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Great Comedies

AFI's 100 Funniest Comedies

  1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
  2. Tootsie (1982)
  3. Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
  4. Annie Hall (1977)
  5. Duck Soup (1933)
  6. Blazing Saddles (1974)
  7. M*A*S*H (1970)
  8. It Happened One Night (1934)
  9. The Graduate (1967)
  10. Airplane! (1980)
  11. The Producers (1968)
  12. A Night At the Opera (1935)
  13. Young Frankenstein (1974)
  14. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  15. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  16. Singin' In the Rain (1952)
  17. The Odd Couple (1968)
  18. The General (1927)
  19. His Girl Friday (1940)
  20. The Apartment (1960)
  21. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
  22. Adam's Rib (1949)
  23. When Harry Met Sally... (1989)
  24. Born Yesterday (1950)
  25. The Gold Rush (1925)
  26. Being There (1979)
  27. There's Something About Mary (1998)
  28. Ghostbusters (1984)
  29. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
  30. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
  31. Raising Arizona (1987)
  32. The Thin Man (1934)
  33. Modern Times (1936)
  34. Groundhog Day (1993)
  35. Harvey (1950)
  36. National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)
  37. The Great Dictator (1940)
  38. City Lights (1931)
  39. Sullivan's Travels (1941)
  40. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
  41. Moonstruck (1987)
  42. Big (1988)
  43. American Graffiti (1973)
  44. My Man Godfrey (1936)
  45. Harold and Maude (1971)
  46. Manhattan (1979)
  47. Shampoo (1975)
  48. A Shot In the Dark (1964)
  49. To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
  50. Cat Ballou (1965)
  51. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
  52. Ninotchka (1939)
  53. Arthur (1981)
  54. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
  55. The Lady Eve (1941)
  56. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
  57. Diner (1982)
  58. It's a Gift (1934)
  59. A Day At the Races (1937)
  60. Topper (1937)
  61. What's Up, Doc? (1972)
  62. Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
  63. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
  64. Broadcast News (1987)
  65. Horse Feathers (1932)
  66. Take the Money and Run (1969)
  67. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
  68. The Awful Truth (1937)
  69. Bananas (1971)
  70. Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936)
  71. Caddyshack (1980)
  72. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
  73. Monkey Business (1931)
  74. Nine To Five (1980)
  75. She Done Him Wrong (1933)
  76. Victor/Victoria (1982)
  77. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
  78. Road To Morocco (1942)
  79. The Freshman (1925)
  80. Sleeper (1973)
  81. The Navigator (1924)
  82. Private Benjamin (1980)
  83. Father of the Bride (1950)
  84. Lost In America (1985)
  85. Dinner At Eight (1933)
  86. City Slickers (1991)
  87. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
  88. Beetlejuice (1988)
  89. The Jerk (1979)
  90. Woman of the Year (1942)
  91. The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
  92. Ball of Fire (1941)
  93. Fargo (1996)
  94. Auntie Mame (1958)
  95. Silver Streak (1976)
  96. Sons of the Desert (1933)
  97. Bull Durham (1988)
  98. The Court Jester (1956)
  99. The Nutty Professor (1963)
  100. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

On June 13, 2000, a one hour television special from the American Film Institute (AFI) featured a ranked ordering of the funniest 100 comedies in film history up through 1998. More so than with "best films" lists, because humor is more subjective than most artistic and entertainment pursuits, to presume such a list is authoritative is absurd. Nonetheless, the AFI list of comedies does serve as a fine recommendation guide. I've seen most of the movies given in the list and liked most of those.

Such lists can serve a second purpose, too. When the list comes from a single critic, the list may be used as an indicator for how your tastes overlap. Understanding a critic's taste and perspective makes his reviews more useful to you: you have a better idea about whether or not you'll like a movie based on what he says about it. This particular benefit is not present with the AFI list. The AFI list was voted upon by 1,800 filmmakers, studio executives, film critics, and film historians. The ballot listed 500 pre-selected films. The summation of their collective opinion is too impersonal to be of this use. Nonetheless, as I said, the list serves wonderfully as a list of recommendable comedies.

Comedy is underrated. It's arguably the most difficult genre to pull off, but when a comedy works, the talent and effort that went into it is not readily apparent on the screen. Consistently, comedies are passed over by the Academy Awards and other award shows; it's easier to give Oscars to powerful dramatic films and actors who make dramatic performances. But comedy is very difficult: it requires not only inspiration and talent but precision and balance as well. The slightest variation in the delivery of a line can mean the difference between funny and not funny. The placement of the camera, lighting, editing: these and all other technical areas of filmmaking can successfully support a gag or undermine it completely.

What also makes comedy hard is that there are no rules. I like what Roger Ebert pointed out in his commentary on the AFI special. Cary Grant stars in eight of the 100 comedies in the list -- more than any other actor. Ebert says, "The whole point is that he was not funny, at least not visibly. . . . You could never spot him going for a laugh. Keaton was the same way." Both Grant and Keaton played their characters straight and let the comedy arise from their genuine concern about their predicaments. Grant's co-star in his funniest film (according to both the AFI list and my own opinion), Bringing Up Baby (1938), was Katharine Hepburn, who was relatively new to comedy at the time. Initially, she made the mistake of punching up the lines and going for laughs. Director Howard Hawks gave her probably the best tip she ever got about comedy and advised her to forget she was in a comedy at all. She caught on immediately, and the result was one of her best performances ever and a future career that would include a great many other comedic gems.

And yet, there are no hard fast rules to comedy. Laurel and Hardy, whose brilliant comic sense produced such wonderful shorts as Laurel and Hardy: Helpmates (1932) and Laurel and Hardy: Towed In a Hole (1932) and feature films such as Sons of the Desert (1933) and Way Out West (1937), absolutely played for laughs. They played their audience, drew out every laugh precisely so long as they should; Stan's blank looks and Ollie's exasperated expressions were carefully timed to maximize the laughter. Other comic actors induce laughter by overplaying the material. I can't think of a more energetic, exaggerated comic performance than Jim Carrey's in Liar Liar (1997). His performance won me over; I was not a particular fan of his before seeing it.

Part of the problem with ranking comedies is that the genre is too broad. We tend to lump comedies into a single genre from force of habit, yet we readily make finer distinctions, separating "mystery" from "thriller" from "horror." I maintain those distinctions, too, when appropriate, but you'll rarely if ever see a video rental with separate shelves for "screwball comedy" and "slapstick comedy" and "black comedy." Yet what, besides making people laugh, does There's Something About Mary have in common with Fargo? We don't even have names for all the subgenres of comedy. What kind of comedy is Better Off Dead (1985)? The names we do have are misunderstood. Some call Airplane! (1980) a screwball comedy, but the term couldn't be more misapplied. Screwball comedies are outrageous situational comedies played straight and featuring rapid fire dialogue and romantic tension. Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth (1937) are screwball comedies. Few are made today; What's Up, Doc? (1972) is the most recent example that made the AFI list.

Because humor is so subjective, it is not surprising that there are several titles on the AFI list I'm not sure about and others that are conspicuously missing. I doubt I'll be making my own list of funniest comedies -- it doesn't seem like a worthwhile use of my time -- but I would like to name a few titles that would definitely be on it if I did. I am hopeful that my commentary on the AFI list and my theoretical list will be helpful in relating your tastes to mine, so that you will therefore be more able to use the reviews on this site to help you find comedies you'll enjoy.

Some Like It Hot (1959) made the #1 slot on the AFI list. I would include the movie but not rank it at the top. Bringing Up Baby (AFI's #14) or The General (1927) (AFI's #18) would probably get it. Annie Hall (1977) (#4) wouldn't rank so highly on my list if it made it at all, but the jury is still out on what I think of Woody Allen in general. I liked Annie Hall, but I'll need to see it again along with more of Allen's work for me to figure out Allen's style. I did not like Blazing Saddles (1974) (#6) as a whole, but it certainly had a lot to laugh at. The Producers (1968) (#11) and Young Frankenstein (1974) (#13) are much funnier. The Philadelphia Story (1940) (#15) is a great movie but overrated as a comedy. Its inclusion makes me wonder if the 1,800 voters all had the same idea about the purpose of the list. Is it best comedies or funniest? Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) (#20) makes me wonder that too, although I liked that movie more. Singin' In the Rain (1952) (#16) seems like an odd choice at first, but it does contain the single funniest musical number in movie history and deserves a place in the list on that basis alone. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) (#21) and Adam's Rib (1949) (#22) are particular favorites of mine. When Harry Met Sally... (1989) (#23) is overrated, I think; I liked it, but I didn't think it was a "great" movie or even a great comedy. I feel even more so about Ghostbusters (1984) (#28), a movie I didn't even like. (I realize I'm outnumbered on that one.) I'm pleased to see the Coen Brothers recognized with Raising Arizona (1987) (#31). Fargo (1996) (#93) made the list too; The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Miller's Crossing (1990) are two that didn't make the list that I would also recommend. (The Coen Brothers' best film, Barton Fink (1991) isn't an especially funny one.) The Thin Man (1934) (#32) is a truly puzzling choice: it's more lighthearted than comedic. A couple of its sequels were better anyway. I was ecstatic to see Groundhog Day (1993) (#34), a deserving but unlikely choice, on the list. The great and too often overlooked Preston Sturges has Sullivan's Travels (1941) (#39), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) (#54), The Lady Eve (1941) (#55), and The Palm Beach Story (1942) (#77) on the list -- I wholeheartedly recommend them all. I have to wonder if It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) (#40) made the list just by virtue of its reputation, but I'm glad to see it there anyway. It's big, dumb, and shallow but, gosh darn it, a lot of fun, and there's nothing else quite like it. A Shot In the Dark (1964) (#48) was the only Inspector Clouseau movie to make the list, but The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) was funnier. Cat Ballou (1965) (#50) is a selection I just don't understand, but I think I need to see the movie again. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) (#56) is a good choice: in a career chock full of many good films (and several weak ones), this was their only great one; even so, I wouldn't rank it so highly. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) (#67) and Caddyshack (1980) (#71) I couldn't agree less with; they're the only movies on the list that are downright bad; I don't recall laughing when I saw them. I'm not sure why the Road To vote wasn't split; maybe it was, and Road To Morocco (1942) (#78) made it anyway. The best Road movie is a tough call among the first three, but I'd have picked Road To Singapore (1940) or Road To Zanzibar (1941) sooner. I didn't like Private Benjamin (1980) (#82), and, while I liked City Slickers (1991) (#86), I don't think that should have made the list either. Ball of Fire (1941) (#92) is a very interesting obscure choice. Auntie Mame (1958) (#94) was good but doesn't belong here. Silver Streak (1976) (#95) on the other hand, is a fine choice. Bull Durham (1988) (#97) had no business even being a nominee. The Court Jester (1956) (#98) is hilarious, but Wonder Man (1945) is an even funnier Danny Kaye movie that also deserved a place on the list.

All other entries on the list I either agree with and recommend or haven't yet seen. Check my ratings and reviews for further information.

So now that I've commented on AFI's list, what about my own? They had the screwball comedy genre pretty much covered as I would. Bringing Up Baby, as I said, would be a contender for my #1 spot, and I'd retain places for It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace, Ninotchka, To Be Or Not To Be, The Awful Truth, all four Preston Sturges entries, and What's Up, Doc?. I'd also make room for the relatively unknown Libeled Lady (1936) and the even more unknown It Started With Eve (1941), probably Love Crazy (1941), and possibly The Man Who Came To Dinner (1941) and You Can't Take It With You (1938).

Of the works of unique, distinguished artists in comedy, Buster Keaton's The General (1927), as I said, might snag the #1 spot. Seven Chances (1925) would also make it. College (1927) and Three Ages (1923) might also. From Laurel and Hardy, Sons of the Desert and Way Out West would make it. The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933), A Night At the Opera (1935), and Horse Feathers (1932) would make it; depending on how crowded the list got, Animal Crackers (1930) might also. Harold Lloyd's Safety Last (1923) and W. C. Fields' The Bank Dick (1940) stand a good chance.

Slightly more recently, from Danny Kaye, Wonder Man (1945), Knock On Wood (1954), and The Court Jester (1956) are all shoo-ins. I wouldn't include Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor (1963) (AFI's #99), but It's Only Money (1962) and/or The Disorderly Orderly (1964) would be likely contenders. From Bob Hope, it's a tough decision. Probably The Paleface (1948) is his funniest, but The Great Lover (1949) and My Favorite Brunette (1947) are good, too. From Steve Martin, jumping ahead a bit, I'd be tempted to include All of Me (1984) and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) in addition to The Jerk. I'd include both Pink Panther movies I mentioned earlier plus The Return of the Pink Panther (1974).

These choices, of course, while I love these movies with a passion, are not uncommon. The more interesting choices of mine aren't established classics or from established comic performers. The real value of my theoretical list would come from less frequently cherished comedies like Who's Minding the Mint? (1967), a relentlessly wild slapstick farce about a group of people that break into a mint to print up a few million dollars. Or, better yet, The Wrong Box (1966), a wonderfully offbeat British film that combines subtle humor with outrageous humor, all of it uniquely weird, in a crazy comedy of errors. Ruthless People (1986) is not unknown but is unfairly overlooked nonetheless. Better Off Dead (1985) is one of the funniest teen comedies from the eighties, featuring humor that should appeal to many more than its intended audience. I found A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum (1966) hilarious thanks to Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, and the rest of the cast. The Great Race (1965) is an unfairly slighted achievement in unsophisticated madcap comedy that should appeal to those who liked It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. I'd be remiss if I did not include A Christmas Story (1983) for how skillfully it finds humor through the eyes of youth. I'm not sure if I'd include The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966), but it would be close; it's hard not to like it. Dear Heart (1964) would rank high, and it couldn't be more different from the films above -- it's played so straight, sometimes the humor is barely visible: the humor is in nuance, understatement, and a weird but oddly compelling world view.

More in the rapid-fire laughs category are both The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) and The Gods Must Be Crazy II (1989) -- they'd rank high, and higher still would be the inexplicably unknown Noises Off (1992), featuring an all-star cast and more laughs per minute than almost any other film mentioned here. The British comedy Make Mine Mink (1960) has nearly as many and features the inimitable Terry-Thomas.

I can think of one animated film that would make my list, and it's probably not one you'd ever guess. It's not the best animated film I've seen -- not by far -- but probably the funniest is the direct-to-video release, Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation (1992). It's a full-length movie with the characters of the Tiny Toons television show. Most of it is hilarious, and the amusement park bit had me dying.

That does it for traditional comedy, I think, although I haven't mentioned several of the titles that made the AFI list. I haven't done justice to black comedy yet, though. Black comedy is a genre it took me a while to understand; now that I do, I'm convinced it's the hardest type of comedy to pull off. There are few punchlines. What few there are are delivered so casually and straight-faced and outside the spotlight that if you aren't paying strict attention, you'll miss them. Often they bear resemblance to other genres. Fargo is a black comedy, but it looks like a mystery crime drama. Lots of times the funny parts of black comedies induce more than just laughter: sometimes they deliver a punch of cynicism, guilt, or outright pain, and that's I think why black comedies are so difficult to pull off. If the pain part hits home, but the humor isn't there to cushion the blow, the experience isn't at all pleasant. When it works, however, it's hilarious: we laugh because it's funny, then laugh because laughing is the last thing we'd expect to be doing. Out of Sight (1998), for example, (which would make my list), features probably the funniest fatal gunshot wound to the head ever filmed. Most black comedy is much more subtle than that, but you get the idea. A good black comedy can take us to places we wouldn't normally like to go and yet make the experience a pleasant one. Get Shorty (1995) would make my list. The War of the Roses (1989) is a tough call: it's a brilliant and hilarious movie, but I was still figuring out the black comedy genre when I first saw it. I wasn't sure exactly where to look for the humor, and it caught me off-guard. I'll have to watch it again to solidify my feelings about it, but it wouldn't surprise me if a second viewing made me love it without reservation.

Not all black comedies are quite so painful or hard-edged. The Accidental Tourist (1988) is another of my favorite black comedies, and there's nothing violent, morbid, or spiteful about it. It's a very gentle film, downright sweet sometimes, in the guise of a romantic drama. Some will be put off by its leisurely pace, while others will be simultaneously warmed by it and reduced to utter hysterics. Network (1976) is a little saltier; it would make my list easily, and I'm at a loss as to why it didn't make the AFI list. M*A*S*H (1970) is the first modern black comedy; it made the AFI list, and it would make mine. Speaking of director Robert Altman, Short Cuts (1993) would very likely make my list; although it's not purely comedic, and what comedy there is is understated even for black comedy, there are a few scenes that made me laugh as hard as I could take.

Then there are movies that are funny but by no fault of their own. Lou Ferrigno's Sinbad of the Seven Seas (1989) reduces me to tears even upon successive viewings. It's so hilariously awful, it's, well, hilarious. Do unintentionally funny movies count?

Clearly, my theoretical list wouldn't be any more authoritative than the AFI's. I couldn't even make a list that was authoritative by me: I might prefer one movie over another, then change my mind the next day. That's part of what's bad about lists. What's good about them is that they help movie lovers find great titles they otherwise might not have known about. I hope the AFI list exposes people to often overlooked gems of comedy. I hope my commentary above does the same. I watch an awful lot of movies before stumbling upon Dear Heart and Noises Off.

Addendum, 5/12/03: Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three is a gross omission from the AFI list. On my theoretical list, it would certainly rank in the top 20 if not the top 10. It's a hilarious satire of the Cold War, although the story itself has less to do with global politics than corporate and familial politics. Few other films, let alone other comedies, have this much energy.

-- Samuel Stoddard