A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran a piece entitled "25 Great Comedies From the Past 25 Years." It was a one-page column presented with little fanfare – no lead-in paragraph, tucked away in the midst of the movie reviews section, not even a credited author – and the tidy little sub-heading "Recession-Busting Rentals," suggesting that these movies could help Americans laugh away their financial problems. Fair enough. I'm all for touting great comedy as the cure for what ails you (so long as what ails you is not a gunshot wound).
But upon reading the article, things began to go very wrong. There were movies on the list that, while enjoyable, were clearly not the cream of the crop from the past 25 years, and even worse, there were omissions that were nothing short of unforgivable. Suddenly all those things that at first glance seemed like "little fanfare" now looked like slapdash incompetence; it wasn't being "tucked away," it was being buried, and there was no credited author because this was either the botched, too-many-cooks work of a group, or the writer in question realized he had committed crimes against comedy, and had wisely chosen to remove his name.
Even the title, with its use of the qualifier "great," appeared to be hedging its bets (or copping out, depending on how you wanted to look at it). And I'll grant them that; they didn't say "greatest," they simply said "great." But "great" still suggests that a certain level of quality needs to be met, and the piece proceeded to rank its choices from 1 to 25. That, to me, was the thing that left the article open to criticism. If you don't want to go the "greatest" route, that's fine, but then just list your choices alphabetically or chronologically. Once you present your results in the form of a ranked list, you've opened the door to a room filled with dogs, bees, and the dogs with bees in their mouth, and when they bark, they shoot bees at you. Big mistake.
Let's review the damage. Here's the list as presented by EW:
Let's talk omissions first. I don't care whether you say "great" or "greatest," if you don't put Groundhog Day on this list, you've rendered it completely useless. Groundhog Day is one of the best-written comedies ever, and it can hold its own with any comedy on this list, and quite frankly, puts many of them in the dust. That one, to me (and I suspect to a lot of people), is a no-brainer.
A close second would be Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It's a classic comedy that has held up very well, terrifically re-watchable thanks to the performances of Steve Martin and John Candy.
Two iconic comedies that probably deserve a seat at this table: Big and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. You may remember PoopReading.com co-contributor Joe Mulder putting Ferris on his list of the most underappreciated films of his lifetime, and him wondering whether it really gets the respect it deserves. Well, here's an example that it doesn't.
And lastly, I think there's a strong case to be made for Albert Brooks's Lost in America, which is a hilarious, pointedly satirical gem from the man who's often been referred to as "the comedian's comedian." I think it could be a great fit for that "this is a comedy you should know about" slot.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Two issues later, in response to a barrage of letters about the Great Comedies list that wondered, among other things, if a "12-year-old nephew phoned it in," EW posted 25 Great Comedies Redux in their Feedback section, adding eight more movie that they referred to as their "most egregious oversights." This only made things worse. Because while they succeeded in adding Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, they still, STILL ignored Groundhog Day. 33 comedies, and Groundhog Day isn't one of them. This is getting painful to watch. Adding to the train wreck atmosphere was the fact that the rest of the Redux list was a mixed bag, featuring a handful of goodish choices in Borat, City Slickers, Dumb & Dumber and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and another pair of questionable citations that threatened to undermine the whole exercise: The Birdcage and Throw Momma From the Train. Also, it wasn't made clear if these additions were selections made by EW, or simply the movies that received the most mentions in angry letters. Nor do we have any clue where these rank amongst the original 25. It's amazing how quickly they managed to turn a throwaway column into a colossally bungled clusterfuck.)
Now, as for comedies they included in their original list that could probably be removed... well, let's start with Napoleon Dynamite. It was funny; I won't dispute that. But it's also a movie that views its characters with a lot of contempt, and that makes it awfully hard to embrace as a lasting classic. I don't think it's going to age well – in another five years, I don't think it even sniffs the Top 50.
Likewise, it's way too soon to put Superbad and Tropic Thunder on this list. I thought both of them were great, but neither was a comedy where you knew, instantly, that you had just witnessed something legendary (like say The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which absolutely belongs on this list). They need more time to simmer, and in the long run, I just don't think they'll make the cut at this level of greatness.
There's no need for three Christopher Guest mockumentaries. The man is a genius, yes, and they are all fantastic, but Best in Show comes up a little shorter than the other two. It can be dropped.
I think Old School is terrific, but it's a little out of its league here. You want Will Ferrell, put in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which is the best work of his esteemed comedy career. (And still gives you Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson as a bonus.)
I have no personal love for Dazed and Confused (actually, I hated it) nor Wedding Crashers (great concept, lousy execution in my opinion), so I'd remove them, but I know other people do appreciate them to this level of greatness, so I can begrudgingly acknowledge some level of worthiness.
I've never seen Withnail and I, though I've heard it touted as a cult classic and a bit of a comedy sleeper before. Normally, I'd say "Well, we'll have to trust that they know what they're doing," but we all read the list and know that can't possibly be true.
The rest can stay. I'm not completely sold on how well Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Clueless and National Lampoon's Vacation have held up over the years, but I don't think any of them are ridiculously out of place on a list of this nature. I do have a bone to pick with Vacation being ranked #2, as it shows an ignorance of the fact that the first movie may not even be the best of the "Vacation" trilogy – there has been a groundswell of support for Christmas Vacation over the years, and I can't say I necessary disagree.
Now at the risk of exposing myself to the same level of fury and criticism as EW, I'll give you my list for the last 25 years. I'll even attach the word "greatest" to it. I'll cop to a certain amount of subjective opinion; consider this a mix of classics I find worthy of respect, and a few personal favorites. I would feel good about this list were I to be stuck on a desert island with them, or forced to use them to teach a new, post-nuclear-anihilation society about comedy.
Do I hear buzzing and barking?
I'll admit, it was hard. And while I'm pretty satisfied with the results, even I can acknowledge this is far from airtight. I think what makes this challenging is that comedy is so fluid, styles of humor evolve and mutate over time, and comparing movies from different eras becomes difficult (much like comparing professional athletes over different eras). And it's tough to be objective about something so subjective; comedy is the most subjective of the movie genres, simply because what makes you laugh is what makes you laugh, be it Jim Carrey or Woody Allen. (EW Editors: "Oh, you say all this now, after you've already ripped us a new one? Hypocrite!")
And while I enjoyed this (far more than one should, really), we're still not really that much closer to anything definitive. Frankly, definitive doesn't seem possible with something like this. But let's try one more angle on this whole thing just to add a little more meat to the discussion.
Like I just said, opinions on comedy tend to be highly subjective. It's unavoidable, really. It's also a problem when it comes to making lists like this. But what if we had a whole bunch of those subjective opinions? Wouldn't that add up to something resembling a consensus, a sort of collective objectivity? Thanks to the good ol' interwebs, we have just that, and so I'd like to do a little experiment.
I'm going to make use of The Internet Movie Database, Netflix and RottenTomatoes.com, three sites that feature ratings systems that allow users to vote on movies. I'm also going to use the film critics composite ratings at RottenTomatoes; I'd prefer to use Metacritic, because I think they've got the best critic composite system going today, but unfortunately their archives don't go back far enough (get to work on that, Metacritic!).
For most movies, these sites represent tens to hundreds of thousands of votes; a very good sampling to say the least. (And sure, they're going to lean very geeky, but isn't that sort of voluminous knowledge and passion for detail the kind of thing we want here? I mean, sure, I'd love to see a Congressional amendment that adds "Best Comedy Ever" to the voting ballots during every Presidential election, but while I'd find the results interesting, I suspect they'd also be more than a little disappointing and/or frightening.)
With the help of PoopReading.com co-contributors Joe Mulder and Jameson Simmons, I've assembled a list of 125 comedies that were released between 1983 and 2008 that seemed to be on the fringes of worthiness for this discussion, or at least movies that made a bit of a splash. These are all narrative story films (no Jackass: The Movie or stand-up comedy) presented in English (yes, that may be unfair, but hey, EW started it!). We tried to make distinctions about movies that didn't quite fit the comedy genre in the traditional sense, like The Royal Tenenbaums or Back to the Future or family comedies, including the many wonderful Pixar films. The goal was to be as thorough as possible, and I think we accomplished that. I'd call this list damn-near exhaustive.
I took those 125 comedies, researched each individual rating on the three aforementioned websites, and threw the results into a spreadsheet. Since Netflix works on a five-point scale and the other two work on ten-point scales, I simply doubled each movie's Netflix rating. Then, to obtain an overall composite rating for every film, I weighted the results. Since IMDB features by far the most voters, I weighted their ratings at 50%. Netflix and RottenTomatoes were weighted at 20% each. And since critics have a long history getting snooty and/or missing the point when it comes to comedy, I weighted them at 10%. The end result was a number on a scale of 1-10 for every movie (with extra decimal points, of course, and given the vote totals for most of these movies, even a decimal point difference is fairly meaningful), and a list that could now be sorted into rankings. (All ties are broken by me.) Here now, is that list:
The Princess Bride (1987) - 8.29 composite rating
Wasn't on EW's list, wasn't on my list, and hey, isn't it a family comedy? The first spot, and already we're steeped in controversy! I told you this wasn't easy. It's not really of the same mold as the family comedies we set aside; its entire existence, dating back to William Goldman's book, is steeped in comedy. As for my list, no, it didn't make it into my Top 25, but if I had gone another 10 spots or so, I suspect it would have. I've got no beef with its quality, it's fantastic and timeless. Still, there's this: saying The Princess Bride is the best comedy of the last 25 years doesn't feel quite right. It seems as likely to start bar arguments as it is to end them. Of course, by disagreeing with this, I'm already arguing with over 100,000 people, so maybe I just need to shut the hell up and face facts.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) - 8.01
I haven't seen it, but I've heard good things from friends, it's been in my Netflix queue for some time, and now I'm finally moving it up near the top. Once again, 100,000+ people have spoken.
This is Spinal Tap! (1984) - 8.00
If you're looking for a "Best comedy of the last 25 years" choice that won't ruffle a lot of feathers, I think this is it. If someone says they don't love it, I think you'd have to question their comedy credentials.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006) - 8.00
This one feels a little premature. It's a terrific movie, but it hasn't been out long enough to be put into proper perspective. I think it's Top 20 material, not Top 10, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it slide in that direction over the next five years or so.
The Big Lebowski (1998) - 7.99
I can't tell you how happy I am to see The Big Lebowski getting its due. Give it another ten years, and maybe the groundswell of support will have lifted it up to number one.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) - 7.92
See Joe, people do appreciate it! Let your faith in humanity be restored... well, at least until you get a little further down the list.
Office Space (1999) - 7.91
An example of critics missing the boat – the RottenTomatoes composite was 6.8. Still, now that its days of being underrated appear to be over, I can't help wondering if it's starting to teeter into overrated territory. I'm not 100% convinced it can hold a Top 10 slot long-term.
Groundhog Day (1993) - 7.90
I think there's one thing that keeps me (and obviously others) from propelling Groundhog Day into the top slot: Andie McDowell. She's beautiful, but god bless her, she's just not that great an actress. And because of that, she's good in this, but she's not transcendent. And you need transcendent. You want transcendent. I compare this to Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda – in that movie, you have to believe that four different men are crazy enough for her to go to all the lengths they do, and she pulls it off. If she doesn't, the movie falls apart. In Groundhog Day, I root for Bill Murray to win over McDowell, but I think it has more to do with the fact that Bill sells the hell out of it, because, you know, he's Bill Fuckin' Murray.
When Harry Met Sally... (1989) - 7.81
How could anybody not like this movie? Wouldn't that be the equivalent of hating puppies? Puppies licking ice cream cones? Held by babies? And say what you want about Rob Reiner, from 1984-89, he was in the fucking zone, directing three iconic comedies. Now he seems hellbent on destroying all memory of that greatness.
Clerks (1994) - 7.81
It's been too long since I last saw it, I really need to see it again to refresh my memory. I'm more a Chasing Amy man myself, but I do get what people see in this.
Superbad (2007) - 7.78
Too soon. Joe has long touted the excellent idea that the Oscars should be held to the same five-year waiting period as players eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, because that waiting period allows the voters to put the thing they're voting on into proper perspective. The five-year waiting period also applies here; check back and see how Superbad is doing in 2012. It's very good, but it's not this good.
Withnail and I (1987) - 7.78
Apparently EW knew what they were talking about. Another one to add to my Netflix queue.
A Fish Called Wanda (1988) - 7.77
A minor injustice, because if this isn't a Top 10 comedy, I don't know what is. But I fear the problem is a new generation of comedy fans. While researching for this piece, I hit some sites where people were discussing the EW list and other similar comedy lists, and was stunned to see people lump Wanda in with undeserving choices. Look, I get that comedic styles change over the years, and what's funny to one generation may not be funny to the next, but this is not one of those cases. This is what you study when you want to learn how to do it right.
Ghostbusters (1984) - 7.75
I'm surprised to see it drop this low. It turns 25 years old this year, and it's still as watchable as ever.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - 7.75
If I'm going to pick a Woody Allen comedy from the last 25 years to tout, it's Bullets Over Broadway, but I will be the first to admit that I'm not the typical Woody Allen fan.
So there you have it, the internet movie-voting consensus version of the Top 25. For the record, I had 13 of these movies on my list, and EW only had 11 (take that, EW's beliefs!). Have we settled anything? Probably not, but hopefully you found it as interesting as I did. And at the very least, there's a lot of great rental ideas here.
If you share my particular fondness for lists and stat-based ranking systems, then you can keep reading to see the rankings for the remaining 100 films we assembled on our master list. If you do not, well, then no hard feelings if this is where we part ways.
That's it. If you think I left something out, a) it's possible I looked into it and the composite ratings were just not there, or b) it just slipped through the cracks. I'm only one man, with the help of two other men! Now please, go forth, and spread comedy into the world. Spread it! (Shaking a fist out my window.)