Comedy is a genre that has been under fire in recent years, and rightly so in many cases, in terms of big budget Hollywood comedy, we get sequels, spoofs and Adam Sandler, Kevin James disasters. If you look outside the mainstream of the genre there is so much diversity and originality and this is true across the whole expanse of the genre’s timeline.
Comedy is a very subjective genre and what makes some people roll around with laughter will surely bore some, this list represents a diverse view of the genre with screwball, mockumentary, spoof, buddy comedy and black comedy all represented alongside other sub genre examples, the films are all highly commendable illustrations of what the genre can offer.
1. What’s Up Doc? (1972)
‘What’s Up Doc?’ is one of the all time great screwball comedy films which unfortunately seems to be quite forgotten now. Reminiscent of Howard Hawks and directed masterfully by former critic Peter Bogdanovich; the premise is that four people checking into a hotel with identical bags which accidentally get swapped around.
It’s really simple stuff and the content of the bags is built upon to cause a hilarious stream of chaotic events. It’s economised storytelling at it’s best and a fast paced laugh-a-minute film.
Barbara Streisand stars, and proves herself well in an all comedy roles, Ryan O’Neal co-stars and the one sided romantic entanglement between their characters is very funny without being too sloppy or pulling on the film’s pace.
Streisand pursues the O’Neal vigorously whilst the naïve and somewhat oblivious O’Neal spends the movie being bossed around by his oppressive fiancée played by Madeline Khan in her debut film role.
The San Fransisco setting is perfect and lends itself to the betterment of a great chase sequence. Bogdanovich throws every comic trope into a hysterical mixture and at around 90 minutes it’s a quick ride that never bores.
It’s not quite in the league of it’s main inspiration; Hawks’ ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938) but it’s a fantastic screwball nonetheless.
2. Slap Shot (1977)
‘Slap Shot’ is a classic late night 70s comedy usually well remembered by kids of the 80s who probably shouldn’t have been watching it, beyond that it’s never really discussed or given the credit it deserves.
It mostly follows the recognisable sports movie formula and features Paul Newman in a wild shift from his usual on screen persona, he clearly enjoyed making slap shot as this comes through in his great performance. The language and sex is totally ramped up for a comedy but it all brings a necessary dimension to why it’s so great.
Newman plays a past his best ice hockey player/coach, playing for the minor league ‘Chiefs’, they are in the midst of a terrible season which could be their last, the owner is desperate to sell up but nobody is buying, he’s added three new players to the team; the bizarre ‘Hanson’ brothers, who turn out to be great at fighting on the ice, and this all gives Newman an idea to raise the ‘Chiefs’ fortunes.
Looking at ‘Slap Shot’ now, it’s really dated, the clothes and hair styles are all contemporary to when it was made, but this all adds to the charm.
There’s some absolutely hilarious scenes, mostly driven along by the choice language and insults thrown around the ice, some of the fight scenes are particularly funny and the characters are all great, it feels like a minor league set up with its mish-mash of personalities and the focus on fighting over playing a clean game. If you’ve not seen this its time to seek and out and get watching a bit of a different take on the sports comedy genre.
3. Top Secret (1984)
‘Top Secret’ is a surreally chaotic spy spoof by the Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker team behind classics such as ‘Airplane’ (1980) and ‘The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!’ (1988).
It stars a young Val Kilmer in his screen debut and what turned out to be a rare comic role, a shame given he was also very funny in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005). Kilmer plays ‘Nick Rivers’ a rock ‘n’ roll singer touring in East Germany; a meeting with a woman named ‘Hilary’ (Lucy Gutteridge) draws him into a world of espionage, spies and secret resistances.
‘Top Secret’ hits an amazing joke rate and for all those that are a little too corny you are never far away from a laugh out loud moment. It has some entertaining cameos from the like of Peter Cushing and Omar Sharif and a huge amount of cultural references. You can all but switch off your brain and let the comedy wash over you without thinking too much about the plot.
‘Top Secret’ was pretty much a flop at the time of release, unfortunately it had pretty big shoes to fill as a follow up to ‘Airplane’ (1980), but, taken on it’s own value today against the awful quality of many contemporary spoof comedies it really should be revered as a classic of this sub-genre.
4. Clue (1985)
‘Clue’ was a commercial and critical flop in 1985 but it’s a much more fun watch than it’s been given credit for. Based on the eponymous board game and featuring the same set up of iconic characters, as well as the classic whodunit narrative. It has a great cast including Colleen Camp, Madeline Khan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and best of all Tim Curry who excels as ‘Wadsworth’ the butler in a manic role which holds the film together.
It’s a simple enough plot and it rattles along at a great pace; each of the guests find themselves arriving at a gothic mansion as a result of an invitation by ‘Mr Boddy’ who plans to exploit each of their secrets to blackmail them. When ‘Mr Boddy’ is murdered the film plays out just as the game would as a ‘closed-house’ Agatha Christie style mystery.
Paramount released the film in cinemas with one of three different endings; a great gimmick on the surface but it didn’t work out too well and found much better success on video, then DVD, playing out with all three endings.
Overall it’s a fantastic, farcical comedy with it’s roots in the films of the Marx brothers and although it seems to have found some cult status and holds some nostalgia for a certain generation, there a still swathes of people missing out.
5. Outrageous Fortune (1987)
‘Outrageous Fortune’ is a female buddy comedy mixed with a helping of ‘road movie’, taking on the well-trodden formula of a male dominated sub-genre. It’s an enjoyable and fun watch with a good script and great chemistry between it’s leads.
Shelley Long plays ‘Lauren’ a snooty, privately educated actress/ballet dancer with dreams of Shakespeare on stage. The glorious Bette Midler plays ‘Sandy’, a foul mouthed New York girl whose own acting resume consists of questionably titled films like ‘Ninja Vixens’.
Their lives are thrown together when they find out they’ve been dating the same guy (Peter Coyote) after he fakes his death and leads them on a cross-country chase involving the CIA, a stolen virus and a lot of money.
The story can come over a bit messy in places and there’s a strange part for George Carlin in the second half that feels a bit shoe-horned into the film.
The real joy here is in the lead performances, there are some hilarious scenes which really put their “acting’ skills to the test. They play off each other really well and the differences in the characters make the relationship work.
Midler delivers one of her best comic performances and the action zips along at a good pace; Walter Hiller (who followed this up with the classic, ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)), directs well and keeps a tight running time. The film had mixed reviews at the time but it’s well worth seeking out as a forgotten gem.
6. The ‘burbs (1989)
It could be argued that ‘The ‘burbs’ isn’t underrated, it’s had a steady fan base and has created a cult following. But, it’s performance was criminally underwhelming on release. It also features a hugely underappreciated performance from Tom Hanks as ‘Ray Peterson’.
The film is an absolute class act and manages to bring a “Hitchcockian” level of paranoia to a hilarious comedy. ‘Ray’ is a “suburbanite” who wants a peaceful week off work. When the ‘Klopeks’ move in next door he gets increasingly obsessed with what they are up to, they’re rarely seen during the day but their basement becomes a hub of mystery activity at night.
‘Ray’s’ paranoia is magnified by his two neighbours ‘Art’ (Rick Ducommon), a man-child with an over-zealous need to investigate the ‘Klopeks’, and Lt. Rumsfeld, an amazing Bruce Dern as an army vet who treats suburban life like military training.
The comedy in much of this film comes from a dark uncomfortable place and an absurd level of tension, the stand out scene features ‘Ray’ and ‘Rumsfeld’ being forced to pay a social visit to the ‘Klopeks’ by their wives.
It’s a seriously funny scene with some exceptionally good acting from Hanks. Another real stand out is the character of ‘Ricky’ played by Corey Feldman who sees the goings on in the neighbourhood as the perfect entertainment; he spends much of the film on the porch cheering on the neighbours. It all races toward an insane ending in which ‘Ray’ finally breaks and finds out the truth. An all time classic.