Ensemble films rely on a large cast of colorful characters in order to develop the themes of the plot. Ensemble comedies are a bit different from their dramatic counterparts in that they use the large celebrity casts as a background of zany characters to deliver continuous laughs as well as for story purposes.
They differentiate themselves from other comedies due to their larger scope, more ambitious plot line and wider range of characters, increasing the possibilities of comedy as a genre. They also often allow for heavier improvisational elements, allowing the various comedians to play off of each other.
Some comedy stars have stayed away from ensemble films because they don’t get as much acclaim or money for sharing the screen with other talents, but the interplay between multiple comedians can often be funnier than someone being wacky on their own. Like other ensemble films, the structures can be varying.
The films can feature one large, continuous story with many characters, typically featuring a few main characters who are at the center of the plot. There are also films that are divided up into several separate but intertwining stories that spread the focus, allowing the actors to shine more equally. Both methods have produced many hilarious and smart films that stand out in the huge catalog of comedy films.
In order to keep the list diverse, only one film for each director and troupe will be featured, otherwise it would be overpopulated with Monty Python and Christopher Guest films who have dedicated their careers to the genre. The list below reflects the variation and brilliance in the greatest ensemble comedy films ever made.
15. Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001)
This absurd cult film follows the antics of the counselors during the last day at the summer program, Camp Firewood. It features future stars like Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper among many others, as the goofy, sex crazed teenagers in charge of the campers.
The film follows several characters in different stories throughout, such as organizing a talent show, taking a field trip and saving the camp from falling space equipment. The characters are also bizarre, such as the paranoid war veteran chef, played by Christopher Meloni, or the goofy astrophysicist who lives nearby, played by David Hyde Pierce.
From the comedy troupe who made the MTV sketch comedy show The State, Wet Hot American Summer combines traditional comedic scenarios with ridiculous, sometimes impossible humor, resulting in a unique, satirical atmosphere. The film pokes fun at teen films, summer camps as well as addressing more controversial subjects like drug use and homosexuality.
The result is a bizarre combination of moods and characters that can be a bit bewildering, but there are always laughs. At the time of its release, the film flopped and condemned by critics, but has grown it’s reputation as a cult classic, with a new Netflix series in the works. While not the most accessible film, Wet Hot American Summer is a highly original work, as funny as it is bizarre.
14. Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)
Based on the Hasbro board game of the same name, Clue is a campy, fun murder mystery. The film stars, Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn and many others as the dinner guests from the board game. Set in the 1950s, the film starts with the characters making their way to a mysterious dinner party they had been invited to. They are greeted at the mansion by Wadsworth the butler, played by Tim Curry.
There, they are informed that they are all brought together because they are being blackmailed by another guest Mr. Boddy, and Wadsworth wants them to confront him and send him to jail. Things become more complicated, however, when Mr. Boddy is killed, starting a chain reaction of deaths.
There are three endings to the film and, during its run in the theaters, the endings were randomized given audiences different conclusions. For this reason, the film was written off by many as merely a Hollywood gimmick. Due to the highly stylized events and characters, however, the film has grown in reputation over time, now boasting a large following.
While the story is fairly straight forward and predictable, each actor’s exaggerated portrayal of the iconic characters make the film highly enjoyable to watch. The ensemble of wacky characters, along with the goofy events, make Clue one of the funnest murder mysteries ever made, even if it is cheesy.
13. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012)
Following the success of his 2008 black comedy In Bruges, Martin McDonagh reunited with Colin Farrell to make this quirky, self-aware crime film.
Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter working on his next script “Seven Psychopaths”, taking inspiration from recent killings of gangsters in the area. His friend Billy, played by Sam Rockwell, makes a living stealing dogs with Hans, played by Christopher Walken, selling them back to their owner claiming they found them.
They unknowingly steal a dog belonging to the violent gangster, played by Woody Harrelson, and get caught up in a dangerous conflict. Meanwhile, Marty’s script begins to coincide with real life events, blurring the line between his imagination and reality.
McDonagh’s script is both witty and creative, forming a hilarious meta-fictional plot, with outrageous and colorful characters. The characters are, however, the backbone of the film, with each actor inhabiting them fully, playing, as the title suggests, comically terrifying psychopaths. Their erratic actions and entertaining chemistry provide the film with a unique blend of unpredictable violence and wacky humor.
Also featured in the ensemble are Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton and Olga Kurylenko, playing different types of psychopaths with varying levels of sanity. Seven Psychopaths is a film as unpredictable and outlandish as its characters, filled with dark and unconventional laughs.
12. Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008)
This satirical spoof of the film industry stars Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. as egotistical movie stars of action, comedy and drama films respectively. They are filming the memoirs of Vietnam veteran Four-Leaf, played by Nick Nolte, and, upon his recommendation, the director, played by Steve Coogan, films the movie in the actual jungle to get more realism and avoid costs.
Unfortunately, they become stranded in the jungle after losing communication with the crew and find themselves going face to face with a Vietnamese drug cartel, having to fight for their lives like their characters did.
The three central characters are hilarious, especially Downey’s Kirk Lazarus, who has undergone a skin pigment surgery in order to play a black sergeant. Along with their struggles in the jungle, the plot also follows the other people involved in making the film, as well as the executives in Hollywood.
The rest of the cast includes many big name stars in hilarious roles, such as Tom Cruise as the head of the production company and Matthew McConaughey as Ben Stiller’s dedicated agent. The irreverent humor of the characters and the plot made this film one the most offensive and funny movies of the decade.
Tropic Thunder is an unabashed comedy about race, sexuality, drug use and mental disabilities and even though it is extremely politically incorrect, it is still an irresistible parody of show business.
11. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004)
Will Ferrell stars as the narcissistic newsman Ron Burgundy who is at the top of the San Diego news ratings. His news team consists of comedians Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Ted Koechner and together they comprise a hilariously ignorant and goofy team of professionals who rule the air. Their empire is shaken when reporter Veronica Corningstone, played by Christina Applegate, arrives on the scene and becomes Ron’s co-anchor.
This leads to an escalating trend of one-upmanship between the two which becomes out of control, tarnishing Ron’s professional reputation.
In addition to the news team, there is an endless line of cameos from famous comedians like Vince Vaughn, Jack Black and Ben Stiller. This hilarious ensemble helps set the tone for the wacky setting of 1970s San Diego, filled with partying, sunshine and the changing political climate. The clash of the emerging feminist movement against the chauvinist leaders like Ron sets the stage for many politically incorrect jokes and scenes.
Although arguably more of a Will Ferrell picture, the ensemble elements of Anchorman are key to the film’s success, with the improvised bits between characters usually being the funniest parts. It’s outrageous personalities and jokes make Anchorman one of the funniest defining comedies of the 2000s.
10. Happiness ( Todd Solondz, 1998)
Todd Solondz’s controversial satire of American culture and its hollow perception of contentment is at once a highly funny and disturbingly upsetting film. Split up into many story lines, all following depressing and morally reprehensible characters, the film concludes with ironically almost every person very unhappy.
A family of three sisters tie the film together, uniting all the disgusting sides of American society. The eldest sister Trish is symbolic of suburban life, who lives “happily” in her nice house with her pedophile husband, played masterfully by Dylan Baker.
Helen, the middle sister, is a successful writer who gets aroused by disturbing phone calls from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s perverted character. Joy, the youngest sister, is trying to find love but rejects the nice guys and ends up being used by others.
This highly polarizing film has been both praised and condemned for it’s use of extremely dark content as comedy. The parts that are the hardest to watch are often the parts that have you laughing the most. Solondz’s critical view of the false optimism of American society is scathing and unrelenting, with all of the different flawed characters representing some affliction of the culture.
The most upsetting of the film is the prevalence of bad intentioned people, suggesting that this is the reality of the world. This overwhelming film is certainly not for everyone, but for those that can handle disturbing content, Happiness is one of the funniest and most powerful dark comedies ever.
9. The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)
Originally one of the Coen Brother’s least celebrated projects, The Big Lebowski has evolved into a cult favorite. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude who becomes entangled in a crime due to a case of mistaken identity. The Dude, with the help of his quick-tempered bowling partner Walter, played by John Goodman, tries to unravel the criminal organizations involved in order to keep himself safe.
Along the way he interacts with a large assortment of bizarre characters who drag him deeper into the heart of the mystery without giving him any answers. This ensemble is comprised of talented actors like Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all of whom sink themselves into their roles, creating an uncomfortable and strange environment in which The Dude gets lost in.
Featuring an intentionally nonsensical plot and psychedelic dream sequences, The Big Lebowski is one of the Coens’ most complex and ambitious films. Not only is their dialogue and script hysterical, but the atmosphere that they and their cast create is exceptionally bizarre, making the audience as befuddled and The Dude.
Filled with as much memorable one-liner material as it does situational humor, The Big Lebowski is a one-of-a-kind film that guarantees some good laughs.