Comedy film

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File:Airplane DVD.jpg
Airplane! is considered by some critics to be one of the funniest movies of all time.

A comedy film is a film laced with humor or that may seek to provoke laughter from the audience. Along with drama, horror and science fiction, comedy is one of the largest genres of the medium.

A comedy of manners film satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class, often represented by stock characters. The plot of the comedy is often concerned with an illicit love affair or some other scandal, but is generally less important than its witty and sometimes bawdy dialogue. This form of comedy has a long ancestry, dating back to Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare.

In a fish out of water comedy film the main character, or characters, finds himself in an alien environment and this drives most of the humor in the film. Such films can be portrayals of opposite gender lifestyle, such as in Tootsie (1982); adults swapping roles with a kid, as in Big (1988); a freedom-loving individual fitting into a structured environment, as in Police Academy (1984), and so forth.

A parody or spoof film is a comedy that satirizes other film genres or classic films. Such films employ sarcasm, stereotyping, mockery of scenes from other films, inconsequential violence, and the obviousness of meaning in a character's actions. Examples of this form include Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), and Young Frankenstein (1974).

The anarchic comedy film uses nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness humor which often lampoons some form of authority. Films of this nature stem from a theatrical history of anarchic comedy on the stage and in street performances. Well-known films of this sub-genre include National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

The black comedy is based around normally taboo subjects, including, death, murder, suicide and war. Examples include Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Ladykillers (1955), The Loved One (1965), Monty Python's the Meaning of Life (1983) and The War of the Roses (1989).

Gross-out films are a relatively recent development, and rely heavily on sexual or "toilet" humour. Example of these movies include American Pie (1999), There's Something About Mary (1998), and Dumb and Dumber (1994).

The romantic comedy sub-genre typically involves the development of a relationship between a man and a woman. The stereotyped plot line follows the "boy-gets-girl", "boy-loses-girl", "boy gets girl back again" sequence. Naturally there are innumerable variants to this plot, and much of the generally light-hearted comedy lies in the social interactions and sexual tensions between the pair. Examples of this style of film include Pretty Woman (1990), It's a Wonderful World (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), When Harry Met Sally... (1989), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).

It was not uncommon for the early romantic comedy film to also be a screwball comedy film. This form of comedy film was particularly popular during the 1930s and 1940s. There is no consensus definition of this film style, and it is often loosely applied to slapstick or romantic comedy films. Typically it can include a romantic element, an interplay between people of different economic strata, quick and witty repartee, some form of role reversal, and a happy ending. Some examples of the screwball comedy are: It Happened One Night (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), and more recently What's Up, Doc? (1972).


The very first movies to be produced was Thomas Edison's kinetoscope of his assistant Fred Ott in Record of a Sneeze. This could also be considered the first to show a comedic element.

Comedic films began to appear in significant numbers during the era of silent films, prior to the 1930s. These were mainly focused on visual humor, including slapstick and burlesque. A very early comedy short was Watering the Gardener 1895 by the Lumiere Brothers. Prominent clown-style actors of the silent era include Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

A popular trend during the 1920s and afterward was comedy in the form of animated cartoons. Several popular characters of the period received the cartoon treatment. Among these were Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, and Betty Boop. However the development of the cartoon medium was inhibited by the lack of sound and color.


Toward the end of the 1920s, the introduction of sound into movies made possible dramatic new film styles and the use of verbal humor. During the 1930s the silent film comedy was replaced by dialogue from film comedians such as the W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. A few studios still clung to the silent film medium, but within three years of 1928 almost all movies were making use of sound. The comedian Charlie Chaplin was one of the last hold-outs, and his films during the 1930s were devoid of dialogue, although they did employ sound effects.

The introduction of sound led to a consolidation of the studios, as the equipment required was too expensive for the smaller studios to afford. The MGM studio became particularly dominant during this period, and they were noted for their comedies among other genres.

Screwball comedies, such as produced by Frank Capra, exhibited a pleasing, idealised climate that portrayed reassuring social values and a certain optimism about everyday life. Movies still included slapstick humor and other physical comedy, but these were now frequently supplemental to the verbal interaction.

Another common comedic production from the 1930s was the short subject. The Three Stooges were particularly prolific in this form, and their studio Columbia produced 190 Three Stooges releases. These non-feature productions only went into decline in the 1950s when they were migrated to the television.

Other notable comedians of this period were Mae West and Jack Benny.

In Britain, film adaptations of stage farces were popular in the early 1930s, while the music hall tradition strongly influenced film comedy into the 1940s with Will Hay and George Formby among the top comedy stars of the time.


With the entry of the United States into World War II, Hollywood became focused on themes related to the conflict. Comedies portrayed military themes such as service, civil defense, boot-camp and shore-leave. The war-time restrictions on travel made this a boom time for Hollywood, and nearly a quarter of the money spent on attending movies.

Major film comedians of this period included Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Danny Kaye, as well as the comedy teams of Abbot and Costello and Laurel and Hardy.

In Britain, Ealing Studios achieved popular success as well as critical acclaim with a series of films known collectively as the "Ealing comedies", from 1946 to 1956. They usually included a degree of social comment, and featured ensemble casts which often included Alec Guinness or Stanley Holloway. Among the most famous examples were Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).

The post-war period was an age of reflection on the war, and the emergence of a competing medium, the television. In 1948 the TV began to acquire commercial momentum and by the following year there were nearly a hundred television transmitters in American cities.


By the 1950s the television industry had become a serious competition for the movie industry. Despite the technological limitations of the TV medium at the time, more and more people chose to stay home to watch the television. The Hollywood studios at first viewed the TV as a threat, and later as a commercial market. Several comedic forms that had previously been a staple of movie theaters transitioned to the TV. Both the short subject and the cartoon now appeared on the TV rather than in the theater, and the "B" movie also found its outlet on the television.

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Some Like it Hot won an academy award for best costume and was nominated in several other categories.

The 1950s saw a trend away from family oriented comedies and toward more realistic social situtions. Only the Walt Disney studios continued to steadily release family comedies. The release of comedy films also went into a decline during this decade. In 1947 almost one in five films had been comedic in nature, but by 1954 this was down to ten percent.

Some comedy films began to examine more realistic, mature themes. Marilyn Monroe starred in adult-oriented comedies such as Some Like it Hot (1959). The film themes often avoided social issues, and focused on humor.

This decade saw the decline of past comedy stars and a certain paucity of new talent in Hollywood. Among the few popular new stars during this period were Judy Holliday and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Lewis followed the legacy of such comedians as Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but his work was not well-received by critics in the United States (in contrast to France where he proved highly popular.)

The British film industry produced a number of highly successful film series, however, including the Doctor series, the St. Trinian's films and the increasingly bawdy Carry on films. John and Roy Boulting also wrote and directed a series of successful satires, including Private's Progress (1956) and I'm All Right, Jack (1959). As in the U.S., in the next decade much of this talent would move into television.

A number of French comedians were also able to find an English speaking audience in the '50s, including Fernandel and Jacques Tati.


The next decade saw an increasing number of broad, star-packed comedies including It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and The Great Race (1965). By the middle of the decade, some of the 1950s generation of American comedians, such as Jerry Lewis, went into decline, while Peter Sellers found success with international audiences in his first American film The Pink Panther. The bumbling Inspector Clouseau was a character Sellers would continue to return to over the next decade.

Toward the end of the 1950s, darker humor and more serious themes had begun to emerge that included satire and social commentary. Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a satirical comedy about Cold War paranoia, while The Apartment (1960), Alfie (1966) and The Graduate (1967) featured sexual themes in a way that would have been impossible only a few years previously.


In 1970 the black comedies Catch 22 and M*A*S*H reflected the anti-war sentiment then prevalent, as well as treating the sensitive topic of suicide. M*A*S*H would be toned down and brought to television in the following decade as a long-running series.

Among the leading lights in comedy films of the next decade were Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Both wrote, produced and acted in their movies. Brooks' style was generally slapstick and zany in nature, often parodying film styles and genres, including Universal horror films (Young Frankenstein), westerns (Blazing Saddles) and Hitchcock films (High Anxiety).

Woody Allen focused on humorous commentary and satire, often based around relationships, as in Annie Hall in 1977 and Manhattan in 1979.

Following his success on film and on Broadway with The Odd Couple playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon would also be prominent in the 1970s, with films like The Sunshine Boys and California Suite.

Other notable film comedians that appeared later in the decade were Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Burt Reynolds.

Most British comedy films of the early 70s were spin-offs of television series, including Dad's Army and On the Buses. The greatest successes, however, came with the films of the Monty Python team, including And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979.

Late in the 1970s a trend toward youth-oriented movies began to emerge, and this was reflected in the comedies. More than half of all movie-goers were under the age of 25, and this resulted in movies such as Animal House, Meatballs, and Kentucky Fried Movie, all in 1978-1979.


In 1980 the gag-based comedy Airplane!, a spoof of the previous decade's disaster film series was released and paved the way for more of the same including Top Secret! (1984) and the Naked Gun films.

Popular comedy stars in the '80s included Dudley Moore, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Many had come to prominence on the American TV series Saturday Night Live, including Bill Murray, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. Eddie Murphy made a success of comedy-action films including 48 Hours (1982) and the Beverly Hills Cop series (1984-1993).

The decade also saw the rise of teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Porky's and Revenge of the Nerds. Many of these were based around teenagers attempts to lose their virginity, a theme that would surface again in the late 1990s.

Also popular were the films of John Hughes, who would become best-known for the Home Alone series of the early 1990s. The latter film helped a revival in comedies aimed at a family audience, along with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and its sequels.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a trend emerged toward the release of sequel films based on previously successful productions. Among the sequels were Trail of the Pink Panther, The Great Muppet Caper, and Porky's II. Unfortunately the revenue for sequels sometimes did not satisfy the investment, and the films would often met with criticism.

Other notable comedies of the decade include the gender-swap film Tootsie (1982), Broadcast News (1987), and a brief spate of age-reversal films including Big, 18 Again, Vice Versa and Like Father, Like Son. Also notable were the Police Academy series of broad comedies, produced between 1984 and 1993.


Popular comedy stars in the 1990s included Jim Carrey (The Mask), Adam Sandler (The Wedding Singer) and Mike Myers (Austin Powers and Wayne's World).

One of the major developments was the re-emergence of the romantic comedy film, encouraged by the success of When Harry Met Sally... in 1989. Other examples included Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Clueless (1995) and You've Got Mail (1998) from the U.S., and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Sliding Doors (1998) and Notting Hill (1999) from the U.K..

Probably more representative of British humour were the working class comedies Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Other British comedies examined the role of the Asian community in British life, including Bhaji on the Beach (1993), East is East (1999), Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Anita and Me (2003).

Some Australian comedies also found an international audience following the 1980s success of Crocodile Dundee. Examples included Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel's Wedding (1994) and The Dish (2001).

Another development was the increasing use of "gross-out humour" usually aimed at a younger audience, in films like There's Something About Mary, American Pie and its sequels, and Freddy Got Fingered.


In mid 2000s the trend of "gross-out" movies is revamping, with adult-oriented comedies picking up the box office. In 2005 several gross-out movies have performed suprisingly well catering to such an adult market, these include Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But serious black comedies (also known as dramatic comedies or dramedies) were performing also well, such as The Weather Man, Broken Flowers and Shopgirl.

See also


  • Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren, Light and Shadows: A History of Motion Pictures, 1975, Mayfield Publishing.

External links

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