From left, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, 1938; Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, 1995; Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, 1959; Bill Murray in *Groundhog Day, *1993.
All from Everett Collection
All art is subjective, but maybe none more so than comedy. Who knows why, exactly, we laugh at something; it’s an unknowable chemistry, a complicated equation, one that seems unique to each person. So trying to determine the best comedy movie ever made is probably an exercise in futility. Yet, BBC Culture has endeavored to do just that, much in the same way that it attempted to list the best movies of the 21st century last year.
There’s an important semantic matter to touch upon before discussing the results. The BBC asked 253 critics—including me!—to list the “greatest” comedies of all time. Not funniest, but greatest. That seems to have had some effect on critics’ answers. Is the “greatest” comedy the one that makes you laugh the most? Or does the term refer to a more formal greatness—those comedies that earn respect through their technique and enduring cultural significance, rather than the number of actual laughs they provoke?
Looking at the top 10, I would aver that most critics went for the latter read. Number one on the list is Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like It Hot, no doubt a great comedy by any metric. But nowhere in the top 10 is a movie released after 1993 (Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day is number four), an indication that esteemed film-canon comedies were favored over more contemporary stuff. Plenty of comedy is timeless, but can we honestly say that 1933’s Duck Soup made us laugh more than, say, Waiting for Guffman? (Which is bogglingly all the way up at 84, proving that most critics are bastard people.)
Again, this is all subjective. And I’m perhaps asking these questions to make myself feel better about my relatively unsophisticated list, which included Clueless (number 34 on the master list) and Wayne’s World instead of, say, The Great Dictator (number 16) or Dr. Strangelove (number 2). But it is interesting—and maybe telling—that there isn’t a movie made in this century on the list until number 33 (Anchorman). Do the world’s critics really have that low of an opinion of contemporary comedy? Or is comedy simply a genre that we have a hard time respecting in the present tense? Sure—we laugh, but what if we cringe about that laughter mere years later?
Better, then, to wait a while before we declare a comedy truly great. In the meantime, we can turn to trusted, unimpeachable staples like Bringing Up Baby (number 17) when asked to compile lists like this.
Whatever the reasoning behind the picks, they make for a helpful list to consult if you want to bone up on comedy classics. We’ll be talking with BBC editor Christian Blauvelt about the list on this week’s episode of V.F.’s Little Gold Men podcast, so stay tuned for that.
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