The first commercial film genre was a comedy. On 28 December 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière unveiled 10 short films to a paying Parisian audience. They called them ‘actuality films’ – single shots of everyday life, each lasting around 50 seconds. But among these ‘documentaries’ was an outlier. The second film screened, l'Arroseur Arrosé or The Sprinkler Sprinkled, featured a man watering his garden who ends up being sprayed in the face. From this visual gag, screen comedy developed into a wide-ranging genre, from the slapstick of silent greats and rapid-fire dialogue of screwball comedy to romantic comedy, frat-boy jinks, mockumentary and a whole universe of subgenres catering to all tastes. We’ve brought together a collection of comedies from over the last 100 years. They may not be your greatest, but there’s not one single film in this list that isn’t a comic banger.
The Immigrant (1917)
Charlie Chaplin turned to feature filmmaking in 1921 with The Kid, but over the course of the previous seven years, he directed and starred in dozens of shorts. Among them is this brilliant 22-minute gem of a film. Chaplin plays an immigrant travelling to the US at the turn of the century. Much of the comedy aboard the ship comes from the rough seas tossing the passengers around, most famously when Chaplin’s Tramp is attempting to eat a bowl of soup. As with most Chaplin films, there’s romance and a streak of sentimentality, but his comic genius is evident in every frame.
The General (1926)
While still a boy and working in vaudeville, Buster Keaton tried smiling to win audience favour, but found he got more laughs when a blank expression accompanied his physical schtick. And so, the deadpan comic persona that came to define his film career was born. The General wasn’t well received when it was released – a disaster for Keaton’s career because it was an expensive production that culminated in the destruction of a railway bridge and real steam train. History has been kinder and it is now regarded as one of the performer’s greatest films – and one of the greatest comedies of the silent era. It’s not just Keaton’s perfect comic timing and inspired, often complex set-pieces that impress, he was also a gifted actor whose trademark deadpan delivery belies the creation of a more emotionally complex character.
Duck Soup (1933)
There’s manic and then there’s the Marx Brothers. There are many other comedy partnerships from this era, from Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges to Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, whose Hellzapoppin’ (1941) may just be the most demented comedy ever to come out of Hollywood. But this Marx Brothers film, their fifth and final feature for Paramount studios, is arguably the finest of their screen careers. It’s set in the mythical kingdom of Freedonia, which is under threat from its neighbour Sylvania. The machinations between the two states make up the set-pieces in the film, but it’s the crackling delivery of Groucho, alongside the physical comedy of his brothers (it was to be the last film featuring Zeppo) that makes it such a treat. It was directed by Leo McCarey, who would also work extensively with Laurel and Hardy; direct Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in the screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937); Grant again, with Deborah Kerr in the beloved romantic drama An Affair to Remember (1957); and the powerful, Depression-era melodrama Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), which Japanese master filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu would remake in 1953 as the classic Tokyo Story.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Regarded as the first great screwball comedy, Frank Capra’s multiple Oscar-winning film tells the story of an encounter between an heiress and socialite (Claudette Colbert) who has run away from hope to elope with a disreputable chancer, and an unemployed newspaper reporter (Clark Gable) who sees in her the chance for a great story and a way back into work. No prizes for guessing what happens, but the moral code of the day and Capra’s skill as a director make this an elegant and sophisticated delight. It remains only one of three films – along with 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs – to have one the ‘top five’ Oscars, for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
It’s incredible to think that this stone-cold screwball comedy classic bombed at the box office. Howard Hawks’ raucous laugh-a-minute feature plays to the strength of its leads, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, who play an eccentric palaeontologist and a wilful heiress with far too much time on her hands. It was written specifically for Hepburn and she dazzles as Susan Vance, while Grant displays brilliant physical comedy skills. The plot revolves around a dinosaur bone, a baby leopard and Susan’s chaotic behaviour. It would be a confection if it were not written, directed and performed to utter perfection.
His Girl Friday (1940)
The slapstick physical comedy Howard Hawks employed in Bringing Up Baby takes a backseat here to a dynamo of a script. An adaptation of the play The Front Page, it stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as an editor and his journalist and former wife. When he finds out she is to marry an insurance salesman, he does everything in his power to obstruct the relationship. Hawks had his actors speak as fast as they could, then got his sound editor to speed up the soundtrack. The result is dialogue delivered like machine gun fire. There are so many gags it’s impossible to pick them all up in one viewing.
Some Like It Hot (1958)
It's the era of Al Capone in Chicago. Joe and Jerry, two jazz musicians witness a mob slaying – the legendary St Valentine’s Day Massacre – and only just escape with their lives. But now the mob is after them. So, they escape to Florida as part of a jazz band supporting Marilyn Monroe’s ditzy singer Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczyk. Their only problem – it’s an all-female band so they have to pretend to be Josephine and Daphne. Billy Wilder's madcap blend of gangster thriller, romantic drama and screwball comedy was a risky proposition at the time of its release and the film’s popularity helped usher in changes to the moral code that had been in place in Hollywood since the 1930s. It is also peerless filmmaking. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is flawless, right down the classic final line. Monroe was rarely better and the partnership of Curtis and Lemmon sparks with electricity.
Pillow Talk (1959)
Like Some Like It Hot, sex plays a major role in Pillow Talk. But as it’s a Doris Day film, it’s couched in cosier terms. It was the first – and most successful – of three films in which she appeared opposite Rock Hudson and which made him the biggest star in the US that year. He plays a womaniser who shares a party line with Day’s neighbour. When she complains to the phone company about his constant philandering via the phone, he decides to adopt the persona of a Texas rancher in order to seduce her. It’s silly, but the two leads have innate comic timing and the film’s look captures the optimism of late 1950s white, middle-class America.
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder revelled in cynicism. Watch his dark ‘comedies’ Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace in the Whole (1951) for evidence of that. His caustic wit and occasionally bleak world view is in evidence here, but there’s also a softer edge to the film, perfectly channelled by Jack Lemmon and Shirley McClaine. He is C.C. Baxter, an insurance clerk who lends his apartment out to his bosses so they can carry on their extramarital affairs. She is Fran Kubelik, the lift operator at the building he works in, who is involved with his boss Jeff Sheldrake. Baxter implies that all the women visiting his flat are his lovers, making him a playboy in the eyes of his neighbours, when he only has feelings for Fran. Wilder’s film doesn’t shy away from the realities of the set-up and the arrogance of the ‘company men’ who do as they please. (In a brilliant casting coup, Sheldrake is played by Fred McMurray, who at that time was becoming known as a wholesome, all-American character in Disney family films.) But it is first and foremost a comedy and it delivers scene after scene of socially awkward comic gold.
Jacques Tati rose to fame with his on-screen persona Monsieur Hulot. He was a singular creation, who returns to this wholly unique film. A passion project of the writer-director-star, much of which he funded personally, it is a stunning vision of a futuristic, hyper-consumerist world. It took years to make, with Tati building a small city (which came to be known as Tativille) on the outskirts of Paris. With it, he conjured-up a Jetson-like vision of tomorrow, where human feeling is subservient to superficial, commerce-oriented pleasures. There are some fantastic set-pieces, particularly an extended sequence in a restaurant, but Playtime is worth experiencing just for the range of Tati’s vision.
Life of Brian (1979)
Quite possibly the most blasphemous comedy ever made, the Monty Python team’s best movie spin-off from their popular TV series retells the life of Jesus as a case of mistaken identity. The son of God has a cameo role throughout, from various stages of his life, but the main focus is on someone who, on occasion, is believed to be the true Messiah. It’s a riot of bad taste and some fantastic gags, while the recreation of the era is actually quite impressive.
With more gags per scene than most other films, Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s riotous parody of the glut of disaster movies that came out in the 1970s is pitch-perfect. Running the gamut from juvenile sex innuendos to witty wordplay and an onslaught of visual gags, Airplane! Is brilliantly executed absurdist nonsense. It’s arguably only matched by The Naked Gun: Police Squad (1988), by the same team.
Trading Places (1983)
Director John Landis was on a roll as he approached the mid-1980s. He made the cult comedy hit Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), the ultimate frat-house comedy with Animal House (1978), the larky road movie-cum-musical The Blues Brothers (1980) and helped reinvent the horror genre with An American Werewolf in London (1981). But Trading Places was something else – a film that grappled with Reagan’s aspirational values and race relations. It featured rising star Eddie Murphy, whose only previous credit was the cop-criminal buddy thriller 48 Hrs. (1982) and fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus Dan Ackroyd, alongside Jamie Lee Curtis and Hollywood veterans Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche. Its main plotline required audiences to understand how futures markets worked and the climactic chase even brought in a mistaken-identity scenario between a real and fake gorilla. And yet, thanks to Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod’s clever script and the talented cast, Trading Places ranks as one of the smartest comedies of the 1980s.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rob Reiner’s film wasn’t the first mockumentary, but it was the first to prove a breakout hit and brought the form into the mainstream. The director’s feature debut follows the titular heavy-metal band on tour in the US, drawing on legends about the behaviour of rock bands in the 1970s to create an hilarious spoof of this world. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer are the band members, Tony Hendra almost steals the show as their near psychotic manager Ian, and there are cameos from Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley Jr., Patrick Macnee, Dana Carvey and Billy Crystal. A film that becomes funnier with repeated viewing, there was a time when every band had a copy of the film on their tour bus.
Sex, death, crime, food and comedy. They’re the ingredients of this breakout international hit from Japan. The film tells the story of a noodle shop going through bad times and a truck driver taking on bullying members of a local gang. Writer-director Juzo Itami intersperses the main narrative with food-related vignettes and a subplot involving a white-suited gangster and his lover’s forays into a world where food and sex combine. It’s all done in the best possible taste.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Matthew Broderick has rarely been so effortlessly charming as he is here, playing a suburban rebel who decides to take the day off school. He’s smart and, to the annoyance of his kid sister, adored by his parents, who can’t see past his perfect A-score pupil act. With a month to go before his graduation, Ferris is bored. He makes out to his parents and teachers that he is ill, so he can stay at home. Once they’ve gone to work, he picks up his girlfriend and best friend and heads into Chicago. But his headmaster isn’t quite so convinced and tries to catch him out. It’s a perfect film by John Hughes – one of the finest chroniclers of school life in the 1980s. It’s also every kid’s dream of what bunking off for a day could be like – pure fantasy and all the more enjoyable for it!
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Pedro Almodóvar’s comedies are mostly dark affairs, save for outrageously campy I’m So Excited! (2013) and this, his international breakthrough. Carmen Maura plays Pepa Marcos, a television actor who cannot understand why her boyfriend Iván left her. She soon becomes involved with her ex-lover’s son, whose fiancée appears to have got herself involved with a terrorist cell. And that’s only the start of her problems. Almodóvar juggles various plot strands with ease, keeping the action frantic without ever descending into chaos and the comedy remains as black as tar.
When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
There are the romantic comedies of Nora Ephron and then there’s pretty much everyone else. And of her work, When Harry Met Sally… shines the brightest. It set the template for the modern romantic comedy and cemented the star power of Meg Ryan. She plays Sally Albright, who encounters Harry Burns (Billy Crystal), who dated her friend, shortly after they both graduate. Over the next 12 years, they occasionally bump into each other, the encounters generally ending acrimoniously. They date each other’s friends, always unsuccessfully, and seem destined not to find happiness in a relationship. But are they just blind to what everyone else can see? Ephron’s genius was to create a relationship out of two people who couldn’t stand each other. It creates a frisson that most other romantic comedies strive for but never get close to attaining. And then there’s that restaurant scene and the classic line, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. Perfection.
Ice Cube wanted to challenge mainstream-media representation of his home neighbourhood of South Central in Los Angeles. What he came up with was this laid-back, dope-addled comedy revolving around two friends, played by Cube and Chris Tucker. Music-video director F. Gary Gray’s film may unfold in the same environment as John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991), but in every other respect it’s a world away. It’s a slacker take on life in this neighbourhood, with everything played to its comic hilt, from the foul-mouthed door-to-door Bible-bashers to the characters’ larger-than-life parents. It’s a blast.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers produced this comic gem between their Oscar-winning thriller Fargo (1996) and their 1930s Depression-era take on Homer’s The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Few other filmmakers could have made three more distinct, contrasting films back to back. And even by the siblings’ already acknowledged cult status, The Big Lebowski went further. There are now Dude conventions, based around Jeff Bridges’ brilliant comic incarnation, a 1960s dropout who never quite managed to emerge from the dope-addled backend of that decade. The narrative revolves around a case of mistaken identity, but in all honesty, the story isn’t as important as the barely connected set-pieces that run the gamut from the surreal to the outrageous.
The subtitle says it all: A True Underdog Story. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s feature debut could have been a brainless jocks versus geeks showdown set in the world of a very silly sport. Instead, it’s a sweet-natured, occasionally puerile, but consistently funny comedy about friendship. Vince Vaughn is Pete LaFleur, the chilled-out, devil-may-care owner of a failing gym. Ben Stiller is his neurotic competitor, White Goodman, who has transformed his health empire into a cult of the body. One of Pete’s regulars tells him about an international dodgeball competition that would win him the 50 grand he needs to save his gym. White gets wind of it and so the stage is set for battle between the two. The result is one of the best US comedies of the 2000s.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Finding a sweet spot between straightforward comedy and mockumentary, Sacha Baron Cohen’s tale of his Kazakh alter ego, journalist Borat Sagdiyev, making his first trip across the US is jaw-droppingly audacious. There are scripted moments in the film, mainly between Borat and his crew, but for the most part the film comprises actual encounters between Borat and Americans who have no idea what they have become a part of. As with any set-up like this, not everything works, but when it does, it’s both outrageous and hilarious. If you have a low embarrassment threshold, avoid this film at all costs…
In Bruges (2008)
Two London gangland assassins are dispatched to the titular Belgian city until the hubbub around a hit that went wrong quietens down. What Ray (Colin Farrell) doesn’t realise is that Ken (Brendan Gleeson) has been ordered by mob boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to kill him – restitution for botching up the job. But Ken is having a crisis of conscience, not helped by Ray’s constant bitching about how dull Bruges is. Martin McDonagh’s feature debut is ruthlessly, scabrously funny. Like his theatre plays, which cemented his reputation for quirky characterisation and penchant for hard-hitting violence, In Bruges is a brilliantly realised character study and a perfect, if pitch-black, fish-out-of-water comedy. Suffice to say, it’s never appeared on Bruges tourist board’s list of must-see films about the city.
Billed at the time as being a female version of a frat-boy film like The Hangover (2009), Bridesmaids is actually much smarter than that. Directed by Paul Feig who cut his teeth on cult TV favourite Freaks and Geeks (2000) and written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, who also stars, this account of one woman dealing with her friend’s wedding is an expertly crafted comedy that ranks alongside the greatest screwballs of the golden age of Hollywood, albeit with significantly more profanity and sexual references. From the opening sex scene between Wiig and a game Jon Hamm, the film never lets up, delivering scene after scene of comic gold.
Frances Ha (2012)
Greta Gerwig had already been making a name for herself in the low-budget mumblecore character-driven comedies and dramas directed by the likes of Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski in the early 2000s, before her breakthrough in Greenberg (2010). That film was directed by Noah Baumbach and Francis Ha was their first collaboration as writers. It follows an apprentice dancer (Gerwig) whose life is thrown into chaos when her best friend decides she wants to move to an area of New York that Frances can’t afford. Shot in lustrous black and white, the film balances a study of a woman coming to grips with her responsibilities and a madcap comedy that features a series of brilliantly devised set-ups. It also includes arguably the best pratfall on film since Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941).