Part of the appeal to excellent escapist cinema is that it makes the viewer forget their troubles for a while and in the case of a good comedy, it allows them to inhabit areas where absurdity, laughter and silliness vie for space. Comedy films present cultural touchstones, they cheer us up, they generously offer recognizable and ridiculously quotable quips, while putting forth and playing with influential trends that resonate with audiences for years and year afterwards.
While compiling a list of the best comedies of all time is no small task, limiting that number to just ten films is, admittedly, straight-up folly. While I’d like to make room for such classics as Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959), Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), or more recent comic tour de force’s like Todd Phillips’ Old School (2003), Larry Charles’ Borat (2006), or Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007), instead the list that follows here eschews these fine films while still offering up a few alternate but still silly showpieces.
These films include an overlooked masterwork or two, essential influential comic juggernauts, and comedies that forever changed the face of popular cinema.
These ten films rank amongst not just the best comedies of all time, but amongst the very finest films ever made. Delights await, so please, enjoy!
10. Airplane! (1980)
This hysterical satirical parody picture from the triple threat producer/director/writer team of Jim Abrahams, and David and Jerry Zucker is their undisputed wacky masterwork. Blowing the raspberry at the disaster film genre––namely such populist hits as Zero Hour! (1957), Earthquake! (1974), and Towering Inferno (1974)––Airplane! is best remembered for its lightening-paced slapstick, sight gags and verbal puns.
When a nasty course of food poisoning wipes out the flight crew and several passengers aboard an ill-fated 747, it’s left up to former fighter pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays), his ex-girlfriend and flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), and the ridiculous Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) to safely ground the plane and save the remaining passengers.
“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
The jokes are juvenile and quite often corny, but the unremitting messing around pays off repeatedly, ensuring that Airplane! is terrifically impossible not to enjoy. “And don’t call me Shirley!”
9. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Certainly the most balanced and consistently brilliant film from the prolific and witty writer-director comic legend Mel Brooks, this black-and-white horror spoof, Young Frankenstein, takes on the Mary Shelley classic with winning results.
Gene Wilder is genius as the famed cutting-edge brain surgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced ‘Fronkensteen!’”), who has returned to his family’s castle in Transylvania. Here, assisted by his hunchback sidekick Igor (“It’s pronounced ‘eye-gor!’”), played with manic brilliance by Marty Feldman, they are joined by the harried housekeeper Frau Bleucher (Cloris Leachman), the vivacious village babe Inga (Teri Garr), Frederick’s lustful bride-to-be Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), and of course, the Monster (Peter Boyle).
Brooks’ cleverly inserts his requisite singing and dancing (once seen, you’ll never hear “Puttin’ on the Ritz” the same way again), playful puns, sexy innuendo, and more, in a movie that moves from silly spoof to serious homage with energy and joy.
8. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
No list of great comedies is worth a lick if it doesn’t include a film featuring the witty and whimsical Cary Grant, and the Howard Hawks classic Bringing Up Baby doubles not just as one of Grant’s finest funny performances but also as the definitive screwball comedy. The lively, anarchic energy, and rapid-fire dialogue––so sublimely suggesting all sorts of sexual innuendo without being outrightly naughty––that binds Bringing Up Baby is brought to dazzling life by its leads, Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
Riffing on a clever, almost covert analysis of gender expectations, marriage, and sex, this RKO standard –– shunned by the critics on its initial release –– presents the dapper, ridiculously handsome, and easily distracted paleontologist Dr. David Huxley (Grant), busy working away on a years-long museum project, something to do with a brontosaurus skeleton, betrothed to another who meets and is slowly enamored by the scatterbrained Susan Vance (Hepburn). Susan, by the way, has a pet leopard named Baby, a gift from her brother in South America, and when the two transport the creature to the wilds of Connecticut a love connection just might be made.
“Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but––well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.”
Of all the films to be made during the Golden Age of Hollywood it’s easy to see why it is that the comedies have all aged the best, and with the timeless japing, drollery, ridiculous repartee, not to mention the blunt physicality of Grant in particular (his role here is partially inspired by Harold Lloyd’s silent-era persona), Bringing Up Baby is one for the ages.
7. Withnail and I (1987)
Easily the archetypal British cult comedy, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical eulogy to unemployment and acquaintanceship, Withnail and I, is a tiny tour de force. A mélange of quotable discourse (“We want the finest wines available to humanity, and we want them here, and we want them now!”), not to be forgotten characters (Richard E Grant’s Withnail is absolutely iconic, and Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty is divine and pitiably droll), coarse social commentary, and elegant farce, mixed in equal portions that guarantee greatness.
Set in a dog-eared Camden-Town flat at the ass-end of the 1960s, Withnail and I fixates on two actors on the dole, and their attempts to return to form. Narrated by Marwood (Paul McGann), life is anything but biscuits and butter drips. Withnail, a lovable but self-destructive drunk, doesn’t so much buoy his friend, as hold him down. Taking an ill-starred holiday in the country ultimately alienates the pair, but not after many booze-soaked scenarios play out as self-discovery and desolation ooze in.
Numerous drinking games accompany the film, a witness to its prestige. Anyone who’s ever struggled, said goodbye to a friend, or gone on a regrettable drinking binge, can find familiarity with this wonderful, witty, and humanly relevant picture. Marvellous.
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
“I’m the Dude, so that’s what you call me. You know, that or, His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing,” explains the titular unemployed layabout, in the Coen Brothers’ most idiosyncratic and outright enjoyable shaggy-dog misadventure.
As the Dude in question, Jeff Bridges will be forever identified as the personable pothead, who’s Raymond Chandler-inspired exploration to nowhere (The Big Lebowski rubric is a reference to his 1939 novel “The Big Sleep”) has spawned one of the most fervid fanbases around, and it’s easy to see why.
The eccentric characters that the Dude encounters –– the brilliantly inspired cast includes Steve Buscemi, Flea, John Goodman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, and many more –– in vignette fashion across L.A. and environs, pay careful homage to film noir conventions, along with the witty repartee, dangerous dealings, and unconventional, almost stream of logic maneuverings, making for a verifiable comedic masterwork.