Believe it or not, pure comedies are sparse these days in movie theaters. Next time you go see a Marvel movie, a low-budget horror film or an animated movie, see how many pure comedies are at the multiplex. Maybe one but most likely none. And if there is one, it’s not selling out. True there are great laughs in superhero movies, but they come in between big action set pieces. Back in the 80s, a pure comedy was a movie with non-stop laughs made by incredibly funny men and women. Not a young stud who can do their own stunts or a semi-famous stand-up who gets to make a movie. Yes, there are mashups where you can put comedy with adventure and fantasy like Barbie, but can you call it pure comedy?
In the 80s, there were lots of hilarious comedies to go see at the movie theater. It was common to find a handful of comedies in the Top 10 Highest-Grossing Films of the year. In 1986, four out of ten movies were comedies including the classics Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back To School. In other years you could find a Police Academy movie in the top ten. But not anymore. That’s because people loved going to the movies to laugh and here are ten great instances of those times.
1. Gung Ho (1986)
Directed by the man who people still called Opie – Ron Howard, this movie is a fantastic comedy about culture clash. Starring the one and only Michael Keaton who recruits a Japanese company to save a small-town auto plant in Pennsylvania. The Japanese employees who now run the plant institute rules and conditions that the American workers refuse to follow. Keaton does everything he can to make it work, but his charm doesn’t get through to his fellow American workers or his Japanese co-workers except for the executive in charge played brilliantly by Gedde Watanabe. The loveable George Wendt of Cheers fame is one of Keaton’s friends and a worker in the factory along with a young John Turturro. Howard’s brother and father would also make appearances as they did in most of Howard’s films.
The movie was a hit in theaters and even spawned a sitcom. Watanabe would reprise his role for the series, but the Keaton role would be succeeded by Scott Bakula only a couple years before his memorable role as Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. Other Japanese actors from the film also returned because there was a lack of roles for them in the industry. Thankfully this would change decades later with the huge success of Crazy Rich Asians. All in all, this is a moralistic story that feels very true to life and hopefully people can learn from it between all the hysterical moments.
2. Wise Guys (1986)
Brian De Palma is best known for the greatest comedies of all time. Any cinephile knows that previous statement is false. But De Palma did start his career making low-budget black comedies with Robert De Niro (No joke.). Shortly after, he became famous for doing thrillers that scared people senselessly like Carrie and Blow Out. In 1986, he returned to comedy with Wise Guys. In the lead role, De Palma cast the actor who played Louie De Palma on the television sitcom Taxi, Danny DeVito. Alongside Joe Piscopo, both play a couple of out of place schlubs who work for a serious mob boss played by the versatile character actor Dan Hedaya. They hatch a plan to make money with their boss’ loot and when it falls through, they go on the run to avoid sleeping with the fishes.
The screenwriting duo, George Gallo and Norman Steinberg, both have credits from some very funny movies. Even though this was Gallo’s first screenplay, he went on to write two films that also had mob elements – the classic buddy comedy Midnight Run and the underrated 29th Street. Steinberg was a veteran writer by this point having worked on Blazing Saddles, My Favorite Year and another mob comedy, Johnny Dangerously. There have been a few mafia comedies (Married To The Mob, Analyze This), but this one has a lot more than laughs. Deep down it’s about friendship and what two best friends will do to save each other.
3. Summer School (1987)
The man who’s been playing NCIS Special Agent Leroy Gibbs for over 20 years – Mark Harmon – is also a great comedic actor. Just watch the hysterically funny 1987 movie Summer School. He plays a gym teacher named Freddy Shoop who’s forced to teach High School English to a class of underachievers. Kirstie Alley is also hilarious as the fellow teacher who helps him when he desperately needs it. She would go on to star in Cheers nearly two months after the film’s release.
The celebrated Carl Reiner directs from an incredible script and has a cameo at the beginning of the movie. So pencils down during the opening credits! Each student has their own story which makes it even more interesting when Shoop steps up to help them. The class is full of a lot of familiar faces including Courtney Thorne-Smith from the TV Shows Melrose Place and According To Jim as well as Shawnee Smith from the Saw movies. This movie deserves to go under the category of inspiring teacher films like To Sir With Love, Stand And Deliver, and Lean On Me. And the fact that it’s laugh-out-loud funny puts it in a category all its own.
4. Dragnet (1987)
In this homage to the classic television series, Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks are paired up as mismatched police officers who take a case that involves a reverend, a cult and a virgin. As strange as it sounds, combined it is vastly entertaining. Throughout the 80s, Dan Aykroyd was known for comedy. As an original cast member of Saturday Night Live to The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, he was one of the top comedians of the decade. Hanks was also strictly known for comedy. From his TV series Bosom Buddies where he dressed in drag to Big where he played a 13-year-old boy who gets transformed into an adult.
Here they bring their brand of comedy that fits perfectly in the crime world from a script Aykroyd penned with fellow SNL alum, writer Alan Zweibel. The reverend is played by screen legend Christopher Plummer. Whether you know the original show or not, the film is a lot of fun. On top of the laughs, there’s excitement, romance, and plenty of fast-talking dialogue from Aykroyd that stands out as one of the most unique comedic performances of all time.
5. The Couch Trip (1988)
In Dan Aykroyd’s second film on this list, he pairs up with one of the most underrated actors of his time, Walter Matthau. This time, Aykroyd is on the bad side of the law as a conman. He pretends to be a psychiatrist and gets more than he bargained for when he must host a radio show. He becomes surprisingly popular from his unconventional advice and milks stardom for all it’s worth.
The brilliant Charles Grodin has a significant role playing a sluggish psychiatrist who just needs space. Also, Aykroyd’s real-life wife, Donna Dixon is a colleague of his who he’d like to get to know better. This would be the third film the two of them would co-star in after Doctor Detroit and Spies Like Us. Aykroyd is a lot of fun in this movie and while his comic timing is always on point, here it feels sharper than usual. And with the superb Matthau by his side, they bring a comedic wit that makes the film irresistible. Especially the scene where Matthau offers jelly donuts without the jelly.