Empire’s 50 greatest comedies
Empire guides you through their 50 of the most truthful films ever made, by which they mean our list of the greatest comedies of all time.
50. Sons Of The Desert
Sneaking off for a weekend with their masonic lodge, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are, sadly, very quickly busted by their wives in easily the best of their longer films. Rather than a series of slapstick set-pieces haphazardly strung together (great as those are), this is the first L&H feature to structure itself through story and situation: Laurel working with new writers to help nail the new formula. And unlike the almost-as-great Way Out West, this one doesn’t stop for songs – although there are still some cherishable musical moments along the way.
49. Four Weddings And A Funeral
We all have that friend who, try as we might to set them up, remains single. In Mike Newell’s classic of the genre, Hugh Grant’s Charles is that friend. Over the course of four weddings, and – yes – a funeral, fate intervenes as he keeps bumping (or bumbling) into Andie MacDowell. An awfully British conglomeration of laughter, love and tears, Four Weddings also taught us the importance of setting that crucial alarm clock.
48. Trading Places
Few films tackle the go-go ’80s with as much delicious wit as John Landis’ Trading Places. The decade of excess is riotously skewered in a Mark Twain-inspired fable which sees Eddie Murphy’s homeless hustler unwittingly swapping lives with Dan Aykroyd’s snooty commodities trader, the result of a far-fetched wager. It’s a smart examination of rich and poor from a time when the gap was widening, and it’s hilarious to boot. As a bonus, it also boasts one of the best looks-to-camera in cinema history.
47. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Coen Brothers adapt Homer’s Odyssey as a country-and-western musical. Because of course they do. One of their most accessible films, it looks beautiful, is perfectly cast, and is replete with quotable lines (“We’re in a tight spot”, “I am the paterfamilias!”, “We thought you was a toad”, “Do not seek the treasure!” and so on). But it’s the music that stays with you. The soundtrack, curated by T-Bone Burnett, was a far bigger hit than the movie it came from, dusting off an American heritage ignored by the mainstream for decades. The alt-country movement starts here.
46. Galaxy Quest
Both a sharp spoof and a loving homage to the original Star Trek, Galaxy Quest reunites the ageing cast of an elderly TV show, none of whom much like each other anymore, and sends them off on an unlikely interstellar adventure. Tim Allen gives it some excellent Shatner, Sigourney Weaver is great as the smart woman playing the ditzy communications officer (complete with, later on, gratuitously exposed cleavage). But it’s Alan Rickman who steals the show as the Shakespearean thesp stuck with the silly head make-up and the catchphrase he hates. Fans at a convention a couple of years ago voted this a better Trek than Into Darkness.
You know that best friend you’ve had since playschool who will never, ever leave your side? Bridesmaids deals with the fallout of what happens when your BFF finds the love of her life. Aside from girly fallouts (and excess body fluids), Paul Feig’s film boasts a very sweet love story between Kristen Wiig’s failed baker and Chris O’Dowd’s police officer. A relationship based on cake is one we can all invest in.
44. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut
Holding the record for the most obscenities in an animated feature (at a whopping 399!), Trey Parker and Matt Stone take vulgarity to new levels in the big-screen version of their infamous TV series. Incredibly, they also find a host of new ways to be offensive, grafting their usual ingredients (scatology, thinly-veiled satirical jabs, deliberately crude animation) onto a plot which involves a war between Canada and America, and a love affair between Satan and Saddam Hussein. And it’s all presented in the format of a massive classic musical, obviously. As always, just as many viewers will love it as hate it, yet there are moments of comic brilliance here (see the ERsend-up featuring George Clooney’s voice) in amongst the digs at cinematic censorship, sweary movies and Jar-Jar Binks. Just like Cartman, this movie will warp your fragile little mind.
43. Carry On Up The Khyber
Everyone has their own favourite Carry On, so feel free to substitute yours here. We might equally have plumped for Screaming or Cleo, but there’s something about Khyber that just edges the rest. Perhaps its the unusually dramatic locations (it’s only Snowdonia doubling for the Himalayas, but hey, it’s bigger than the series usually looks). Perhaps it’s that all the principals (Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims et al) are present and on top form. Perhaps it’s the likeable presence of Roy Castle as the one-time-only lead: a sharper focus than usual. Or perhaps it’s that kilt scene… or the fact that Williams plays a character called “The Khasi”.
42. National Lampoon’s Animal House
Beer is chugged and togas donned for the college party movie to end them all. A rambunctious John Belushi is the memorable figurehead for the scattershot mayhem. In these days of test audiences and slavish three-act structures, Animal House’s wandering focus stands out, with supposed leads Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst disappearing from the action for long stretches of time. But the screenplay – co-written by director Harold Ramis – is smarter than it appears: the ‘60s setting means the spectre of Vietnam looms. Looks closely and Animal House is more MASH than Porky’s.
41. In Bruges
Here’s a film that starts off as pure comedy, Colin Farrell’s sullen, put-upon hitman acting like a schoolboy next to Brendan Gleeson’s tolerant but exasperated older partner. What sets this apart, however, is the turn for the dark it takes halfway through, turning into something closer to a tragedy. Ralph Fiennes’ gangster with a code (“I want a normal gun for a normal person”) provides the sinister contrast to the guilt-ridden Farrell and sympathetic Gleeson. That the laughs continue right down to the final minutes, amid bloodshed and heartbreak, is only a testament to just how funny writer/director Martin McDonagh’s script is.
40. Happy Gilmore
The phrase “Adam Sandler golf comedy” might not be one to immediately fill most observers with great optimism, but 1996’s Happy Gilmore was, and remains, one of the best films on the SNL veteran’s CV. Full of quality elements like Ben Stiller’s Nazi nursing home manager and Carl Weathers’ wooden-handed coach, it successfully walks the line between sentimental and stupid that other Sandler films fall off. Happy, the psychotic hockey goon who loves his grandma, is one of best pegs on which Sandler has hung his angry man-child schtick, and there’s even a sweet romantic sub-plot, which Sandler would successfully enhance two years later for The Wedding Singer.
39. Kind Hearts And Coronets
Perhaps the apotheosis of the Ealing Comedy alongside the equally marvellous The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts And Coronets is another blacker-than-black comedy about murder. But it’s probably most famous for Alec Guinness brilliantly playing eight separate roles, both male and female. All are members of the D’Ascoyne family, one-by-one meeting with unfortunate accidents as Dennis Price pursues his destiny.
38. The Philadelphia Story
Unless you’re more of a High Society fan (and there’s nothing wrong with that) or an It’s Complicated aficionado (okay, slightly iffier turf ), this George Cukor divorcée classic will hit the sweet spot. Katharine Hepburn is a Philadelphia society beauty, Cary Grant her roguish ex-husband and Jimmy Stewart the celebrity hack with an inadvertent hand in getting them back together again. Smart, sophisticated and still as witty as ever, three quarters of a century later.
37. Billy Liar
Tom Courtenay is the titular William Fisher, shackled to a job in his local Bradford undertakers while he dreams himself various kinds of super-success. Part of the gritty new wave of British “kitchen sink” dramas in the early ‘60s, Billy Liar is unusual for its humour and elaborate flights of fantasy: a result of the story’s expansion from the stage to the screen. Standout in the wonderful supporting cast is Leonard Rossiter, as always, a particular pleasure as undertaker Mr Shadrack. Central to the film though, obviously enough, is Billy himself, Courtenay keeping tight hold of the role he inherited on the West End stage from Albert Finney. Courtenay has the charisma to make us care about Billy, even if it’s never quite clear what the girls see in him.
36. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Bringing the second of his three popular personalities from Da Ali G Show to the big screen, opinion-splitting comedian Sacha Baron Cohen scored a hugely-successful mega-hit with this lengthily-titled opus. Having learned a few lessons from Ali G InDaHouse, Cohen wisely returns to interacting with real people who are unaware they’re talking to a film character, with the semi-improvised style both revealing the hidden side of the American mindset and yielding hilariously discomforting moments. The movie’s instant impact was such that when it was first released you couldn’t turn round without hearing “Niiice!” or “Hiiigh five!”.
- Read Empire’s Borat review here
35. Young Frankenstein
Slap bang in the middle of Mel Brooks’ 1970s run of movie parodies, Young Frankenstein is obsessive in its devotion to the Universal take on Frankenstein’s monster (down to using the same props and lab equipment as the 1931 film) but also willing to go to any length for a gag. Physical humour brings the wordplay to life, and there’s even a legendary dance number in ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’. Brooks and co had so much fun shooting that the writer-director even added scenes near the end of production just so they could keep on going, resulting in a disastrously long first cut that required a marathon editing session to bring down to the swift, 106 minute final running time.
34. Step Brothers
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly play pampered fortysomethings whose juvenile worlds collide when their single parents get married, in this classic Adam McKay comedy. Often overlooked as the difficult third album following Anchorman and Talladega Nights, it can actually hold its head high in that company, and Reilly is great Ferrell foil. The pair are currently at work on Etan Cohen’s Holmes And Watson.
33. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Despite how ’80s it is, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains a timeless slacker classic. A love letter to both Chicago and skiving, John Hughes’ coming-of-age comedy introduced us to one of cinema’s most righteous dudes while demonstrating how phoning in sick should, ideally, be done. It should, in other words, involve elaborate fake-outs that convince a town to rally around you while you enjoy fine meals, tourist sights, baseball games and parades in the big city. Whatever else Matthew Broderick ever does, this is the signature role he’ll always be remembered for.
32. Bringing Up Baby
The quintessential screwball comedy, this combines dinosaur bones, a case of mistaken leopard identity, women’s clothing worn by men and a large amount of money to delightful effect. Amazingly, Katharine Hepburn had never played comedy before and was completely unsure how to go about approaching it; happily she learned from her co-stars and is delightfully ditzy here. Old hand Cary Grant shows off his feel for the form and goes from buttoned-up paleontologist to demented drag queen as Hepburn puts him through hell – but even he has to admit that he enjoys it really. After all, she may be manic and scatterbrained, but she’s a lot more fun than his uptight fiancée, so really everything – as in the best screwball comedies – turns out for the best.
31. His Girl Friday
If your romantic-comedy tastes lean more towards crackerjack repartee and flirty chemistry than body contact, you can’t really go wrong with this Howard Hawks classic. Cary Grant is the charismatic Walter Burns, dismayed (but trying his best to hide it) that his superstar reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is getting married and might head off to pastures new. Oh, and she’s his ex-wife, to boot. Newsrooms may no longer sing with typewriter voices, but this one doesn’t age.
30. M. Hulot’s Holiday
An almost silent film made in the 1950s, a pure slapstick farce with a blithely oblivious central buffoon, this film must have seemed anachronistic even before the prints were developed. Perhaps that’s because it’s a classic, with Jacques Tati’s beautifully drawn M. Hulot innocently causing havoc and misery to all around him as he enjoys a welcome break at the seaside. Often imitated (cf. Jerry Lewis, Rowan Atkinson), this has never been bettered, a perfect comedy meandering along despite the lack of anything resembling a real plot.
MASH wasn’t Robert Altman’s first film, but it was arguably the first one anyone noticed. Based on a successful novel, it was a big-ish deal, but with the suits at Fox more concerned with two other war films shooting at the same time – Patton and the exceptionally troubled Tora! Tora! Tora! – what Altman was doing went largely under the studio radar. Hence he got away with the anarchic, loosely plotted, much improvised, barely organised counter-culture shambles that we now know and love. Fox were horrified when the finished product was delivered, but cheered up when it was a hit. The film’s ‘structure’, essentially splitting neatly into four episodes, pointed to the way to future television success – which Altman refused to have anything to do with. Ring Lardner won the film’s only Oscar for his screenplay, despite having complained that not a word of it was filmed.
28. Duck Soup
The Marx Brothers’ final film for Paramount is the apex of their career, a perfectly formed masterpiece before their move to the forced-romantic subplots and overblown musical interludes of the MGM years. Predictably, it was considered a disappointment on release in 1933. It sees Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, installed by his frequent nemesis Margaret Dumont as leader of the bankrupt Freedonia, an arrangement that obviously takes the country into anarchic war with neighbouring Sylvania. A surprisingly excoriating war satire as well as a thoroughly ridiculous knockabout, Duck Soup is probably most famous for with the “mirror sketch” between Groucho and Harpo, but there’s much more to it than just that.
27. The Princess Bride
The Princess Bride is many things. It’s a fantasy, it’s a comedy, it’s a romance, it’s an adventure, it’s a swashbuckler. It’s a fairy tale, primarily, a whirlwind yarn of princes and princesses, pirates and giants, villages and castles. It’s also a wry take on fairy tales, with a sly satirical edge, and whimsically silly names like Prince Humperdinck, Fezzik and Buttercup. It is ultimately a simple and sweetly straightforward story-within-a-story, and fundamentally very old-fashioned. Languishing for years in the dungeons of development hell, it almost never made it to screen – a thought that now seems, well, inconceivable.
26. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Marilyn Monroe had already evinced a noticeable turn in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, but this was the film that really nailed the Monroe persona: Howard Hawks going Svengali on her as he had with Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall before. Monroe was already a sexpot, but she she now added light comedy to her repertoire, along with musical numbers: this is the film where she sings ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’. The plot’s perfunctory, and Jane Russell is forced to take a back seat (although she gets all the sharpest lines), but the world fell in love and a star was born.
25. The Producers
Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder collaborate for the first time and immediately prove themselves a classic pairing – although Zero Mostel is also key to this film’s success. It’s the story of unscrupulous theatricals who bet the house on a new musical being a disaster, only to unwittingly create an hilarious success. The set piece show tune ‘Springtime For Hitler’, complete with dancing Nazis, is justly famous. But scenes of Wilder losing his shit in that inimitable way are also amply represented. Never take away his blue blankie.
24. Napoleon Dynamite
Deadpan slacker comedy directed by Jared Hess, who’s never quite re-bottled the lightning he caught here. Jon Heder stars as the no-hoper of the title, fond of bowsticks and ligers, and friendly with Efren Ramirez, who runs for class president and finds that his head gets very hot. It’s a film about losers losing – but also occasionally winning. Crucially, it’s never mean-spirited. Heder’s climactic dance routine is cringe-inducing, but also raises a hearty cheer.
23. Team America: World Police
One of the most deliberately offensive movies of the modern age, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone simultaneously lampoon US foreign policy, Michael Bay action movies and liberal Hollywood stars in one combustible satire. Though it’s hard to credit the movie with any form of subtlety, there are brilliant moments (such as the hammer suicide gag or the utter destruction of Paris) and the decision to use marionette puppets is a masterstroke which allows the filmmakers to get away with any amount of ludicrousness. From Alec Baldwin to Kim Jong Il to Michael Moore, nobody is safe from Parker and Stone’s wrath, while all your cherished Thunderbirdsmemories will be soiled forever after seeing these puppets swear, puke and – yes, they went there – having sex. Despite not having any genitalia.
22. ¡Three Amigos!
The sound of inflated egos whistling as the air quickly escapes permeates this memorable comedy, which showcases Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. It might be set in 1916 during the reign of silent movies, but ¡Three Amigos! skewering of actorly attitudes works perfectly in the star-driven ’80s as three faux gunslingers are called upon to save a small Mexican village from bandits, but misunderstand the request as a request for them to perform. Physical gags (that salute!) sit comfortably alongside verbal sparring, while the three leads mesh brilliantly. And earn ten trivia points from the Burning Bush if you knew that this film was co-written by composer Randy Newman.
21. Modern Times
Prison riots, factory shenanigans and blindfold rollerskating pile up in Chaplin’s uproarious classic, in which he plays an assembly line worker left behind by progress. Part of his later period when he was still doggedly ignoring the advent of sound, it was something of a comeback after a few years of relative inactivity, but showed he had lost nothing. In fact, he had gained some bite: critics have interpreted the film as a satire on industry in general and Hollywood specifically. But at its core it’s still the tramp vs. the system. It was ever thus.
20. The Blues Brothers
Whether you come for the jokes and stay for the music or vice versa, this offers the best of both worlds. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are the titular musical siblings (adoptive), on a mission from God to save an orphanage. The pair had an easy chemistry that drives the film, neither wasting a word, but still able to raise a laugh with nothing but a twitch of the eyebrow. Never before (or since) in human history has the quest to pay a tax bill resulted in so much vehicular carnage, so much damage to the Illinois Nazi cause, and so much great music.
19. Withnail & I
Endlessly quotable, and the focus of many a drinking game, Withnail & I is both farcical and moving in its depiction of the end of the ’60s, and of the friendship between its two leads. It’s one of those films that’s so good, it’s almost an albatross around the necks of its cast and crew. Writer/director Bruce Robinson has struggled to repeat its scurrilous success and Richard E. Grant will be forever associated with demanding to have some booze, going on holiday by mistake, and wanting to fork things. Still, how better to be remembered than as part of one of the most intelligent, literate, and fundamentally funny British comedies of all time?
18. Shaun Of The Dead
A film so original that it formed the basis for a new genre, the rom-zom-com (see also: Zombieland), Shaun saw the Spaced team of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright bring their talents for writing likeable losers and inventive genre spins to the big screen. The results are frankly hilarious, with Shaun and hetero-life-partner Ed trying to save those they love amidst a zombie apocalypse. Their plans are persistently rubbish, their weapons of choice bizarrely selective (only the bad records can be used to behead the undead) and their leadership all messed up. It’s a welcome change from the more gung-ho American responses to these outbreaks, and the sublimely effective contrast of twee tea-making and zombie mayhem makes it a slice of fried gold.
17. Annie Hall
The dividing line between Woody Allen’s “early, funny™” films and whatever you want to call what came after, Annie Hall saw the nebbish auteur aiming for greater profundity than in the likes of Take The Money And Run and Bananas. That’s not to say there aren’t still abundant laughs, but there was now also wistful romance in the relationship between Diane Keaton’s Annie and Allen’s Alvie, and the beginnings of the love affair with New York that Allen would expand into Manhattan. Allen’s preferred title was Anhedonia, which is the inability to experience pleasure from things usually considered enjoyable. His co-writer Marshall Brickman’s suggestions meanwhile, apparently included It Had To Be Jew and Me And My Goy.
16. Top Secret!
It might not have landed quite as high on the list as Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s other, more famous comedy, but Top Secret! still has a huge, dedicated following. It’s not tough to see why: an assured parody of World War II spy movies, Elvis Presley musicals and a welter of other topics, it sees American rocker Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, showing serious deadpan comic chops) becoming involved in the French (German?) resistance’s plan to rescue kidnapped scientist Dr. Paul Flammond (Michael Gough). It’s inventive, non-stop and loaded with so many tiny jokes and references that it’s easy to see why this stands up to endless re-watching. After all, how many films can claim a scene that works both forwards and backwards (on the Swedish bookstore) and lasts for exactly 88 seconds? Only this one.
15. The Apartment
Billy Wilder at the height of his powers. He crams real heart and heavyweight topics into what could otherwise have been a fluffy, flirty, sometimes farcical comedy. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLainespar and yearn, and it boasts one of the best scripts of any on this list thanks to Wilder and regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, who between them rarely found a genre they couldn’t crack.
14. Blazing Saddles
It starts with the sight of a chain gang singing Cole Porter, and ends with its heroes watching themselves in the cinema. In between, Blazing Saddles manages to be both crazily scattershot and impressively focused, madly meta but also sweetly traditional. The sheer volume of jokes thrown out onto the prairie of Mel Brooks’ comedy western is immense, but it never really forgets its story – black sheriff helps white town defeat the railroad – and actually has thoughtful things to say about the genre’s inherent racism, if you care to look beyond the farting. It also gets better and better the more Westerns you watch. Richard Pryor was one of the co-writers, choosing to get the train rather than fly from New York to LA for the production, since it allowed for more drinking time. Gotta have priorities.
13. The General
Three steps to train fight glory: first, witness the theft of your beloved train; next, give fanatical chase; finally, steal train back and steam back. Simple, right? Not so much. Put it this way: The Buster Keaton Train Timetable wouldn’t sell a single copy on this evidence. It’s pure narrow-gauge mayhem when Old Stone Face takes on a nefarious posse of Union spies who have stolen his locomotive. There are none of those traditional railway fistfights here, but there are sleepers on the line, a whooping great trench mortar and that climactic moment where an entire bridge collapses. It’s basically two trains rolling up their sleeves and beating lumps out of each other and it remains, 87 years later, utterly glorious cinema.
12. Dr Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s jet black comedy famously stars Peter Sellers playing three separate roles and wildly improvising in all of them. He’s the buttoned-down British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake; the ineffectual US President Merkin Muffley; and the mechanically-armed cartoon ex-Nazi Dr Strangelove (real name “Merkwürdigliebe”) who can’t quite get out of the habit of calling the president “Mein Fuhrer”. Sellers was also supposed to play Texan Air Force Major TJ “King” Kong, but injured himself and couldn’t work in the fighter plane’s cockpit (he was replaced by Slim Pickens). Devastatingly deadpan, this has the darkest of all imaginable endings, which is all the more impressive given that it originally climaxed with a pie fight. Kubrick, wisely, thunk again.
11. The Big Lebowski
The Coen Brothers’ version of a Raymond Chandler noir, The Big Lebowski sees Jeff Bridges as The Dude, drifting, Philip Marlowe-like, around and through the middle of a tortuous mystery with nebulous results. He stumbles onto kidnapping, embezzlement, nymphomaniacs and nihilists – And all he wanted was compensation for his rug. There’s also, of course, plenty of time for bowling with crazed ‘Nam vet John Goodman and simple Steve Buscemi, leading to some cherishable face-off’s with John Turturro’s pink-clad, backwards-dancing, sex-offending Jesus Quintana. The bowling was important in suggesting an anachronistic time-period, Joel Coen explained. “It sent us back to a not-so-far-away era, but one that was nevertheless truly gone.” The Big Lebowski is truly gone indeed.
Originally, the Peter Venkman role was written for John Belushi; the Rick Moranis part for John Candy. But having seen the greatest effects comedy ever made, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing such a good job as this cast – in particular Bill Murray’s free-wheeling Venkman. And there are genuine scares in here to make the laughs all the louder by comparison (don’t know about you, but we still jump a little at the Library Ghost). The lead trio expertly mine every facet of the supernatural for every possible laugh, from crooked researchers to gross-out slime ghosts to enormous inter-dimensional invasions. They even turned Sigourney Weaver into a terrifying ridged black beast, something even the Alien franchise never quite managed.
It really shouldn’t work. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s rambling, surreal and dementedly illogical film doesn’t sound on paper like it would have such a consistently high hit rate for its gags, but astute work on both sides of the camera see to that. So much footage was shot that an entire (funny) bonus film was created from alternate scenes and discarded subplots, handily released as Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie, and what was winnowed to appear in the main film is barmily brilliant. Though it may not have made a huge impact at the box office, some films are destined to grow from humble beginnings into cult behemoths. When endlessly quote-worthy dialogue enters everyday conversation (as it has at Empire Towers), you know it’s something special. Never seen it? Resisted watching it because you were worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype? We invite you to the pants party. The party… with the pants.
8. Monty Python And The Holy Grail
The first real film from the surreal superstars of the Pythons, Holy Grail contains some of the most inspired writing ever committed to celluloid, with the team playing King Arthur and his loyal(ish) knights on a ragtag quest for the titular cup. Sure, the budget appears to have been about 50p, but that spurs the team to greater heights of fancy, substituting coconut halves for horses’ hooves and using excellent inanity instead of epic scale. The jokes have spawned a billion student imitators, from claims that “it’s just a flesh wound” to Gallic insults to knights who say “ni” and demand shrubberies to elaborate discursions on the appropriate base for a system of government. Worth it for the Trojan rabbit gag alone.
7. The Naked Gun
The sixth episode of Police Squad could have been the last we saw of Lieutenant Frank Drebin. Cancelled by ABC, reportedly over fears that it required the audience to pay too much attention, the show languished for six years before it was resurrected for this, the first of three films. As with Zucker-Abrams-Zucker’s pervious Airplane! the biggest joke is the dead seriousness of Leslie Nielsen. Here, however, he’s finally and gloriously centre stage, spouting ludicrous hard-boiled cop clichés as chaos reigns around him (much of it chaos of his own making). Props too, to George Kennedy and Priscilla Presley as, respectively, Drebin’s long-suffering boss and newly put-upon love interest. These days though, it has to be said that the presence of O.J. Simpson as Nordberg feels bloody weird.
6. Life Of Brian
Hailed by many as the pinnacle of the surrealist troupe’s work, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian is a contender for the greatest comedy ever made. The film famously came into being when Eric Idle flippantly announced at a press conference that their next project would be called ‘Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory’. Despite blasphemy allegations from the Catholic Church and funding issues (until Python fan George Harrison stumped up the cash simply because he wanted to see the movie), the Pythons pulled together an irreverent feast of clever allegory, sharp satire and in-depth discussions of Latin grammar as it applies to anti-Roman graffiti.
Zucker, Abrams and Zucker were ruthless with their magnum opus, playing numerous rough cuts of the film to college audiences and excising anything that didn’t get a big laugh. The streamlined disaster movie riff that is left, then, is pure quadruple-distilled comedy, with a gag rate of about three hilarious jokes per minute and a perfect mix of surrealism, wit, parody and inspired physical gags. It has inspired approximately a billion quotes and homages in the 30 years since it first hit screens and still hasn’t ever been equalled by its many, many imitators. Looks like it paid off for the ZAZ team to kill so many of their babies – comedy like this is a seriously tough business.
4. Some Like It Hot
Everybody knows that Marilyn Monroe was gorgeous, but people don’t give her enough credit for her comedy chops – and they’re brilliantly showcased here. Sure, she was a nightmare to work with on set, an emotional mess who required scores of takes on the simplest lines, but director Billy Wilder persisted until he captured her unique lightning in a bottle. Not that this is a one-woman show. The male leads do the heavy lifting: Jack Lemmon was on top form, and Tony Curtis never funnier than here, playing two jazz musicians on the run from the mob and disguised as women in an all-girl band. Men in drag may be a cheap way to mine laughs, but this is the absolute pinnacle of the form, Wilder and his cast turning a cheap sex comedy into a fizzy, flawless farce.
3. When Harry Met Sally
There’s a reason this one usually ends up topping a list of best rom-coms: because it’s bloody brilliant. Nora Ephron derives real emotions, Rob Reiner makes it work perfectly on screen and that cast! Not a moment is wasted, and even as you dive down the supporting actor list, there are fantastic turns. Few films earn a schmaltzy ending quite as well as this one, and you know you’re on to a winner when so many lines and scenes become part of the romantic lexicon.
2. This Is Spinal Tap
If you’re a fan of The Office (and, given that you’re reading a feature about great comedy, chances are high), then you can thank Rob Reiner’s inspirational mock-doc for the show. Based on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, Reiner’s scarily plausible rockumentary is both a brilliant depiction of the music business and one of the best comedies ever to strut onto the big screen in tight leather pants and improbable hair. The fruit of hundreds of hours of footage with a large amount of improv, the authenticity on show is quite staggering, while the hit rate of the gags goes all the way up to eleven.
1. Groundhog Day
A decade after Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day saw Harold Ramis and Bill Murray in more thoughtful form. Murray’s cynical weatherman Phil Connors makes a Scrooge-like emotional journey from recluse to romantic, via a karmic time loop that sees him endlessly revisiting the same day until he gets it right. Murray’s hangdog exasperation is a joy as always, but he’s also revealed here as a surprisingly credible romantic lead. The specifics of what happens to him are never explained (some guff about a voodoo curse was thankfully dropped), and his time in limbo is up to individual interpretation: Ramis said it’s anything from ten years to 10,000. Coincidentally, that’s also the number of times you can watch the film without it getting old.