Is there anything as subjective as humour? One person’s belly laugh is another person’s stoney-faced silence, or even a full-on cringe.
That makes picking out a good comedy film for the evening something of a minefield, especially if there’s more than one person watching. Complicating things is the fact that comedy often ages like milk.
Thankfully, there’s a solid roster of solid gold comedy films bound to leave you feeling good about yourself, whether through a razor-sharp script, stellar comedic performances, or that magical X factor that just makes them fun to watch.
Here’s our take on the best comedy movies of all time. It’s unlikely to precisely match your own, but each of these films has stood the test of time. Vote below on your favourites.
Best comedy movies of all time
1. Airplane! (1980)Stream on Paramount Plus
Airplane! might not be the most influential comedy film ever made, but it certainly spawned its own eternally popular comedy sub-category. Every genre parody of the last 40 years, from Hot Shots to Spaceballs to Scary Movie, owes a debt to Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker’s deeply daft film.
Broadly sending up the disaster pictures that were so prevalent in the preceding decade, Airplane! pretty much bombards the screen with a constant stream of gags – both visual and verbal – all delivered with a perfectly straight face. What’s remarkable is just how many of them turn out to be funny.
2. Life of Brian (1979)Stream on Netflix
We could just as easily have featured Monty Python and the Holy Grail on this list, but ultimately it’s the legendary comedy troupe’s controversial send-up of organised religion that has to get the nod.
That’s partly because Life of Brian adds genuine bite to its brand of comedy (sacrilegious AND silly), and partly because the gag hit rate is so very high. From a mob of suspiciously high-voiced stoners through to a quartet of sniggering centurions, the film is truly blessed with laugh-out-loud moments.
3. Groundhog Day (1993)Stream on NOW
Writing a "best comedy movie" list without at least one Bill Murray film would be akin to writing a "best action movie" list without an Arnie flick. Groundhog Day is arguably the pick of the bunch, offering a scenario ripe with comic potential. Murray’s grouchy weather reporter is forced to live the same crappy day again and again, thus setting the great man loose to do his droll best (worst?).
There’s some kind of morality tale at play here about living your best life. But really this is a precision-engineered vehicle for Murray to do his "hilarious jerk" thing.
4. Ghostbusters (1984)Stream on NOW
It’s impossible to overstate just how huge the original Ghostbusters was in the mid-’80s, spawning sequels, cartoon spin-offs, and several million skip-loads of gaudy merchandise. It’s not hard to see why, with a dream cast of ’80s comedy heavyweights including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis.
This quirky quartet plays an eccentric crew of New York ghost hunters, who use homespun technology to trap malevolent spirits. The film’s playbook of combining big budget sci-fi spectacle with snarky comedy is still being followed in Hollywood today, albeit rarely to the same standard.
5. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)Stream on Amazon
John Hughes produced a number of comedies in his time, and is probably unlucky not to have more entries on this list. There’s no denying Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s place on it, however.
This high school caper sees our too-cool-for-school hero, cheekily played by Matthew Broderick, skiving off and having the time of his life with girlfriend Sloane and neurotic best friend Cameron. Featuring more indelible scenes than a single film has any right to contain, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is truly timeless.
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Big Lebowski is one of those films with a borderline-obsessive cult following, and you only have to look at the ingredients list to see why: written and directed by The Coen Brothers, starring Jeff Bridges, and featuring a whole bunch of highly quotable stoner wisdom from a quirky cast of supporting characters.
The film’s appearance in countless memes and theme bars seems inevitable with hindsight. All this for a film that tells a pretty convoluted tale of an LA slacker, and a case of mistaken identity that pulls him into a seedy world of crime.
7. Shaun of the Dead (2004)Stream on NOW
Edgar Wright’s impeccable cinematic debut is both a send up of, and tribute to, George A. Romero’s seminal zombie movies. Most of all, however, it’s just really funny. Simon Pegg plays the titular no-hope salesman who wakes up with the mother of all hangovers precisely as the world submits to a zombie apocalypse.
In what was already emerging as Wright’s signature style, Shaun of the Dead is packed full of whip-smart one-liners, quick-fire editing, and an endless stream of pop culture references. More than that, it’s just a really good time.
8. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Check the reference points of every latter day comedy director and actor, and you can bet your bottom dollar that This is Spinal Tap will feature strongly. Rob Reiner’s film might not have been the very first deadpan mockumentary on the scene, but it’s undoubtedly the genre’s defining moment.
Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean play the big-haired members of an English heavy metal band with absolute stony faced conviction, perfectly sending up the po-faced pretentiousness of their real life counterparts.
9. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)Stream on NOW
Anchorman seems to take the ‘throw everything at the wall’ approach to comedy. What’s remarkable is just how much of it sticks. The tale of Will Ferrell’s 1970s news reader and his gang of misogynistic wingmen is a rich gumbo of visual gags, surreal non sequiturs, slapstick action, and loosely improvised scenes.
We suspect the resulting sky high hit rate was as much luck as judgement, but it helps that each of the cast members (including Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, and Christina Applegate) was operating at or near the top of their game.
10. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Has any director straddled genres with as much impudent brilliance as Stanley Kubrick? The main who mastered sci-fi (2001), horror (The Shining), and the historical epic (Spartacus) also made one of the definitive comedies in Dr. Strangelove.
This pitch-black-and-white satire was well ahead of its time, sending up American hawkishness and the futility of post-WWII warmongering with a ferocity and a savviness that still feels utterly modern. Besides which, it features all-time comic great Peter Sellers at the absolute peak of his considerable powers, playing three of the film’s roles.
11. The Jerk (1979)
Steve Martin has experienced a bit of a resurgence of late with Only Murders in the Building, but it pays to remember his golden period, which kicked off in 1979 with The Jerk. Carl Reiner’s oddball comedy sees Martin’s naive imbecile, Navin Johnson, recounting his unlikely life story.
The plot is utter nonsense, serving merely to string together a series of bizarre set pieces, all of which showcase Martin’s offbeat style and impressive physical comedy chops. It would prove hugely influential on successive generations of comedy movies through the ’80s, ’90s and beyond.
12. Some Like It Hot (1959)Stream on MGM
Comedy movies don’t get any more iconic than Some Like It Hot. Billy Wilder’s 1959 screwball jaunt proved to be the perfect showcase for Marilyn Monroe’s underrated comedy skills – with notable assistance from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two musicians on the run.
Monroe plays the sassy singer who beguiles the two undercover protagonists. Viewed as daring at the time for its cross-dressing leads, Some Like It Hot may have lost its capacity to shock, but it’s lost none of its capacity to charm and delight.
13. When Harry Met Sally (1989)Stream on Amazon
If this were a list of romantic comedies, When Harry Met Sally would more than likely take top billing. As it stands, it’s still in with a shout of taking the general comedy prize, such is its timeless quality.
Nora Ephron’s script is packed full of zesty quips and memorable scenes (two words for you: deli orgasm) as Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal play out a painfully slow-to-blossom New York romance over the space of a dozen years. Comedies with this level of bright-and-breezy sophistication simply don’t come along very often.
14. Superbad (2007)Stream on Netflix
The American High School has been a fertile ground for comedy movies over the decades, and Superbad is perhaps the quintessential example from the noughties. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play best buddies and impossible losers Seth and Evan, seeking to lose their virginity before they head off to college.
Despite memorable support from the likes of Emma Stone and Seth Rogen (who also co-wrote the film), the true star turn here has to go to Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the legendarily overconfident dweeb McLovin.
15. Bridesmaids (2011)Stream on Netflix
Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids not only kickstarted his directorial career, it laid down an early marker as one of the best comedies of the 2010s. It also helped alert the world to the immense comic talents of Kristen Wiig, as well as featuring a now very recognisable list of co-conspirators (Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper).
Wiig plays the down-on-her-luck 30-something charged with being the Maid of Honour and helping plan her best friend’s wedding. The succession of disastrous scenarios that ensue are as painful as they are riotously funny.
16. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)Stream on NOW
That Jared Hess’s debut film didn’t spark the kind of hit-filled career that many of us suspected doesn’t lessen Napoleon Dynamite’s impact. If anything, it only heightens its singular appeal.
Jon Heder plays the socially awkward title character, a socially maladjusted high schooler who bungles his way through life with a commendable lack of self-consciousness. Napolean Dynamite’s colourful cast of support characters proves just as strong, from Efren Ramirez as laconic best friend Pedro to Aaron Ruell as soft-spoken older brother Kip.
17. The Great Dictator (1940)
Charlie Chaplin is an icon of silent cinema, but it’s his first "talkie" that earns a place on the list of comedy greats. The Great Dictator has all of the great man’s physical comedy craft on display, but it also packs a considerable satirical punch.
Released in 1940, Chaplin’s film bravely and openly mocked Adolf Hitler at a time when the infamous Nazi was at the peak of his power, and with no sign that the US seemed inclined to come to Europe’s aid. For all its inspired slapstick moments, The Great Dictator’s success goes well beyond the yucks.
18. Clueless (1995)Stream on Prime Video
If there’s a more quintessentially ’90s comedy film than Clueless, we’re not sure we’ve seen it. Alicia Silverstone stars as Cher, a spoilt but sweet American high schooler who spends most of her time and effort matchmaking for her classmates, and not enough time seeing to her own love life.
Yes, this is essentially a thinly veiled ‘modern’ update of Jane Austen’s Emma, albeit one that’s impeccably executed. Clueless is also notable for being an early showcase for the hunk-next-door appeal of one Paul Rudd.
19. Team America: World Police (2004)Stream on NOW
Some of Team America’s humour seems a little near the knuckle these days, to put it mildly. But Team America was always teetering on the tightrope of good taste, made by the guys behind South Park and The Book of Mormon. Being crass and outrageous is kind of the point.
Equally true is that Team America remains choke-on-your-popcorn, beer-out-the-nose funny. This twisted puppet show doesn’t so much skewer American militaristic jingoism as it does bludgeon it to death, with appropriately X-rated results.
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