10 Unmissable Comedies

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Character actor Edmund Gwenn is credited with the quote, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” as he lay in his deathbed. He was right. Picking out a top ten list was a daunting task. It’s a fluid list to say the least. This time next week, “Harvey” might crack the top ten. Who could not find Elwood P. Dowd funny? He’s an alcoholic dreamer with an invisible giant white rabbit as his best friend. That is comic gold. I have sat in crowded theaters, laughing so hard that I end up on the floor, rolling with the JuJuBees while everyone around me stares blankly. Admittedly, I have an off-kilter sense of humor.

I posted this on my facebook feed not long ago:

“Take me down to Hai-
Ku city where the grass is
Green and the dammit”

The result made my wife shake her head and say, “You think this is funny? You’re an idiot.” So, take that into account as you read this list. Enjoy.

 

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

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When this movie first hit the theaters, I went to see it alone, because nobody I knew was interested. I tried to explain Rob Reiner’s mockumentary only to see cold, blank stares. So I went by myself and laughed my ass off. Then I made it my quest to lure everyone I knew that they had to see it. First, I dragged my buddy John Permetti with me, and he laughed harder than I did. We ended up playing that soundtrack over and over on a continuous loop that entire summer. Great songs from a fake band that poked fun at the music industry.

Michael McKean and Christopher Guest are David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, and Harry Shearer is Derek Smalls, the three make up the nucleus of a band that has seen better days. Their brand of hard rock is falling on deaf ears, the tour being filmed for a documentary is falling apart and drummers keep spontaneously combusting. If you love rock’n’roll, you’ll love the jokes, the music and the hits on the music industry, both subtle and obvious.

 

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

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There may be no director I love more than Frank Capra. He was an Italian-American optimist. He came from a huge family. He made films where the little guy always stands up to authority. Even though the little guy doesn’t always win, in Capra’s world, he has a fighting chance. One of my all-time favorite movies is “It’s A Wonderful LIfe,” a brilliant film. But this is not about that movie. This piece is about “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a movie that has stayed funny 62 years after it was released.

There is Cary Grant, playing Mortimer Brewster, the unfortunate person stuck in the middle of his murdering aunts, Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein, a snivelling worm of a man, a cop that wants to be a playwrite and an uncle who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, perpetually charging up San Juan Hill. All of Brewster’s misfortune comes to a head after he gets married on Halloween and swings by his aunts’ home to try and break the news. He finds out that they have a habit of murdering lonely old men and think they are doing the elderly gents a favor.

It is said that Grant thought his acting in “Arsenic And Old Lace” was horribly over-the-top. He may be right, but it works perfectly here, as he reacts to shouts of “Charge!” when his uncle runs upstairs, his murderous cousin shows up with Dr, Einstein, or when he discovers that the basement is doubling as a cemetery. Yes, this is a dark comedy. It’s also too funny to miss. Also, it has my favorite line, ever: “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”

As a trivial side note, Capra enlisted in the U.S. Army and asked for a six week delay so he could finish the film and Grant donated his $100,000 salary to the War Relief Fund.

 

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

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Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are in top form and Edgar Wright directs by staying out of the way. “Shaun of the Dead” is the perfect blend of romantic comedy and zombie infestation. Shaun decides to win back his ex (Kate Ashfield), his plan is epically simple: “Take car. Go to Mum’s. Kill Phil – ‘Sorry.’ — grab Liz, go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?” Zombie films don’t get the love they deserve, and there are never enough scary bits in rom-coms (well, except for the ones with Gwyneth Paltrow, those are terrifying.). Here you get the two playing off each other perfectly.

 

Raising Arizona (1987)

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“Son, you got a panty on your head,” may be one of the funniest lines of dialogue I have ever heard. The Coen Brothers “Raising Arizona” is brilliant from start to finish. Nicholas Cage is H.I. McDunnough, a reformed criminal in search of the American dream of a wife, a home and a family. The wife, Edwina, or Ed, is played by Holly Hunter, who meets McDunnough while shooting his mugshot over the course of his arrests. The home is a mobile home Ed’s parents stake the newlyweds as a wedding gift. The family, well, that’s where things get complicated.

As H.I. narrates ”Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” Unable to adopt, the couple hatches a plan to kidnap one of the Arizona Quints, the celebrity miracle babies of furniture store king Nathan Arizona and his wife. H.I.’s friends (John Goodman and William Forsythe, both brilliant beyond words) escape from jail on a rainy night and end up on the happy couple’s doorstep.

 

Duck Soup (1933)

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In case you haven’t noticed, the Marx Brothers were geniuses. Even their bad films were amusing, but when they were at the top of their game, they could create something amazing. “Duck Soup” was the brothers firing on all cylinders. Even though they were mired in contract disputes with Paramount Pictures, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo provided the template for political farce and blew it up all at the same time.

Freedonia is on the verge of war and Groucho is in the zone as President Rufus T. Firefly, the country’s inept leader who borrows huge sums of money from the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, delightfully immune to the Marx Brothers’ humor). Freedonia’s neighbor sends a pair of hapless spies, Chico and Harpo who seem to exist to make a lemonade salesman’s life Hell. There’s also Harpo’s classic mirror sequence.

As for trivia, “Duck Soup” is also the final film for Zeppo. Long called “the un-funny Marx Brother,” Zeppo mainly appeared as the romantic lead. A romantic lead in a Marx Brothers picture is like a conductor at a Ramones gig: Totally unnecessary and bordering on insulting to the audience. Gummo was the brother who left the act before they started making films. He’s not really relevant, but he never gets any press, so I thought I’d give him some ink.

“Duck Soup” is a classic. Then again, so are “Animal Crackers,” “A Day at the Races” and “A Night at the Opera.”

 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

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It was billed as the film that “Makes ‘Ben Hur’ look like an epic!” Also, “And now! At Last! Another film completely different from some of the other films which aren’t quite the same as this one is.” Monty Python’s Flying Circus had a hit show on the BBC and wanted to branch out into feature films. Funding for the movie came from their friends, ex-Beatle George Harrison and Pink Floyd. Profits from Pink Floyd’s album “The Dark Side of the Moon” went toward funding The Holy Grail. The band were such fans of the show they would halt recording sessions just to watch “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” All of that may be interesting, but the film that can pull laughs out of wall of stone is why you are here.

From the Black Knight to Tim the Enchanter, and the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’ to Sir Not Appearing in This Film, everything here is too funny to hear it all in one viewing. Visually, the film shows little more than the groups’ TV show, but the jokes are funny enough to overcome such things. Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, “Holy Grail” moves from one set piece to the next, with the group’s classic banter keeping things moving. One of my favorites has Graham Chapman as Arthur, King of the Britons and a person at the side of the road:

King Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: Well, I didn’t vote for you.

King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.

Woman: Well how’d you become king then?

King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. that is why I am your king.

Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

“Holy Grail” also teaches you things. For instance, the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles per hour, beating its wings 7-9 times per second rather than 43. Also, true that a five ounce bird cannot carry a one pound coconut, however, the barn swallow indigenous to England weighs only around 20 grams (2/3 of an ounce).

 

Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964)

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Stanley Kubrick’s black humor can’t get much blacker than the blackness of the end of the world. This is his Cold War masterpiece. “Dr. Strangelove” shows what happens when you couple a brilliant filmmaker with a scalding political satire and a clever script.

Peter Sellers stars as multiple characters, each more ludicrous than the other. The titular Dr. Strangelove is an ex-Nazi. Sellers plays him like madman convinced the rest of the world is crazy. There is also Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, a man oddly obsessed with his precious bodily fluids. I’m still not sure if Hayden’s portrayal is praising or indicting the military. George C. Scott is near flawless as General ‘Buck’ Turgidson. Best of the bunch is Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong (yes, all of the names are moronic puns. I mean that in the best way possible.) Seeing him ride a bomb like a bucking bronco, ushering in the apocalypse, is at once terrifying and funny as Hell.

 

The Jerk (1979)

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Steve Martin is in rare form in this fish-out-of-water tale, which was inspired by a single line in Martin’s stand-up act: “I was born a poor, black child.” Martin is Navin R. Johnson and the film follows him on his ride from poverty to obscene wealth and back again. The ride is courtesy of his invention “The Opti-Grab.” Johnson also spends time working at a carnival and a gas station, meeting thieves and opportunists on the way. Most people I know either love or hate Martin’s comedy. Your opinion of him will probably color your opinion of this film. I can still watch this movie and laugh at the naive innocence and utter stupidity of Johnson. Your mileage may vary.

 

Annie Hall (1977)

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There was a time when Woody Allen was funny. Not just the regular kind of funny, but the laughing about his movies an hour later when you’re having coffee and pancakes at Rudford’s funny. “Love and Death,” Bananas” and “Annie Hall” were the kind of movies you’d quote for weeks afterward. The best of the bunch was “Annie Hall,” with Diane Keaton as the romantic ballast that kept the comedy flowing and the film interesting. Allen clearly loves Keaton, and films her to look amazing (not a tough job), but he clearly loves New York more than he would ever love any woman. He films the city like it is the only place on Earth, which to him it is and always has been. It is one of the rare comedies to win a Best Picture Oscar and hearing Allen as the nebbish, existential Alvy Singer, you know the movie earned it.

 

The Producers (1967)

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Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder were perfectly cast as a failed and flailing Broadway impresario Max Bialystock and Wilder’s neurotic, hyper, accountant Leo Bloom out to create the biggest failure on Broadway, and cash in on the failure. They have realized that if you over-sell shares of a play and the production fails, they’d be rich. But if the show is a hit, they’re going to jail for a long, long time. So they must ensure the worst thing imaginable, something worse than “Cats.” (that’s not part of the film, that’s just an indication of how much I did not enjoy “Cats.”)

After scouring stacks of hideous scripts, they find “Springtime for Hitler.” The play was lovingly written by Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars, pure brilliance), an unreconstructed, Hitler-adoring doofus who raises pigeons on the roof of a Manhattan tenement. He does all of this while wearing bits of his old Wehrmacht uniform. With the bad script in place, they search for an even worse cast. They find Lorenzo St. DuBois, or LSD, played with the subtlety of a sledgehammer by Dick Shawn. Shawn’s performances is a delight of the absurd: a dancing, singing, groovy dude, surrounded by adoring, high-kicking Nazi Rockettes. So, to sum up to this point: Criminal activity, a horrible musical, a terrible cast, Nazis. What is not to love?

Any time Nazis are getting mocked, count me in. Also, any time Gene Wilder is playing a character who needs his blue blanky to get through the stress, I’ll be there. Zero Mostel comes across as smarmy and bereft of ethics, willing to say anything to seduce an elderly woman of her life savings. As I said earlier, perfectly cast. When the musical becomes an epic smash, Bialystock and Bloom fall apart at lightning speed, only adding to the hilarity.

Years later, the movie was redone by Brooks on Broadway to great success, which then became a movie in 2005 featuring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Nothing matches the original.

 

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Author: Barry Benintende

Barry has spent his entire adult life watching movies, listening to music and finding people gullible enough to pay him to do so. As the former Executive Editor of the La Jolla Light, Editor of the South County Mail, Managing Editor of D-Town, Founder and Editor of sQ Magazine, Managing Editor of Kulture Deluxe, and Music Critic for San Diego Newsline, you would figure his writing would not be so epically dull. He has also written for the San Diego Reader, the Daily Californian, the Marshfield Mail, Cinemanian and too many other papers and magazines that have been consigned to the dustbin of history. A happily-married father of two sons and a daughter, Barry has an unhealthy addiction to his hometown San Diego Padres and the devotion of his feisty Westie, Adie. Buy him a cup of coffee and he can spend an evening regaling you with worthless music or baseball trivia. Buy him two and you’ll never get rid of him.

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