When Billy Madison opened in theaters 20 years ago today, Adam Sandler was baptized by a cold critical reception that would become the norm for his comedies. Few cared for Sandler’s spoiled, gibberish-speaking man-child, who had to repeat all 12 grades in order to inherit his father’s riches. EW’s Owen Gleiberman spoke for many in his profession when he wrote, “By the end, you feel like a drill sergeant—you want to wipe that stupid grin off Sandler‘s face.”
Neverthless, Billy Madison opened at No. 1, though it wasn’t a blockbuster on the scale that Sandler’s subsequent films became. (It grossed just $25.5 million.) Somehow, Billy persevered and made an everlasting mark on the pop-cultural subconscious—at least, for the substantial audience who couldn’t help giggling when Billy insisted it was cool to pee in his pants or weighed the superior benefits of shampoo versus conditioner. Billy Madison might not be one of the great comedies, but it’s oddly become one of the most quotable.
Madison had the good fortune to exist at the tail end of an era when fans—especially young men—spent money on VHS tapes and wore them out with multiple viewings, enshrining certain movie quotes as part of a communal vocabulary. DVD and Blu-ray would subsequently offer a similar viewing convenience. But by the time sleeker technology became dominant, the finite cul-de-dac of old-school home video—and cable TV—had to compete with the infinite Internet, ever more immersive video games, and a vast plethora of streaming options that made the notion of watching the same movie 25 times much more unlikely. As the New York Times wrote last year in an article called “The Rapid Decline of the Movie Quotation,” “It’s also hard to justify rewatching [a movie] when nearly every film made since the Lumière brothers is available at the click of a button, as opposed to the limited options of a brick-and-mortar video store.”
In the age of Netflix, the universally recognized movie quote that elicits an appreciative giggle or one-up volley when it’s dropped casually into conversation is an increasingly endangered species. Comedies still make money at the box office, and they still play on cable months later—but young, impressionable audiences aren’t likely to sit through the repeat viewings required to give quotes universal currency. As a result, a flimsy, sophomoric film like Billy Madison—which also enjoyed a long run on cable that continues to this day—has its defenders in a debate about the most quotable movie comedies of all time.
EW’s writers put their heads together to complile a list of the 35 most quotable comedies since 1970—an admittedly arbitrary cut-off that limits an appreciation for cinematic history but generally reflects the pool of comedies that have the greatest influence on movie-lovers in 2015. It surprised no one that the 1980s—a golden age for repeat viewing—dominated the list, but the debate over No. 1 was fierce.
Starting with No. 35, here’s EW’s list of the comedies we know by heart and can’t help quoting—for better or for worse. (Note: Many of these film clips are rated R.)
35. A Christmas Story (1983)
If this charming holiday movie had simply come and gone after its successful 1983 release, it would’ve been fondly remembered by those who recall the Bumpus hounds and Scut Farkus’ yellow eyes. But its annual wall-to-wall Christmas Day reruns have made it impossible to miss, and fans of all ages could now conceivably step in for the narrator (Jean Shepherd) on a moment’s notice. —Jeff Labrecque
Quick Quip: “I triple-dog dare ya!”
Spotlight Soliloquy: “I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”
Diehard Deep-Cut: “It’s a major award!”