The Best Comedies of the ’80s and ’90s

Comedy movies aspire to reach what I would consider a noble goal: making people laugh. The genre really had its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, with classic after classic releasing in that era. Since then, comedies have struggled to make the same impact, and for good reason: comedy has been generally relegated to the television market, with movies often using it to supplement action. It doesn’t help that critics have rarely looked upon comedy well, usually preferring the dramatic and serious to the silly and entertaining. That’s why I want to put some focus on these classics and recognize the laughter they’ve brought me and so many others.

Dumb and Dumber
Release Year: 1994
Rating: PG-13

Dumb and Dumber stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as two of the dumbest people you could think of, driving a van that looks like a dog across the United States to return a briefcase full of money to its original owner. The movie’s humor is really as dumb as it can get; slapstick and toilet humor abound as the two friends obliviously get themselves in more and more trouble. Despite this, the jokes don’t usually land as eye-rollers or low-hanging fruit (even if they may be exactly that); there’s something clever about the execution, timing, and sheer absurdity of all the stupid proceedings. As I watched it, my enjoyment of the jokes continued to surprise me. That’s really where the artistry of this movie lies; it takes predictable and juvenile humor, which usually doesn’t warrant a second guess, and uses it in an unexpectedly clever and hilarious way.

The Princess Bride
Release Year: 1987
Rating: PG

Framed as a grandfather reading his young grandson a fairy tale, The Princess Bride follows farmboy-turned-pirate Westley (Cary Elwes) on his journey to reunite with his long-lost love Buttercup (Robin Wright) before she is forced to marry Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Featuring an impressive ensemble cast of distinctive and entertaining characters, the film manages to satirize tired fantasy tropes and tell a genuinely heartwarming story all at once. The tone is consistently humorous, with plenty of genuine laughs spread along the runtime as the quirks of the protagonists and antagonists are backed with occasional appearances by scene-stealing side characters. While the jokes aren’t always the funniest of the era, it’s made up for by the wholesome love story which props it up. Occasional cuts back to the grandson’s reactions give the film an extra layer of nostalgia, sealing its place as the most wholesome comedy on this list. 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Release Year: 1986
Rating: PG-13

Matthew Broderick stars as Ferris Bueller, a high-schooler with an elaborate plan to fake sick and take his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) on an extravagant trip to Chicago. All the while, his school principal (Jeffrey Jones) dedicates his day to thwarting Ferris’ plan. The humor relies mostly on the contrast between the increasingly absurd shenanigans of Ferris and his continued ability to avoid being caught, along with Cameron’s persistent and fruitless objections. Despite its lighthearted premise, it also manages to calm down and get to some genuine emotion within its cast. What results is a fun-filled adventure of wish-fulfillment for many a disenchanted teenager, while still managing to be a hilarious time for anyone watching. 

Release Year: 1980
Rating: PG

Made by the comedy directorial trio of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, Airplane! is certainly their most famous and funniest production. A parody of the much lesser-known movie Zero Hour, it centers around a former military pilot who is forced to land a passenger plane as the pilots and many passengers fall sick from a tainted fish meal. The plot really couldn’t matter less, though, as the movie uses it as nothing more than a vehicle for some of the most absurd sight gags and quippy humor anyone could come up with. The film’s comedy lies in the sheer number and craziness of its jokes; if the last joke wasn’t a hit with you, there’ll be five more along in short order which are sure to make you laugh. Better yet, the chances a joke won’t land are pretty low when they’re all as good as they are in Airplane! This movie’s PG rating isn’t really accurate, though; it came out before PG-13 was a rating, but it didn’t warrant an R rating. Nevertheless, it’s sure to have you in stitches for the whole runtime.

The Blues Brothers
Release Year: 1980
Rating: R

This cult-classic comedy stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood Blues, who work to get their band back together so they can raise money for their childhood orphanage. Convinced they’re “on a mission from God” as their antics anger the police, a country band, and Illinois Nazis, The Blues Brothers is a spectacle of sight gags, over-the-top stunts, and great music. Much of the humor comes from the indifference of the brothers; whether they’re driving through a shopping mall as the cops chase them down or crawling through a sewer in their three-piece suits, their sunglasses stay on and their expressions stay blank. Alongside the top-class jokes are the stunts, featuring police car pile-ups of then-unheard-of magnitude, which are as hilarious as they were expensive. Not least of all is the music, with special appearances from stars like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles supplementing the brothers’ very own talent. You can make the debate that some movies are funnier, but few deliver on so many fronts the way The Blues Brothers does. 

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