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Comedies have a simple barometer for quality: the audience either laughs or it doesn’t. Conversely, the best comedies are those that audiences still find funny even after decades. That defines the true masters, going back to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as well as more recent figures.
It also gives comedy an enduring appeal that avoids the ebbs and flows of other genres. Here are 30 of the best comedies ever made, spread across the history of film. Besides their abiding power to make people laugh, each of them brings something special to their efforts that no other movie can duplicate.
30 30. Roxanne (1987)
Steve Martin received an honorary Academy Award in 2014 but was never formally nominated, which speaks to the disdain cinema’s elites hold for comedy. Roxanne is the most egregious example, as well as being Martin’s most polished comedic performance in a sparkling career.
His C.D. Bales is a variation on Cyrano de Bergerac — complete with a comically elongated nose — wooing Daryl Hannah’s titular astronomy student with the help of a handsome but dim-witted friend. The script (which he wrote) tones down the physical comedy on which he made his name in favor of more subtle witticisms. It delivers an extraordinary amount of heart in the process and reveals one of cinema’s greatest comics as an equally great lover in the process.
29 29. Booksmart (2019)
Every generation has its teen comedies, from the John Hughes pictures of the 1980s to the Millennial classic Easy A. Booksmart dovetails that into an associated sub-genre — the party film — for a brilliant update on the formula. Director Olivia Wilde focuses on a pair of besties who have kept their nose to the grindstone for their entire high school career, only to cut loose the night before graduation with a party crawl for the ages.
The female-centric perspective gives Booksmart some distinction, and Wilde deftly duplicates Hughes’ trick of fully investing in the protagonists’ emotional state. That leads to moments of breathtaking heartbreak amid the zany mayhem. Though just a few years old, it looks set up for the long haul and might have just turned the party movie into a work of art.
28 28. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
When the original Police Squad! bombed, it left a lot of potential undeveloped, which its creators wisely returned to a few years later. Leslie Nielsen had already achieved comedy immortality in Airplane!, but The Naked Gun put him front and center to magnificent effect as inept police detective Frank Drebin.
In effect, the film winnows the Airplane! formula down to a single performance: one of the funniest ever put on film. The filmmakers throw every conceivable gag at the wall to see what will stick. But Nielsen plays it all with po-faced gravitas, seemingly unaware of the chaos he himself is causing. It delivers the proper pacing TV cop shows deserved for decades while launching the actor into his late-inning stint as a comedy superstar.
27 27. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Will Ferrell is unparalleled at portraying self-important man-children in moments of crisis. Ron Burgundy marks the apex of his career: an alpha San Diego newscaster whose self-important bubble collapses with the arrival of Christina Applegate’s rival. He and his coterie promptly fall to pieces in the most hysterical matter possible.
The film flirts with slapstick but stays grounded enough often enough to properly stick the knife into its intended target. And while it’s Ferrell’s show, Anchorman is stuffed to the gills with brilliant comedic actors, including Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, who cemented their credentials here. Burgundy even earns the audience’s sympathy by admitting his shortcomings after long and painful suffering, daring his real-world counterparts to match him.
26 26. Hot Fuzz (2007)
The middle chapter in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy is generally recognized as the best, though 2006’s Shaun of the Dead makes for strong competition. He targets police actioners of the Michael Bay variety here, as Simon Pegg’s hyper-competent but unassuming London copper finds himself in an idyllic small town with sinister secrets.
Wright fiendishly apes the Bay formula of relentless emotional bombast to mundane activities like paperwork or corralling a rogue swan. The proper pyrotechnics begin once the town’s conspiracy is exposed, but even then, it’s all gloriously over the top. With a bevy of action genre veterans in tow — topped by Timothy Dalton’s mustachioed civic leader — Hot Fuzz gleefully hands its target the rope to hang itself.
25 25. Idiocracy (2006)
Every day and in every way, the world proves Idiocracy right. 20th Century Fox infamously tried to bury Mike Judge’s look at a world where the terminally stupid have triumphed, only to see it become first a cult classic and then an eerily prescient look at things to come.
Like many of the greatest comedies, it spins a simple premise into a cornucopia of funny gags as Luke Wilson’s ordinary 21st-century schnook awakens after being frozen for centuries to find himself the smartest person in the world by default. His bewildered pleas for common sense fall on deaf ears as a population of nitwits demands salvation from their self-inflicted injuries. We’re far closer to it all than most people care to admit.
24 24. Clue (1985)
Critics condemned Clue as a gimmick gone wrong when it first appeared in theaters in late 1985. The multiple endings smelled like a cash grab, and the vaudevillian script felt too old-fashioned by half. Several decades on, “old-fashioned” has become “timeless,” and the cash grab has become a beloved evergreen. Its basis in the age-old board game helps: providing not only a natural plot but also the auspices of a drawing-room mystery to satirize.
Within that framework, the staggeringly talented cast goes to work as the game’s various suspects, trying to spot the murderer before they end up the next victim. Ultimately, it’s a testament to their exquisite timing, along with a script by director Jonathan Lynn that lets the ensemble play to their strengths. In retrospect, it soars simply by doing everything right.
23 23. Groundhog Day (1993)
Technically, Groundhog Day could be categorized as science fiction, though it never gives a cause for the time loop that traps Bill Murray’s obnoxious weatherman in the same day over and over again. Director and co-writer Harold Ramis suggested that it was tens of thousands of years, sending his protagonist from glee to despair to Zen-like acceptance as time becomes meaningless.
The real joke suggests how difficult it is for some people to change, as Murray becomes a better man through seemingly endless suffering. But it also carries a catharsis that gives the humor more weight. The protagonist frames his improvement as an act of ego — “his” day is going to be problem-free — but it’s the key to accepting the truth he’s long denied. Other people exist in the world, and by doing right by them, he provides the key to his own salvation.
22 22. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
There’s nothing funny about the monsters in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: a who’s who of classic Universal monsters returning for a curtain call. The comedy duo provides the laughs as their hapless victims, trying madly to stay away from them. They’ve never been more inspired, particularly Lou Costello, whose rubber-faced terror carries the film all on its own.
But the respect they afford those earlier films turns the movie into something special. That includes Bela Lugosi’s return to his most famous role for the first time since 1931’s Dracula, as well as the likes of Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney, Jr. at their ferocious best. Their monsters were already sliding into parody when Bud and Lou made their move. By embracing it — and more importantly, pointing the satire in the right direction — the film honors its targets even while sending them up.
21 21. Ghostbusters (1984)
On the surface, Ghostbusters is an homage to classic horror-comedies of the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein variety. Director Ivan Reitman possesses the right instincts, while star and co-writer Dan Aykroyd brings his interest in the occult to the screenplay. That turns the old-fashioned shades and skeletons of previous movies into beings of cosmic evil, aided by the 80s boom in special effects that could deliver them with the terrifying spectacle they merited.
With bigger scares come bigger laughs, as the film’s quartet of bumbling heroes try to contain the monsters with barely tested equipment and a hefty side-order of bickering. The results could be called the most successful Lovecraftian comedy in history, with the Great Old Ones thwarted by a gang of meatheads squatting in an old firehouse. They even kill the Big Bad’s dignity by turning it into a giant marshmallow man: proof that even the most terrifying threats can still end up with pie on their face.
20 20. His Girl Friday (1940)
Director Howard Hawks often employed overlapping dialogue in his movies: characters would often interrupt or talk over each other. It proved a winner in comedy and drama alike, but never more so than His Girl Friday. It plays on a number of common tropes at the time, as Rosalind Russell’s fast-talking reporter tries to stop the execution of an innocent man. Cary Grant matches her step for step as her ex-husband and current editor.
The story is less important than the remarkable way that Hawks maintains the basic dynamics between his two leads. They’re each trying to outdo each other, and neither of them is giving an inch of ground. Their verbal duel as they pursue the scoop becomes the purpose of the exercise, which the director and his cast maintain without pausing for the entire running time. The feat has yet to be duplicated.
19 19. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen Brothers delight in Byzantine plots supported by very simple concepts. On the surface, The Big Lebowski is a riff on Raymond Chandler novels: simply replacing Philip Marlowe with Jeff Bridges’ legendary Dude. That also makes the film an ode to Los Angeles, specifically the wonderfully weird outsiders who cram the corners of Tinseltown.
But somewhere along the line, its singular protagonist has become a stand-in for every soul trying to mind their own business. The labyrinthine mystery he’s drawn into turns out to be a massive snipe hunt, he may have fathered a child in the process, and yet for all the chaos, he’s really just trying to get his damn rug back. Beyond the memorable characters and superb dialogue, his simple needs strike a unique chord.
18 18. Harold and Maude (1971)
Unconventional romance is par for the course with comedies, going all the way back to Shakespeare. Hal Ashby pushes the boundaries of that notion with Harold and Maude, in which a morose teenager enters into a relationship with a 79-year-old free spirit. Their rejection of societal norms borders on misanthropic but always arrives with warmth, humor, and a deep-set love for life.
The film’s real magic is ensuring its pair come across as daffy and sweet rather than creepy. Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon find the right emotional tone for their two misfits to connect all the way until the twist ending, which puts the rest of the movie into perfect context. What could have been an uncomfortable trashing of taboos becomes a celebration of love on its own terms and no one else’s.
17 17. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Monty Python alums John Cleese and Michael Palin move to less surreal comedy without missing a beat, thanks to a little help from Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis. The quartet headline a farce about a heist whose mastermind is arrested while his turncoat gang tries to rope his lawyer into helping them collect the loot.
Beneath that, A Fish Called Wanda takes a painfully funny look at the differences between Americans and the British. Kline’s thuggish Otto epitomizes mansplaining idiots the world over, while Curtis’ fearless Wanda pulls the wool over her targets’ stuffy English eyes. The plot-driven comedy runs against Python’s stream-of-consciousness style, but the same staggering wit comes shining through.
16 16. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Bringing Up Baby bombed upon opening, contributing to star Katherine Hepburn’s reputation as “box office poison.” Hepburn and the film both had the last laugh, with the movie now considered one of the best of Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies. (Regular television screenings in the 50s and 60s helped.)
Howard Hawks draws from Shakespearean comedies as Cary Grant’s mild-mannered paleontologist is driven batty by Hepburn’s zany heiress and her pet leopard Baby. As with most of Hawks’ comedies, the banter is the point, as two well-educated people without appreciable problems try to solve just how they feel about each other. With a few memorable set pieces — including the topper in which a man-eating leopard is mistaken for Baby — it sets the standard for impossible love amid madcap chaos.
15 15. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
There are rom-coms, and then there’s When Harry Met Sally… Rob Reiner’s indelible take on love, friendship, and the extent to which the one depends on the other. The titular couple spend most of the movie as the closest of friends until they both suspect that they may be more. Screenwriter Nora Ephron reportedly based the two characters on her and Reiner, which gives a boost to the amazing chemistry between stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.
But it’s the commitment to platonic love that sets When Harry Met Sally… apart from other romantic comedies. The film offers no magical spark nor any contrived circumstances to push the pair together. They’re just two adults going through their lives, only to realize at the end that the person who cares about them more than anyone else has been right there the whole time. Grown-up romance has never had a stronger champion.
14 14. The Blues Brothers (1980)
Saturday Night Live adaptations have a shaky status on the big screen, with a small handful of winners excusing a surprising number of losers. The Blues Brothers is their unquestioned masterpiece, as Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s sunglass-wearing reprobates almost demolish Chicago in an attempt to save their souls. Director John Landis packs the cast full of brilliant comedic actors and ups the mayhem as Aykroyd’s traffic menace creates some of the most spectacular car chases ever put on film.
But the music is The Blues Brothers’ secret weapon. The genre was in serious decline when the film opened and largely considered old-fashioned. It overturns those notions with a fistful of R&B legends, including Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles. Somehow, Landis fits them into an amazing package of singing, laughing and demolishing a lot of police cruisers.
13 13. It Happened One Night (1934)
The template for movie rom-coms arrived with It Happened One Night, just before the Hays Code landed in Hollywood, giving it a sexual openness that remained absent for decades afterward. It also scored the then-unprecedented feat of winning the “big five” Oscars that year, something no other comedy has yet managed. And while it remains a product of its time, there’s simply no denying how much fun the film remains.
Like many of the best rom-coms, the story serves largely to keep the central couple together and bickering long enough to fall in love. Clark Gable’s down-on-his-luck reporter latches onto Claudette Colbert’s runaway heiress. Their shenanigans have inspired almost every film of its ilk to come along since.
12 12. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Buster Keaton’s The General is still his masterpiece, but its awe-inspiring stuntwork is undone by an extremely problematic Confederate hero. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is much less troubling and just as ingenious. Keaton plays the son of a steamboat captain, trying to woo the daughter of his father’s rival, using his astonishing acrobatics to alternately romance her and avoid his father’s wrath.
As with The General, it ends in another spectacular set piece, as a hurricane sweeps through the town, and Keaton fights through the wind to rescue those close to him. It’s topped by the famous shot of Keaton saved from a collapsing wall by an open windowpane. In an era before stunt people or safety rigs, the sheer athletic prowess still takes the breath away.
11 11. The Great Dictator (1940)
Though primarily known as a silent film star, Charlie Chaplin made the transition to sound without much difficulty, as the success of The Great Dictator proved. Chaplin plays two roles in the film: a thinly disguised version of Adolf Hitler and a Jewish barber persecuted by his government. His mimicry of the real Hitler is savagely funny — purportedly gleaned from watching Leni Riefenstahl movies — and contrasts with his sincere plea for compassion and enlightenment in the climax.
As the satire of a particular figure, The Great Dictator is the blueprint for using comedy to punch up. Chaplin reveals his subject’s dark heart in a haunting scene where he dances with a giant globe, even as the barber engages in Little-Tramp-like efforts to survive and thrive. Its use of comedy as condemnation and warning continues to inspire filmmakers today.