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101 Funniest Screenplays
November 11, 2015
The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) and the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) released the list of the 101 Funniest Screenplays. From the classics to the contemporary, the list spans 86 years of outstanding comedy screenwriting.
Voted on by members of both Guilds, films were eligible if they were exhibited theatrically; live-action, animation, silent, and documentary features were all eligible; and films must have been written in English. Short films (under 60 minutes in length), films that initially premiered on television, and films that do not feature on-screen writing credits were not eligible for consideration.
- Annie Hall(1977)
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Funnily enough, Woody Allen was trying to break away from being so funny. He and Marshall Brickman wanted to call their film Anhedonia(psychiatric term meaning the inability to experience pleasure). “I wanted to do a movie that might not have anything funny in it for a minute, or five minutes…but you would still not be bored by the movie,” Allen told Richard Schickel in Woody Allen: A Life in Film. There are so many memorable moments in Annie Hall that it’s easy to skip over how modern cinema’s greatest semi-autobiographical relationship story begins: with Alvy Singer addressing the camera straight on, establishing both character and trust. “It sets up the idea of the film,” Allen said in Woody Allen on Woody Allen. “I felt many of the people in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted to talk to them directly and confront them.”
- Some Like it Hot(1959)
Screenplay by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond, Based on the German film Fanfare of Love by Robert Thoeren and M. Logan
Great comedies wreak havoc on conventional wisdom, and Some Like it Hot changed what comedies could be in Hollywood – to wit, a pastiche of genres, including a throwback gangster film and a slapstick comedy, never mind the contemporary shock value of two cross-dressing leads. Interviewed by writer-director Cameron Crowe for Conversations with Wilder, Wilder discussed how he and his longtime screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond arrived at the film’s classic exit line: “Nobody’s perfect”: “We needed a line for Joe E. Brown and could not find it. But somewhere in the beginning of our discussion, Iz [Diamond] said: ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ And I said: `Look, let’s go back to your line… Let’s send it to the mimeograph department so that they have something, and then we’re going to really sit down and make a real funny last line.'” They never found a new line, Wilder said. “Nobody’s perfect” stuck.
- Groundhog Day(1993)
Screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, Story by Danny Rubin
Harold Ramis read Danny Rubin’s script and imagined an updating of It’s A Wonderful Life. Rubin hadn’t set out to write a Capra-esque parable, exactly. “When I first designed the original screenplay, it was almost like an experiment,” Rubin said at the 2015 Austin Film Festival. “I wanted to plunk somebody down, this character, in this situation, and kind of watch it play out and see how it developed.” Ultimately, what brings jaded weatherman Phil Connors out of his existential crisis, as he relives each day into seeming perpetuity, without consequence, is his desire to change for the woman he loves. “It was really kind of a major change in the underpinnings of the script to change it from the experiment, the repetition, changing Phil, to having Rita change Phil,” Rubin said of Ramis’ influence. “But it is a romantic comedy, and we’re trying to cement those two characters.”
Written by James Abrahams & David Zucker & Jerry Zucker
Long before it became de rigueur for dramatic actors to spoof their own gravitas, the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams deployed Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen beautifully in the tour de force of silliness that was Airplane! The movie won a Writers Guild Award for best Adapted Screenplay – best adapted because the Zuckers and Abraham were copying the plot of Zero Hour! written by Arthur Hailey. In fact, the comedy writers optioned the rights to that 1957 film. “Our first draft of Airplane! had fake commercials throughout it, because we didn’t realize at first just how strong a story Arthur Hailey had written,” Abrahams told the A.V. Club. “We weren’t screenwriters at all – we were joke writers.” Coming after the tide of earnest disaster films that Hollywood turned out in the 1970s, Airplane!felt like a big, weird catharsis.
Screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, Story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart
The elevator pitch – an out-of-work actor becomes a cause célèbre while disguised as a woman on a soap opera – fails to capture what madeTootsie feel hilarious and monumental. “‘In my very first meeting with Larry Gelbart, I said, `If in 1982 a man puts on a dress, he’d better become a better man for it.’ So we worked on developing that,'” director Sydney Pollack told The New York Times. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and won the Writers Guild Award. Pollack said that Tootsie was an amalgamation of an original screenplay by Don McGuire and a similarly themed script that Dustin Hoffman was working on with Murray Schisgal. Gelbart, the master craftsman who’d cut his teeth gang-writing for TV star Sid Caesar, told author Mike Sacks of the circumstances around Tootsie: “It was just way more help than I ever needed, and certainly more than I asked for.”
- Young Frankenstein(1974)
Screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, Screen Story by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, Based on Characters in the Novel Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
“At the top of the page I wrote, ‘Young Frankenstein,’ and then wrote two pages of what might happen to me if I were the great grandson of Beaufort von Frankenstein and was called to Transyvlania because I had just inherited the Frankenstein estate,” Wilder recalls in his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger. Mel Brooks agreed to direct the film before he madeBlazing Saddles – and then summoned Wilder to the set as a last-minute replacement for Gig Young in the role of the Waco Kid. After Brooks wrapped Saddles, he and Wilder worked in earnest on Young Frankenstein. “My job was to make him more subtle,” Wilder told Newsweek in 1975, of their collaboration. “His job was to make me more broad. I would say, ‘I don’t want this to be Blazing Frankenstein, and he’d answer, ‘I don’t want an art film that only 14 people see.'”
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(1964)
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Peter George and Terry Southern
No other anti-war film – much-less anti-war comedy – surpasses Stanley Kubrick’s film in the canon of contemporary cinema. George Plimpton recalled in Harper’s magazine that Peter Sellers had read Terry Southern’s comic novel The Magic Christian and gave a copy to Kubrick. “The [Dr. Strangelove] script at that point was closely based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, a melodrama about the destruction of the world when a crazed commander dispatches a flight of nuclear bombers to obliterate the Soviet Union,” Plimpton wrote. “According to Terry, Kubrick woke up one morning and realized that the destruction of the world could not be treated ‘in any conventionally dramatic fashion,’ and could only see it as a hideous joke.” As Kubrick himself once said: “The things you laugh at were really the heart of the paradoxical practices that make a nuclear war possible.”
- Blazing Saddles(1974)
Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger, Story by Andrew Bergman
In the writers’ room were Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger, and 26-year-old Andrew Bergman. “The thing I remember them saying is that comedy is like poetry – every syllable counts,” Bergman recalled in Entertainment Weekly. Comic poetry is one way to describe the campfire farting scene. Describing its influence on comedy, Brian Grazer told The New York Times: “It was the birth of a certain type of comedy that I call shock comedy. The comedies that preceded it were more gentle and earnest. This one was aggressive and in your face, and dealing in a very smart and startling way with the most intense social issues, from racial bigotry to sexuality.” Grazer added: “Anyone who has been making comedies over the last 20 years – I know Blazing Saddles has got to be someplace in their heads.”
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail(1975)
Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
It’s a quest movie that gave us the line, “It’s only a flesh wound.” A send-up of Middle Age barbarity and “Sir Arthur, King of the Britons” (crickets), the movie further embedded the Pythons into the American comedy consciousness after their TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Michael Palin told Playboy in 2000 that Python’s anti-authoritarian world view could be traced to the surreal comic outlook of Lewis Carroll and the satirical tradition of Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift. “University comedy, political satirical comedy, had been dormant for the first part of the 20th century, when people were either killing or being killed and economies were failing,” Palin said. “When we got through the war and we’d all grown fat on American milk and bread and orange juice, we felt the time had come to laugh at those who were supposed to be telling us what to do.”
- National Lampoon’s Animal House(1978)
Written by Harold Ramis & Douglas Kenney & Chris Miller
Released in 1978 and written by Ramis along with National Lampoonstalwarts Doug Kenney (Harvard, class of ’68), and Chris Miller (Dartmouth, class of ’63), Animal House set box office records for a comedy. Though plenty crude, by moving the film’s time and place back to the early 1960s, “the writers tapped the source of their earliest ideals,”The New Yorker’s Tad Friend wrote, in his 2004 profile of Ramis. In that article, Ramis told Friend: “Woody Allen had defined the American nebbish as a loser. But we felt instinctively that our outsiders weren’t losers. They may not achieve anything in the traditional sense – they may not even be smart – but they’re countercultural heroes. The movie went on after the credits to tell you that these were your future leaders, while the guys from the ‘good’ frat would be raped in prison and fragged by their own troops.”
- This is Spinal Tap(1984)
Written by Christopher Guest & Michael McKean & Rob Reiner & Harry Shearer
The script ran to four pages, said writer-director Rob Reiner. There was a character bible on bandmates Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls, and an outline of their “Smell the Glove” tour. From there, Reiner and writer-performers Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean improvised the movie. They were satirists tweaking rock documentaries with such pitch-perfect attitudes and dialogue that the line between sad, sublime and plain ridiculous (the death of a drummer who choked on someone else’s vomit) became seamless. Fair to say, This is Spinal Tap created a comedy sub-genre. On the Chicago music program Sound Opinions, Reiner recalled previewing the movie in Dallas: “People came up to me after the screening and said, ‘I don’t understand why you would make a movie about a band that nobody’s ever heard of, and one that’s so bad.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a satire.'”
- The Producers(1967)
Written by Mel Brooks
“Where did I go right?” cries Max Bialystock, when his Hitler musical leaves them roaring. Mel Brooks won an Oscar and a Writers Guild Award for Original Screenplay. On the DVD re-release in 2008, Brooks said the Bialystock character was based on a producer Brooks worked for when he was 16. This producer also raised money for his shows by sleeping with elderly women who cut checks payable to plays titled “Cash.” Years later, Brooks thought of doing The Producers as a book (too much dialogue, not enough narrative), and then a play (too many scenes, too many sets), before arriving at a movie. In its early stages, the script was called Springtime for Hitler “We got close at Universal, because they said, ‘Hitler is too strong, too menacing, how about Springtime for Mussolini, we’ll do that,'” Brooks recalled. He subsequently found his own producer in Joseph E. Levine.
- The Big Lebowski(1998)
Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Similar to other films on this list – Duck Soup, Office Space, and Harold and Maude – The Big Lebowski was not embraced as a classic when it hit theaters, its genius was rediscovered on home video, almost as if it had originally been censored by the authorities. Wisely, the Coen brothers have not rushed in to goad over or even much claim ownership of the idol worship. The story’s anti-hero is a counter-culture relic (“The Dude”) and his bowling league teammate Walter Sobchak, a Vietnam vet for whom the war is still raging. They get swept into a Philip Marlowe noir, but set during the Gulf War, and narrated by a cowboy out of the Old West – an omniscient presence who introduces the action of the story thusly: “Sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talking about the Dude here, sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place.”
Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
“I thought to marry the old ’30s ghost comedies with the real vernacular, and the technical language of real ghost hunting, like Hans Holzer’s work, and [William G. Roll], and the Maimonides Dream Lab,” Dan Aykroyd told Howard Stern recently. Ghostbusters, co-written with co-star Harold Ramis, became the most talked-about film of 1984, grossing into the hundreds of millions of dollars. That blockbuster success, not to mention the heavy Canadian influence (via Ramis and director Ivan Reitman), coupled with the heavy Saturday Night Live influence (via Aykroyd and Bill Murray), gave Ghostbusters the panache of a generational takeover – big-budget sci-fi horror tamed by a post-modern sort of deadpan humor. “It really is a perfect comedy,” Judd Apatow told Vanity Fair “It was all those people at the height of their powers; they had mastered their craft . . . [and] made the [film] we dreamed they’d make.”
- When Harry Met Sallyâ€¦(1989)
Written by Nora Ephron
The premise, Nora Ephron told Written By, felt believable and bigger than itself as soon as director Rob Reiner described it to her: A man and a woman, both coming out of relationships, meet. They decide not to have sex because it will ruin the friendship. Then they have sex, which kills the friendship. But When Harry Met Sally, Ephron emphasized, is not about whether or not friends can have sex, but rather an exploration of the different worldviews of men and women. “In the taxi going home from the meeting,” Ephron recalled of her discussion with Reiner, “I knew that it started a few years before it actually started, that it was a couple who kept bumping into each other and not particularly liking each other. Way before I started working on it, I had ideas about it.” The film’s most beloved line: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
Wait, so women can actually be funny and make a blockbuster comedy? That was the news flash after Bridesmaids stormed the box office. Co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who had met as writer-performers in the Los Angeles improv company The Groundlings, approached their first draft as a sort of super-sized sketch. “Sketches at the Groundlings are about six pages long,” Mumolo told the Los Angeles Times. “So in the very first draft, Kristen said, ‘OK, let’s think of it as 20 sketches, so we don’t get overwhelmed.” Wiig told The New York Times Magazine that it was producer Judd Apatow and director Paul Feig who wanted to include the infamous food poisoning/bridal fitting sequence, giving her right of refusal. “We wrote the script, and we didn’t really have anything in that tone, and it seemed to be such a big statement.” On its feet, the scene scored.
- Duck Soup(1933)
Story by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Additional Dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin
Duck Soup is the film that Harold Bloom called one of the great works of art of the past century,” noted critic Dana Stevens in The New York Times. “It’s one of the movies T. S. Eliot wanted to discuss when he met with Groucho in 1964, and the one that inspired Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters not to go home and shoot himself,” Stevens added. Mussolini banned Duck Soup, though any similarities between Italy’s most famous fascist and Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly were purely coincidental. Woody Allen once called Duck Soup “probably the best talking comedy ever made.” Broadway composers Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar wrote the screenplay and musical numbers (“Hail, Hail Freedonia!”) and Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman got credit for additional dialogue. With Chico and Harpo as the spies Chicolini and Pinky, and the sublime Margaret Dumont as the doyenne Mrs. Treasdale.
- There’s Something About Mary(1998)
Screenplay by John J. Strauss & Ed Decter and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly, Story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss
Something about this box office hit (penis caught in zipper and/or semen ending up as hair gel?) put it in the crosshairs of a cultural argument about “gross-out comedy” and a pushback against political correctness. It’s worth noting that There’s Something About Mary was released during the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, where semen mattered. Meanwhile, as The Economist noted at the time, “comedy has always found its subject matter in transgression, and political correctness has simply moved the boundaries. Now that there is, or so it seems, more you are supposed not to say or do or see, there is more to laugh about when someone pushes the limits.” For all its should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-be-laughing-at-this moments, the Farrelly Brothers, working from a story by Ed Decter and John Strauss, make room for themes of love and redemption, of surmounting life’s most horrifying moments, some of which can take place on prom night.
- The Jerk(1979)
Screenplay by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, Michael Elias, Story by Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb
“I had an idea for a film,” Steve Martin writes in his memoir, Born Standing Up. “It came from a line in my act: ‘It wasn’t always easy for me. I was born a poor black child.'” In trying to place himself in the wider world, the rube Navin R. Johnson considers getting listed in the phonebook a major breakthrough. Martin was entering his “Wild and Crazy Guy” mega-stardom when he teamed with director Carl Reiner to make The Jerk, a title Martin favored for the way it implied an epic tale, a la Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. With “writer friend” Michael Elias and Carl Gottlieb, who had written with Martin on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and directed him in a short film called The Absent-minded Waiter, Martin fashioned a screenplay that fit seamlessly with his high-flown surrealist and unremittingly silly duality, not to mention his talent for physical comedy.
- A Fish Called Wanda(1988)
Screenplay by John Cleese, Story by John Cleese & Charles Crichton
A lively jewel heist farce, involving two American grifters, one of whom consumes goldfish, a British gangster, his stuttering subordinate, and Cleese himself as a seduced barrister. The script, Oscar- and Writers Guild Award-nominated, was a collaboration between Cleese and director Charles Crichton, whom Cleese had met when Crichton directed humorous training videos for Cleese’s company, Video Arts. “Faced with considerable industry opposition to his choice,” The New York Timesnoted in its 1999 obituary of Crichton, “Mr. Cleese used both his reputation and personal wealth [Video Arts had made him a millionaire] to overcome doubts about Mr. Crichton’s stamina, health and unfamiliarity with changes in the world of feature films.” Crichton was a veteran of Britain’s so-called “Ealing Comedies,” named for London’s famed Ealing Studios, where Crichton had directed films including 1951’s The Lavender Hills Mob, starring Sir Alec Guinness, and which, like Wanda, centered on a London robbery.
- His Girl Friday(1940)
Screenplay by Charles Lederer, Based on the Play The Front Page by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur
Of the rapid-fire, overlapping banter between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, Howard Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich: “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or are describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of the sentences unnecessary.” Many consider His Girl Friday the best newspaper movie of all time. Screenwriter Charles Lederer’s credits include Oceans 11 and the big screen adaptation of The Front Page. His Girl Friday was another remake of that famed play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Hawks told Bodganovich that Hecht remained un-credited on the script “because Ben was in trouble at the time – he’d insulted all of England. During the crisis in Israel he said that he felt happy every time a British soldier was killed – something like that.”
- The Princess Bride(1987)
Screenplay by William Goldman, Based on Goldman’s Novel of the Same Name
“I don’t like my writing,” William Goldman said in an interview with The Writers Guild Foundation. “I’ve only liked two things I’ve ever written – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Princess Bride.” Goldman adapted his own book to the screen, having written the novel under the name S. Morgenstern. The pseudonym was not incidental “I was going to California, my kids were little,” Goldman recalled. “I said, ‘I’m gonna be gone, I’ll write you a story, what do you want it to be about? One of them said, ‘Princesses,’ one of them said, ‘Brides.’ I said, ‘That’ll be the title.'” Back in New York, Goldman found himself with scenes but unable to see the novel as a whole. Then he hit upon the “notion that I didn’t write it, it was written by this other figure named Morgenstern.” From there, Goldman said, the story “opened up for me.”
- Raising Arizona(1987)
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Joel and Ethan Coens’ second film marked a shift from “the mundane, economical dialogue of Blood Simple” to “the kind of eccentric, ‘high hick’ diction that will become a Coens’ staple,” wrote Christopher Orr inThe Atlantic. Raising Arizona not only affirmed the brothers’ predilection for true crime, it signaled they could handle it with slapstick and dry humor. It’s the story of an ex-con named Hi (Nicolas Cage) and an ex-cop named Edwina (Holly Hunter) who marry and then kidnap an infant – one of five quintuplets born to a furniture magnate. The movie is a thrill ride of visual humor, with yodeling. In an interview upon the film’s release, Ethan Coen neatly summed up the dilemma for his main character: Hi has to choose between “the unquenchable desire to hold up convenience stores on the one hand and the desire to settle into family life on the other hand.”
- Bringing Up Baby(1938)
Screenplay by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols, Story by Hagar Wilde
In 1989, The New York Times ran part of a speech given by Budd Schulberg at the Deauville film festival, in which Schulberg compared the “auteur theory” of directing to “that of a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up all the contributions of the writers.” The publication of Schulberg’s comments prompted a letter from the writer and Radcliffe professor Hope Hale Davis about her friend Hagar Wilde, and Bringing Up Baby. “Only the imagination of Hagar Wilde could have produced that hunt through a Connecticut night in pursuit of an escaped leopard named Baby,” Davis wrote of the screenplay, which Wilde and Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) adapted from Wilde’s short story. “At the time she died in poverty at the Motion Picture Country Home,” Davis continued, “her film was being enjoyed by millions on late-night television. None of these showings added a penny to the $22,500 she once received for the rights.”
Written by Brian Doyle-Murray & Harold Ramis & Douglas Kenney
The movie is lionized for Bill Murray’s “Cinderella story” speech (improvised, apparently), for Rodney Dangerfield’s golf pants, for Chevy Chase’s ad hoc wisdom (“…be the ball…”), and for its raucous send-up of country club WASP culture. Harold Ramis made his directorial debut, authoring the screenplay with Brian Doyle-Murray and Doug Kenney. Kenney, an alumnus of The Harvard Lampoon and co-founder of The National Lampoon, died shortly after Caddyshack hit theaters, falling from a cliff in Hawaii. Kenney’s name was on two screenplays – Animal House, in which he had also played the Delta House character Stork, andCaddyshack. “At his funeral in Connecticut, four hundred people showed up. They included some of the biggest names in comedy, the new wave, the new movement he had helped to create,” wrote Robert Sam Anson, in a 1981 Esquire magazine profile of Kenney, titled, “The Life and Death of a Comic Genius.”
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian(1979)
Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
The story of Jesus as told via a Jew named Brian Cohen, born one manger over from the Messiah Himself. The Pythons’ satire made them a target for critics not pleased that they were having a laugh with such sacred events as the Sermon on the Mount (“C’mon, let’s go to a stoning,” says Brian’s bored mother) and The Crucifixion (an occasion for singing “Always look on the bright side of life”). In 2008, John Cleese told TV Guide that Life of Brian is the best film the Pythons made. “The humor comes from the way people follow religious leaders,” Cleese said. “So we were actually making fun of a lot of people who call themselves Christians whom Christ probably wouldn’t have recognized as Christians because they’ve missed the point of his teachings.”
- The Graduate(1967)
Screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, Based on the Novel by Charles Webb
“I always thought The Graduate was the best pitch I ever heard: this kid graduates college, has an affair with his parents’ best friend, and then falls in love with the friend’s daughter. Give that to 20 writers and you’ve got 20 scripts,” Buck Henry told Vanity Fair in 2008. Henry was a writer on the TV series Get Smart when he was brought onto The Graduate. Calder Willingham had done a draft of the novel by Charles Webb. Though not Jewish, the main character Benjamin Braddock became all the more so with the auditioning of a young Dustin Hoffman in the lead (Maybe he’s Jewish inside,” Hoffman said Nichols suggested of Ben). The way Hoffman embodied the character, Nichols said, helped crystallize his dark comedy of youthful ennui and otherness in sun-kissed Southern California. It was Henry who came up with the script’s most enduring word: “Plastics.”
- The Apartment(1960)
Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond collaborated on 11 screenplays. The Apartment won them an Oscar and a Writers Guild Award. In an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation, Wilder recalled a five-page outline initially inspired by the David Lean film Brief Encounter, in which the leading man uses a friend’s apartment for an affair. “But what about the man who has to crawl back into his warm bed? What happens to him?” Wilder wondered. Insurance man C.C. Baxter starts loaning out his key to adulterous co-workers and falls into the good graces of the boss, Mr. Sheldrake, who is using Baxter’s place to romance the office elevator girl – the same woman Baxter has fallen for. “The theme was right there,” Wilder said. “A schnook desperately wants a career – the American sickness, higher, higher, better, better, better. Ultimately when he makes it, that’s when he doesn’t want it anymore.”
- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan(2006)
Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, Story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips, Based on a Character Created by Sacha Baron Cohen
Sacha Baron Cohen took his wrong-headed Kazakhstani rube-reporter Borat on the road through “the U.S., and A,” with stops in the Deep South. Cohen’s nerve-wracking, high-wire act is to perform a kind of guerilla comedy, with unsuspecting scene partners, toward penetrating attitudes on race, country and, well, how to handle a dinner guest who returns from the bathroom holding his feces in a bag. Cohen’s uncanny performance itself feels like the text, though the film was heavily scripted. “It’s an incredibly difficult and unique skill, the actual writing of it,” Dan Mazer told Written By. “People think you go out there and just improvise. But all our jokes are tightly honed and tightly written, and Sacha delivers them brilliantly and also improvises around the situation.” Mazer, Peter Baynham, and Anthony Hines had all written with Cohen on his sketch series Da Ali G Show, where Borat was born.
- The Hangover(2009)
Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Among the highest-grossing comedies of all time, the spec script by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore was called What Happens in Vegas. Their twist on a bachelor party comedy was not to show the party. “These movies didn’t translate well onscreen,” Moore told Variety. “So we skipped the whole bachelor party and went with the idea of amnesia.” And so, three groomsmen, like idiot detectives, are forced to reconstruct the debauched activities of the night prior by way of finding their missing friend, who happens to be the groom. Reviewing the film on salon.com, Stephanie Zacharek noted that while The Hangover doesn’t have the genius and “featherweight-knockout touch” of a Preston Sturges film, “it does work on a principle that Sturges loved: It builds in us an increasingly squirrelly sense of anxiety, a mounting certainty that none of this is going to turn out OK.”
- The 40-Year-Old Virgin(2005)
Written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carell
Inherent in the title is a twist on the well-trod turf of teen films – the quest for first-time sex. But what if the teen is 40? No stranger to using the love act as a vehicle for comic mortification, Apatow this time has a grounding protagonist in the sweet and earnest Andy Stitzer (Steve Carrell). While Andy sees sex as a means to tying up a loose end (the end being manhood), he’s really groping for intimacy. Apatow and Carrell, who co-wrote the script, juxtapose Andy’s honest yearning against a pack of sexually experienced male advisors who serve as the film’s Greek chorus of arrested development and raunch. Apatow told the Los Angeles Times that Carrell pitched the idea for the character while they were making Anchorman. The script for 40-Year-old Virgin was nominated for a Writers Guild Award. It also helped launch an ongoing run of “bromances” at the multiplex.
- The Lady Eve(1941)
Screenplay by Preston Sturges, Story by Monckton Hoffe
“The secret of Mr. Sturges’s distinctive style is yet to be analyzed,” The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote when this film came out in 1941. “But mainly it is composed of exceedingly well-turned dialogue, a perfect sense for the ridiculous in the most mundane and simple encounters, and generous but always precise touches of downright slapstick.” The romance between a con artist (Barbara Stanwyck) and a klutzy young scientist and scion to a brewing fortune (Henry Fonda) plays out on two stages – a cruise ship and a Connecticut mansion. Even today, one is hard-pressed to find comic roles this juicy for women, and Stanwyck gives a stupendous performance, keeping our sympathy as she dances circles around her besotted prey. More than a romantic comedy, The Lady Eve is a commentary on the very role that role-playing can have in matters of love.
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off(1986) – TIE
Written by John Hughes
In placing the comedy on its National Film Registry, the Library of Congress called Ferris Beuller “one of film’s greatest and most fully realized teen heroes.” For writer-director John Hughes, Ferris Bueller (coming hard upon the releases of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club) solidified his place as a mastermind of the comedic coming-of-age story, particularly as it played out in American suburbia. The influence of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with its snarky protagonist narrating straight to the camera, can still be detected in the winds of mainstream comedy. If there’s something bullying about Ferris’ confidence, his ongoing commentary feels less like exposition than an anti-hero’s manifesto, his declaration of independence from all the dumb, unilateral rules that govern his decision to play hooky from school and see what pleasures the wider world has to offer.
- Trading Places(1983) – TIE
Written by Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod
The screenplay by the team of Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod “rediscovers and brings up to date a kind of social awareness that was so important to such comedies of the ’30s and ’40s as My Man Godfrey andSullivan’s Travels,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times. The industrialist Duke brothers decide to settle a nature v. nurture debate by callously ruining the life of an entitled young financier and, just as cynically, improving the lot of a black street hustler. Revisiting the film on its 20th anniversary for businessinsider.com, Harris called Trading Places “a satire on greed and social conventions” with a happy ending. “It was probably just on the cusp of it becoming incredibly trendy to be absolutely rich,” he said. “The dream is achieved because these two guys, a black guy and white guy, both got filthy rich.”
- Sullivan’s Travels(1941)
Written by Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges’s self-reflexive 1941 masterpiece of a Hollywood satire is, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker points out, “two movies in one. The comedy that it’s framed as, and the earnest, indeed grim drama, that the story, and for that matter ultimately Sullivan himself, repudiate.” John L. Sullivan is a rich and powerful Hollywood director, but he wants to leave his frivolous comedies behind and make a film of social realist import. For research, he becomes a dilettante of Depression-era poverty, disguised as a hobo. At first, he only meets an unemployed actress (Veronica Lake) but soon finds actual hardship. The title of the film Sullivan plans to make, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, was used by the Coen Brothers for their 2000 comedy. The influence of Sullivan’s Travels goes beyond that, however; its story echoes in comedies from Trading Places to 2008’s Tropic Thunder.
- Planes, Trains and Automobiles(1987)
Written by John Hughes
An enduring John Hughes holiday film, constructed around the perils of travel at the crowded Thanksgiving holiday. Beneath this, Hughes made room for a great straight man v. clown dynamic in the pairing of confident ad executive Neal (Steve Martin, playing it straight) and a homespun and overweight shower curtain salesman Del (John Candy). Candy’s work here is heartrending. If the story takes Del to the edge of caricature, Candy and the dialogue always bring it back, and the movie’s ultimate reveal – in which the audience and Neal discover that Del doesn’t have a home to go to at the holiday – leaves a lump in the throat. “The buried story engine of Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility (devices a lesser film might have employed), but empathy,” wrote Roger Ebert. “It is about understanding how the other guy feels.”
- The Philadelphia Story(1940)
Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, Based on the Play by Philip Barry
Like his Algonquin Round Table co-horts Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman and Robert Benchley, Donald Ogden Stewart, a humorist and essayist, went west to work in pictures. “The Algonquinites hated Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good at it,” wrote New York Times film critic Caryn James. And so Stewart gave to the screwball romantic comedy canon The Philadelphia Story, based on the Broadway play by Phillip Barry, and featuring Katharine Hepburn in a career-reversing role as socialite Tracy Lord. The film was one of numerous collaborations between Stewart, who won the Oscar for writing, and the director George Cukor. A victim of the Blacklist, Stewart left Hollywood in the 1950s and retired to England.
- A Night at the Opera(1935)
Screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
When the film came out, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind had already written the musicals The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, both Marx Brothers Broadway shows. “Morrie Ryskind and I learned a great lesson in the writing of stage comedy. We learned it from the Marx Brothers,” Kaufman said in a 1939 address at Yale, as quoted on the Library of America blog. “We learned that when an audience does not laugh at a line at which they’re supposed to laugh, then the thing to do was to take out that line and get a funnier line. So help me, we didn’t know that before.” Filled with the brothers’ trademark banter, A Night at the Opera featured Groucho as business manager Otis B. Driftwood, and Chico and Harpo as stowaways on a ship bound from Italy to New York (see over-crowded stateroom scene and/or the verbal interplay between Groucho and Chico as they go over the details of a singer’s contract).
Written by Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
Wes Anderson’s characters aren’t strange so much as lit from within by their idiosyncratic behaviors. Max (Jason Schwartzmann) is a 15-year-old outsider at a rich kids’ prep school, a self-starter with droll interests (he is, among other things, president of both the Model U.N. and the Calligraphy Club). He’s also in love with a first-grade teacher, a pursuit in which a deadpan Bill Murray (a local steel tycoon, parent and school benefactor) becomes at first an ally and then a rival. DiscussingRushmore for Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection, the writer-director said of his screenwriting process: “Every movie I’ve done is this accumulation of information about these characters and who they are and what their world is, and slowly figuring out what’s going to happen to them.”
- Waiting for Guffman(1996)
Written by Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy
The “Guffman” of the title is Mort, a Broadway producer who fails to show up for the premiere of the original musical Red, White and Blaine, in small-town Blaine, Mo. Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy’s satire of community theater, and the mounting of a show from soup to nuts, is both devastatingly spot-on and heartfelt, with characters whose passion (for them, the play is really the thing) keeps the comedy of the film from devolving into ridicule. The leader is Corky St. Claire (Guest), a failed New York actor who actually believes he can stage a comeback from this small outpost of Middle America. And yet something genuine emerges: The well-executed mounting of an awful musical. As in subsequent films like Best in Show andA Mighty Wind, Guest and Levy outlined the script and trusted a company of seriously gifted comedic actors to take it from there. They did.
- The Odd Couple(1968)
Screenplay by Neil Simon, From the Play by Neil Simon as Produced on the Stage by Saint-Subber
When he conceived the play, Neil Simon thought he’d come up with “a grim, dark play about two lonely men” in Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, Simon told The Paris Review. Instead, his Broadway show, a smash hit in 1965, became a hit film in 1968, co-starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon (replacing Art Carney from the Broadway production) and again directed by Gene Saks. The Odd Couple won the Writers Guild Award for Adapted Screenplay in 1968. That the show continues to appear in new iterations speaks to the enduring comedic interplay on the page between two divorced men clashing as roommates. “Felix in The Odd Couple isn’t a watcher – or a doer,” Simon said. “He’s stuck. He’s reached a certain point in his life and developed no further. Most of my characters are people who are stuck and can’t move.”
- The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! (1988)
Written by Jerry Zucker & Jim Abrahams & David Zucker & Pat Proft, Based on the Television Series Police Squad! Created by Jim Abrahams & David Zucker & Jerry Zucker
From their first collaboration, 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, brothers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams began making trenchant, joke-heavy pop-cultural spoofs, but without polished comedians speaking the lines. Their 1980 classic Airplane! gave the writing team their seriocomic muse in the person of actor Leslie Nielsen. As the uber-deadpan and ever-bumbling Det. Frank Drebin, Neilsen went on to star both in the beloved, short-lived TV series Police Squad! and its cinematic spin-off, The Naked Gun. “We’d watch the old, late-night movies, and we’d talk back to the screen,” David Zucker told The Washington Post, describing the origins of their style of comedy. “The breakthrough we had was saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to re-create those old movies. But have actors speak lines we would have dubbed.'”
- Office Space(1999)
Written for the Screen by Mike Judge, Based on the “Milton” Animated Shorts by Mike Judge
Like The Big Lebowski, Office Space has enjoyed an after-life of appreciation that its modest release failed to predict. That’s possibly because it seemed so modest in its ambitions – a slow-burn of a comedy about the crushing, institutional tedium at a tech company on the verge of “re-organization.” Downsizing has only grown as a comedic premise since writer-director Mike Judge made his first live-action feature, which now makes Office Space seem prescient. The film grew out of a series of animated shorts Judge did for MTV about an office-drone character named Milton. In Office Space, Milton is more of a running joke and side character for a plot that revolves around a money-laundering scheme orchestrated by a data-collector Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston). If that story gives Office Space its engine, the pleasures come from Judge’s laser-like evocations of various office characters and the actors who under-play their scenes without winking.
Written by Anne Spielberg & Gary Ross
The screenplay earned Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg nominations for a Writers Guild Award and an Oscar. A 12-year-old boy makes a wish at a carnival: He wants to be all grown up. Josh Baskin wakes up the next morning in the body of a 30-year-old man, a moment of discovery played hilariously by Tom Hanks. Unable to remain at home, Josh heads to New York City, where he lands a job at a prominent toy company, and his boy-like innocence makes him a marketing genius. Among other body-switching comedies of the era, Big stood tall “by applying consistent comic logic to the jest,” wrote David Ansen in Newsweek. “Big is hilarious because this is indeed how a boy would react to being trapped in an adult body in a grown-up world.”
- National Lampoon’s Vacation(1983)
Screenplay by John Hughes
When he was still an advertising copywriter in Chicago, John Hughes published a short story in The National Lampoon called “Vacation ’58.” It was about a family driving from Gross Pointe, Mich., to Disneyland, and their misadventures along the way (“After a few miles, we drove off a cliff. It wasn’t a big cliff. It was only about four feet high. But it was enough to blow out the front tire, knock off the back bumper, break Dad’s glasses, make Aunt Edythe spit out her false teeth, spill a jug of Kool-Aid, bump Missy’s head, spread the Auto Bingo pieces all over, and make Mark do number two.”). In the story, Clark Griswold, finding Disneyland closed “for repairs and cleaning,” hunts down Walt Disney in his mansion and shoots him. Hughes adapted his story to the screen, with Harold Ramis directing. Disneyland became Walley World. No shots were fired.
- Midnight Run(1988)
Written by George Gallo
A fear of flying was the initial spark for George Gallo’s screenplay about bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) tasked with bringing a mob accountant nicknamed “The Duke” (Charles Grodin) from New York to Los Angeles. In an early scene that touches off their journey, Jack attempts to fly The Duke to L.A., but the accountant gets them kicked off the plane. A phobic flyer, Gallo himself once stopped a plane as it taxied on the runway. “It’s amazing how you can – I mean it took a lot of time, obviously – but you know, build an entire script out of that idea,” Gallo said on The Kevin Pollack Chat Show podcast. Midnight Run was to Gallo a love story between two men who have “a very similar moral code. The problem was, one is taking the other guy into prison.”
- It Happened One Night(1934)
Screenplay by Robert Riskin, Based on the Short Story by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Opposites – of class, certainly, and of temperament, ostensibly – attract in what has become one of the most important romantic comedies of all time. Claudette Colbert is an heiress fleeing her impending marriage and Clark Gable is the tough-minded newspaperman she comes across on a bus going from Florida to New York. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, who collaborated with director Frank Capra on such films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take it With You, earned on Oscar for It Happened One Night, which Riskin adapted from the short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Among its landmark achievements, said film historian Molly Haskell, was that its lead characters were allowed to behave in silly ways, in a genre where such behavior previously belonged only to supporting characters. Though released a few years before the term “screwball comedy” was coined, It Happened One Night is a progenitor of the genre.
Screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr., From the Novel by Richard Hooker
M*A*S*H “was the first major American movie in which the word ‘fuck’ was spoken,” Ring Lardner Jr. writes in his memoir I’d Hate Myself in the Morning. Lardner was a member of the Hollywood 10, and his career was derailed for decades. Consider: He won an Oscar for writing in 1942 for Woman of the Year (co-written with Michael Kanen), and then another one 28 years later, for M*A*S*H. Adapted from the novel by Richard Hooker, Lardner wrote of “struggling with a basic rule of dramaturgy. One of the things that makes a good story, I had always believed, was a character or characters changing in the course of it. In this case, in violation of the rule, the two heroes, Hawkeye and Trapper John, would be exactly the same people at the end as at the beginning.” Lardner’s agent told him to “forget the rule.”
- Harold and Maude(1971)
Written by Colin Higgins
In 1983, 12 years after its theatrical release, The New York Timesreported that Harold and Maude had at last turned a profit. This was largely due to its runaway popularity in college towns and repertory theaters, where its cult following flourished. The story of an unlikely romance between a free-spirited 80-year-old woman and a morbid 19-year-old testing out various modes of suicide, Harold and Maude, became what many comedies strive to be and few achieve: a transcendent commentary on life, not to mention death. Higgins, whose other screenplays include Foul Play, Silver Streak and Nine to Five, began Harold and Maude as his master’s thesis at UCLA film school.
- Shaun of the Dead(2004)
Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright
Simon Pegg doesn’t consider Shaun of the Dead a zombie spoof movie so much as a “zombie film that happens to be funny,” as Pegg told Kurt Anderson on the radio program Studio 360. Pegg made his debut feature with frequent collaborators Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead indeed generates its laughs less from jokes on the page than situational predicaments and character, with Pegg playing the manager of an electronics store whose mindless existence making him a bit slow to awaken to the arrival of a zombie apocalypse. Film editor Tony Zhou, in his online video series “Every Frame a Painting,” credits director and co-screenwriter Wright for his unusually keen use of editing and staging to generate visual laughs where many contemporary American comedies don’t, for instance, bother to make scene entrances and exits funny, or use sound effects to garner a laugh.
- Broadcast News(1987)
Written by James L. Brooks
You’d be hard-pressed to think of a better role written for a woman in a contemporary romantic comedy than the neurotic and driven TV producer played by Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. The character, James L. Brooks told Written By, was “written when there was that glut of feminist heroines in films. Just a glut, and I wanted to get a different kind of girl. I wanted to research who that 32-year-old woman was at that point in time and try and write her. I consciously wanted to not do that ‘femme’ character. Vying for Jane’s affections are two men representing the yin and yang of network news – Aaron (Albert Brooks) who shares Jane’s idealism about stories, and Tom (William Hurt), a handsome newcomer embodying looks over substance. The film neatly accomplishes a duality of tone, at once caustic about its world and caring about the people in it.
Written by Steven Gordon
“Suddenly, everyone loves Steve Gordon,” began a 1981 New York Magazine profile of the writer-director of Arthur. “Strangers on the street pound him on the back and congratulate him.” Before Arthur, Gordon was a successful TV writer and a not-so-successful playwright (his Broadway comedy Tough to Get Help closed after one night). Arthurearned him a Writers Guild Award for Original Comedy Screenplay and unprecedented acclaim. Two years after the film’s release, Gordon collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 44. In Arthur, Dudley Moore plays arguably the most likable drunk ever captured on film, with Sir John Gielgud as his devoted, deadpan footman. “The thing about Arthur is innocence,” Gordon told the magazine. “I started saying ‘innocent’ first day on the set, and I never stopped. Arthur is an 8-year-old child.”
- Four Weddings and a Funeral(1994)
Written by Richard Curtis
“Its influence on the British film industry, on romantic-comedy writing, on the pop charts, on funeral readings, on haircuts, was enormous,” saidThe Guardian, looking back on the film 20 years later. Four Weddings and a Funeral was a sensation in the U.S., too. How many romantic comedies are still trying to duplicate the film’s cast chemistry, its bawdiness and pathos? Richard Curtis, who took home the Writers Guild Award for Original Screenplay, gave credit to the casting of said of a then-unknown Hugh Grant: “There may be writers where the writing has a particular quality which means that it sounds pretty good with lots of actors, and you’re trying to find the best actor. Whereas I think with mine you’re looking for a tiny bit of realistic comic flair. And until you get that optimistic, humanistic performance it’s really no good at all.”
- Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy(2004) – TIE
Written by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay met at SNL; their first feature together had Ferrell as a chauvinist pig of a 1970s San Diego news anchor and bloviator extraordinaire. To call the film a parody of local news fails to capture how far out the comedy goes, as when rival news teams square off in a five-way brawl. In Mike Sacks’ book Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, McKay addressed the influence of the Chicago improv guru Del Close on his comedy choices. “He had two key tenants: one was to always go to your third thought,” McKay said of Close. “When you’re onstage, your first thought is knee-jerk. Your second thought is usually okay, but not great. Del would make you stay in a scene until you found your third thought, which was a little above and beyond what most other teachers would suggest.”
- Dumb and Dumber(1994) – TIE
Written by Peter Farrelly & Bennett Yellin & Bob Farrelly
“We went nine years in Hollywood without getting a movie made,” Peter Farrelly told Newsweek. “But we had a good attitude.” The drought ended with Dumb and Dumber, an unlikely hit in which Jim Carrey, a hot comedic star, and Jeff Daniels, heretofore seen in dramatic roles, half-resurrected The Three Stooges as two surprisingly likable buffoons. If Dumb and Dumber, released in 1994, didn’t alone give rise to the gross-out comedy invasion, it performed some key reconnaissance. “Whether engaged in pranks, or putting the make on women, or stumbling through attempts to finesse, Dumb and Dumber‘s two lovable losers blow the lid off pretensions and go on a kind of idiot ride with such amazing dexterity and often bold caprice that the film becomes a surprising satire of American culture,” wrote Peter Stack in the San Francisco Chronicle.
- Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery(1997)
Written by Mike Myers
Coming off of the success of Wayne’s World, Mike Myers conjured himself as a thawed-out relic of London’s swinging ’60s era, as well as a spy in the 007 mold. Myers told The Toronto Star that the idea for Austin Powers sparked in the car, when “The Look of Love” by Burt Bacharach came on the radio, and he found himself thinking about “the whole Hugh Hefner swinger thing…Just that whole jet set, Twiggy, Carnaby Street thing.” But if Austin’s archaic lingo (“shagadelic”, “smashing, baby!” et al) and lack of dentistry was one half of the comedy, the other was his take-off on a Bond villain in the bald personage of Dr. Evil. The movie’s free-wheeling spirit belied Myers’ own carefully planned writing process. “Mike Myers is incredibly methodical, with index cards and everything locked like a military campaign,” producer Michael De Luca recalled to The Hollywood Reporter.
- The General(1926)
Screenplay by Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Based on the Book The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
Buster Keaton’s remarkable film was shot on location in Oregon aboard moving trains, with chase scenes that build dramatically as much as comedically (and include what was purportedly the most expensive scene ever filmed, a train plunging from a burning bridge). Keaton’s Johnnie Gray is a train conductor and would-be Confederate soldier denied enlistment. But when Union soldiers steal the engine of General line, Keaton comes to the rescue of both the Southern cause and the damsel in distress. The General showcases Keaton as a performer, in a film grounded in comic realism. “In Keaton’s hands, the train is nothing more than a gigantic prop, an incessant inspiration to his inventive genius,” Gary Giddins wrote on slate.com. “Many passages are so suspenseful and minutely worked out that the gag, when it comes, is like the release of the General’s steam. It gives you a chance to breathe again.”
- What’s Up, Doc?(1972)
Screenplay by Buck Henry and David Newman & Robert Benton, Story by Peter Bogdanovich
This screwball comedy seemed an unlikely follow-up for both director Peter Bogdanovich, coming out of The Last Picture Show, and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, who had earned a three-picture deal at Warner Bros. thanks to the success of their script forBonnie and Clyde. Their co-screenwriter, Buck Henry, already had The Graduate and Catch-22 to his credit. Bogdanovich acknowledged What’s Up, Doc? was an ode to Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby. Barbra Streisand was the film’s infectiously free spirit, invading the life of Ryan O’Neal, playing a straight-laced musicologist attending an academic conference. While much of the film is a love story, there are memorably madcap chase scenes on the city’s rollercoaster streets. What’s Up, Doc? came out during a revolutionary period in Hollywood, the 1970s, but Bogdanovich “borrowed genres and tones from the past because that past seemed, to him, neither dead nor past,” wrote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody.
- Wedding Crashers(2005)
Written by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher
Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are a pair of rapscallion divorce lawyers who crash weddings for sex, until they meet their match at the blue-blooded nuptials for a daughter of the U.S. Treasury Secretary. The film has something of a sweet, romantic comedy structure – the will-they-or-won’t-they pas de deux between Wilson and Rachel McAdams – but co-screenwriters Steve Faber and Bob Fisher meant to shake up that genre with a ribald script that harkened back to their influences, including the unapologetic, R-rated raucousness of Animal House. “Comedy needed to be defibrillated after 9/11,” Faber told Elvis Mitchell on the public radio program The Treatment. But Wedding Crashers had more up its sleeve than a men-behaving badly conceit. Our scam-artist heroes, like countless comedy teams before them, are goofballs in disguise, and behind enemy lines, infiltrating a powerful political family full of repellant characters.
Written by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman
Cryogenically frozen after expiring during routine surgery sometime in the 1970s, Woody Allen awakens 200 years into a future where fruits and vegetables are the size of public monuments and human sexuality is an intimacy-free zone of automated pleasure, thanks to a contraption called the Orgasmatron. Soon Miles Monroe (Allen) finds himself tapped as a “sleeper” insurgent tasked by underground radicals with overthrowing the nation’s dictator (The Leader has been kept alive, though only as a nose). Diane Keaton is his reluctant love object. Keaton to Allen: “It’s hard to believe you haven’t had sex for 200 years.” Allen to Keaton: “Two-hundred-and-four if you count my marriage.” Allen channels silent comedy titans Chaplin and Keaton (Buster, that is), going undercover as a robot servant. Interviewed after being un-frozen, he offers hilarious explanations of unknown figures and objects of the long-ago past, including Richard Nixon, Norman Mailer and the Playboy centerfold.
- Galaxy Quest(1999)
Screenplay by David Howard and Robert Gordon, Story by David Howard
The original draft of the script, by David Howard, was called Captain Starshine, which evolved, over subsequent revisions by Robert Gordon, into Galaxy Quest. The comedic premise is somewhat ingenious: The cast of a once-popular Star Trek-like show, years into their has-been fame of opening car dealerships and fan conventions, find themselves beamed up into an actual galactic battle to save a benevolent alien race. Can they summon the courage – not to mention recall the technical mumbo-jumbo – that was once just play-acting? The film came out more than a decade after William Shatner parodied Trekkie conventioneers on Saturday Night Live. But in Galaxy Quest, which blended real sci-fi with comedy, the actors find their better selves believing in their roles like never before, with help from the sci-fi geeks back on Earth.
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World(1963)
Screenplay by William and Tania Rose, Story by William and Tania Rose
The husband-and-wife team of William and Tania Rose wrote the screenplay for a film that is most-remembered for its kitchen-sink cast – Phil Silvers, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman and Spencer Tracy, to name five. They and others are on a mad, and madcap, chase to claim the buried loot of an ex-con (Jimmy Durante). Director Stanley Kramer was turning to screwball comedy after making films includingJudgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – a film for which William Rose won on Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. In the British newspaper The Independent, novelist Christopher Fowler noted of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that “Tania Rose worked with her husband to create a complex backstory to the characters, showing how their obsession with the American dream ultimately proved their undoing,” but that much of this material was cut, “until the film became one long, high-pitched, slapstick free-for-all.”
- Best in Show(2000)
Written by Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy
Having lampooned the hubris of a heavy metal band in This Is Spinal Tap and amateur thespian intimations of greatness in Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest trained his dry, satiric gaze on the Westminster Dog Show. Well, not exactly the Westminster Dog Show, but close. The film lends itself well to Guest’s pseudo-vérité and seemingly improvisational style, following five different contestants (all couples, except for Guest himself as the owner of a bloodhound) as they travel to the competition, check in at the hotel, and generally project their neuroses, hopes and dreams on this canine beauty pageant. The competition itself features Fred Willard as an over-the-top commentator. “Satires have a way of running out of steam,” critic Roger Ebert wrote of Best in Show, “but the suspense of the judging process keeps the energy high, even apart from an assist by the dog who attacks a judge.”
- Little Miss Sunshine(2006)
Written by Michael D. Arndt
A dysfunctional-family comedy in which the Hoovers of Albuquerque hit the road to take 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to a kid beauty pageant. The family unit exists on a continuum of American dreamers and non-conformists: a father who’s a motivational speaker, a brother who’s taken a vow of silence, a hedonistic grandfather, and a suicidal, Proustian-scholar uncle. Little Miss Sunshine took the Sundance Film Festival by storm and went on to become a commercial darling. Screenwriter Michael D. Arndt won the Oscar as well as the Writers Guild Award for Original Screenplay. The film, said the Los Angeles Times, “hilariously punctures the grotesque bubble of the competitive American spirit in which ‘winners’ are recognized by their rigorous ability to conform to the standards imposed by the market, and ‘losers’ include anyone who won’t bow to its mighty will.”
- South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut(1999)
Written by Trey Parker & Matt Stone & Pam Brady
“It’s Sunday morning in a quiet little, white-bread, redneck mountain town,” the denizens of South Park sing in the opening number of this cinematic spin-off of the TV series. A decade before Trey Parker and Matt Stone delivered their hilarious and highly un-PC Broadway musicalBook of Mormon, they brought their hilarious and highly un-PC South Park to the big screen with no fewer than 15 songs (co-written by Marc Shaiman, who collaborated on Book of Mormon). While casting a typically wide net of satire, the film focused on the hypocrisy of the culture toward obscenity, via a storyline involving a scatological Canadian duo named Terrance and Philip, whose influence turns the kids of South Park into prolific swearers. War on Canada – “Blame Canada” as the song goes – is declared. For Parker, Stone and Brady, it was more a war against the MPAA, and a middle finger to authority.
- Being There(1979)
Screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski, Inspired by the Novel by Jerzy Kosinski
Jerzy Kosinski’s adaptation of his novella was a Writers Guild Award winner. Peter Sellers starred as a guileless character of dubious origin who has spent his entire life in the same Manhattan townhouse, tending to a garden, his perception of the wider world consisting of the imagery and consumer messaging he has gleaned from the television. A tabula rasa in human form, the character is called Chance the Gardener, and we know little about him. The highly allegorical story turns when Chance is cast out into the world, and the world takes him for a sage, named Chauncey Gardner. Out of his cocoon, he quickly climbs the rungs of status, as people make projections instead of trying to see him. “It is Kosinski’s point, of course, that this hollow man is the man most likely to succeed,” David Ansen wrote in Newsweek.
- Back to the Future(1985)
Written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
The script that launched a time-travel franchise (if not an entire sub-genre) might never have been made: Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ script was rejected over 40 times, Gale told Empire magazine. The germ of the idea, Gale said, came on a visit home to Missouri, when he was thumbing through his father’s high school yearbook, saw that he was class president, and wondered, “If I had gone to high school with my dad, would I have been friends with him?” Zemeckis, in the same interview, said of the script: “It was a very, very painful and elaborate screenplay to write. Bob and I were adamant about making it extremely tight and setting everything up and tying up all the loose ends – where the science within the suspension of disbelief all made sense. You can travel through time but not through space. A lot of time-travel stories violate that concept.”
Written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg
Writing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg got a head start on their script, when they were 13. Rogen and Goldberg were writing what they knew – the story of two high school best friends who really, really, really want to lose their virginity before college but are ill-equipped to enact the rite of passage. When Rogen left Canada to be in the TV seriesFreaks and Geeks, created by Judd Apatow, he and Goldberg rewrote the script on the phone. Meanwhile, Rogen, over the years, became part of Apatow’s circle. The result, in 2007, was a cocktail of raunch, irony and heart, as Seth and Evan (and a nerd friend with a highly memorable fake ID that dubs him McLovin) attempt to infiltrate manhood over one night of senior year. The movie was directed by Apatow, coming off The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Written by Woody Allen, Mickey Rose
Part of the “early Woody Allen” canon and the filmmaker’s second collaboration with Mickey Rose after Take the Money and the Run. This time Allen played the hapless and sex-starved Fielding Mellish, a New York Jew who joins a band of revolutionaries to impress his leftist girlfriend; naturally, Fielding becomes a Che Guevara-like leader. The script began life as a short story Allen wrote called “El Weirdo,” which, the lore goes, New Yorker magazine William Shawn rejected because it lampooned Guevara. “Any movie that attempts to mix together love, Cuban revolution, the C.I.A., Jewish mothers, J. Edgar Hoover and a few other odds and ends (including a sequence in which someone orders 1,000 grilled cheese sandwiches) is bound to be a little weird – and most welcome,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times. Howard Cosell also appears, doing a bedside interview on Fielding’s wedding night.
Written by John Patrick Shanley
Playwright John Patrick Shanley burst onto the Hollywood scene with his first screenplay, winning an Oscar and Writers Guild Award with a topsy-turvy love story between a strong-willed Bronx widow and the brutish, soulful brother of her fiancé. The comic opera about the inconvenience of true love plays out amid a gaggle of Italian family members who alternate between withering cynicism and high sentiment. Singling out the film’s sharp dialogue, Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that “what Shanley causes Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis and that whole fine cast to say sounds as if it had not been written at all but had flowed, tart but true, straight from the characters’ souls.”
Written by Amy Heckerling
Having examined high school in the San Fernando Valley (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), writer-director Amy Heckerling came over the hill and did it again, this time among Beverly Hills rich kids of the 1990s. WhileClueless traffics in a far more materialistic world than Fast Times, it proved no less a cultural touchstone. Ostensibly a story about a privileged girl who learns about herself via some match-making escapades, the film resonated largely due to its style, knowing wit and unique vocabulary, which Heckerling concocted from her own field research. The film’s most famous expression – “As if!” – became an instant part of the lexicon. If Heckerling did Clueless as a loose riff on Jane Austen’s novelEmma, she brought it to a lampoon-able world of nouveau riche excess and privilege, with a composed, slightly ditzy, and ultimately humbled protagonist named Cher Horowitz.
- The Palm Beach Story(1942)
Written by Preston Sturges
The idea for this screwball comedy, Preston Sturges says in his autobiography, “was conceived as an illustration of my theory of the aristocracy of beauty, or, as Claudette Colbert expressed it to Joel McCrae, ‘You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything…'” The plot, at once cynical about love and playful in execution, involves a married couple on the rocks over money issues. The ending is a crazy shocker: a quadruple wedding featuring Gerry (Colbert), Tom (McCrae), their respective twins and a brother-sister pair of millionaires. The New Yorker magazine’s Pauline Kael called this Sturges film “one of the giddiest and most chaotic” of his “satiric orgies,” and when Newsweekasked writer-director Gus Van Sant to list his “Five Most Important Movies,” he ranked The Palm Beach Story fourth. “It’s wild, and the epitome of Preston Sturges,” Van Sant said.
- The Pink Panther(1963)
Written by Maurice Richlin & Blake Edwards
A jewel heist plot – involving an heiress and a precious diamond, nicknamed “the pink panther” – anchored the first installment of a franchise that became synonymous with the careers of director Blake Edwards and the wonderfully bumbling antics of Peter Sellers as the French Inspector Clouseau. Sellers was an 11th-hour replacement for the actor who was supposed to play Clouseau, Peter Ustinov. “I didn’t know much about Sellers,” Edwards told the Los Angeles Times in 1993 of the re-casting days before production was to start. “He was this pudgy Englishman speaking cockney. When someone suggested him, I thought, `He doesn’t remind me of the character.’ But we were desperate, so I said, ‘Get him in, let’s do it.'” Edwards shared co-screenplay credit on the original Pink Panther with Maurice Richlin, who with his own writing partner, Stanley Shapiro, had won an Oscar for the 1959 romantic comedy Pillow Talk.
- The Blues Brothers(1980)
Written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis
Long a side passion project for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, the Blues Brothers had a hit record when the SNL stars decided to make a movie about the brothers Jake and Elwood. As recounted by Ned Zeman in Vanity Fair: Aykroyd holed up on the Universal lot to write the script, delivering a 324-page draft to producer Bob Weiss, “its contents wrapped within the cover of a phone book,” and “written in a kind of free-style verse” that included “lengthy, Aykroyd-esque explications of Catholicism, recidivism – you name it.” The result is a caper movie of sorts, with the boys always one step ahead of the law as they get the band back together to save an orphanage. They’re on a mission from God. It all spells blockbuster.
- Coming to America(1988)
Screenplay by David Sheffield & Barry W. Blaustein, Story by Eddie Murphy
For posterity, this is the first movie in which Eddie Murphy played multiple characters: a pampered African prince arriving in Queens to look for a more enlightened wife, mainly, but also several denizens of a local barbershop. Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Murphy. The trio knew each other well: At Saturday Night Live, Blaustein and Newman often wrote sketches with Murphy, and they later wrote the comedian’s Nutty Professorremakes. Speaking to the film’s legacy, Landis told The Detroit Newsthat Coming to America “was an opportunity to make a big-budget, glossy Hollywood movie starring almost all African-American actors in which their color had nothing to do with the plot.”
- Take the Money and Run(1969)
Screenplay by Woody Allen and Mickey Rose, Story by Jackson Beck
Written with his childhood friend, the comedy writer Mickey Rose (the duo would next collaborate on Bananas) Allen directed and starred as Virgil Starkwell, a criminal “wanted in six states for assault, armed robbery, and illegal possession of a wart.” The film – complete with a newsman’s voice-over narration – is a pre-mockumentary, covering the life and times of a criminal so inept his penmanship gets in the way of a bank robbery. The movie lived and died from gag to gag, and some of these are zany and inspired enough to stand the test of time. They include Virgil’s attempt to break out of prison with a gun carved from soap (it rains that night), and a flashback to the time he played the cello in a marching band. As the first film in Allen’s long oeuvre, it displays comedic sophistication and cinematic innocence.
Screenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, Based on the Novel by Tom Perrotta
Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, the script by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor won the 2000 Writers Guild Award for best adapted screenplay and earned Payne and Taylor their first Oscar nominations. Dark satire meets a campaign for student council president at a suburban high school (Payne shot the film in his native Omaha, Neb.). With the super-achiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) cruising to victory, a teacher (Matthew Broderick) decides to rig the election so she’ll lose, rationalizing to himself – and the audience – that the monster-striver must be stopped. As antagonists, Broderick’s sad-sack teacher and Witherspoon’s type-A-plus student make Election a deeper kind of high school comedy. The familiar hallways of rigidly defined cliques serve as a backdrop for a hilarious clash of wills between an adult and a teenager where the stakes keep growing.
- Love and Death(1975)
Written by Woody Allen
The last of the zany, out-and-out comedies Allen made before Annie Halltransformed the trajectory of his career. As film critic Scott Tobias wrote in slate.com, Love and Death was the climax of a decade in which Allen mastered “a sophisticated form of low comedy, mingling the silly antics of the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton with the droll intellect of his standup and New Yorker magazine contributions.” Here Allen takes his horn-rimmed persona to czarist Russia, playing Boris, a nervous peasant who pines for his cousin (Diane Keaton) and gets swept up in the Napoleonic wars. The high-brow-meets-low-brow parody includes not only the Russian master novelists (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky) but important filmmakers, with a cameo by Death himself from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Allen later said Love and Death was the funniest film he’d made up until that time.
- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels(1988) – TIE
Written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning
Screenwriter Dale Launer updated the 1964 comedy Bedtime Story, written by Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning, which co-starred David Niven and Marlon Brando as con artists on the French Riviera seducing women out of their clothes and money. “Launer reorganized the story, mostly,” director Frank Oz told The Chicago Tribune at the time of the film’s release. “The funny stuff is still mostly Henning and Shapiro’s. I made it more elegant, sophisticated, stylish. Launer’s version had more flat-out comedy.” Co-stars Steve Martin and Michael Caine were the cons, with Glenne Headly in the role originated by Shirley Jones: “I wanted some juice between the lines so the actors could have fun performing,” Oz said. “That’s what I got from Steve and Glenn and Michael. I wanted some warmth and caring.”
- Lost in America(1985) – TIE
Written by Albert Brooks & Monica Johnson
Having made two idiosyncratic films, Real Life and Modern Romance, Albert Brooks’ third comedy, co-written with Monica Johnson, was a road movie of sorts, with plenty of room for Brooks’ inimitable comic indignation to flourish. David and Linda, a yuppie couple, abruptly quit their corporate jobs, buy a Winnebago, and resolve to drop out of society, only to see their idealistic plan – and their “nest egg” – vanish when Linda (Julie Hagerty) gambles all their money away at a roulette table in Las Vegas. The screenplay was honored by the National Society of Film Critics. “The movie is so good that it needs to flower; it’s like a Sturges idea that runs dry,” The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael wrote.
Written by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman
“Few cities – Fellini’s Rome? – have ever belonged to a filmmaker as fully as New York has to Allen,” Peter Biskind wrote in Vanity Fair. Shot in black and white, Manhattan was both a love letter to a city and a companion piece of sorts to Annie Hall, pairing Allen not just with Diane Keaton again but with co-screenwriter Marshall Brickman. “Is Marshall Brickman Woody Allen’s alter ego?” The Washington Post asked in 1983. “That’s the handle I was known by,” Brickman told the paper. The two met in 1963 at The Bitter End nightclub, where Allen was doing standup and Brickman was playing the banjo in a musical group. From there Brickman began writing jokes for Allen, collaborating with him years later on Sleeper, and sharing Best Original Screenplay Oscars on both Annie Hall and Manhattan.
- Modern Times(1936)
Written by Charles Chaplin
Chaplin’s masterwork about man and machines, and the film in which he literally became caught in the gears of mechanization. Released in 1936, when Hollywood had gone the way of the talkie, Modern Times was mostly a silent, and even those characters who spoke did so through other media – a corporate boss, for instance, barking instructions to his factory workers through a closed-circuit screen. Chaplin himself is heard, but singing gibberish. There are set pieces that forever astonish for Chaplin’s physical genius, not least when he becomes a guinea pig for a newfangled invention called The Feeding Machine. Amid the Great Depression, the film – Chaplin’s last as The Tramp – was an immense success as both comedy and social commentary, at a time when many were unemployed and hungry, and hardly able to afford all that rolled off assembly lines with such blazing speed.
- My Cousin Vinny(1992)
Written by Dale Launer
A wiseguy in the Deep South is the fish-out-of-water premise, but only partly so. Vinny Gambini isn’t a gangster, he’s a lawyer who needed six tries to pass the New York bar and now has to get his college-aged cousin and friend out of a murder charge in small-town Alabama. Much of the film unfolds as a courtroom procedural, unique for a comedy, and a badge of pride for screenwriter Dale Launer. “That movie is used routinely in law schools, because the movie is actually an accurate representation of what you do in court,” Launer told the podcast “TV Confidential.” Joe Pesci is the criminal defense lawyer Vinny Gambini, Marisa Tomei his gum-chewing girlfriend (in an Oscar-winning performance) and Fred Gywnn as a Yale-educated Southern judge who schools Vinny in the ways of jurisprudence and courtroom etiquette.
- Mean Girls(2004)
Screenplay by Tina Fey, Based on the Book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman
For all the comedies that have come out of Lorne Michaels’ Saturday Night Live creative nest, Mean Girls is one of the more underrated. That might be because it wasn’t a vehicle for a Bill Murray or Mike Myers, it was the first screenplay by Tina Fey, who was then an anchor on SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment. “When I first pitched it to Lorne,” Fey toldEntertainment Weekly upon the film’s 10-year anniversary, “I was thinking I’d like to write a movie about what they call ‘relational aggression’ among girls.” A cult favorite and box-office success, Mean Girls is not quite a Pygmalion story, a la Clueless: The main character is immediately accepted into the cool clique, and then un-learns her desire to be popular. The screenplay was nominated for a WGA Award, and helped launch Fey as a writer-performer and voice to be reckoned with.
- Meet the Parents(2000)
Screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg, Story by Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke
Like many comedies, it’s about the perils of concealment – in this case during a first visit home to meet your future in-laws. Ben Stiller was in top twitchy form as the future son-in-law (with the last name of Focker, evidently Jewish), and the odd site of Robert DeNiro in a cardigan, much less a Hollywood comedy, gave the film a frisson of excitement. The blockbuster was born out of a low-budget feature written by Greg Glienna and Mary Ruth Clarke. That earlier film, also called Meet the Parents, never got national distribution, but its rights were sold to Universal, which remade it with a script by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg. Todd McCarthy, reviewing the film in Daily Variety, noted that at least one scene placed the film “explicitly in the context of the literature of the outsider Jew up against the WASP establishment.” That was good enough for sequels.
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
The main character of Fargo is as much place as person: Minnesota in depth of winter, where otherwise decent folks endure the long winter with uncomplaining aplomb and plain-speaking diction. The Coens disturb the peace with a violent, kidnapping-gone-awry story, featuring a hapless car salesman, a pregnant sheriff, and two killers whose association ends at a wood chipper. Watching the film some 20 years later, The Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr noted how little backstory the Coens’ script gives us as the plot unfolds. We don’t know why Jerry Lundegaard is in deep debt, or how the kidnappers hooked up in the first place. Joel Coen alluded to this screenwriting approach at a 2011 Lincoln Center talk titled “Where and How to Begin a Film?” “In one degree or another, in starting, you’re looking for some kind of tension between having your bearings and not having your bearings,” Coen said.
- My Favorite Year(1982)
Screenplay by Dennis Palumbo and Norman Steinberg, Story by Dennis Palumbo
Nominated for a Writers Guild Award, the script by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo is set in the backstage world of a comedy-variety series in TV’s Golden Age. A newbie writer, Benji Stone, is assigned to babysit a washed-up Hollywood star named Alan Swann, who quavers at the idea of doing live TV. My Favorite Year, which earned Peter O’Toole an Oscar for Best Actor, was said to be based on Mel Brooks’ experiences backstage with the boozing Errol Flynn, when Flynn was guest starring on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and Brooks was one of Caesar’s writers. Brooks was a producer of My Favorite Year, and Steinberg had been one of his writers on Blazing Saddles. Palumbo, Steinberg’s co-writer, has gone on to become a well-known psychotherapist for the creative community and author of the book Writing from the Inside Out.
Written by Len Blum & Dan Goldberg and Harold Ramis
Len Blum and Dan Goldberg had already teamed up with Harold Ramis to write the summer camp romp Meatballs when they created a second straight vehicle for Bill Murray, this time making him a hard-luck schnook who enlists in the Army and proceeds to wreak hilarious havoc – with his buddy Ramis – on basic training. Much of the film’s pedigree had its roots in Canada, specifically the Toronto area. Blum and Goldberg had been high school classmates in Hamilton, Ontario, and at McMaster University they met Ivan Reitman, who would direct bothMeatballs and Stripes. Ramis, a product of Chicago’s Second City, was coming out of the Canadian sketch series SCTV, where he worked alongside Stripes‘ scene-stealing co-star John Candy.
- Beverly Hills Cop(1984)
Screenplay by Daniel Petrie, Jr., Story by Danilo Bach and Daniel Petrie, Jr.
Daniel Petrie, Jr. had advanced from the mailroom at ICM to become an agent, but it wasn’t until he was fired after five years that he returned to screenwriting. His first produced effort was a studio rewrite on Beverly Hills Cop, “which was then in development hell at Paramount,” he recalled for wordplay.com. One of the most successful comedies of all-time, Beverly Hills Cop gave the budding star Eddie Murphy the most indelible role of his career. Axel Foley, a Detroit cop, invades the 90210 to search for his best friend’s killer. “I saw Beverly Hills Cop more as a comedy just because I had been a starving writer living and working in Beverly Hills,” Petrie told Esquire magazine. “It seemed like a cop from a blue-collar area would be so struck with amusement about Beverly Hills and all the pretentiousness, that some great fish-out-of-water comedy could be mined from that.”
- City Lights(1931)
Written by Charles Chaplin
Despite the advent of sound, Charlie Chaplin made this silent classic in which his Little Tramp meets and falls for a blind flower girl, for whom he goes to great lengths to find the funds to restore her sight. Among the comic set pieces Chaplin created for his character was a boxing match with a man twice his size. The film was nearly three years in the making. According to the official Chaplin Web site charliechaplin.com, the script went through many changes but from the start Chaplin wanted to make a film about blindness, and “from this he moved to the idea of a blind girl, who builds up a romanticised image of the little man who falls in love with her and makes great sacrifices to find money for her cure.” In the story, the flower girl mistakes Chaplin for a millionaire until her sight is restored in the end and she finally sees The Tramp. With Chaplin in close-up, the shot is one of the most indelible and moving endings in cinematic history.
Screenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, Based on the Novel by Rex Pickett
The screenplay, by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett, won an Oscar and Writers Guild Award. You could callSideways a road comedy – the roads here being the ones that wind through Santa Barbara wine country, as a groom and his best man indulge in Pinot Noirs, Cab Francs, and a bit too much of the local flavor. In some ways, Paul Giamatti as the sad sack Miles, a frustrated novelist, and Thomas Hayden Church as the soon-to-be-married actor-hellcat Jack, have the makings of a classic comedy team. On their adventures, Miles is a straight man and Jack is the id-exorcising clown. But Payne’s and Taylor’s comedy, particularly after their more overtly satirical Citizen Ruth and Election, has come from exploring believably wounded men reconciling what it means to be male, and the bemusing gulf between their hopes and how their lives have actually played out.
- Broadway Danny Rose(1984)
Written by Woody Allen
Allen employed a great framing device to establish the tone and plot: The movie opens on four Ed Sullivan Show-era comedians at the Carnegie Deli, reminiscing about a colorful talent manager named Danny Rose, whose acts ranged from a flock of parakeets pecking at a piano to an Italian nightclub singer with a Mob-connected girlfriend, played by Mia Farrow. The latter provides the engine for the story-within-the story. Allen was coming off of Stardust Memories and Zelig when Broadway Danny Rose was released. With its archetypal Catskills-era characters and nostalgia for a vanished era in show business (the film was shot by Gordon Willis in black and white), Broadway Danny Rose could be considered a precursor to other comedies he made during the 1980s and ’90s, including Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Bullets Over Broadway.
Written by Jon Favreau
Revisiting his impetus to write his first feature, Jon Favreau told the Web site Grantland.com that he didn’t even realize he was writing a movie. “I couldn’t wait to share it with my friends more as, like, doodles in the notebook than saying, ‘Hey, here’s my big movie.'” Favreau was a young, workaday actor in Hollywood when he turned out the screenplay forSwingers in about a week and a half, he said. The roman-a-clef has him as Mike, a young actor-comic living in a crummy apartment, new to Hollywood and heartsick for an ex-girlfriend back home. He is the voice of reason, and doom, in a gaggle of young striver-operators who affect a Rat Pack cool and mostly fail at it. They’re so money. Swingers stands as an early showcase of Vince Vaughn’s comedy chops. He plays Trey, the friend constantly bucking up Mike with hipster positivity and total BS.
- The Gold Rush(1925)
Written by Charles Chaplin
There is more than mere laughter in The Gold Rush,” said Mordaunt Hall, film critic for The New York Times, in 1925. “Masked by ludicrous situations is something of the comedian’s early life – the hungry days in London, the times when he was depressed by disappointments, the hopes, his loneliness and the adulation he felt for successful actors.” According to charliechaplin.com, Chaplin’s inspiration for The Gold Rush was twofold – “some stereoscope pictures of the 1986 Klondike gold rush,” and a book he’d read about the Donner Party, whose starving members had been forced to turn to cannibalism. Among the film’s memorable Chaplin moments are his use of two dinner rolls and two forks to create a dancing pantomime, and the sublime way he boils a boot, gutting it like a fish, before serving it for him and his starving prospecting compatriot, Big Jim.
- The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek(1944)
Written by Preston Sturges
With the country at war, the plot of this Preston Sturges screwball comedy made waves in Washington, D.C. Trudy (Betty Hutton), a nice girl from small-town Morgan’s Creek, wakes up from a drunken revelry with departing soldiers to discover she’s married one of them (she can’t remember who) and is also pregnant. Stepping into the breech is a young 4F named Norval (Eddie Bracken), who holds a candle for Trudy. Scandal and hijinks ensue. In City of Nets, his history of Hollywood, Otto Friedrich noted that Sturges resurrected Morgan’s Creek from a shelved script about “a small-town Virgin Mary who didn’t know how she’d become pregnant.” At a time when Hollywood was supposed to be churning out movies about the heroism of men in uniform, Sturges turned the patriotism formula on its ear by harvesting comedy from a different sort of take on what enlisted men leave behind.
- All About Eve(1950)
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Based on the Short Story and Radio Program “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr
“Dialogue comes easy to me,” writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz toldThe New York Times in 1950. “Organization is my problem, but once I have a beginning and an end in mind I can get going. I never worry about the middle.” With All about Eve, Mankiewicz hit upon shifting voice-over narration and a flashback structure to deliver an enduring reference point for all comedies about show business egos and the timeless art of the back-stab. Mankiewicz had started out in Hollywood working under the shadow of his older brother Herman, the screenwriter of Citizen Kane. But All about Eve, based on the radio play by Mary Orr, was Joseph’s second of two consecutive Oscars for writing and directing. Eve also gave screen comedy one of its most memorable lines, as uttered by Bette Davis at a party: “Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
- Arsenic and Old Lace(1944)
Screenplay by Julius Epstein & Philip G. Epstein, Based on the Play by Joseph Kesselring
The identical twins Julius and Philp Epstein adapted the dark farce as contract writers at Warner Bros. in the 1930s and ’40s, during which their credits also included Casablanca (with Howard Koch), The Strawberry Blonde and The Man Who Came to Dinner. With what The New York Times called “sharp, sardonic dialogue” as their forte, the Epsteins took on Joseph Kesselring’s play about two charitable elderly sisters who put lonely old men out of their misery with homemade elderberry wine. Anchoring the film’s shenanigans is Cary Grant as their flummoxed nephew Mortimer, with Frank Capra directing. “In the old days, your fate didn’t hang on one picture,” Julius Epstein told the Times of the studio contract system. “You were writing one picture. Another was in production. Another was in theaters.” After his brother’s death in 1952, Julius kept writing, to the tune of more than 50 screenplays in his career.
- The Royal Tenenbaums(2001)
Written by Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
Writer-director Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson met in a playwriting class at the University of Texas at Austin. After Bottle Rocket andRushmore, they co-wrote The Royal Tenenbaums, which really established Anderson as part-ironist and part-fantasist, with a particular interest in bespoke, period detail. Anderson has said his family of New York grandees was partly inspired by the novels of Fitzgerald, Wharton and Salinger. The charlatan dandy Royal, his estranged wife Etheline, and their three prodigies – all left marooned in unhappiness as adults – do seem to owe a debt to Salinger’s indelible Glass family. The film derives a great bit of its humor from the structure, aping a brick-length work of prose, but told in highlights (complete with the dulcet tones of Alec Baldwin’s voice-over narration). The story covers many years and sub-plots, from the 1960s onward, while the characters remain frozen in their own quirky, pseudo-contemporary epoch.
- Mrs. Doutbtfire(1993)
Screenplay by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, Based on Alias Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
Mrs. Doubtfire was Randi Mayem Singer’s first produced screenplay. “I was drawn to the idea of a divorced couple learning to put their differences aside in the interests of co-parenting. It’s an emotional, universal theme,” she said. Screenwriter Leslie Dixon had previous credits on the comedies Outrageous Fortune and Overboard. The source material was a 1986 children’s book written by Anne Fine. Fine said she named her nanny character for an Edinburgh shop owner whom she saw when she was a young mother pushing her child in a stroller. But the name Doubtfire soon became synonymous with a blockbuster title in Robin Williams’ prolific career. As inTootsie, the man in drag is a struggling actor, except this time he’s posing as a nanny to spend more time with his kids than court-ordered visitation allows. Released at Thanksgiving, Mrs. Doubtfire rocketed to the top of the box office, posting the second-biggest opening of 1993, trailing only Jurassic Park.
- Flirting with Disaster(1996)
Written by David O. Russell
Writer-director David O. Russell “finds the strong central line” where all screwball comedies begin, wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert. “The seemingly serious mission or quest.” The quest here belongs to Mel, a first-time father who decides to track down his birth parents. As Ebert notes, Mel’s search steadily accrues more and more eccentric characters, including two agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who are also lovers. If madcap anti-hero quests have long been a staple of comedy, Russell was putting his own stamp on the genre after his quieter seriocomic debut, Spanking the Monkey. “One thing I learned making those first two movies was how much dialogue in cinema is about rhythm,” Russell told the DGA Quarterly in 2014. “The rhythm has to be like in music. And not just the language – the visuals, too, every shot is rhythmic.”
- Shakespeare in Love(1998)
Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
“Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter?” Toiling away at that unfortunately titled work, Shakespeare needs a muse – his Juliet. He finds her in Lady Viola, even if young Will is just an ink-stained wretch and the lady (she really wants to act) belongs to a count. This mashup of the Bard’s reputation and best-known tragic romance earned co-screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Norman wrote the first drafts before the author ofRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead came aboard to further free the script from the formidable Shakespeare brand. “Marc had broken the ice,” Stoppard told the Los Angeles Times, “He’d invented this very charming story.” Said Norman: “Elizabethan drama reminds me of the early days of movies, a bunch of guys holding this tiger by the tail, the tiger of popular entertainment.”