The most powerful force known to our world is laughter. This is why films that make us laugh are so precious. We carry them through generations on numerous formats, and celebrate the comedians who’ve since left us. We share them with friends and loved ones, so we can laugh together. And since humor is subjective, we love to bicker over which movies are the funniest.
Friends, these are the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. PLEASE NOTE: This list does not include films that are animated (The Simpsons Movie would certainly have passed muster), or reality-based (Jackass 2), only because they would benefit more from separate reviews/articles. This is why I left out Marx Bros., Monty Python (Holy Grail and Life of Brian, natch), Trailer Park Boys movies, Quick Change, and Woody Allen’s Take The Money And Run and Sleeper, worthy inclusions all. Slap Shot missed the list thanks to the mope and his hateful girlfriend. Blame them for any quibbles you might have.
(I also left out my own movie, as I’m not that much of a raving egomaniac.)
#1: BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
Mel Brooks’ satire of the classic Western was so razor-sharp, it came to supplant the genre it lampooned. I would argue that Gene Wilder turns in the greatest performance of his career here; he’s actually playing a straight marquee hero, and not the clown, allowing everyone else to improve their comedic chops against his. It works beautifully opposite Cleavon Little’s precision stentorian timing, former footballer Alex Karras’ Faulknerian man-child, and the rest of this venerable cast. The campfire scene with the flatulent cowboys gets all the press, but Brooks made the ultimate fart joke by referencing Le Petomane, the original French fartist. And most historically, Brooks did heteros the world over a solid by putting one of the most splendorous pairs of breasts ever on screen: Robyn Hilton’s.
Don’t let anyone tell you Blazing Saddles falls apart at the end; the pandemonium on the studio lot is a necessary release from the high-wire tension of the racial humor. The pie fight is a multitudinous exhalation of relief. Aren’t they always?
#2: CADDYSHACK (1980)
Just ignore the gopher and the sequel; both are vestigial remnants of a weird area 1980 got into, wherein the dividing line twixt men and boys began to dissipate. (By 1984’s Ghostbusters, from the same writer, the line was well and fully sundered.) What matters is that Chevy Chase turns in one of two career-making roles, as golf guru Ty Webb (the other being Clark Griswold from National Lampoon’s Vacation, which almost made the list. Credit is also certainly due there to Beverly D’Angelo, and her breasts. If you’re new here, I hope you don’t hate breasts, because they’re sort of a recurring leitmotif). Chase pulls off that rarest of feats, in that he makes you laugh, but also makes you want to be him.
Then of course there’s Rodney Dangerfield. What an anarchic wonder this man is. The director literally allowed Rodney to wander around a country club and riff on everything in sight. It is stupefyingly funny. Throw in the great Ted Knight, who at the time was going through a career slump in a sitcom, and it reaches the peaks of the Marx brothers. Much of the gags follow the classic slow-buildup-and-release formula, resulting in many priceless reaction shots. There’s a brief moment on a boat with Danny (Michael O’Keeffe, his best work aside from the drama Split Image) and a weird little kid in a sailor suit that’s a hidden gut-buster, and the fine details, like the outrageous vehicle horns (believe me), are the icing on the cake. Plus if you look hard enough, you’ll see Bill’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray being equally funny as the boss of the caddies.
It’s easy to get distracted by the impossibly hot Cindy Morgan as “Lacey Underalls”, however. After she bangs Danny in her uncle’s bedroom, guests arrive at the house, necessitating a hasty exit. Danny sees his future about to crumble, and Lacey shoots him the universal look for “hey, you got some. What more do you want?”
#3: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
Mel Brooks directed two spoof comedies that were so spectacular, they made all his later efforts better by association. This film looks so authentic that for years it confused me about the actors’ ages; as a young lad, I mistook it for a genuine article of the 1940s. The painstaking attention to detail pays off huge dividends, in that it allows a top-tier cast of performers to play in a setting to match their skills. Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle deliver a master class in the art of comedy. Gene Hackman steals the movie in one scene, and rock-solid work comes from Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars, and Cloris Leachman, one of the great unsung comediennes. “Blücher” doesn’t even really mean anything (other than “shoe” in German), but the terrified whinnying of horses combined with her expression is the perfect form of the running gag.
It bears repeating that this film features Madeline Kahn, a woman the comic equal of Gene Wilder, who could sing soprano opera, had legs that went all the way up, and looked like this:
I didn’t elaborate on Kahn’s equally fantastic role in Blazing Saddles because I’m trying to cut down on the boner count for this article, and that Cindy Morgan shot nearly killed me. This movie also features Marty Feldman’s best appearance, as “Eye-gor”. There. That helped.
#4: ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)
One of the main reasons Animal House works is the formal, stuffy tone of the setting. PCU (1994) failed because it wanted us to like the protagonists and hate their tormentors; Animal House throws you into the fray and doesn’t give a fuck who you get along with, pledge.
A great film role brings immortality, or at least our perception of such. John Belushi is as important in this film as Brando in The Wild One. Delta Tau Chi member Stork (“What’re we s’posed to do, ya MOE-RON?“) was played by the late Doug Kenney, one of the progenitors of the holy National Lampoon High School Yearbook Parody. In fact, even though the dates are wrong, many students from that yearbook graduate to appearances in Animal House, and the book is the property of Larry “Pinto” Kroger. It’s meta-comedy gold.
This is one of at least three entries on this list to feature a liquor-chugging gag, which used to be one of those things. (I think Mr. Lahey on Trailer Park Boys carries that torch alone now, unfortunately.) Another old-school tradition: Belushi crushes a beer can on his forehead. Plus, when Flounder (Stephen Furst) arrives at the toga party with his ladyfriend, a bottle flies at her from off screen and misses her head by .0001″.
The fraternity guys are so archetypal, any average dude has picked one out that they identify with. (Mine is D-Day.) This movie has been long revered for damn good reason. It’s like a frat-boy version of The Brothers Karamazov. The end-credits song, from soft-rocker Stephen Bishop, encapsulates the spirit of 50’s revival (of the 1970s) perfectly, and it’s catchy too.
#5: CHEECH & CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE (1980)
You don’t have to be stoned to appreciate this movie… but it helps!!! Nyuk nyuk. It’s true, though; this is Cheech & Chong at their hazy best, surrounded by a nebula of funny folks like Pee-Wee Herman, Michael “mouth noise guy” Winslow, and the McClurgs (Bob and Edie). Cheech himself spends most of the film as Dwayne “Red” Mendoza- a burned-out California hippie- and he’s so good, you actually forget Cheech is in it.
The flow of the movie feels spontaneous and improvised, like the raucous night out that it is. It also features a ton of good music (all C&C movies tend to), which is unfortunately butchered for some current releases.
#6: THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)
1980 was a banner year for comedy. This is the result of at least two major forces: the powerhouse that was the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live, and an imprint called National Lampoon, stacked with low-brow Harvard grads and some bona fide underground cartoonists. Both Steven Spielberg and John Landis know how to direct comedy, and they hail from the same generation of filmmakers. And then you have a mutant like Dan Ackroyd, who gets the inherent Pynchonesque humor in refrigerator instructions, penning a gargantuan script. A fleet of police cars was donated for destruction. No part of it should have worked, but it did. Can you picture a budget like this getting approved nowadays for a movie wherein the two leads wear sunglasses for almost the entire film?
This movie was the first time I heard “fuck this noise”. The musical numbers are in no way extraneous, and break out naturally as flowers blooming. The pedigree of performers is astonishing: Steve Cropper, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker- and that’s just the musicians. Read these words carefully:
Carrie Fisher amok with assault weapons.
#7: FREAKED (1993)
If you only remember Alex Winter as one half of the titular duo from the Bill & Ted movies, you haven’t seen Freaked. Winter is Ricky Coogan, a jaded former child star who becomes a living Garbage Pail Kid after being kidnapped by an evil freak show proprietor (Randy Quaid). This film contains some of the funniest things I have ever seen:
- A giant-nosed man in a gorilla suit, flying into a violent rage because the record started to skip during his big breakdancing number
- A half-mutant Alex Winter ripping off a businessman’s head, before screaming “EAT SHIT!” and smashing it against the wall
- Mr. T as the Bearded Lady, giving makeup tips like “just have fun with it”.
If that’s not enough for you, there’s a child with actual comic timing and ability, and a hot girl from Melrose Place with the same. Rare creatures both, which makes it all the sweeter. I’m betting you haven’t seen this entry, which you should rectify post haste, particularly if you’re a ’90s nostalgic. The opening titles, with music by Henry Rollins and Blind Idiot God, are everything great about that decade in under two minutes.
#8: COMING TO AMERICA (1988)
Coming To America didn’t just lampoon American urban life, it went on to influence our entire culture. My dad never believed that the old Jewish man in the barbershop was Eddie Murphy under makeup (crafted by the master, Rick Baker). I could not convince him. That’s a successful portrayal. (Legend has it that immediately after the makeup was applied, Murphy was flirted with by an actual old Jewish woman.)
Co-star Arsenio Hall matches Murphy’s energy and charm, in as many different guises, and a tremendous ensemble cast gives the film a delirious rhythm. Brief gags become indelible memories; the hysterical on-stage breakdown of the lead singer of “Sexual Chocolate”, the utterly believable commercial jingle for “Soul Glo”:
What makes it perfect is that it could easily pass for a real commercial. It doesn’t make the subject look ridiculous, it just exaggerates what’s already there. This is why this film so beloved; the characters are affectionate exaggerations, not reductive caricatures. James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair show up as the very definition of regal. And John Amos plays about the most lovable dad you could imagine, when technically he’s a larcenous opportunist whose empire is built on a hilarious bit of intellectual theft.
As soon as Amos’ Cleo McDowell lays out his explanation, you’re immediately on board with him. Fuck McDonald’s and their punk-ass clown.
#9: BAD SANTA (2003)
This entry barely edged out National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, because it stands on its own and is not part of a series… yet. Regardless, this is a coal-black comedy directed by Terry Zwigoff, an angry old grump with a rotten back who understands the necessity of laughter, and used to hang with R. Crumb. Billy Bob Thornton plays the lead with such sleazetastic excellence, I can’t understand why he was never cast in the Burt Reynolds role for a Smokey & The Bandit reboot. For most of the movie, he is legitimately intoxicated; this is another comedy where a bottle is chugged in a single take.
The dialogue is hysterically profane. The wonderful Tony Cox, BBT’s diminutive partner-in-crime, tells him “You’re an emotional cripple. Your soul is dog shit. Everything single fuckin’ thing about you is ugly.” The late laugh-getters John Ritter and Bernie Mac provide scene after scene that just make you howl; the latter gets belly-laughs simply eating an orange. Like Freaked, there’s a Kid That Can Act (and be funny), and Lauren (Gilmore Girls) Graham is captured at peak cuteness, playing the best barmaid a man dressed like Santa (or otherwise) could ever ask for.
Lest we forget, Cloris Leachman plays an important role again, and this well into old age.
#10: IDIOCRACY (2006)
The first act of Idiocracy, from Mike Judge (“King of the Hill”, “Beavis & Butthead”, Office Space) is completely indomitable. I defy anyone to stop watching after the opening salvo; you can’t. Nor should you, you’d be missing a marathon of solid gags, both visual and scripted, beautifully crafted and structured. The crudeness of “Ow! My Balls” is a distraction; this is one of the smartest and most subversive comedies since Dr. Strangelove.
Luke Wilson plays the role of his career by riffing on his own forgettable image, as an average man frozen by the military for five hundred years. What happens next could be a documentary of our inevitable future. This is another comedy that some claim runs out of steam towards the end; they are merely worn down by the relentless barrage of jokes this movie unleashes. Not to mention, every joke lands.
Dax Shepard is scene-stealing as the moron lawyer Frito (“I like money”), and Maya Rudolph, daughter of R&B singer Minnie Rudolph and producer Dick, plays the female lead opposite Wilson. Rudolph’s dialogue as the unfrozen prostitute Rita is impeccably delivered and drop-dead hilarious, drawing on her skills as one of the last people who made Saturday Night Live worth staying awake for.
BONUS: WE GO TO 11
#11: THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)
This single Rob Reiner film defined the “mockumentary”. This is a comedy so authentic, numerous high-profile rock musicians watch it on their tour buses and cry at how much it hits home. The spontaneous combustion jokes in the film are there for your benefit; without them, the movie would be indistinguishable from the real thing. Forget Santa Claus- can you imagine life without a Spinal Tap?
The leads are all in top form, and they even perform the music, a dead-on pastiche of 1970s British metal. Tony Hendra is a hoot as the manager, and he goes bonkers with a cricket bat. After seeing this movie, you’ll understand why people defend Paul Shaffer and Fran Drescher.
BONUS #2: THE JERK (1979)
This film is connected to our previous entry by blood; it was directed by the great Carl Reiner. This is Steve Martin’s finest screen performance, as the confused but earnest imbecile Navin Johnson. Legendary borscht-belt comic Jackie Mason appears as Mr. Hartounian, who would go on to be a lead in the execrable Caddyshack II. The great character actor M. Emmet Walsh turns up as a psychotic highway sniper and manages to make it hilarious without dulling the edge of the material. Navin’s invention, the “opti-grab”, is a brilliant running joke with the ring of truth to it.
And good heavens, the sheer glory of Bernadette Peters with a trumpet. Her scenes are like something out of Chaplin’s best, and she looks like a living doll.
BONUS #3: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (1996)
Even though this film is part of a longer series, it still stands well enough on its own to be part of this list. Original cast members Joel Hodgson and Frank Conniff aren’t present, but Mike Nelson does an exemplary job of running the show, which is a copy of the 1956 sci-fi turkey This Island Earth that he will riff on, with the help of two wise-cracking robots, while trapped on a satellite in space. The interchange between Nelson and puppeteers Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy is so quick and smooth at this point, it’s a well-oiled machine. Literally hundreds of jokes are packed into this movie, so many that the “host segments” are like quick breathers in between the marathons of riffing. And the makers are so determined to give you your money’s worth, they even riff over the closing credits, and it’s just as funny.
ULTIMATE BONUS: BLACK DYNAMITE (2009)
I saved this for (sort of) last because it’s possibly the funniest movie ever made. The verisimilitude is sky-high- this is an aesthetically perfect object, and aside from some CGI flames, it’s indistinguishable from the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s that inspired it. Michael Jai White, writer and star, deserves an Oscar for this. To start with.
Tommy Davidson, Cedric Yarbrough, Arsenio Hall, and Nicole Sullivan all contribute great cameos, and the film’s momentum is strong, with a funk soundtrack that spells out the action in the lyrics. There’s a classic pimp chase with White and Davidson that’s worth the price of admission alone, and Kym Whitley gets huge laughs from shedding a single tear inconsistently across edits. Be sure to pay attention when the heroes work out the evil plot in the restaurant, it’s a marvel of wordplay and deduction.
LOST BONUS: THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA (2001)
This comedy is similar to Young Frankenstein and Black Dynamite, in that it parodies a film genre so well, it’s hard to tell it apart from the inspiration. In this case, the poverty-row sci-fi reels of the 1950s get the mockery, and it’s even lensed in Bronson Canyon, a classic location for same. Performers Larry Blamire (who also wrote), his wife Jennifer, Fay Masterson (Eyes Wide Shut) and a small handful more all have the look of obscure B-movie stars from a half-century ago. The dialogue has the cadence and pacing of old monster movies, and features dozens of quotable lines, my personal favorite being:
“I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in anything.”
I haven’t seen the sequels, but I’m betting they’re also good, judging by the insane amount of work put into the production of Lost Skeleton. On the DVD, there is enough faux memorabilia from the “heyday” of the film to convince you it really debuted in 1963. Blamire and company are well-versed in the secret workings of old B-movies, and they prove it here with the most convincing film forgery I’ve ever witnessed. And it bears pointing out that it’s impressive to see how far some creators can go with clean material. This is the single film on this list you could watch with the kiddies, and have no problems (Tom Servo cuts loose with a couple of S-bombs in MST3K: The Movie). Despite the lack of dirty jokes, this is a totally side-splitting ride, and well worth a spot in this article. If you’ve never seen it and you love MST3K, this is a home run, as it’s a “terrible” movie that riffs itself. I whole-heartedly recommend it.
You’ve got to be all laughed out for now, so let’s take a break. See you next time at (whatever passes as an approximation of) the movies!