It used to be that movie comedy was a pie flying toward someone’s eminently deserving kisser. But the years have sliced that pie into a thousand different pieces — there’s high comedy, low comedy, and black comedy; there’s screwball, slapstick, and satire — and all crowd the shelves of every video store. In short, to quote Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see No. 35), there’s ”something for everyone — comedy tonight!”
So, which comedy should you rent tonight? Trying to answer that question — and needing a good laugh ourselves — we chose what we think are the 100 funniest movies on video. Not all our selections are among the greatest films ever made, and some good but only mildly funny ones didn’t make the list. Instead, we picked the movies that, quite simply, provide the most yuks for the bucks. And just to start some arguments, we’ve ranked them from 1 to 100. Take our list with you the next time you visit your video store. Even if you don’t agree with all our choices, we guarantee you’ll exit laughing.
1. AIRPLANE! Packing in more laughs per minute than any other movie in history, writer-directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker set the flight pattern for film comedy to come. This takeoff on ’70s disaster movies bombards you with a barrage of sight and sound gags — from Otto the pilot to ”Don’t call me Shirley”— that leaves you grabbing for an oxygen mask. And unlike most comedies, this one requires repeat viewings on video to pick up the swarm of jokes in every piece of background action.
2. SOME LIKE IT HOT Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon learn to walk the walk (in heels) and talk the talk (up a few octaves) as they flee mobsters and join an all-girl band in Billy Wilder’s fall-down-funny farce of gender confusion. Happy endings all around: Boy gets girl (Curtis gets Marilyn Monroe), and boy gets boy (Lemmon accepts a proposal of marriage from Joe E. Brown). ”Nobody’s perfect,” but few comedies come as close as this.
3. THIS IS SPINAL TAP First-time director Rob Reiner’s knowing mockumentary of a band of heavy-metal bozos gets everything right — even tiny details like the contents of a backstage deli tray. That the songs, including the deathless ”Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” are this clever and genuine bespeaks the creators’ grasp of the essential ingredient for classic satire: a deep affection for the subject of ridicule.
4. ANNIE HALL Is this the end of Funny Woody? Or is it the start of Serious Woody, with seeds of future insights and pretensions? Maybe it’s just best to watch this cross-cultural, bicoastal romance as if it were the only movie the Woodman ever made: Few comedies have this much wit and heart and soul.
5. BRINGING UP BABY Sublime silliness, directed by Howard Hawks in his best rat-a-chat-chat style, with Katharine Hepburn as a dizzy heiress whose pet leopard, Baby, leads paleontologist Cary Grant on a merry chase. Bonus: Grant wears a woman’s robe and grouses, ”I just went gay all of a sudden!”
6. THE PRODUCERS Mel Brooks’ first, and arguably best, film has Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder ripping off their backers by staging the worst musical on Broadway — a little trifle called Springtime for Hitler. That’s what Brooks wanted to call the movie, too, but producer Joe Levine wouldn’t let him.
7. DUCK SOUP The Marx Brothers, let loose in the mythical land of Freedonia, will not let anything — or anyone — sane stay that way for long. They take insult humor to a place it has never been before or since. ”I’ll teach you to kick me,” a man threatens Chico. ”You don’t have to. I know how,” says Chico, kicking him.
8. TOOTSIE It was a legendary battle: Dustin Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack fought over the motivations of Michael Dorsey, the actor who poses as a woman to land a much-needed job on a soap. Jessica Lange was in no mood for comedy after Frances. And it took forever to get Hoffman’s breasts right. The moral? Even when it seems as if no one knows what he’s doing, things can still turn out fine.
9. THE GENERAL Buster Keaton imbues silent slapstick with historical grandeur in this Civil War comedy, an epic of elaborately unfolding gags. Inexplicably, it’s one of the few Keaton classics you can find on tape — even the peerless Sherlock Jr., which would also make the top 10, isn’t available. A sad loss for comedy lovers.
10. UNFAITHFULLY YOURS For all Preston Sturges’ beloved early farces, the comparatively little known Unfaithfully Yours can make you simply insane with laughter. Rex Harrison is sublime as a conductor dreaming up ways to deal with a possibly cheating wife while conducting Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. When he tries to enact his plots outside his head, reality refuses to play ball.
11. DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB Stanley Kubrick’s uproarious and grim satire was the first to prescribe laughter for what was then mankind’s foremost fear: imminent destruction when the Big One drops. Peter Sellers plays the fascistic professor Strangelove — whose prosthetic arm has a mind of its own — plus two other roles.
12. THE LADYKILLERS A gang of hoods led by Alec Guinness is no match for its oblivious old dearie of a landlady. This was Peter Sellers’ first major film, and as you watch Guinness you’ll see where the younger man picked up his grab bag of tricks.
13. THE MIRACLE AT MORGAN’S CREEK Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) gets drunk with — and pregnant by — a soldier whose name she vaguely remembers as Ratskiwatski. In Preston Sturges’ wicked satire on the Virgin Birth, Eddie Bracken, as a stuttering Joseph, wants to do the right thing by Trudy. How this all got past the Production Code remains as big a mystery as the Holy Trinity.
14. A FISH CALLED WANDA British comedy of embarrassment meets American farce. There’s no way to reconcile the outrageousness of Kevin Kline with the mournful sexiness of John Cleese with Jamie Lee Curtis’ sneaky grin with Michael Palin’s agonized stutter, but the movie, thankfully, doesn’t give you a chance to try.
15. CADDYSHACK Not since the Little Rascals has anyone made golf as funny as the amazing assemblage of Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray. This lowbrow hoot cheekily indulges in the hoary slob-versus-snob conceit much imitated since but never matched.