, your character doesn’t know it’s funny. You’re just doing your job. The audience knows when it’s funny. But you don’t.”
Arguably the defining comedy for millennials, Superbad announced the big-screen comic arrival of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera (whose Juno would drop later that year). While not directed by Judd Apatow (he was a producer), the movie was one of the most successful executions of the outlandish vulgarity/sweet sentimentality mash-ups for which he is known. Like Fast Times, Superbad authentically captures a generation’s high school experience with well-drawn, unforgettable personalities-- has any 2000s movie character made more of an impact than McLovin’? As Bill Hader’s cop would say, this flick is bonafide badass.
The Room (2003)/The Disaster Artist (2017)
Sometimes, the worst is the absolute freaking best. Tommy Wiseau’s Johnny is a comic masterpiece--does it matter that it was unintentional? In a way, we suppose it does--there’s something icky about laughing at someone rather than with them. But the way Wiseau has embraced audiences’ reaction to his hysterical melodrama seems to make it OK. The guy has made a career out of touring the world with The Room, basking in the adulation of fans who can’t stop doubling over with laughter. And if you want to buy a pair of Tommy Wiseau underpants after the show? He’d be happy to sell you some.
We’d argue it’s a higher degree of difficulty to intentionally make an unintentionally bad movie, which is why The Disaster Artist is a minor miracle. Siblings James and Dave Franco create a convincing Wiseau and costar Greg Sestero, finding even more comedy in their amateurish behind-the-scene attempts to make their Hollywood dreams come true. It’s a career Hai, Mark! -- er, high mark for both of them.
Groundhog Day (1993)
When you’re talking Apex Bill Murray, that’s saying something. Groundhog Day saw both Murray and director Harold Ramis at the height of their comedy powers, creating a comedy that’s somehow hilarious, heartwarming, and downright philosophical all at once. The film has a definite sentimental streak, but Murray’s acerbic performance, full of vinegar and turpentine, keeps a comic balance that makes the whole thing sing. Comedy performances, as a rule, never get Best Actor nominations but Murray’s Phil Connors should have been the exception. Groundhog Day is the film, tragically, that ended the Murray/Ramis creative partnership (Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters), a casualty of that old monster “irreconcilable differences.” If it had to end, this was one hell of a last hurrah.
Step Brothers (2008)
The Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly cinematic partnership is one for the ages, producing comedies that are hysterical (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) and lamentable (Holmes & Watson). But onscreen comedy duos rarely hit it out of the park like Ferrell and Reilly do in Step Brothers. The premise is dopey: Two idiot man-children become stepbrothers when their completely sane and well-adjusted parents decide to marry. The two doofuses take a predictable path, from sworn enemies to best friends, from stunted growth to … marginally functional growth. Step Brothers is in no way grounded in reality, and there are no emotional lessons to be learned. It’s just crazily, recklessly, violently, maniacally funny.
Have the gender politics aged well? Probably not (though maybe better than you’d expect). Have the laughs aged well? Absolutely. Tootsie had many parents, including legendary writers Larry (M*A*S*H) Gelbart, Broadway’s Murray Schisgal, the uncredited Barry (Good Morning, Vietnam) Levinson, and Elaine (Nichols and May) May. Dustin Hoffman, who was a lot like the pain-in-the-ass actor he plays in the film, insisted on shaping the story as well. Somehow, this Frankenstein of a script turned into one of the funniest, most insightful comedies ever. Jessica Lange won an Oscar playing Hoffman’s love interest, though it could have just as easily gone to her costar Teri Garr. Tootsie is stuffed with social commentary, farce, pathos, and Bill Murray -- what more could you want?
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Talk to a contemporary comedian and odds are pretty high that This is Spinal Tap will be near the top of their list of influences. It wasn’t the first mockumentary but it pretty much defined the form, paving the way for The Office (Ricky Gervais owns one of Nigel’s guitars), The Colbert Report, Borat, and countless other, less obvious comedy ancestors. The actual heavy metal bands that the movie was satirizing love it more than anyone. The fact that so many 1982 audiences believed This is Spinal Tap was an actual documentary just makes the joke even more delicious. The geniuses behind Spinal Tap defined the line between stupid and clever, a tightrope that comedy filmmakers have been walking ever since. Unassailable.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Yeah, we didn’t expect this one to come out on top either. But consider:
* An unexpected star turn from Steve Carell at a time when most people knew him from 3-minute Daily Show segments;
* An unexpected star turn from Judd Apatow, directing his first movie ever and letting the world know he’d be the biggest influence on the first twenty years of this century’s comedy;
* An absolutely killer supporting cast of mostly unknowns who would become very, very known, including (deep breath) Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch, Elizabeth Banks, Kat Dennings, Mindy Kaling, and Jonah Hill -- whew!;
* An incredible turn by Catherine Keener in what could have been “the girlfriend part,” although sharp writing and a charming, earthy performance made it much more;
* A surprisingly sweet take on masculinity and sex in a decade defined by bro comedies like Wedding Crashers, Old School, and The Hangover;
* A hilarious climatic “sex scene” suggested by Apatow’s mentor, Garry Shandling;
* And a monstrous thumping heart at the movie’s center that makes The Forty-Year-Old Virgin the most emotionally satisfying movie on the whole dang list.
We’ll proudly stand by this Virgin.
For more of the best comedy movies, be sure to check out:
50 Best Comedy Movies of the Past 50 Years, 50-41
50 Best Comedy Movies of the Past 50 Years, 40-31
50 Best Comedy Movies of the Past 50 Years, 30-21
50 Best Comedy Movies of the Past 50 Years, 20-11
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Top image: Cracked illustration