8. MASH (Robert Altman, 1970)
This witty war comedy follows the antics of the jocular staff of a military hospital in Korea during the war. The large cast stars Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as surgeons in the unit, along with Robert Duvall, Tom Skerritt and Sally Kellerman as other staff.
Like many Altman films, there is not a driving plot but a series of events and episodes that the characters use to divert their attention from the horrors of war. These distractions include taking a golf trip to Japan, betting on football games, determining if a commanding officer is really a natural blonde and clashing with the authorities who deem their behavior un-soldierly.
Nominated for 5 Academy Awards and having spawned a hugely successful TV show, MASH is one of the most acclaimed comedies of all time due to its mix of oddball humor and serious analysis of the effect of war on people.
Aided by the darkly humorous theme song “Suicide is Painless”, MASH is both powerfully touching and hilarious. It is one of the greatest to comedies to also double as a social commentary of the time, balancing laughs with important content expertly. The terrific acting of the cast as well as a smart script make MASH one of Altman’s greatest directorial efforts, and one of the most important American war films of all time.
7. Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000)
Best in Show is one of many great ensemble comedies by Christopher Guest and his troupe, with others including Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. His comedies are always documentary-style satires of different quirky groups such as community theater actors or, in this case, national dog show participants.
Some of the colorful characters include Eugene Levy as a middle class husband with two left feet, Parker Posey as a yuppie with braces who is too attached too her dog and Michael McKean as a flamboyantly gay man with a Shih Tzu. The myriad of outrageous personalities butt heads in the competition, hilariously announced by Fred Willard and Jim Piddock, leading to the triumph of some and heartbreak of others.
The brilliance of most of the comedy in this film comes from the fake interview scenes where the owners talk to the camera about their lives and dogs. These scenes were entirely improvised by the actors, making the work even more impressive. The interplay between the actors is incredible with all of them keeping in character with a straight face, somehow making the audience believe that people this bizarre actually exist.
The script by Guest and Levy is also very funny, filled with wacky scenarios and hilarious, obscure cultural references. An integral piece in the work of one the greatest ensemble film makers, Best in Show is a must see.
6. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Every Wes Anderson film could be considered an ensemble comedy, but The Royal Tenenbaums is both one of the most well constructed and pervasively funny of his many great works.
The film stars Gene Hackman in his last great role as Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch of a hilariously dysfunctional family. The rest of the cast is made up of frequent Anderson collaborators like Owen Wilson and Bill Murray as well as other great actors like Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Royal is a terrible father who abandoned his three prodigy children when they were growing up. He returns twenty years later to connect with his family by claiming that he has stomach cancer so they will be understanding. He tries to tries to fix his past failures by helping his children enjoy their lives that did not live up to their expectations.
This film’s quirky humor, while typical of Anderson, is more relatable than his usual fare, leading to a deeper, more affecting product. His increased focus on the characters, rather than design, leads to greater insight into their lives and the painful comedy they contain. The varying conflicts that arise in the characters are often bizarre but believable.
The comedy and style in this film represent a turning point in Anderson’s career, combining more human elements from Rushmore while starting to integrate the extravagance and style of his following films, creating a perfect balance in The Royal Tenenbaums which is representative of the best of his directorial talents.
5. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Richard Linkater’s coming of age film takes place in 1970s Texas during the last day of school. It follows several rising seniors who go out to party, beat up freshmen and have a good time. Starring Jason London, Ben Affleck and, most memorably, Matthew McConaughey as the creepy graduate who hangs out with high schoolers, the film follows all of their exploits throughout the crazy night.
In the midst of the juvenile antics and traditions, there is also a deeper self-discovery for many of the characters. Linklater uses the situations to comment on high school, both basking in the nostalgia as well as criticizing the stupidity of youth. The night acts as a turning point for many of the teenagers, representing their independence and transformation into adults.
The characters in the film are well written and acted, reminding the audience of actual people they probably knew when they were in high school. The film is also an incredibly realistic and believable portrait of small town life, much more grounded in reality than many other films on this list.
Its effective combination of laughs with emotional depth has led to its growth as one of the most popular and acclaimed cult films of all time. It bridges the gap between funny and serious, making it just as valuable to fans of comedy as it is to fans of drama. Praised by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Dazed and Confused is a powerful comedy masterpiece.
4. This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
This rock mockumentary satirizing both the hard rock bands of the time, as well as documentaries. Rob Reiner stars as the fictional director Marty Di Bergi who is making a film of the popular British band Spinal Tap’s American tour. Starring as the members of the band are Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, all of who’s ignorance and egotism create a critical but hilarious portrait of real rock stars.
The film documents their ludicrous exploits throughout the tour such as hysterically stupid themed shows, trouble with fans and in-group conflicts. The result is a hilarious rollercoaster of success, failure and stubborn narcissism as the group interacts with different cultures across the country.
The structure and method of creation for This is Spinal Tap no doubt inspired Christopher Guest’s subsequent directorial efforts of similar satirical format and content. The film also features mostly improvisational comedy which produced many of the memorable laughs of the film including the much quoted line “These go to eleven.”
The Spinal Tap concerts, however, are the greatest moments of the film, featuring overblown sets and props, including a miniature Stonehenge and a character playing a guitar with a violin as a bow. This is Spinal Tap is a very smart, silly comedic examination of rock and roll culture and film making.
3. Caddyshack (Harold Ramis, 1980)
Harold Ramis’s directorial debut has become a classic of both comedy and sports films since its release. The film follows young caddy Danny, played by Michael O’Keefe as he tries to save for college and balance out his love life.
The real comedy and brilliance in the film, however, comes from the numerous side characters of the country club. These are played by some of comedy’s most famous and celebrated stars such as Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Murray in arguably their funniest roles. The film’s memorable climax features the culmination of a high stakes golf tournament, a societal rivalry and and a gopher infestation.
Like many of the films on this list, Caddyshack received mixed reviews upon opening but, over time, developed into a massive hit and a significant milestone in comedy. Also like other films, it features heavy use of improvisation, allowing the hilarious ensemble to act off of each other and take the film in wacky, original directions.
This results in some of the most memorable quotes, crass jokes and goofy characters in all of film. Inspiring many comedy films that followed and still celebrated today, Caddyshack is one of the funniest American comedies ever.
2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975)
Monty Python was one of the funniest and most iconic comedy troupes of all time. The British sketch comedy group launched the careers of stars John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin as well as visionary director Terry Gilliam.
The troupe also made other funny films such as The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life in addition to their legendary show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In this film, the group parodies the King Arthur legend through comedic representations of many famed myths and characters. The film takes the format of many connected stories including magicians, evil monsters and other traditional knight tales, all of which have been altered ridiculously.
The familiar sketch-style scenarios of the film allow the actors to shine as they have in their show, with each actor playing multiple characters throughout the film creating a goofy and diverse ensemble of characters. The film was very groundbreaking for the time, including controversial jokes, bizarre stylistic choices and a hilarious fourth-wall breaking ending.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the most referenced comedies of all time, quoted constantly in pop culture. It brought British comedy to the forefront of the genre internationally and has grown in popularity ever since, cementing itself as one of the greatest comedies ever made.
1. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is probably the most ambitious comedy ever made, lasting over three hours and starring a dozen celebrities from television’s golden age like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, as well as around thirty cameos from other stars like Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis and the Three Stooges.
The plot is fairly simple, revolving around four groups of people who enter into a cross country chase for a recently deceased criminal’s buried money stash. Along the way several other parties become involved, such as the police and other motorists who find out. By the end, over 20 people have found out about the treasure and all meet up at the spot, leading up to a disastrous climax.
This film was also one the most successful comedies of the era, grossing over $60 million. It was also a critical hit and scored several Academy Award nominations for technical awards. The film was revolutionary in its use of an enormous cast and its large budget for a comedy.
Its timeless slapstick humor and classic characters has kept its reputation alive, inspiring many copycat films like Rat Race as well as inspiring other ensemble comedies. While devoid of much serious substance besides laughs and jokes, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a pure comedy film at its finest, delivering constant laughs and paying homage to the comedy styles of the past.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.