If you've ever told someone your favourite comedy film, only for them to crushingly blankface you and tell you that it is in fact, not funny and barely constitutes a film, let alone something to laugh at, then you'll be all to familiar with the ensuing doubt.
There's something more excruciating, more exposing about comedy in particular, for enjoying categorically unfunny things is the most socially damning indictment of you as an individual. And doing it unknowingly, well, that's enough to cause a full blown existential crisis. If you can no longer know for sure if something's funny, then what do you know?
Ricky Gervais is funny. He redefined the sitcom. He's won several awards for services to humour. He wrote a scene with Les Dennis, Keith Chegwin and Barry from Eastenders discussing suicide that still manages to raise a smile. He doesn't need validation from your doubting pals, and you won't either if you watch the films that make him roar and adopt them as your own bulletproof comedy favourites.
Team America (2004)
Some potty-mouthed puppets try to overcome Kim Jong-Il.
“Team America is the most outrageous ‘we don’t give a f*ck’ piece of filmmaking I’m aware of. I first saw it on a plane and wanted to stand up and say, ‘Everyone has to watch this! You’re allowed to say this sh*t. This is what I’ve been telling you!’ I’m a big fan of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who wrote and directed it. I’d love to collaborate with them. You’re laughing because they shouldn’t be saying that sh*t. It’s fearless and audacious.”
The Rebel (1961)
Tony Hancock stars as a clerk who quits his job and moves to Paris to follow his dream of becoming a professional artist, except no one ‘appreciates’ or ‘understands’ his art. Because it’s awful.
“This is one of the first films I saw, and still one of the greatest. It’s about an ordinary person trying to be something they’re not and desperate to be accepted, which is a staple of British comedy – there’s a line that runs from Hancock’s character in The Rebel to David Brent. In retrospect, Hancock must have been an influence on Brent – a delusional, pretentious, working-class guy who wants to be thought of as clever. We laugh at their struggle, but we’re on their side because they pick themselves up and start again. That’s something I learnt from Laurel & Hardy: if they didn’t care, or they gave up, that would be no fun – we want them to keep trying and failing.”
Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who’s such a nightmare to work with that no one wants to hire him. He starts cross-dressing to try to land a job as a woman.
“I avoided watching Tootsie for years. I thought it was a mainstream caper and would frustrate me, but it’s a lovely movie. It’s the perfect movie: the screenplay, the pacing, the romance, the twists, the turns. This isn’t like so many films where they kiss and get married and we’re meant to think they live happily ever after. Tootsie’s ending is more elegant and grown-up than that. I’ve tried to rip that idea off – I did it with The Invention Of Lying and Ghost Town. An ending where they don’t necessarily live happily ever after. Yes, it’s gentle and mainstream, but it’s beautiful and much cleverer than people think.”
Play It Again, Sam (1972)
Woody Allen is a divorced writer who tries to impress women by emulating Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
“Allen brought modern comedy to the cinema, and this is my favourite of his films. He took on the idea that it’s not always best to be the cleverest person – you don’t get the girl. Play It Again, Sam was the first time I’d seen the central character be an idiot and be the winner at the same time. And Allen introduced naturalism into his comedy, and fused romance with personal problems and comedy better than anyone else.”
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
A rock music mockumentary that follows the dwindling fortunes of a fictional heavy metal band.
“This blew me away and is still my favourite comedy film of all time. It’s an hour and a half of funny. I’ve seen it probably 50 times, but if I turn on the TV and it’s on, I’ll sit and watch however long is left. Huge amounts of it were improvised. People have tried to do that since and it doesn’t hook you because it becomes a bit self-indulgent, but here it’s incredible, because it’s still all about character. Christopher Guest, who plays lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, is brilliant and probably the single biggest influence on my work – he has a naturalism that I’d never seen before. We’ve become good friends, and he’s passionate, smart – smarter than you need to be to be a daft comedian. And he’s not been changed by the madness that he’s lived. He doesn’t go to red carpet things or any of that. He’s a family man who loves comedy and music. Every scene in This Is Spinal Tap is funny, the songs are brilliant and it is the most consistently funny film ever made.”