The '70s and '80s were a veritable treasure trove when it came to comedy films. It was a unique era that allowed some brilliant comic minds to make movies with little regard for test audiences, political correctness, or the other questionable maxims that come with studio film production. Movies back then had a warmth to them, an anarchic spirit wherein it felt like anything could happen, which kept us watching. More importantly, the best comedies made during that time were able to be silly without coming across as pandering, and self-effacing without being cynical.
The time introduced to the world the likes of Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, National Lampoon, and more. This list was created to give you a sense of the caliber of work the generation had to offer.
We give you a taster’s choice of the very funniest movies from the 1970s and 80s. So with that, please sit back, relax, pour yourself a Tab, pump up your Reeboks, and sample Screen Rant’s 15 Classic Comedies That Put Modern Movies to Shame…
15 The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
Directed by David Zucker, The Naked Gun is a comedy starring Leslie Nielsen as detective Frank Drebin, a bumbling cop who gets himself entwined in an international conspiracy. After his partner gets shot, Drebin comes across a businessman who isn’t what he seems.
The Naked Gun, based on a TV series, had a few sequels, but neither could match the fun of the first. It’s one of the most slapstick-laden films to come out of the '80s, with great comic physicality from Nielsen. Most of the one-liners are head-smackers, but that’s how they’re meant to be.
14 Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
While not a mega-hit when it came out in 1985, director Tim Burton’s debut film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure did well at the box office and went on to become a cult classic. Written by Phil Hartman, Michael Varhol, and Paul Reubens, the film starred Reubens as lovable goofball Pee-wee Herman, a guy who lives life by his own weird rules. The crux of the film is that one day, someone steals Pee-wee’s cherished bicycle, and so he must go on an epic journey to get it back.
Pee-wee interrogates his neighbors, roughs up the spoiled bully he suspects did it, turns down a date with Dottie (“I’m a loner Dottie… A rebel”), and eventually makes his way to the Alamo, Hollywood, and beyond.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure had great locations, casting, direction, and, perhaps, conductor Danny Elfman’s greatest score. All together, it is a well-made, refreshingly weird comedy with a heart.
13 When Harry Met Sally (1989)
In 1977, friends Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) go on a road trip and argue about whether men and women can have platonic relationships or not. Ten years later, the pair reunites over dinner with friends, and they pick up where they left off. Sally analyzes Harry’s proclivity for short-terms affairs, and even acts out (famously) in a busy restaurant to try to burst his way of thinking, which leads to the oft-repeated line: “I’ll have what she’s having.” As the pair observes their differences, we see them starting to fall for each other.
Crystal and Ryan are naturals on screen, and their chemistry works. This was writer Nora Ephron’s first hit, and she’d go on to revamp the romantic comedy genre with Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), taking Ryan along with her on both.
12 Coming to America (1988)
By 1988, Eddie Murphy was the biggest comedian in the world. He had a slew of box-office hits, and an already legendary standup comedy career. And Coming to America did nothing to darken his star. It was a blockbuster, grossing almost $300 million upon its release.
Murphy plays Akeem, Prince of Zamunda, who bucks his parents’ requests to have an arranged marriage, and instead travels to America to find a bride. In tow is his loyal servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall), and together they discover American culture under the guise of poor working immigrants. Akeem soon meets the girl of his dreams and attempts to woo her, all without her finding out his true identity or bevy of riches.
Coming to America is easy to watch, fun, and it introduced us to Murphy’s added talent for playing multiple characters in one film.
11 National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Before all the countless imitators, before Vegas Vacation, Christmas Vacation, or European Vacation, there was the original: National Lampoon's Vacation. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is intent on taking his family on a road trip from their home in Illinois to Walley World, a theme park in Los Angeles. They cram themselves into their classic Wagon Queen Family Truckster paneled station wagon and hit the road. Along the way, they run into a mountain of trouble, not least being a beautiful blond (Christie Brinkley) in a Ferrari who keeps taking Clark's attention off of the road.
Vacation is the quintessential family road trip film. It constructed a genre that still is alive and making plenty of money today. Directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, it's also Chevy Chase's best role ever.
10 Annie Hall (1977)
It was ground-breaking. It essentially invented a genre, exploring many themes that would find their way into countless modern romantic comedies. Annie Hall is on nearly every major best-movie list there is, and many Woody Allen acolytes agree that it is the masterpiece of a long and storied career.
The plot of Annie Hall is deceptively simple, partly because so many movies have imitated it. Neurotic man meets neurotic woman, they hit it off, get into a serious relationship that’s filled with neurosis framed with sweet moments, then one of them (in this case she) moves on.
Allen tells this bittersweet love story with all of his trademark wit and sensitivity. The characters seem authentic, and Allen’s script (co-written with Marshall Brickman) crackles with insight into the big questions of life, love and happiness.
9 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels deftly balances solid cinematic tropes with abstract comedy. It stars Michael Caine as Lawrence Jamieson, a debonair con man who’s specialty is seducing wealthy women for personal gains. He lives a life of luxury in his seaside stomping ground of Cannes, self-assured that he can wile away the rest of his days making a living as he has.
But then Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) shows up in town, and — young, tenacious, if somewhat clumsy — Freddy is the first honest threat Lawrence has had in a long time. Freddy promises he’ll leave Cannes on the condition that Lawrence first teaches him how to be a true master of seduction. Lawrence agrees, taking him on as a pupil and teaching him everything he knows. They work as a team and do better than ever. But, soon, a new quarry comes to town, and their competition heats back up.
Steve Martin is brilliant playing a clueless wannabe, and Caine, without a doubt, elevates the film with his mannered presence. They are very funny together, and director Frank Oz does a great job keeping everything moving.
8 Blazing Saddles (1974)
The year 1974 was very productive for Mel Brooks. That year, the director released not one but two classic comedies: Young Frankenstein (we’ll get to that one later), and Blazing Saddles.
Blazing Saddles is Brooks’s most politically incorrect film, and that’s saying something. Co-written by Richard Pryor among others, it’s a benchmark for all comedies about the western genre, both a loving homage and a hefty standalone analysis of cultural relations going back hundreds of years.
Cleavon Little stars as Bart, the new black sheriff of a prejudiced white frontier town. He’s placed in the position by a corrupt official who hopes it backfires so his corporate cronies can come into town and take over. But soon enough, the town sees Bart as the only person between them and disaster.
Gene Wilder plays Bart’s drunken sidekick Jim, Harvey Korman is the slimy Hedley Lamarr, and Brooks himself plays Governor Lepetomane. It’s the epitome of comedy without rules, an unapologetic turn of the mirror back on a time (and a genre) that deserves it.
7 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
It’s difficult to overstate the influence British comedy troupe Monty Python has had on humor in popular culture. Six guys — John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones — were equal parts improv extraordinaires and moviemakers, churning out classic after classic.
Their best known work is 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a spoof on medieval times that’s more a series of classic bits than a single narrative piece. Written, directed by, and starring the team, Holy Grail is the rare comedy that was made by a small “roundtable” of guys who just made what they thought was funny. And it has gone on to become one of the most beloved and oft-quoted movies of all time.
6 Ghostbusters (1984)
Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd star in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, the 1984 movie about a squad of average guys who transform into full-time ghost hunters. They set up shop in an old Manhattan fire station and go about vacuuming up cartoonish spirits and saving New York. It’s a fun rollercoaster ride and a pop cultural touchstone, which epitomized the popcorn flicks of the age.
Written by Aykroyd, co-star Rick Moranis, and Ramis, Ghostbusters was an original idea executed perfectly. The characters were memorable, and fans have since held conventions and donned countless Halloween outfits in its honor.
A sequel came along, and sadly Ramis passed away before they could complete a third film. But today the franchise is still going strong, with an all-female reboot arriving this summer.
5 Bananas (1971)
By 1977, Woody Allen was revolutionizing the romantic comedy with Annie Hall, a niche he’d continue to hone for the next three-plus decades. But before he settled into that format, Allen was making straight comedies, goofy sendups of entire genres that matched anything from Mel Brooks or Monty Python. Everything Allen made during that early period was great, and nothing more acutely showcased the young filmmaker’s grasp of comedy than 1971’s Bananas.
Allen directed, co-wrote (with Micky Rose), and starred in the film about Fielding Mellish, a nebbish who gets swept up in the popular revolution of a fictional island nation. The film plays with the ideas of government, regime change, popular struggle, and more in many creative ways, and it’s still hilarious more than forty years on.
4 Airplane! (1980)
After the crew falls ill from food poisoning on a long-distance flight, it is up to one man, Ted (Robert Hays), to take control of the situation and get the plane down safely. Ted wasn't even supposed to be there; he only got on the flight to try and win back the love of Elaine (Julie Hagerty), a stewardess on the plane. But as he gains contact with officials on the ground, gets his bearings, and tries to calm the passengers, a lot of bizarreness ensues.
Created by parody maestros the Zucker brothers (The Naked Gun, Scary Movie), 1980's Airplane! was a spoof on all of the mostly-terrible disaster movies that plagued the '70s. It's a brilliantly silly movie that hits its target right in the center.
3 Caddyshack (1980)
Harold Ramis's second directorial effort on this list, Caddyshack is a crude, fun flick that revolves around a summer at the snobby Bushwood Country Club. Danny (Michael O'Keefe), wants to spend his last bit of time before college making some money, so he enlists as a caddy. He learns of a scholarship that's available if he caddies for the upcoming tournament, so he decides to assist distinguished club member Judge Smails (Ted Knight). Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield all bring edgy exuberance to the proceedings with some of their funniest work ever.
Between the great characters and classic lines - "So I got that goin' for me, which is nice!" - Caddyshack is an integral piece of comedy folklore.
2 Young Frankenstein (1974)
Like most of his other films, Young Frankenstein is director Mel Brooks’s loving homage of a classic story. In this satire of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Gene Wilder stars as the mad scientist who reanimates a dead man into a monster. A Brooks regular, Wilder is comedic gold, and the rest of the cast is perfect as well: Marty Feldman is hunchbacked assistant Igor, Madeline Khan plays Elizabeth, Cloris Leachman is Frau Blucher, and Peter Boyle plays the monster.
Brooks filmed the whole thing in black-and-white and it gave the movie a stripped-down ominousness that had the added benefit of allowing viewers to more easily focus on character interaction in a low-stimulus environment.
It’s hard to pick one Mel Brooks movie to rule them all. Some people prefer Blazing Saddles. Some would choose Spaceballs or The Producers. But Young Frankenstein seems to be the one that, whenever mentioned, most often bring out of people a sort of contented adoration.
1 The Jerk (1974)
One of the funniest movies ever made, The Jerk helped to cement Steve Martin’s place in comedic history. It’s one of those rare movies where every line is quotable.
Martin stars in the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of Navin Johnson. Sheltered Navin has never been out in the world, and at the behest of his supportive family, is told to go out and find his special purpose. He strikes out on his own, approaching new and adult situations with naivety. Navin outsmarts clueless thieves, romances a gruff female stunt biker, invents a gizmo that makes him rich, and gets into many other memorable situations.
The movie hits its comic beats perfectly, serving up classic setups, and we get to see Steve Martin at his marvelous best.
Ah, the best comedies of the '70s and '80s. Did we miss any?
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