Earlier this week I read an NBC News blog post that cited a Telegraph (UK) post concerning the funniest movies ever. The British article involved a study by a movie subscription service. The study attempted to rank the funniest films ever based on laughs per minute. The NBC article added their own informal staff picks to the mix.
What tickled me is that the Brits named Airplane! as the funniest movie ever. I’m not sure I have a definite all-time #1 pick, but Airplane! is unquestionably in the top three. A while back, I wrote about my funniest films, and Airplane! was my first pick (of four—third place had a tie).
So the Brits and I share a funniest movie pick, but we diverge from there.
None of my other three picks were in their list, and I very much disliked one of them (Borat). The NBC folks selected five, and it’s not clear if their five are in addition to Airplane! or not. Regardless, I’m much more in synch with the NBC five, although I’d quibble—especially in once case—on funniest ever.
In case those article links go dead, here’s the Lovefilm Ten:
- The Hangover
- The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
- Anchorman: The legend of Ron Burgundy
- American Pie
- Shaun of the Dead
- Life of Brian
My first thought is that these are all fairly mainstream, and they’re all fairly current. My guess is that if you polled long-time dedicated movie lovers, the list wouldn’t look at all the same (my list sure doesn’t).
The NBC folks picked:
- Blazing Saddles
- Team America: World Police
- A Christmas Story
- His Girl Friday
- Anchorman: The legend of Ron Burgundy
It was that last entry that inspired me to write this post. I’ve long thought His Girl Friday is one of the best films ever (and very funny). I believe I would include it in my top ten. The inclusion of A Christmas Story seems also to reflect a broader view than the UK list. (I confess, it’s a shameful gap in my film background that I’ve never seen it, but I’ve had it highly recommended. One of these days I’ll fix that gap!)
I would easily include Blazing Saddles and Team America among my favorites (perhaps not quite making my top ten). I don’t believe I would include Anchorman. I’m not much a Will Ferrell fan, although I did like Anchorman and Talladega Nights. But generally speaking I find him annoying, not funny. I’m not saying he’s not talented; I’m just saying he’s not my cup of tea.
Speaking of which, several of the films here have Judd Apatow as producer (Anchorman, Superbad, Bridesmaids). I get decidedly mixed results with Apatow films. His humor can be a bit broad for my tastes, but sometimes he does one I really like. I loved Pineapple Express, and thought Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin were pretty good.
Returning to the British list, I’ve already mentioned disliking Borat. I’d pick Holy Grail over Life of Brian for the Monty Python slot. American Pie was pretty good, and it has endured. Not really my kind of humor, but I’m okay with it being on the list. The Naked Gun movies are pretty funny, but there’s already a Zucker, Zucker, Abrahams entry, and there’s also the discomfort of seeing that mega-asshole, O.J., in them (somewhat balanced by what happens to him in those films).
I understand Superbad is pretty good, but as with American Pie, not really my kind of humor from what bits I’ve seen. The Hangover was very funny and clever, but I deduct points for the sequel being so utterly unwatchable (literally; turned it off after 20 awful minutes). And I’m not sure the first one will end up being a classic.
Bridesmaids surprised me! Not what I expected, and I enjoyed it very much. It has a surprisingly dark and real edge to it that I liked. Not sure it rates top ten, but it was quite good.
Which leaves Shaun of the Dead. Definitely the best Simon Pegg movie, and definitely a great film (made my buy list). But top ten funniest? I donno about that. Can we settle on top 25?
Above I said some things weren’t my type of humor, so what is my type of humor? One way to put it is that I have experienced tastes. I’ve been actively interested in humor, both as creator and as audience, for most of my life. I’ve been the class clown. I used to read joke books, and I’ve been a fan of a wide variety of comedians over the years.
As such, I like a bit of true comic art in my comedy. When it comes to comedy, you sometimes hear the phrase, “painting with a broad brush,” to describe slapstick or simplistic humor. In some cases, where the comedy is extremely broad, I like to say it was painted with a roller! And that’s not a compliment.
I most like comedy that’s painted with a fine brush. I like comedy that surprises me, that I can’t predict. I like comedy where I can’t guess the punchline. I like comedy that plays against expectations. I like comedy that requires something from me, some thought or some knowledge.
I’m not particularly a fan of the comedy of the weird. Some comics toss together a strange mixed salad of ideas, and the juxtaposition of those elements is supposed to be funny. I call that “mix-master” comedy, and it usually doesn’t tickle me much. It’s too easy. All good art requires effort.
It’s a bit like throwing paint at a canvas. Randomness isn’t funny or art to me. But when the artist chooses a color palette and guides the paint, then the result can be stunning (Jackson Pollock always springs to mind here).
Low-brow humor tends to bore me if all it is is shock value. That’s one issue I have with Apatow’s work. A lot of it is designed to make you laugh because he made you feel uncomfortable. I’m long past being uncomfortable with such things; they now just seem lame and juvenile. (Compare his work with, say, comedian Jim Jefferies, whose work is very crude, but also very funny.)
In the end, comedy is a form of storytelling, and there isn’t much new under the sun. The trick is finding a way to make old material fresh and interesting. That takes real skill or talent. All the greats can turn old gags into new laughs.
What would be my top ten funniest movies ever? That’s a hard one, in part because I don’t really categorize funny movies separately from others. The movies I like best are a blend of humor and drama (and sometime action). So I’ve never really thought about it, but here’s a rough cut:
- Monty Python’s Holy Grail
- The Man Who Knew Too Little
- Galaxy Quest
- L.A. Story
- His Girl Friday
- Groundhog Day
- Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
- It Happened One Night
- Desk Set
- Earth Girls Are Easy (guilty pleasure)
(I reserve the right to change this list at will!)