When we talk about low-budget movies, we often think of horror. Buckets of blood, inexperienced teen actors, rubber masks, or CGI monsters are the shortest route to cheap cinema. But if you think about it, making low-budget comedies makes a lot more sense. Aside from paying decent writers, you can make a solid comedy with minimal sets, cast, and unless you need a car chase—without a lot of special effects.
We thought it would be fun to look at some of those magical low-budget comedies that went on to really resonate with fans. Some of these films became surprise classics, others launched impressive careers, and some fill us with a bit of wistful sadness that we don’t see movies like that anymore. For the purposes of this list, we’re talking about comedies that were made for less than $10 million. That may sound like a lot, but particularly in the days before digital copies, just getting your movie into theaters was an expensive ordeal.
Here are 15 Wildly Popular Low Budget Comedies.
Honorable Mention: Kung Fury
This isn’t a feature length film, but it deserves a mention just for badassery. With a running time of about half an hour, and a budget just over $600,000, one might expect this short to look cheap and ridiculous. That expectation would be more than met. But that’s not the point of Kung Fury. This feature is at once a loving homage and a blistering takedown of action movies, martial arts classics, ’80s swag, and the Germans’ fascination with David Hasselhoff. We could warn you about the spate of Hitler jokes, but you still would Nazi them coming. Yeah, we went there.
Kung Fury has over 28 million views on the YouTubes, which means that either a handful of fans have done little else since its release—or that Kung Fury has legions of fans the world over. It’s probably the second one, since most of the people you encounter in life know about Red Ninja, the Hackerbot, Triceracop, and the lady Viking who may or may not have a name. Haven’t seen this one yet? You can, for FREE.
15. Pink Flamingos
The films of John Waters aren’t for everyone. If you’re sexually repressed, homophobic, or just don’t like Divine, you might want to avoid his work altogether (except for Serial Mom). But if you aren’t getting enough transsexual cinema in your regular life, Waters is the filmmaker for you. Pink Flamingos is an unexpected black comedy with a crime story wedged in-between the celebration of perversion and hedonism. Sounds fun, right? It, like most of Waters’s work, has garnered consistently strong reviews and a healthy cultish fan following.
Highlights of this delightful film include a black market baby ring, a fierce competition to be ‘the filthiest person in the world,’ the murder and cannibalization of some local police, and one of the cleverest and most unnerving purse snatching scams anyone has ever heard of. Leads include the great Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and John Waters himself as the narrator. Unless you have an especially open family, we don’t recommend watching this one with parents or kids.
14. My Big Fat Greek Wedding
One could say that this movie is the Credence Clearwater Revival of films. It’s enormously popular, everyone agrees that it’s good, but it never quite made it to the number one spot. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is often referred to as a sleeper hit—it didn’t have an enormous opening weekend. But the word-of-mouth on this movie was so good that people kept paying theater prices to see it, even after it was out on video. This movie, which was produced by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, remained in cinemas for over a year after initial release. We don’t mean that it went away and came back. My Big Fat Greek Wedding came to theaters and didn’t leave until a few weeks after home video copies were available.
Made for a paltry $5 million, this movie made over $350 million at the box office, and almost just as much in digital rentals and home video sales. Nia Vardolos is delightful as an insecure woman with a stereotypically crazy family. It’s a funny, smart study of how the people who drive us the most crazy are often the ones we love the best.
If you only know Christopher Reeve as Superman, you’re missing out on some splendid comedy. Along with Noises Off! and Switching Channels, Reeves’s best known comedy is this thriller, Deathtrap. If you’ve never seen or read it, you might want to skip the rest of this entry to avoid spoilers, and just know that you need to give it a watch.
Deathtrap is about a failing playwright who thinks he’s washed up. He conspires to steal a play from a former student, but that turns into another conspiracy to do something even worse. Then we learn that the victim of the conspiracy may be a conspirator himself. Meanwhile, the psychic lady staying in the house down the road has the distinct feeling that something is up. There’s also a kiss between two leads that some audience members did not handle gracefully at the time. Deathtrap had a small budget, even by 1982 standards, and a cast that included Reeve, Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, and Irene Worth.
12. The Full Monty
Fox Searchlight isn’t so much a small film company as it is an experimental imprint of a huge one. That’s okay though, because this brilliant 1997 film was made for a mere $3.5 million. Long before the likes of Magic Mike, the idea of fellas showing off their bods for cash was an outlandish concept for a film. As the cast of The Full Monty includes guys like Tom Wilkinson, Robert Carlyle, and Mark “King Robert Baratheon, first of his name” Addy, you know you’re in for a fun time.
The Full Monty is a UK-made film that destroyed box office records, making more than $250 million in its first year of release. It spent some time as the highest grossing film in the UK, until it was toppled by some James Cameron thing about a boat that sinks and kills the Wolf of Wall Street. The Fully Monty got rave reviews from critics and remains a highly enjoyable watch.
11. American Graffiti
For nerds of a certain age, American Graffiti is a timeless classic. For the rest of us, it’s a sizable slice of nostalgia, and a chance to see huge actors back when they were crazy young. Really, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Kathleen Quinlan, and Cindy Williams all look fresh out of high school. McKenzie Phillips is what they used to call “jail bait,” and Wolfman Jack cameos—harkening back to the years when everyone assumed that the famous DJ was a black guy.
In the 1970s, the fashion was to look back fondly on the ’50s. That’s how we got the show Happy Days and why Ron Howard is one of the richest people in the known universe. This movie takes place on the night before members of a high school class leave for college, or the army, or to go out and find a local gig. American Graffiti is the precursor to high school films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Dazed and Confused—complete with a cast of people who eventually became wicked famous. And it was all done with a budget of less than a million bucks.
10. Lost in Translation
Why doesn’t Bill Murray have an Oscar for best actor? Because like horror, the comedy genre rarely gets the props it deserves. Making people laugh is no easy task. Doing it without traditional setup-expansion-punchline jokes is even tougher. Still, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, and a beautifully awkward Anna Faris are delightful in this dramedy that revolves around a platonic friendship between two unhappy Americans who happen to find themselves in a swanky part of Japan.
Lost in Translation was made for about $4 million, and it grossed over $100 million, mainly due to its subdued, mature humor that didn’t rely on sight gags and saucy innuendo. Faris in particular gives a subtle performance as a truly awful singer who is sure she’s all that. The final moments of this picture are a source of much debate among viewers, and we’d love to hear your take in the comments.
This is another tiny film that resonated with viewers in a big way. The story of a young girl (Ellen Page) and her unexpected teen pregnancy was both loved and hated by moviegoers. Both pro-choice and anti-choice groups took issue with the depiction and discussion of abortion—mostly because it didn’t restrict itself to soundbites and slogans. Juno was made for less than $8 million, and brought in a box office tally of over $230 million. Not too bad, right?
While this is the film that introduced many people to Ellen Page, it features a great indie cast that includes Allison Janney, JK Simmons, Jason Bateman as a complete D-bag, and Jennifer Garner (who used to babysit Stephen Colbert’s kids before she was famous). Juno also has a fun, quirky soundtrack and a ton of human drama that most people can relate to on some level. Uncomfortable relationships are played with an unsettling truthfulness, and it all makes for an unforgettable film.
8. What We Do in the Shadows
Whether you love vampire horror, prefer *gag* paranormal romance, or just love a good laugh, this spoof of popular vampire culture has something for everyone. It plays like a mockumentary roommate drama focusing on a house full of vampires. While none are intended to infringe on anyone’s copyright, there are vamps that remind us all of Gary Oldman’s Dracula, Nosferatu, a Lestat type, a Twilight-ish 100-year-old teen, and a new guy. This film was written and directed by Jemaine Clement, one of the Flight of the Concords guys, which is definitely a mark of quality.
It’s fair to say that What We Do in the Shadows didn’t make the crazy box office mark that some of the films on our list did. But they did earn back their $1.6 million budget about five-fold, which is pretty good for a non-horror movie full of horror staples. Watch also for witches, lycanthropes, victims galore, and a surprising number of arguments over whose turn it is to do the dishes.
7. Summer School
If you’re ever looking for a classic ’80s comedy to revisit during your summer break, you can’t do much better than 1987’s Summer School. Featuring ’80s staples like Mark Harmon, Kirstie Alley, Courtney Thorne-Smith, and music by Danny Elfman, this film made more than $35 million at the box office—not counting VHS rentals. If you’re ever asked which ’80s comedy has a gore-obsessed character named ‘Chainsaw,’ you’re in luck—because this is it! This is also the movie that features actor/director Carl Reiner as a teacher who wins the lottery and immediately quits teaching forever. Can you blame him?
This movie watches like a typical teacher-inspires students film, but with more parodic horror, sexual innuendo, and teen pregnancy. Be sure to keep and eye out for an appearance by Shawnee Smith (best known for her later work in the SAW franchise).
6. American Psycho
Before anyone asks what this ’80s-set serial killer manifesto is doing on a list of comedies—we’ll remind you that this is a textbook example of a black comedy. The humor is dark. Very dark. Pat Bateman is a purveyor of ’80s greed and excess, but it’s not enough. He might be dealing with boredom by killing women in a truly grotesque fashion. Or he might not be. Fans of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel waited more than a decade for a film version, and they definitely got more than they could have asked for.
Ellis was vocal in declaring that no woman could possibly understand his novel. *yawn* We say director Mary Harron did an amazing job of understanding this complex and contradictory character who always seems to have videotapes to return. With a cast that features Christian Bale, Jared Leto, Chloe Sevigny, and Justin Theroux, it’s amazing that it came together for only $7 million. It made nearly five times that at the box office, and it remains a beloved cult classic.
5. A Fish Called Wanda
Did anybody really think we’d leave John Cleese entirely off a list of low-budget comedies? No way. Setting aside the other Pythons (for now), A Fish Called Wanda reunited Cleese with Michael Palin, and added some great American actors to the cast—namely Jaime Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, in what is arguably his most hilarious performance ever. This is one of those films that has something for everyone: it’s a heist movie, a love story, a revenge tale, and even a courtroom drama. The budget for this enduring comedy was a mere $7.5 million, while it made a whopping $62 mil plus.
What’s it about? A criminal plans a diamond robbery with the help of his stuttering friend, his American girlfriend, and her “brother,” Otto. Before long, we realize that double and triple-crosses abound while the American femme fatale sets her sights on her boyfriend’s lawyer (Cleese), leading to jealousy, intrigue, and a wonderfully funny chase scene. There’s a sequel of sorts, but we recommend that you avoid it at all costs. It’s just so bad.
4. Shaun of the Dead
Most of us didn’t know when we watched Shaun of the Dead that it was to be the first in a trilogy of uncompromising comedy. Simon Pegg’s characters in the Cornetto Trilogy have different character arcs in each film. In this first entry, Shaun learns to be more responsible, and to appreciate how his behavior impacts others. In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angell learns to loosen up and ‘switch off’ on occasion. In The World’s End, Gary King learns literally nothing, and embraces his slacker image in a dystopian future where aliens are…well, we don’t want to spoil it.
Shaun of the Dead is an exceptional comedy in itself, with writing that far surpasses the type of comedy you think you’re watching. Amid the zombies, annoying parents, dickish friends, and weed jokes, this is a movie about banding together, protecting your loved ones, and surviving when it might be easier to just give up. Zombie reference humor abounds, so be on the lookout for it.
3. Napoleon Dynamite
This 2004 cult classic may have the smallest budget of any film on our list, costing filmmakers only $400,000. The box office take, meanwhile, was a mind-blowing $46 million. The film’s star, Jon Heder, was paid a modest $1,000 for his appearance, which can only mean that he was not a member of Screen Actors Guild at the time. The lead guy’s actual family name is “Dynamite,” which seems like it couldn’t possibly be a thing. Napoleon Dynamite has already added to the lexicons of cos-players (you can still see “Vote for Pedro” shirts at ComicCon).
It’s fair to say that this film is not for everyone. Love-it or hate-it are the most common reactions. Slow pacing, awkward interactions, and a yawning sense of annoyance seem to permeate every aspect of this story of Napoleon, Rico, Kip, Deb, LaFawnda, and a whole bunch of carefully drawn ligers. Even people who don’t like Heder, Dynamite, or writer-director Jared Hess have to admit that ligers are pretty awesome.
“I’m not even supposed to BE here today!” If you’re a fan of this modern-day (as of 1994, anyway) telling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, you know that line all too well. You might also repeat the number “thirty-seven” with a knowing gleam in your eye. That’s because Clerks is a movie that launched a franchise, started a few careers, and turned a budget of less than $300,000 into more than $3 million…not counting everything that came later.
Whether you call this movie straight-comedy or black-comedy depends on which version you see. For years, Clerks was a regular comedy. Sure, it was kind of vulgar, introduced us to Jay and Silent Bob, and extoled the lack of virtues of grunt work in a convenience store. But when the 1999 Special Edition DVD was released, an entirely different ending emerged…shocking fans with a tragic conclusion that entirely changed the theme and genre of the film forever. AFI says everyone should see this movie before they die. We wouldn’t presume to argue with AFI.
1. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
Monty Python movies are, for many cineastes, the pinnacle of low-budget comedy perfection. While fans can debate which film is the fave, Life of Brian is commonly known as the little film that could. Funding was an issue, and Beatle George Harrison put up his house as collateral in order to finance it. The box office for Life of Brian topped $20 million, and it continues to be an enduring comedy classic to this day.
Budget woes weren’t the only issue with this film, though. Religious leaders in the UK had a lot of opinions about this religious parody—most of which were formulated without having seen it. Too bad, because Brian is not Jesus. That’s sort of the point. He’s a regular guy hoisted to religious significance by throngs of followers desperate to believe in something. This is the movie where we meet our very good friend in Rome: Biggus Dickus, and his wife, who will remain nameless here.
Did your favorite low-budget comedy make our list? We want to hear all about it in the comments!
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