Everybody has a favorite ‘80s comedy, probably more than one. The 1980s were a time of giant hairstyles, flashy fashions, synthesized music, and an anything-goes style of comedy. While this led to tons of laughs for some of us, not everyone was so lucky. When we look at many ‘80s comedies through a contemporary lens, we may be shocked (and a little horrified) at some of the questionable content we didn’t notice at the time. Before we get started, let’s be clear about a few things.
The films on this list were made to entertain and inspire laughter—a noble and worthy goal. We’re not saying that these films are “bad” because they contain insensitive content. In fact, we like a lot of these movies, and even love a few. We’re also not saying that enjoying these films or finding them funny makes anyone a bad person. You’re not. No one is required to seek out good taste, or even to agree on what good taste is. We do want to point out a few things that you might not have noticed the first few times you watched. Haven’t watched yet? Then beware, for spoilers abound.
Here are 15 ‘80s Comedies That Are Way More Offensive Than You Remember.
15 Stir Crazy
The term “stir crazy” refers to the mental and emotional imbalance that can occur when people are incarcerated for long periods of time. It can cause severe anxiety, dangerous psychosis or mood swings, and increased potential for violence. Naming a comedy after that condition is already…let’s say edgy.
1980’s Stir Crazy has a few racist elements, which is surprising when we consider that it was directed by Sidney Poitier. As it happens, it was the first movie by an African American director to gross over $100 million. Obviously, plenty of people liked it. Gene Wilder attempting to act like a brother is painfully discomfiting, but the larger problem in Stir Crazy is that it’s homophobic as hell. The portrayal of Rory Shultebrand (Georg Stanford Brown) is profoundly insulting. Worse, it lacks the insight and social commentary found in other parts of the movie. Sure, Stir Crazy is not high cinema, but it didn’t have to stoop to the point-and-laugh-at-the-gay-guy level of “humor.”
Weird Al Yankovic is awesome, nobody can deny that. But that doesn’t mean that his 1989 feature film UHF doesn’t have a few unforgivable moments that today’s film fans would find unacceptable. For starters, there are some pretty racist characters like Wheel of Fish host Kuni (Gedde Watanabe) and the animal-loving Raul (Trinidad Silva). These roles are obvious stereotypes modern audience would have plenty to say about. Words like “insensitive” and “unconscionable” have been tossed around to describe Watanabe’s work in particular.
That’s not all though. George Neuman (Yankovic) has a pretty serious character flaw—one that’s entirely too common and that filmmakers are finally starting to move away from. He’s a stalker. If we take George’s actions out of the context of lovable Al Yankovic and wacky ‘80s comedy, what have we got? A guy whose girlfriend (Victoria Jackson) breaks up with him, then receives dozens of phone calls from him--daily. Dozens. Later, she returns home to find that he’s been inside her apartment, leaving an insane amount of flowers and fluorescent lights. Terri considers the break-in romantic, and considers taking George back (she does, at the end) rather than calling the police and checking into a motel. We'll just chalk that up to questionable decision making and move on.
This film has been a family fave since its release in 1983, despite having an R-rating for profanity, mild violence, and drug use. We’ve all probably seen this movie dozens of times, though it may have been a while since we’ve seen it unedited.
If National Lampoon’s Vacation were released today, though, we’re pretty sure there are a few scenes that wouldn’t have made it into the final cut. Edna’s dog, who is the opposite of lovable, dies because Clark (Chevy Chase) ties it to the back bumper of the car and “forgets.” WTF? He’s the hero and he murdered the dog because he didn’t like it. Later, Audrey has a frank conversation with her cousin Vicki (a very young Jane Krakowski). Vicki shares her marijuana with Audrey, despite both girls being about 12. But the most disturbing aspect is Vicki’s comment that she likes to french kiss. Audrey scoffs and says everyone’s doing that. Vicki’s reply? But daddy says I’m the best at it. Eeewwww. Incest played for laughs is probably an unforgivable moment.
People in the film industry give the impression that Dustin Hoffman is kind of a jerk. He was schooled by Sir Laurence Olivier early on in his career about the silliness of method acting. Too bad Olivier didn’t also explain that pretending to be a woman to help your career is not remotely the same as being transsexual, or even a transvestite. Tootsie is a movie where Dustin Hoffman pretends to be a woman because his character was such an irritating diva that he couldn’t get acting work as himself. Uh huh.
From there, the film is rife with homophobic humor and woefully outdated gender stereotypes. After a bunch of dress-up silliness that might have been better suited to the show Bosom Buddies, we’re left with a main character who learns to be less reprehensible by getting in touch with his “feminine side.” Because goodness knows it wouldn’t be possible for a man to improve himself while still wearing pants with a fly. Watching Tootsie now drives home how prevalent and excusable homophobia was in the ‘80s. The only reason you’re still living is that I never kissed you, tells us everything we need to know about how homophobia leads to violence.
11 Airplane 2
This is another entry that we feel a need to defend before we start explaining why some of the humor would never fly today. Get it? FLY?!?
Anyway…Airplane 2 is the spaceship-centered sequel to Airplane. In these films, Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker make light of terrorism—something we just don’t do today. It’s worth pointing out though, that brown-skinned guys in turbans were still allowed to board the plane. The Airplane movies were rated PG despite containing naked breasts and a hilarious oral sex joke where Elaine (Julie Hagerty) um…Lewinskys the inflatable automatic pilot (Otto). Not unforgivable, but not something we’re likely to see in a PG film today—though in fairness, we didn’t have the PG-13 rating yet when these films were released. Probably the biggest bit of taboo humor in Airplane 2 is when the late Sonny Bono threatens to blow up the ship with a homemade suitcase bomb. Ha ha?
10 Coming to America
Eddie Murphy and his pal Arsenio Hall are no strangers to controversial comedy. Back in the ‘80s, it was not advisable to take a date to see Murphy’s stand up. You’d end up arguing over it for the remainder of the night. In Coming to America, some of the most obvious racist humor is insulting to…wait for it…Africans.
What if we told you that baby elephants didn’t playfully romp through the King’s front yard in Africa? Or that even a Prince would be unlikely to have three comely “bathers” who ensure each morning that the royal penis is clean? We have to think that Eddie Murphy would get tons of flack for the film’s portrayal of Africans and even of arranged marriages. In real-life, arranged marriages often involve children and rarely include consent. In Coming to America, we meet a woman who has been trained from birth to care about no one and nothing except her betrothed. Dissatisfied with his bland and sycophantic intended, Akeem (Murphy) decides to go shopping for a new royal wife in…Queens. It’s a predictable but enjoyable film, so it’s too bad there’s so much humor that insults our intelligence.
If you’ve never seen Overboard, and someone described it to you—you’d be shocked. An annoying woman (Goldie Hawn) has an accident that leaves her with amnesia. By chance, the man who finds out about this (Kurt Russell) is involved in a business disagreement with the woman. Instead of pursuing payment through legal channels, he kidnaps the woman under the pretense of being the husband she can’t remember. His plan is to “keep” her until she “works off” her debt—i.e.: sees the business disagreement the way he does. Sounds more like a horror movie than a comedy, doesn’t it?
So why do people enjoy the movie Overboard? In real-life, we love Kurt and Goldie. And we know they love each other, even all these years later. That definitely helps. But there’s another reason viewers think what Russell’s character did is acceptable. Hawn’s character is A Bitch. She’s rich, snotty, and uses her wealth and status to refuse to pay for the work Russell’s character does. Once a woman has been declared A Bitch, anything that happens to her in a story is essentially okay—even if she’s completely vulnerable. That might have been fine in 1987 (not really), but let’s hope we all know better now.
If Stranger Things has reminded us of anything, it’s that Winona Ryder is still friggin’ amazing, but she was at the height of her powers in 1988’s Heathers, also starring Christian Slater and Shannon Doherty. The film is a black comedy with many dark elements, and is exactly the sort of film critics love to declare shenanigans on. Why? To start with, Heathers is a bastion of lookism, where only attractive people matter. The body shaming of Martha “Dumptruck” only intensifies when the plain, overweight student attempts suicide. In fact, there are lots of deaths in Heathers that are played for dark laughs. The heroes of this film, Veronica (Ryder) and JD (Slater) murder several of their fellow students, then make their deaths look like suicides. Guns in school are rampant in Heathers. Homophobic humor also abounds. Watch for the police to come upon a scene where “gay” items have been planted on two football stars. Somehow, it’s the bottled mineral water that becomes the lynchpin of their conclusion of a suicide pact between gay lovers.
But you know, dark comedies can get away with a lot more questionable humor—it just goes with the genre. At least modern audiences aren’t still trying to make Fetch happen.
7 Outrageous Fortune
Most filmgoers agree that the only Shelly Long movies worth paying money for start with “Brady” and end with “Bunch” (or perhaps “Bunch Sequel”). And that’s okay. Remembering stink bombs like Troop Beverly Hills, Hello Again, or Frozen Assets will only give us a collective headache. Outrageous Fortune was more widely seen than many of Long’s other films—probably because Bette Midler is amazing in everything she does. Also, George Carlin.
This 1987 film contains stereotypically dumb tropes like women “competing” for the same unacceptable man, hating each other out of jealousy, and other crap that should make viewers hurl into their popcorn. But the unforgivable moments of Outrageous Fortune really come from the portrayals of the foreigners, or more specifically, the idea that white women who go to poor neighborhoods full of off-white people are in mortal danger. And we won’t even get into why the women don the fakest most racist mustaches since Charlie Chaplin (who gets a pass, because context).
6 The Toy
Not everyone realizes that Richard Pryor’s The Toy is a remake of a French film. The French managed to make this same story without Klan references and rampant racism. Neat, eh? Jackie Gleeson plays US Bates (which sounds like You Ass when pronounced with a southern accent), an absurdly rich racist who buys people the way we buy overpriced coffee. When Eric (Scotty Schwartz pre-porn career) buys night custodian Jack (Pryor) to be his toy, the satire and racially charged humor (thirsty German nanny, anyone?) begins.
Watch for US Bates to explain to his dense wife that Eric bought a black man. Her response? I wasn’t aware that we sold them. He tells her this so she wouldn’t be frightened if she saw him around the house. Aside from slavery allusions and tons of unconsequenced racism (unless you count a food-fight at a KKK fundraiser a “consequence”) The Toy is full of highly dated stereotypes about women, sex, and the world of work. Any of which could potentially rile modern viewers. And fans of Deliverance might not enjoy seeing Ned Beatty reluctantly removing his pants yet again.
5 Soul Man
Before we begin, let’s agree to disagree on the concept of “reverse racism.” Nobody comes to Screen Rant to read a political diatribe. So when discussing this movie, we’re not going to talk around whether or not social programs for minorities are unfair to those of the ruling class. That said, this is a film where Ponyboy--oops we mean C Thomas Howell--is a rich kid who disguises himself in blackface (technically via “tanning” pills) so he can win a law school scholarship designated for African American students. Get that, he wants to cheat his way into funding law school. That’s already reprehensible, but wait, there’s more.
Mark (Howell) seems to think all there is to being black is sitting around waiting for scholarships and minority-specific opportunities to roll in. He didn’t know racism was still a thing, had no idea. By the time his fraud is revealed, he supposedly learns something like a lesson. Meanwhile, viewers are left wondering what the heck James Earl Jones is doing in this ridiculous film, and if C Thomas Howell’s “hardships” in Soul Man are what led him to become The Reaper on Criminal Minds.
4 Fast Times at Ridgemont High
It’s hard to throw shade on a film that launched so many careers. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Anthony Edwards, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker—all became household names due to their performances in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We know that even today, teen sex comedies can get pretty raucous. Is there really content in this movie that viewers would fervently protest today?
Yes. Stacy (Leigh) is a high school freshman when the film opens. So at most, she’s 15 years old. Yet she has sex with a guy who is almost 30—without consequence. Later, she has an abortion that again—has no negative consequences. That alone would be enough to cause controversy today. Linda (Cates) also has inappropriate sexual relationships with grown men, something that probably shouldn’t be encouraged in a comedy marketed to teens. Despite having plenty of divisive humor, Fast Times taught us that it’s possible to have a pizza delivered to you during history class. Awesome! Totally awesome!
3 Sixteen Candles
The appearance of Gedde Watanabe in 1984’s Sixteen Candles means we’re in for a really racist depiction of an Asian. Long Duk Dong speaks in a ridiculous accent and broken English despite being chosen to be an exchange student. Yikes! But the unforgivable moments in this film are all about how Samantha’s (Molly Ringwald) love interest, Jake, (Michael Shoeffling) and Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) treat the women they supposedly like.
The post-party kitchen conversation between the two is gag-inducing. After Ted looks for assurance that Jake isn't planning on simply using Samantha for sex, the dreamboat remarks that that isn't a difficult thing for him to acquire. "I've got Carolyn in the bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her in ten different ways if I wanted to." Good thing you don't need consent or anything, right Jake?
When Jake decides to break up with his girlfriend, Carolyn, she’s still dead to the world. Jake informs Ted that he’ll let him take Carolyn home...but you can’t just leave her in an alley somewhere. In this context, it’s clear that he means it’s okay for Ted to have sex with her—because her boyfriend gave his permission. What? Remember, Jake is the guy who ends up with Molly Ringwald at the end—which should make us wonder who he’s going to give her away to when he’s tired of her. Ted (portrayed as the quintessential “nice guy”) does take Carolyn to a parking lot where they have sex neither of them can remember the next day. Somehow, Carolyn is totally cool with that, and this orchestrated rape carries no consequences. Yuck.
2 Police Academy
Despite what the series eventually became, the first Police Academy movie was pretty funny. It was still okay to make fun of police in 1984, since that was before it became clear that relationships between police and the citizenry were highly strained. There’s some sexist humor in this movie, given that the women are either sexpots (Kim Cattrall’s Karen Thompson), dominant sexpots (Leslie Easterbrook’s Sgt Callahan), or woefully ineffectual (Marion Ramsey’s Laverne Hooks). There’s also a bit of racist humor. We're pretty sure we can all do without hearing the term jigaboo in a comedy—even coming from a villain, that’s a little much.
But the ugliest intolerable humor of Police Academy revolves around the “Blue Oyster Bar”—yeah, the music just popped into your head, didn’t it? The fun cadets send the jerk cadets to a gay bar instead of telling them where the big party is. So the big joke is that Blanks and Copeland spend their evening surrounded by predatory leather-clad gay men in a setting they’re afraid to leave. That’s all kinds of messed up. And since when is dancing all night with gay guys not tremendously fun?
1 Revenge of the Nerds
Our top pick is a movie that stands out even among other ‘80s sex romps as being unacceptable by modern standards. Sure, there’s lots to laugh at—even enjoy—about this film. But we have to admit that the only gay character with a name, Lamarr, (Larry Scott) is insultingly stereotypical. Meanwhile, Ditto Takashi (Brian Tochi) sets out to prove that you don’t need Gedde Watanabe to mock Asians.
But the biggest problem with Revenge of the Nerds is the treatment of women—by the heroes. Part of this is the Bitch mentality we mentioned earlier. The women of Pi Delta Pi go out of their way to be mean to the Tri-Lambdas. They're Bitches. So, as “revenge,” they break into their homes and install cameras to surreptitiously film the women for their own sexual enjoyment. Later they sell photos from this crime as part of a house fundraiser. Eek!
At the school carnival, Louis (Robert Carradine) tricks hottie Betty Childs into thinking he’s her boyfriend Stan (a way-too-old-for-college Ted McGinley) so he can rape her. Like so many other fictional ‘80s women, Betty takes no issue with being raped by the nerd she repeatedly turned down earlier. Why? Because all jocks think about is sports. All [nerds] think about is sex. In the sequel, we learn that Betty and her rapist got married. Yeah, we're gonna need a shower now.
We bet you’ve got plenty to say about our picks here. Please tell us all about it—and please be respectful when you do. Thanks in advance for playing nice!