History of Comedy Movies

This page looks at the vocabulary of Comedy Movies through their history, people and styles. (Words in bold are listed in Wordchecker below.)

Charlie Chaplin in the 1917 silent comedy The KidSince the early days of cinema, comedy has been one of its most popular and successful genres. A good comedy has lots of scenes with funny characters or funny situations that make us laugh. Characters can be funny if they're clever and say or do witty things, or if they're socially inept and say or do embarrassing things, or if they're not very clever and they say and do stupid things. Scenes can be funny if something unexpected or shocking happens or if something embarrassing or ridiculous happens.

Photo: Charlie Chaplin and child actor Jackie Coogan in the 1921 silent comedy The Kid (Public Domain)

In early silent movies a form of visual comedy called slapstick was often used. Comical slapstick actions like slapping, slipping and falling over had been used in live theatre for centuries before they were used in silent films like Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, Charlie Chaplin's The Kid and Buster Keaton's stunt-filled comic adventure The General. Many later film-makers have also used visual comedy. French film-maker Jacques Tati created complex sight gags that were as perfectly timed as a ballet dance and M. Hulot's Holiday, Mon Oncle and Playtime are now regarded as some of the best comedies ever made. American film-maker Woody Allen also used visual comedy in films like Bananas and Sleeper, although in later films he focused on spoken comedy more than visual comedy. Like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and Woody Allen wrote, directed and starred in their own films, and these four artists are now seen by many as being among the greatest comedy film-makers of all time.

After it became possible to use sound in films in the early 1930s, American screwball comedies became very popular. These films were often about smart women getting what they wanted at a time when men had the power to control nearly every aspect of a woman's life. In screwball comedies this "battle of the sexes" was part of a farce full of gags and witty banter. A farce is a comedy about a ridiculous or improbable situation, and slapstick farces like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera and W.C. Fields' The Bank Dick were as popular as screwball farces in the 30s and 40s. Later farces include the 1959 film Some Like It Hot in which two musicians disguise themselves as women and join an all-girl band in order to escape from dangerous gunmen, and the 1968 farce The Party in which Peter Sellers plays an Indian actor who is mistakenly invited to a fancy Hollywood party. More recently, farces like Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen and The Hangover by Todd Phillips have been hits with moviegoers.

Video: Peter Sellers playing an Indian actor who’s been mistakenly invited to a high-society Hollywood party in Blake Edwards' 1968 farce The Party

A farce in which we see carefully planned robberies and murders go terribly wrong is called a caper. British capers of the 40s and 50s like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers set the pattern for later capers like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, A Fish Called Wanda, The Big Lebowski and Snatch. One of the darkest and funniest capers is Fargo by the Coen Brothers in which a car salesman plans the kidnapping of his wife. Fargo finds comedy not only in the failed kidnapping, but also in the failure of a business and the failure of a marriage. Films that find humour in these and other serious topics like war, illness and death are often called black comedies.

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One of the most famous black comedies is Dr Strangelove, a film in which a crazy general causes a nuclear war. Black comedies about death and murder include Man Bites Dog, Heathers and God Bless America, and black comedies about terrorism include Charlie Wilson's War and a 2010 British movie about a group of inept would-be terrorists called Four Lions. Similar movies that aren't quite as "black" as these films are sometimes called dark comedies. These movies are often about less serious personal or social problems, and one of the most famous is a movie that won five Academy Awards in 2000 called American Beauty.

American Beauty is about a middle-aged family man who dreams of sleeping with his neighbour's teenage daughter, and many people see it as a dark satire that pokes fun at the "American dream", or the idea of living a perfect life with a perfect family in a perfect American home. Another film that satirizes the American dream is The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey, but not all satires target this topic. In movies like Network, Broadcast News and Anchorman it's television news that's targeted, and in political satires like Being There, Wag The Dog, Bulworth and In The Loop it's politicians who are targeted. The entertainment industry has also been targeted in satires like Mel Brooks' The Producers and Robert Altman's The Player.

There are also films that poke fun at particular movie genres by copying their style and adding humour to the mix. These movies are called parodies or "spoofs" and some of the funniest include Airplane!, a disaster movie spoof starring Leslie Nielson, and Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks' farcical parody of the cowboy-filled Western. Also popular are detective movie spoofs like A Shot in the Dark with Peter Sellers and The Naked Gun - From the Files of Police Squad! with Leslie Nielson, spy movie spoofs like the Austin Powers movies and 2015's Spy, and parodies of the horror genre like Young Frankenstein, Ghostbusters, Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead.

Video: Lieutenant Frank Drebin arrives back at police headquarters in the 1988 detective movie spoof The Naked Gun - From the Files of Police Squad!

Movies that feature very strange or very crazy humour are often called absurd comedies. In the 1960s a team of British comedy writers and performers used absurd humour in their TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus, and in the 70s they produced a series of Monty Python movies that are now regarded as some the funniest comedies ever made. More recently the American screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has used a very clever style of absurd humour in movies like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Adaptation.

While most of the characters in Charlie Kaufman's movies are very smart, a style of comedy that features very stupid characters is called goofball comedy. When watching a goofball comedy, we can't help laughing at the stupid things the characters say and do and cringing at all their social faux pas. Many moviegoers love goofball comedies like The Jerk starring Steve Martin and Dumb and Dumber starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.

In the 1960s underground film-maker John Waters used offensive or bad-taste humour in dark satires of American life such as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble in which characters like Divine, a very loud, very large woman played by a transvestite actor, did things that were so disgusting that audience members either cringed and laughed or cringed and left. In the 1980s mainstream studio movies called gross-out comedies with the same sort of disgusting scenes, but without the satire, became quite popular. Two of the most successful were 1978's Animal House and 1999's American Pie.

Movies that tell funny stories about teenagers and their lives are called teen comedies, and those that show the humour of teen life without making fun of teenagers include the 1988 movie Hairspray directed by John Waters, the 1998 high-school comedy Rushmore directed by Wes Anderson, and a very original 2011 Japanese teen comedy directed by Sion Sono called Love Exposure. Many of these movies are about teenage love and romance, but movies about the same topics in relation to adults belong to a different genre called romantic comedy or "rom com".

Romantic comedies show the funny side of sexual attraction, dating, falling in love, getting married, and so on. In the mid-1970s Woody Allen began making romantic comedies like Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters instead of the slapstick comedies he'd been making before. In these films he plays the part of a very funny neurotic New Yorker who constantly talks about his anxieties and his difficult love life. Many romantic comedies were made in the 1990s following the success of When Harry Met Sally in 1989, including Say Anything, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Chasing Amy. Many romantic comedies have also been made in Asia since the success of the popular Korean film My Sassy Girl in 2001.

Another popular kind of comedy is the road movie in which characters have a series of funny adventures while travelling together. These movies often include an element of farce and some of the most popular include: National Lampoon's Vacation with Chevy Chase; the Australian transvestite comedy Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and the award-winning Mexican road movie Y Tu Mamá También starring Gael GarcÌa Bernal which mixes comedy, drama, sex and teen romance.

Some of the funniest comedies ever made have been spoofs of documentaries or satires that look like serious documentaries. These films are called mockumentaries and they often include interviews with what seem to be, or sometimes are, real people in the real world. Some of the most popular mockumentaries include This is Spinal Tap which documents the career of a rock group, Waiting for Guffman about an amateur theatre group, and Best in Show which looks at the world of competitive dog shows. Other very funny mockumentaries include Sacha Baran Cohen's Borat and Bruno and Shane and Clayton Jacobson's Australian mockumentary Kenny which documents the life and career of a plumber who specializes in portable toilets.

Video: Movie trailer for Best in Show, a mockumentary directed by Christopher Guest that examines the world of competitive dog shows

Comedy genres and recommended movies

  • Slapstick: The Kid (1921), Duck Soup (1933), The Bank Dick (1940), Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1969), Sleeper (1973)
  • Screwball: My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Sullivan's Travels (1941), Tangerine (2015)
  • Farce: Some Like It Hot (1959), Raising Arizona (1987), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Death of Stalin (2017)
  • Caper: A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), Snatch (2001), I Care a Lot (2020)
  • Black: Dr Strangelove (1964), Heathers (1988), God Bless America (2009), Four Lions (2014), Promising Young Woman (2020)
  • Dark: Harold and Maude (1971), Withnail and I (1987), American Beauty (1999), Wild Tales (2014), Parasite (2019)
  • Satire: Being There (1979), In The Loop (2009), Sorry to Bother You (2018), The Favourite (2018), BlacKkKlansman (2018)
  • Spoof: Airplane! (1980), The Naked Gun (1988), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Spy (2015), Riders of Justice (2021)
  • Absurd: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979), Being John Malkovich (1999), I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
  • Goofball: The Jerk (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Wayne's World (1992), Dumb and Dumber (1994), Bad Trip (2021)
  • Gross-out: Pink Flamingos (1972), Animal House (1978), There's Something About Mary (1998), Bridesmaids (2011)
  • Teen: Hairspray (1988), Dazed and Confused (1993), Rushmore (1998), Election (1999), Love Exposure (2011)
  • Rom Com: Annie Hall (1977), Say Anything (1989), Chasing Amy (1997), My Sassy Girl (2001), Knocked Up (2007)
  • Road: National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
  • Mockumentary: This is Spinal Tap (1984), Bob Roberts (1992), Best in Show (2000), Kenny (2008), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

absurd (adjective): ridiculous, totally unreasonable or impossible - The idea that dogs can read our minds is absurd, Josie.

bad-taste (adjective): deliberately shocking and offensive - Peter made bad-taste films before directing the Lord of the Rings movies.

banter (noun): witty conversation - Can you understand the banter between drinkers at the pub yet?

black comedy (noun): comedy about topics like death, war, illness, etc. - My friends hate black comedies, but I love them.

caper (noun): a comedy about a crime that goes wrong - Is Fargo a typical crime thriller or a black comedy caper?

comedy (noun): a novel, TV show or movie that's meant to make us laugh - We could do with a laugh, so let's watch a comedy.

comical (adjective): strange or silly enough to be funny - It's full of funny characters in comical situations.

cringe (verb): to react to something that's embarrassing or disturbing - When she vomited on her husband, everyone cringed.

farce (noun): a comedy of silly or unlikely events - It's an old-fashioned farce about a wedding that goes wrong.

faux pas (also "gaffe") (noun): something embarrassing that's said or done in a social situation - His worst faux pas was telling the queen a dirty joke.

gag (noun): a witty joke - Thinking up gags for a movie script isn't easy, you know.

goofball comedy (noun): a comedy with a very stupid but funny main character - It's a goofball comedy, so it's OK to laugh.

gross-out (adjective): disgusting enough to make you feel sick - It's a gross-out movie, so your teenage sons will love it.

humour (also "humor") (noun): the quality that makes something seem funny - She's got a good sense of humour, so I'm sure she'll get the joke.

inept (adjective): lacking ability, skill or training - Playing with an inept golfer can be very funny, but you mustn't laugh.

make fun of (verb): to tease, mock or make unkind jokes about someone - Why does your brother always make fun of gay people?

mockumentary (noun): a comedy that looks like a serious documentary - We just saw this really funny arts mockumentary.

poke fun at (verb): to make something or someone look silly - Lots of comedians poke fun at politics and make fun of politicians.

romantic comedy (also "rom com") (noun): a funny love story - My wife loves romantic comedies, but I can't stand them!

ridiculous (adjective): very silly, or unreasonable enough to make people laugh - You can't swim to China. That's a ridiculous idea!

satire (noun): a book, play, movie, etc that uses comedy to criticize something - A good satire can change the way you think.

satirize (verb): to use humour to poke fun at something or someone - I like the way it satirizes lawyers and the legal system.

screwball comedy (noun): a farcical romantic comedy of the 30s or 40s - I've only seen Cary Grant in screwball comedies.

slapstick (noun): comedy based on sight gags - Those Mr Bean movies are full of slapstick comedy.

spoof (noun): a funny parody of a movie genre - Is it a horror movie spoof, or just a funny horror movie?

Western (noun): a cowboy movie about the old American West - There were lots of Westerns on TV when I was a kid.

witty (adjective): clever and funny at the same time - Oscar Wilde was famous for saying witty things.

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers.