‘A Cosmetologist? Really? Wow. Must tough to handle the weightlessness.’
Director: Carl Reiner
Cast: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Carl Gottlieb
Defining moment: It’s obvious, but iconic: M Emmet Walsh and those damn cans. Die, you random son of a bitch!
How sweet to be an idiot… Surely Navin R Johnson’s tireless, gormless and outright hilarious pursuit of his ‘special purpose’ is an odyssey that we all of us must eventually undertake. Weren’t we all born poor black children? Didn’t we all fail everything on our astronaut application forms but our dates of birth? Aren’t we all – after all is said and done – jerks? Steve Martin’s big-screen calling card is such a soaring hymn to stupidity, such a canticle to folly, such a hosanna to hubris that only the sanest souls could resist the temptation to join in with the chorus.
It would have been easy and, indeed, understandable, if Martin – then at the giddy and, judging from his bittersweet comedy memoir ‘Born Standing Up’, personally and professionally unfulfilling zenith of his wildfire ’70s superstardom – had simply cashed in on his absurdist stage act for his first feature. The smart, structured, cine-literate film – imagine Preston Sturges on an ether high – that resulted was not only a revelation, and a monster hit at the box office, but served notice that 'the wild and crazy guy' was more than just a non sequitur in a white suit with an arrow through his head. He was, rather, a true screen-comedy great, and he was here to stay.
As Les Dawson used to say of his comically awful piano playing, you have to know how to play it right before you can play it so very wrong, and the same applies to ‘The Jerk’. To be this stupid, you have to be an absolute genius. Adam Lee Davies
‘Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!’
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon
Defining moment: It has to be those beautiful closing moments: the sea, the sky, a speedboat and a young couple in love.
IAL Diamond’s scripts for director Billy Wilder certainly were sparklers. He worked wonders converting the source material of an unpublished story and a laugh-free German farce into this most glorious of Prohibition-era gender-benders. It helped, of course, that everybody involved in the movie was also at the top of their game – including Monroe, despite the on-set mayhem she caused for Wilder. In the event, Monroe turned in the most touching and vulnerable (rather than humorous) performance of her career, as the ukelele-strumming, gin-addicted Sugar, always the receiver of the fuzzy end of life’s lollipop.
As musicians disguised as women in a ruse to escape the mob, Tony Curtis (as Josephine) looked like he was having fun, while Jack Lemmon went overboard as Daphne – ‘We wouldn’t be caught dead with men. Rough, hairy beasts! Eight hands. And they...they all just want one thing from a girl!’ – finding his master in Wilder, with whom he went on to make seven films. And if Wilder himself knew Thurber’s definition of humour – emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity – he majored in the former and jettisoned the latter, fairly delighting in the script’s innuendo and cross-dressing confusions, producing one of the finest, funniest and most audacious comedies of the ’50s. Charles Lang should have won an Oscar for his superb black-and-white cinematography, as should Ted Hayworth for his spot-on period recreations. In the event, the film won one sole Oscar – for Orry-Kelly’s flapper costumes – but then nobody’s perfect, not even the Academy. Wally Hammond
‘Needlenose Ned? Ned The Head? I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show? Bing!’
Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Stephen Tobolowsky
Defining moment: If the whole point of ‘Groundhog Day’ is humour through repetition, then it has to be that morning blast of ‘I Got You Babe’.
Sometimes miracles can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Sure, it sounds like the tagline for a shitty straight-to-DVD 'Barbie and Friends' movie, but it also happens to be true. Who would have predicted that a writer-director who hadn’t been involved in anything decent since ‘Ghostbusters’ a decade previously would team up with a leading man whose career was, to put it politely, off the boil and a former model who couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag and come up with a dyed-in-the-wool comic masterpiece? ‘Groundhog Day’ is one of those movies which seems incapable of putting a foot wrong, marshalling a wildly complex plot and a sprawling cast of often unlikeable characters with effortless ease, setting a relentless pace and sticking to it, and chucking in a few unforgettable gags for good measure.
But what’s most miraculous about ‘Groundhog Day’ is that it does all this while offering a series of keenly observed, often uncomfortable truths about the human condition. Phil Connors may not exactly be everyman – he’s too wealthy and self-important for that – but he is, perhaps, every man on his worst day: irascible, selfish, vain and short sighted. And while his journey – from bitterness to acceptance, from loneliness to love – may be predictable, it’s travelled with the minimum of mawkishness and a heartening reliance on pitch-black humour. Tom Huddleston
‘I feel like a pig shat in my head!’
Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Paul McGann, Richard E Grant, Richard Griffiths
Defining moment: It’s the least funny but most beautiful moment in the film: Richard E Grant mournfully reciting ‘Hamlet’ to wolves, in the rain...
Much is made of the thin line between tragedy and comedy. And it’s fair to say that for a comedy classic, tragedy looms large in ‘Withnail and I'. Indeed, Withnail’s despairing traipse through a rain-sodden Regent’s Park ranks among the most heartbreaking closing scenes in all cinema. For such a comedown movie, though, the film positively soars, mainly thanks to once-in-a-lifetime performances from Paul McGann and Richard E Grant and an extraordinary script.
The film is at its straight-up funniest early on as, festering within a Camden flat resembling the inside of a cancerous lung, Withnail and Marwood stumble towards the end of a seemingly epic speed and booze bender. There are delirious flights of fancy, bouts of druggy nonsense (‘My thumbs have gone weird’) an abortive attempt to clean the kitchen and a cherished visit from Ralph Brown’s terrifying drug dealer Danny. Via a scary local pub, Uncle Monty’s flat and his cottage in Penrith, they end up more or less back where they started. Withnail has survived ‘a bastard behind the eyes’, Marwood has confronted a bull and Monty has threatened burglary. Anyone attempting the ‘Withnail and I’ drinking game has seriously compromised their liver function and probably missed the point of the film into the bargain. No one’s really come close to replicating the maverick, melancholy, rat-arsed resonance of ‘Withnail’ and no one ever will. It’s a complete one-off. Phil Harrison
‘Apparently, my son was on something called “acid”, and was shooting a bow and arrow into a crowd.’
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell
Defining moment: It has to be that unforgettable moment with a loaded autocue, a confused Burgundy and one very bad swear...
It is said of some films – ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Days of Heaven’ and the like – that if you were to freeze any frame, you’d have an image striking enough that you’d happily mount it on your wall. While the same might not be said of ‘Anchorman’s beige 'n' brown ’70s demi-monde, pluck any line from its elegantly woven latticework of memorably salty dialogue and you will have a pearl-handled zinger that would be the high-point of any other comedy film. Stick that on your wall, Ridley!
Will Ferrell steps up from the shrill, big-boned manchild of ‘Zoolander’ and ‘Elf’ to musky, manly movie star with his bravura performance in a film that recalls a simpler, polyester time. A time when a man was not judged by the contents of his character but on the raw, unchecked ferocity of his cologne, the lustre of his moustache and the quantity of leather-bound books that lined the rich mahogany shelves of his apartment.
But although everyone is ultimately in the shadow of the glistening chestnut bombast of Ron’s towering hair, ‘Anchorman’ is very much an ensemble effort, and everyone brings their A-game to the bullpen. Champ Kind, Brian Fantana, Brick Tamland: names to be conjured with, for sure, but special mention has to go to the primly monickered Veronica Corningstone – the station’s gutsy, careerist, foul-mouthed, much-maligned female foil who, thanks to a game reading from Christina Applegate, keeps much of the macho bullshit in check without ever resorting to stereotypical ‘ballbusting, spoilsport’ shrewishness. Adam Lee Davies
‘Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!’
Directors: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
Cast: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin
Defining moment: The outrageously gory killer rabbit scene is one that only the Pythons could’ve pulled off.
If the ill-judged, stilted, calculated nature of ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’ found the Pythons letting off a rare misfire, ‘Life of Brian’ caught them in somewhat self-consciously ‘clever’ and ever-so-slightly preachy form (come on, admit it!) and ‘Meaning of Life’ saw their brilliance bloated into a curious mis-shape, then ‘Holy Grail’ is an example of the surrealist TV comedy troupe firing on all six cinematic cylinders. All are great films in their way, but for many, ‘Grail’ is the most cinematic, unglued, quotable, ingenious, structured, influential and thigh-slappingly funny film in the Pythons’ regrettably small big-screen canon.
The totemic John Cleese (note to apocryphally slack-jawed American readers: John Cleese IS NOT the actual Monty Python) was back in the fold after skipping out on the final TV series, and the whole film is far more cohesive than might have been expected from a continuity-skewering sketch-based ensemble – especially seeing as the shooting was, as described in various biographies, a damp, tedious and gruelling affair. But it would all count for nothing if the lads hadn’t stuffed the film with so many lunatic gags, boisterously catchy songs and memorably outlandish characters. Everyone will have their favourite – from the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’ to Cleese’s fearlessly moronic Black Knight ('It’s only a flesh wound!' etc) to Michael Palin’s Mud Eater – but spare a thought for gurning Yankee pack animal Terry Gilliam as King Arthur’s trusty steed, Patsy – the things he’s made to do with a coconut would make your eyes water! Adam Lee Davies
‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts
Defining moment: A pair of scenes involving Woody, a lobster, a fridge and a plate of butter highlight the film’s perfect balance of high comedy and heartbreaking pathos.
Guilt, self-loathing, nostalgia, Jewish identity, misanthropy, hyper-intellectualism and the breakdown of a relationship: the ideal ingredients for a comedy masterpiece, then. However ardently its creator may deny it, ‘Annie Hall’ is the most Woody-ish of all Woody Allen’s movies, gathering together all the director’s most dearly beloved themes (and Diane Keaton) into one tight little 93-minute package. This is where Woody came into his own, moving from fun-but-slight pastiches like ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Love and Death’ into more personal, emotional, resonant territory, diving deep into the recesses of his own troubled, bitter, desperately inhibited soul and splashing the results on the screen for all to see.
All of which would mean nothing if Woody hadn’t also remembered to bring the funny: take out the jokes, and what are you left with? ‘Interiors’. So, while this is a film bursting with achingly human truths, it's also a laugh riot of towering proportions, incorporating Woody’s to-camera monologues about everything from childhood to old age, lovably curmudgeonly sideswipes against his pet hates – drugs and rock ’n’ roll – and a welter of memorable cameos from a bizarre rogue’s gallery of up-and-coming actors (Christopher Walken, Shelley Duvall, Jeff ‘I forgot my mantra!’ Goldblum) and established icons (Marshall McLuhan, Truman Capote, Paul Simon).
The result is one of the most important and influential modern comedies: the template for an entire genre of sex- and relationship-obsessed anti-romances. But no one does it better than Woody. Tom Huddleston
‘He’s not the messiah – he’s a very naughty boy!’
Director: Terry Jones
Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle
Defining moment: ‘Life of Brian’ is best remembered as a satire on religion, but its relentless parodying of post-‘60s radical politics is every bit as sharp and hilarious, reaching its zenith in the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ scene. Splitters!
The Pythons’ second feature is also their creative and comic masterpiece, playing to the strengths of each member and finding ample room for surreal silliness while making its points. And when said points include the scourging of celebrity, fundamentalism and herd mentality, it’s obvious why ‘Life of Brian’ – occasionally ropey sexual politics aside – has simply refused to date. The story is founded on purest farce, as the three wise men arrive at the wrong manger and unsuspecting everyman Brian Cohen is declared the messiah. He duly bumbles alongside the telling of the greatest story ever, ending the film on a calvary cross for a reluctant chorus of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
It’s a dizzying achievement, taking potshots at everything from schoolroom Latin and fringe politics to biblical epics (most of whom it shames with its inattention to period detail) and religious hypocrisy – but, crucially, never religion itself.
Needless to say, this didn’t stop predictable accusations of blasphemy. In fact, the brilliance and acuity of this ambitious, iconoclastic film is best illustrated by the fallout from its release, which proved almost as entertaining as the feature itself. Sweden did its bit, marketing the film as ‘so funny they banned it in Norway’, but the furore peaked on late-night chat show ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’, where a palpably furious Michael Palin and John Cleese routed the establishment as represented by Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark. As Kevin Smith’s ‘Dogma’ proved, its pointed hilarity is unlikely to be bettered. Gabriel Tate
‘Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.’
Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Cast: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen
Defining moment: Pretty much any scene involving Stephen Stucker’s crazed, camp air traffic controller Johnny. ‘A twister! A twister!’
In the pantheon of the pun, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker still rule supreme. Put it this way, this fan would have loved to have been present at the trio’s pre-production brainstorming session for this gloriously funny disaster-film spoof because, even after all these years, it’s difficult to think of a film with more riotous gags per minute. If it’s not a whole scene (the blow-up doll in the captain’s cockpit; the guitar banging the heads of passengers as the air hostess makes her way down the aisle to play a whimsical song to a terminally ill child; the semaphore operator directing a 747 towards the departure lounge; the drunken merchant sailor dancing with a knife in his back, etc, etc), it’s a catalogue of little bon mots, sideshow pratfalls and hilariously impassive facial expressions or something ridiculous going on in the background that you missed first time around, usually while gathering up the remnants of a split side.
Inspired to some degree by the trio’s earlier TV show spoof ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie’ (1977), ‘Airplane!’ not only combined the same peculiar thought processes of that film with an amusing script about a lovelorn ex-fighter pilot who's forced to take charge of a plummeting jumbo jet, it also catapulted Leslie Nielsen’s previously untapped deadpan acting talents to the fore and spawned a battery of similarly whacky and deservedly successful follow-ups in the gut-busting ‘Naked Gun’ series. Matchless, simply matchless. Derek Adams
‘What’re the hours?’
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer
Defining moment: Too many to mention: from Rob Reiner’s Scorsese-lampooning intro via the folding bread, the exploding drummer, ‘shit sandwich’ and ‘it goes up to 11’, all the way to that iconic last line – ‘what are the hours?’ – it’s just one long best moment.
They may have spent years floundering in mid-chart obscurity, but The Tap have finally made it to number one. ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ is of course a bogus ‘rockumentary’ in which indefatigable commercials director Marti DeBergi (Reiner) takes it on himself to monitor the corroding relationships between three members of a has-been hair metal band from London as they tour the US with their grotesque new LP, ‘Smell the Glove’. The core band line-up (those who haven’t fallen foul of spontaneous combustion) is Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel on lead, Michael McKean as David St Hubbins also on guitar and Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls on bass. They pride themselves on exuberance, raw power and punctuality, but they’re also baffled by the mysteries of the cosmos: the geometry of sandwiches, the correct way to the stage door and the difference between feet and inches.
It’s sublimely funny and sharp – a comedy built for the long haul which matures with each viewing. It’s so perfectly constructed and performed, the characters so rich and realistic, that it’s initially a challenge to determine the dividing line between reality and fiction. The film doesn’t have any ‘jokes’, per se, but the humour is derived from a pile-up of non sequiturs, loopy proclamations and painfully spot-on observations, all delivered in implausibly effete cockney accents.
But the thing that pushes ‘Spinal Tap’ ahead of the pack is what a radical and immaculately crafted piece of cinema it is. Gags are built around deadpan edits and dialogue pauses rather than slick punchlines. As funny as the hallowed scene in which Nigel boasts of his custom made Marshall amps that go up to 11 (it’s one louder), you wonder if it would have been as brilliant had the exchange gone on just a second longer. It cuts off at the exact point where nothing more needs saying.
Few films have been so successful in employing the mock-doc template for comic ends: Guest’s own ‘Best in Show’ (2000) is perhaps the other outstanding example. But the legacy of ‘Spinal Tap’ can be seen on our television screens in sitcoms like ‘The Office’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. Even though the film is set in the distinctive (and often very smelly) world of heavy rock, it’s about real people who earn our empathy, despite their manifold faults. The band may bash out egregious anthems like ‘Sex Farm’, but that’s even funnier in the light of the heartbreaking shot at the end of the film where David gently coaxes Nigel on stage after he’s walked out on the band. Forget best comedy, this is one of the best films of all time. David Jenkins