Cinephiles look back fondly on the 1980s, and today it seems as if there is more nostalgia for the 80s than ever. A lot of this can be attributed to the generation of filmmakers who grew up in the 80s that are active now, but the truth is that it was just a remarkable decade for studio films. Right before the boom of independent films in the 1990s, studio comedies seemed a lot more thoughtful, creative, and original.
Many of the best comedies of the 80s were ones that took risks; a great comedy is more than just a collection of sight gags and sketches, but a well-crafted narrative filled with characters that leap off of the screen. In addition to the many breakout stars of 80s comedies, including Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Dan Akroyd, there were also many breakout filmmakers who worked within the genre. Here are the top twenty best comedies of the 1980s.
20. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Often dismissed today as nothing more than an amateur stoner comedy, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is quite novel in its approach; it’s a film that simplifies the course of human history in a way that is easily interpreted by its main characters. The satire isn’t particularly rich, but there’s joy in seeing some of the most memorable figures in human history interacting with these goofy protagonists, and Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have a terrific tenderness to their adolescent antics.
Unabashedly silly and featuring a fantastic soundtrack, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure holds up better than a lot of its contemporaries; a sequel, 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, was surprisingly subversive, and the franchise will continue with the highly anticipated Bill & Ted Face the Music.
19. Risky Business
Although Tom Cruise had starred in films like Taps and The Outsiders previously, Risky Business was the film that announced him as the most exciting movie star of his time, a title he retains today. What a film Risky Business is; instead of collapsing under the tired tropes of most high school coming-of-age comedies, the film deconstructs privilege and suburban America with a razor sharp wit as Cruise’s character (the aptly named Joel Goodson) gets increasingly over his head after an encounter with a call girl.
Often remembered for its most iconic moments, specifically the iconic dance number to “Old Time Rock and Roll,” it’s often not remembered for its seering criticism of materialistic impulse and capitalistic fantasy. While many coming of age comedies haven’t aged well, Risky Business was ahead of its time.
18. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Perhaps the quintessential Thanksgiving movie of all-time, Plains, Trains and Automobiles was Steve Martin and John Candy at the height of their powers. Martin has never been nastier or more temperamental in a role, and Candy was never as buoyant, optimistic, and joyful as he was here. It’s an obvious pairing, and not only did it set the precedent for many road comedies, but it’s considered to be the gold standard. As with any of John Hughes’s work, there’s a touch of realism to the relationships, making the sentimental ending even more profound.
Tim Burton is without a doubt one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers of all-time, and while there’s generally a touch of comedy in all of his films, Beetlejuice is by far his zaniest, wackiest, and funniest film to date. In a period where studio films could get genuinely weird, Beetlejuice stands out for the absolute brilliance of its world building and design, particularly the brilliant makeup used to design the titular character.
Michael Keaton, of course, gives one of the best performances of his career in a role that is certainly among his most demanding and exhausting; few “dramatic” actors could take the creative licenses that he did with this instantly iconic character.
16. Raising Arizona
The Coen Brothers established themselves as ones to watch with their 1984 debut film Blood Simple, but with Raising Arizona, they proved themselves to be among the most exciting and original directors of the time; today, they are often ranked among the greatest of all-time.
Raising Arizona is a breathless fairy tale of constant zaniness, a crime film about a sting gone awry, and a rather poignant tale of a marriage in crisis. Although none of these concepts seemed initially compatible, they’re all held together by the Coens’ quick pace and inventive characters, as well as the brilliant performances by Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in some of their career-best roles.
15. Beverly Hills Cop
Eddie Murphy absolutely dominated the comedy scene in the 80s, and while he had been one part of a pair in both 48 Hrs and Trading Places, his role as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop was a singular starmaking vehicle that established his dominance as a leading man. The crime elements are surprisingly nuanced, as the film doesn’t hold back from being an exciting investigative adventure, as Murphy’s razor sharp timing is perfectly synced with the developing narrative. The satire of the difference between environments also makes it a cut above some of its action-comedy contemporaries.
14. This Is Spinal Tap
The quintessential mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap is both a love letter and a condemnation of rock documentaries. While there’s a genuine love for the pursuit of the craft that comes across, the film examines just how silly it is to put these artists on a pedestal and treat all of their words as gospel. A favorite among film fans and music enthusiasts alike, This is Spinal Tap is realistically handled to the point that the band feels real. Although it was an initial box office disappointment, the film has risen among the ranks as one of the best and most influential cult comedies of all-time.
One of Chevy Chase’s best roles ever is as the investigative reporter Irwin M. Fletcher, a character that embodies Chase’s best qualities as a leading man; he’s cheeky and sarcastic, but he’s also usually the smartest character in the room, and seeing Fletch navigate through a series of seemingly indifferent and sinister authority figures makes for a rewatchable series of escapades.
Chase has often cited Fletch as his favorite film that he’s made, and it’s easy to see why, as he never treats the role with anything less than sincerity, and the story never puts Chase in a place where he needs to get out of character. This is a role so specifically calibrated to an actor, in that it could easily become either grating or tiresome, that it’s a miracle that Chase never becomes either. Rumors have persisted for decades about a reboot, but it would be hard to see any other actor in the role.
12. The Blues Brothers
One of the very best films ever inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch, The Blues Brothers is a celebration of both music and mayhem. The car chase sequences are incredibly well-directed and choreographed, rare for a comedy, and depict a willfully destructive comic energy that is fitting for the two lead characters.
The music, of course, is iconic, finding a deep love for its jazz and blues artists, with musical numbers that are both inspiringly silly and somewhat poetic. Both John Belushi and Dan Akroyd have wonderful comic aloofness to them, and the memorable supporting turns from Carrie Fischer and John Candy also help pad out the film’s epic runtime. The constant pressure that the characters are under to evade authorities makes The Blues Brothers a truly unique comedy.
There is a reason that Airplane! is often cited as one of the funniest films of all-time; the way it parodies disaster films was irreverent and groundbreaking, launching a very specific brand of parody films that would be often duplicated, yet never replicated.
Between iconic lines (“Don’t Call Me Shirley”) and sequences that are often replicated (such as Ted and Elaine’s encounter at the disco), Airplane! combined irreverent slapstick and shocking non sequiturs into a send up of disaster films that transcends “parody” status and becomes its own thing. Ted Kramer and Julie Hagerty are terrific as the romantic duo at the center, but it’s Leslie Nielsen who steals the film’s best moments.