Comedy is all about the unexpected, and sometimes, doing the unexpected requires going at least a little too far — or sometimes way too far, by abandoning all pretext of politeness and good taste for the sake of a laugh. Perhaps that’s why so many of the best film comedies have delighted in pushing buttons, challenging the most commonly and deeply-held beliefs of the time by ridiculing them mercilessly and without fear of the inevitable backlash.
Tastes have certainly changed over the years, so what offended audiences in the ’60s might seem tame today by comparison. But regardless, filmmakers keep finding new ways to cross the line in disturbing, disgusting, and often hilarious ways. These are some of the most shocking comedies from cinematic history; the films that have been sparking controversies and churning sensitive stomachs throughout the years with their commitment to eliciting outrage as well as belly laughs. A word of warning to the easily-offended before we begin our list of the comedies that went way too far, at least for their own times — thing’s are going to get pretty wild here.
15. Four Lions
Four Lions is like many comedies, in that it asks audiences to laugh at a ragtag group of bumbling morons — only in this case, the bumbling morons are wannabe jihadi terrorists with the potential to do real damage to themselves and others. Rogue Onestar Riz Ahmed stars as the most competent of a group of would-be Islamic extremists native to England, the most militant of whom is a bad-tempered white man, played to idiotic perfection by Nigel Lindsay, who hopes to “radicalize the moderates” by bombing a local mosque.
For his satirical take on the 21st century’s most deathly serious subject, director Chris Morris manages to keep the tone light and hilarious for most of the film’s run time, despite the omnipresent possibility of explosive death. When finally the possibility becomes reality in hilarious and unforeseeable ways, Morris lets us sympathize with his characters’ remorse without distracting from Four Lions’ simple core message—extremism is dumb, and it deserves to be made fun of.
14. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
England’s influential comedy troupe Monty Python turned to ex-Beatle George Harrison for funding for their second feature film, after their original producers at EMI backed out for fear of the offensive subject matter. The script follows Brian, a Jew who is born in the Roman Empire around the same time as Jesus Christ and taken to be the Messiah despite his repeated insistence he’s nothing of the sort. In the end, Brian is crucified as a martyr without any clear cause to die for, as his fellow condemned whistle a happy tune about always looking on the bright side of life.
For the film, the Pythons purposely set their satirical sights on the absurdities of religious fanaticism rather than on Christ himself, but Christians in the UK seemed determined to deride the film as blasphemy anyway. Several town councils banned the film despite having never seen it, with critics claiming it made light of Jesus’ suffering. The controversy was eventually used to promote the film, particularly in Sweden, where it was accurately marketed as “so funny it was banned in Norway.”
13. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
It had been hardly a year since the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis when director Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove, a screwball comedy about how easily human error might lead to nuclear apocalypse. After a conspiracy-minded general who insists Communists are impurifying “our precious bodily fluids” orders his planes to attack the Soviet Union, the president and his closest advisers scramble to recall the order before it activates a Russian doomsday device. Spoiler alert: they fail, and the world is set on fire to the tune of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”
Though the movie is now one of film’s most celebrated comedies, it was decried by some critics as outlandish and akin to Russian propaganda. Funnily enough, almost everything in Dr. Strangelove was true to life, based on events that had happened or could very easily happen in the future, right down to its depiction of how a military general might set off the Cold War by exceeding the orders of the politicians above him.
Legendarily-committed comedian Sacha Baron Cohen disappears into the role of Borat, a clueless journalist from Kazakhstan who suffers many miscommunications and espouses many backwards beliefs during a cross-country trip through the United States. Baron Cohen works hard to be as outrageous as possible in the titular role, offending feminists, blaming Jews for 9/11, attempting to abduct Pamela Anderson, and wrestling his producer in the nude in the middle of a crowded hotel ballroom.
But the film is truly unique among film comedies for its improvised approach. Many of the film’s scenes are unscripted, with real Americans reacting to Borat’s outrageous behavior with horror, stunned silence, or even enthusiasm. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he bonds with a group of frat boys who express racist and misogynistic beliefs that rival anything Borat has said. Two of the students attempted to sue the producers of the film after its release, while other unsuspecting extras similarly complained of being fooled by Baron Cohen’s elaborate hoax.
11. The Loved One
The Loved One was promoted in 1965 as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone,” a bold claim that nearly holds true today for the film’s depiction of even death as just another American industry founded on falsehoods and exploitation. Clearly influenced by the prior year’s Dr. Strangelove, director Tony Richardson adapted Evelyn Waugh’s more even-handed novel into a dark comedy concerning a pet cemetery worker who falls for a mortuary cosmetician after paying an elaborate fortune for his late uncle, who commits suicide after being fired from his Hollywood career.
Eventually, the devout cosmetician rebukes the protagonist for working at a pet cemetery, while the Reverend who owns the cemetery at which she works plans to convert the area into an old folks’ home by unearthing the corpses and launching them into space. In the end, she kills herself too—a bleak ending for a comedy by the standards of any time.
10. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a vulgar animated movie that offended conservative parents across the nation. Drawing inspiration from reality, the film’s story concerns a vulgar animated movie that offends conservative parents across the nation so much that they declare war on Canada, setting in motion a Hell-on-Earth prophecy that will allow Satan and his abusive lover Saddam Hussein to take over the world.
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker spend much of the film ruthlessly lampooning the censorship of the Motion Picture Association of America, who they grappled with extensively during production to avoid an NC-17 rating, with the MPAA objecting only to the film’s cursing rather than its violence. But Stone and Parker come down even harder on the parents who would blame video games and movies for their children’s behavior — a particularly topical target upon the film’s release in 1999, two months after the Columbine High School shootings.
9. Pink Flamingos
Made as part of director John Waters’ “trash trilogy” and billed as “an exercise in poor taste,” Pink Flamingos lives up to its marketing and then some, thanks mostly to its fearlessly outrageous star, the drag queen and frequent Waters collaborator Divine. Here she plays Babs Johnson, a criminal trying her hardest to maintain the title of “filthiest person alive” while running a family business that involves impregnating kidnapped women, selling their babies to lesbian couples, and using the proceeds to run a drug ring at inner-city elementary schools.
There is no line Pink Flamingos doesn’t cross in its quest to offend – sodomy, masturbation, gluttony, incest, murder, cannibalism, rape, and coprophagia (consuming feces) are all present and accounted for. The film was banned in Australia, but quickly became a favorite of midnight movie audiences in America, and it remains a beloved cult film today. Well, maybe beloved isn’t the right word.
8. Blazing Saddles
Most Hollywood-made westerns depict the citizens of the Old West as righteous townsfolk or cold-hearted gunslingers. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles subverted the beloved genre by depicting them more realistically — as racist morons, as seen through the eyes of a black railroad worker who is instated as a small town sheriff as part of a plot to drive out the population and develop the land. Producers worried over the film’s more offensive moments, including not only for its frequent (and historically accurate) use of the N-word, but also for a scene in which cowboys eat beans around a campfire and fart, over and over again.
Blazing Saddles spits in the face of Hollywood myth-making by accepting the ignorance of past generations, and even implying that such ignorance lingers even today, with a scene in which the characters run out of the film and into modern-day Hollywood. Brooks refused to make substantial changes to his film and received many letters of complaint about the N-word upon release, but said that, “of course, most of them were from white people.”
7. Freddy Got Fingered
Tom Green wrote, directed, and starred in this surreal comedy that was derided as one of the worst films ever made upon its release in 2001. The hallucinatory, oft-incoherent plot finds Green playing Gord, a wannabe animator living with his parents that accuses his father Jim of fingering his younger brother, the 25-year-old Freddy, who is sent to an institution for molested children. Gord is inspired by a fellatio-obsessed paraplegic who invents a rocket-powered wheelchair to follow his dream of becoming a cartoonist, and successfully pitches a series based on his contentious relationship with Jim.
A few other highlights: a newborn baby is twirled in the air by its umbilical cord, a child being maimed, and Freddy pleasuring a variety of large mammals by hand. Critics were understandably merciless in condemning the film as not only offensive, but also wholly unfunny, with Roger Ebert quipping that, “The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.”
If legendary stand-up George Carlin is playing a Catholic cardinal, you know a film is going to offend at least a few Christians. Clerks and Mallrats director Kevin Smith set his film-making sights a little higher with Dogma, his own twisted version of a biblical epic. When a pair of fallen angels scheme to reenter heaven through a rare religious loophole, a divorced abortion clinic counselor is singled out to save Catholicism before the angels undermine God’s omnipotence and destroy the universe.
The film manages to offend simply by transplanting Smith’s usual archetypes into a biblical framework — Salma Hayek plays a muse incognito as a stripper, Chris Rock plays an apostle unacknowledged in the Bible because he’s black, while Smith stock characters Jay and Silent Bob serve as unlikely prophets. There’s also a demon made of poop. Unsurprisingly, religious organizations like the Catholic League promptly denounced Dogma as blasphemous after its release.
5. Team America: World Police
Another entry from provocateurs extraordinaire Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Team America: World Police is essentially a big, dumb, jingoistic American action movie shot with marionettes instead of real people, with original soundtrack songs to match every cliche. But on top of that straight-faced film parody, Parker and Stone pile on some of their most over-the-top offensive scenes ever (who can forget the puppet sex?) and an oddly cogent, if vulgar political philosophy with something to offend everyone.
Today, the movie seems an oft-hilarious satirical snapshot of the American political landscape as it existed in 2005, by neatly dividing the major players into three groups: pu****s (Hollywood-style liberals), dicks (hawkish conservatives who solve problems by blowing up foreign lands), and assholes (dangerous dictators, as led by Kim Jong-Il). In its time, Team America was blasted for its mockery of the War on Terror by the likes of Move America Forward, who said it was “inconceivable” that films would have spoofed the Nazis back during World War II. They are clearly not film buffs, or they might at least have heard of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, made in 1940.
Any Todd Solondz film could easily fit into this list, but Happiness is perhaps most daring in tackling the most discomforting and controversial subjects of its time. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also the one most embraced by critics and award shows alike. Within a seemingly perfect, exceedingly white slice of middle-class suburbia, we see characters suffering heartbreak, suicide, and sexual compulsions for which they feel horrible shame (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his best performances).
But worse, the film features a disturbing, unflinching portrait of a calculating pedophile in the guise of a dignified psychologist and father (Dylan Baker), who’s not above drugging his son’s friends. The movie actually missed out on theatrical distribution due to its strong subject matter. After a festival run, it was only released and distributed in its uncut and unrated form by Good Machine, the independent production company that made the film.
3. Man Bites Dog
Man Bites Dog is a mockumentary, like Borat, minus the prank show elements and plus a lot of nihilistic violence. The audience and camera crew follow the life and many murders of the charming, witty, and functional serial killer Ben, but as the film progresses, the crew gradually go from passive observers to hedonistic participants, delighting in his victims’ terror and occasionally disposing their bodies.
The violence might be more disturbing if the film weren’t shot in stark black-and-white, but the emptiness of an existence in which life has no worth is disturbing enough on its own. In one scene, the killer yells to force an old woman into cardiac arrest, then grins to say that saved him a bullet. It’s a fearless black comedy that keeps yanking the comedy out from under you with its brutality, and as a result, it was beloved at Cannes but later banned in Sweden.
2. Meet the Feebles
Meet the Feebles is an imported gross-out parody of the Muppets that might be less noteworthy if its director didn’t go on to direct film’s most successful fantasy trilogy. Peter Jackson’s second feature twists Henson’s beloved troupe of innocents into grotesque embodiments of vice and perversion with all the creative devotion he put into adapting Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — but with none of the widespread commercial appeal .
Thanks to Jackson’s success, this and other early films have decent cult followings, but it isn’t hard to see why Meet the Feebles was a failure upon its severely-curtailed release. It’s more suited to today’s Adult Swim audiences than to the general public of 1989, as ReelViews critic James Berardinelli observes: “The stories…are told in a disgustingly graphic, obscenely offbeat, and caustically funny manner. Meet the Feebles is for those with a strong stomach and a seriously warped sense of humor. The film is so off the beaten track that it makes Monty Python seem mainstream.”
1. Cheap Thrills
Cheap Thrills follows an auto mechanic and first-time father (Pat Healy) who loses his job and financial standing, then bumps into a wayward old best friend in a bar while drinking his troubles away. Their salvation comes in the form of a free-spirited rich couple–one a sleazy tycoon, the other a leering temptress–willing to pay big bucks for outrageous behavior, especially if it pits the two friends against one another. An increasingly dangerous game of one-upmanship ensues, leading to infidelity, self-mutilation, dog eating, and homicide.
Most unnerving of all are the performances of the couple by Sara Paxton (unreadable and ruthless with a need to be entertained by any means necessary) and David Koechner, best known as Champ from Anchorman, who here pushes his standard ingratiatingly obnoxious shtick to dark new territories. Cheap Thrills was never made to appeal to mass audiences, but it did inspire a bidding war upon its premiere at South by Southwest — a dark comedy for once aided by its unflinching brutality.
What other hard-hitting comedies took the funny a bit too far? Let us know in the comments.