But, wait—before I give you the list, a bit of clarification may be needed. The list that you are about to see is not what I consider to be the best comedy of each decade, but rather the funniest movie. I’m talking about laugh quotient here, not necessarily quality. This is why “The Graduate,” one of my favorite movies of all time, did not make the list. Very funny movie. Not the funniest movie of its decade, though. So now, really, here’s the list.
“The Gold Rush” (Directed by Charlie Chaplin) -1925: To be fair, I’ve only seen about half a dozen comedies from the 1920s, and all of them were actually pretty funny. I gave some consideration to Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last!” and Buster Keaton’s “The General,” but in the end I had to go with Chaplin. The classic scene in which he’s eating the shoe remains hysterical to this day. It’s not so much that he’s eating a shoe that’s funny, but the expressions on his face while he’s doing it.
“Duck Soup” (Directed by Leo McCarey) -1933: This decade was a no-brainer for me. “Duck Soup” is the Marx Brothers at the height of their glorious zaniness. Groucho, as Rufus T. Firefly, ruler of the fictitious European nation Fredonia, reels off an endless array of one-liners (“I'm in a hurry! To the House of Representatives! Ride like fury! If you run out of gas, get ethyl. If Ethel runs out, get Mabel! Now step on it!”)while Harpo reels off an endless array of sight gags (cutting people’s jackets with a scissor when they’re not looking, making people inadvertently hold his leg, putting his feet in freshly squeezed lemonade, etc.)and Chico constantly gives them both fodder for their shtick. The movie also contains what I consider to be the funniest movie moment of all time…the mirror scene. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean; if not, I won’t give it away.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” (Directed by Frank Capra) -1944: I thought a bit about Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” here, but going by my own criteria of sheer amount of laughs, I have to go with Arsenic. This film, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring and penned for the screen by the Epstein brothers, who also happen to have written “Casablanca,” is comedy farce at its best. The plot, about two wealthy old sisters who live together and have made a hobby out of murdering men, is funny enough. But then bring Cary Grant into the picture as their nephew who just got married and is slowly figuring out that something is amiss in his aunts’ house and you have one hysterical flick. Watching Grant’s impeccable comic timing and perfectly executed double-takes leaves me giddy.
“Some Like It Hot” (Directed by Billy Wilder) -1959: I love “Harvey” and “Mister Roberts,” but no film from the 1950s is as funny as “Some Like It Hot.” You have Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag being chased by the mafia, you add Marilyn Monroe in what I consider to be far and away her best role, and then you put the whole project in the very capable hands of Billy Wilder, and really you just can’t go wrong. And while I mentioned how great Cary Grant’s double-takes were above, Jack Lemmon has the single best double-take in the history of film at the very end of this movie.
“Take the Money and Run” (Directed by Woody Allen) -1969: While it pained me not to be able to include Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” on this list, and while it is a better movie overall than the one I picked, when it comes to the raw amount of laughter a movie creates “Take the Money and Run” is second only to one film. (We’ll get to that in two decades.) Done as a fake documentary years before Christopher Guest popularized the genre, “Take the Money and Run” follows the life of inept criminal, Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen), as he gets caught trying to escape prison when the fake gun he whittled out of soap turns to suds in a rainstorm, falls in love with a woman whose purse he tries to steal, and gets caught robbing a bank because he misspelled the note he gave to the teller. My wife’s favorite scene is a flashback to his younger years when he played cello in a marching band. As I write this, I realize I’m not doing it any justice. If you haven’t seen it, just do it.
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) – 1975: This decade was far and away the toughest for me to pick because the competition is so fierce. If I made a list of the funniest movies of all time, at least half of them would be from this decade, including “Play it Again, Sam,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Life of Brian,” “The Jerk,” and of course, the winner—Holy Grail. The movie is essentially a series of sketches about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with each scene funnier than the one before it. The Python crew pulled out all the stops for this one—killer rabbits, Roger the Shrubber, The Castle Anthrax—the list goes on and on. And it’s one of the most quotable comedies of all time: “Bring out your dead!” “I fart in your general direction!” “Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who.” “It’s only a flesh wound.” Classic!
“Airplane!” (Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker) – 1980: And then there was “Airplane!” Is it a great movie? No. Has any movie before or since been funnier? No. Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams, co-writers and directors, managed to have a laugh in every moment of this movie for 88 straight minutes. Sometimes the laugh came from a deadpan pun: (“Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”) Sometimes the laugh came from a visual gag: (The stewardess blowing up the automatic pilot.) Sometimes the laugh came from stereotypes: (“Would you like something to read?” “Do you have anything light?” “How about this leaflet—Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”) But always the laughs kept coming. Sorry Eddie Murphy. Sorry Steve Martin. Sorry Bill Murray. You all did some fine work in this decade, but somehow Robert Hays was the star of the funniest movie of all time.
“South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut” (Directed by Trey Parker) – 1999: With the rise in popularity of independent and art-house films in the 1990s, the knee-slapper kind of comedy gave way to more quirky fare. I love “Waiting for Guffman,” and “Being John Malkovich,” both funny in their own right, but neither are laugh-a-minute style movies. It wasn’t until the very end of the decade when “South Park” hit the big screen that I saw a movie that kept me laughing throughout. The whole arc of the movie, in which the boys discover cursing, which eventually triggers World War III and causes Satan (portrayed as an overly sensitive, neurotic gay man who just wants to be loved by Saddam Hussein) to bring his fury out to the surface is hysterical. The fact that it was done as a musical was simply inspired.
“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (Directed by Larry Charles) – 2006: I knew very little about Sacha Baron Cohen prior to seeing this film. When I walked out of the film he was my favorite comic actor of the decade. The balance that was struck in the movie between being so grossly over-the-top and yet so incredibly clever was amazing. The fact that the majority of the people in the movie had no idea they were the butt of a joke was funny in and of itself. But then, the jokes that they were the butt of were funny as well. I laughed so hard in this movie tears were constantly streaming down my face. One line in particular had me laughing for weeks afterward whenever I thought about it. I refuse to type the line here because of its overall crudeness, but the final three words are “sleeve of wizard.”
“Ted” (Directed by Seth MacFarlane) – 2012: Okay, we’re not quite three years into the decade, so there’s not much of a selection yet, but “Ted” was very funny. I mean, a boy’s teddy bear comes to life and it’s got Peter Griffin’s voice. You know there are going to be a lot of laughs. I especially like the scene when the parents first discover the bear can really talk and the mom pulls a kitchen knife on him. Funny stuff. Don’t know if it’s strong enough to still be on the list at the end of the decade, but for now it will do.