The 12 Most Important ’80s Comedies
Photo: Paramount Pictures
I am nowhere near a big enough blowhard (I hope) to think that this list is definitive, as it was the hardest compilation I’ve ever…compiled. I can only sing praises to the Comedy Gods that I didn’t actually have to try and rank these important films below. But still, I made some gut-wrenching calls here; and while I understand that you may be upset about one of your favorite comedies not making this all-important list, you must know that I’m likely more upset about it. Pretty much every ’80s comedy — with their unique blend of wacky, irreverent and inappropriate humor — has molded the man you read today, so removing each and every worthy candidate from this list was excruciatingly painful.
To aid me in this difficult task, first I axed the comedies that are really more dramedies (e.g., “Tootsie”), fantasyedies (e.g., Princess Bride, Beetlejuice), adventuredies (e.g., Back to the Future, The Goonies), Christmasedies (e.g., A Christmas Story, Home Alone) or rom-comsedies (e.g., When Harry Met Sally, Say Anything).
With those gone, I focused on the comedies that go for laughs first and foremost, above all else. But in doing so, they deliver more than laughs; these important ’80s comedies offer up a collective lesson: F–k political correctness, that killer of comedy that reared its ugly head by the end of the decade. Because if we’re able to laugh at everything, then nothing’s serious enough to get too upset about.
When you honestly can’t look within yourself and come up with an answer about something, it’s usually a duality-of-life, both-sides-must-be right kind of thing. Which is basically the existential crisis that develops when you try to decipher who’s funnier in Harold Ramis’ directorial debut — Bill Murray or Chevy Chase. Although if you asked Murray, he might have said that Chase was only “medium talent,” like he did whilst fighting departed SNL cast member Chevy backstage, who had returned during season 2 to host. Obviously, they made up enough to share a cannonball or two. Perhaps Rodney Dangerfield facilitated things.
You have to include at least one film with Harold Ramis represented on-screen. Even though he undoubtedly held his own with big Bill in 1981’s “Stripes,” and that film could slide its way onto any respectable list — especially with Ramis’ fellow SCTV alum Jon Candy as that lovable, lean, mean fighting machine, Ox — Ghostbusters also reps Canada’s finest television show with the inimitable Rick Moranis, Keymaster of Gozer. It also brings two more hugely important voices of ’80s comedy into the fray: Dan Aykroyd and director Ivan Reitman. Basically, this movie is as huge as a 600-pound Twinkie.
Coming to America
48 Hrs. was Eddie Murphy’s first big-screen foray after turning himself into the featured player on Saturday Night Live. And it was unlike anything we’d seen. He wasn’t just hilarious, but heroic as well. What a concept. Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop are both some of the best comedies of all time, and set high bars for subversive slaying. But are any of those Eddie Murphy’s best? No, even though they contain gratuitous nudity. Murphy’s best has to be Coming to America because of one very important reason: the barber shop, where he played a funnier old Jew than a real old Jew. And that may not even be Eddie’s funniest role in those scenes.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Come on, you really thought John Candy wouldn’t find his way on this list? The man was huge…ly important. And we had to get Steve Martin into the fray, too. This is the two of them at arguably their finest. A lot of that comes from John Hughes, who was pretty good at bringing the best out of people, even those who weren’t in high school. Of course, this movie also gets better with age. After determining that “those aren’t pillows,” the joke about the Bears going all the way to the Super Bowl is far funnier today.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Considering John Hughes’ films could easily occupy half this elite list, you’ll have to excuse the lack of Sixteen Candles and Weird Science. The Breakfast Club is another one of those dramedies really, yet all the drama pours out cohesively in Hughes’ endearingly absurd voice, so it all sounds funny. But while Ferris indeed tackles many of the same high school know-thyself themes, it does so with more of a nod at itself as an unapologetic comedy; how else could Ferris break the fourth wall so successfully? Knowing as much, the film makes you laugh and think the entire time, in perfect balance. It importantly influenced a generation of humans to realize that life’s really quite funny if you take a moment to look around and think about it.
Holy crap, if we’re playing by my rules of whittling down film by film per important comedy player, then I have to choose between Chevy’s two leading-man masterpieces: Fletch and Vacation. And though it pains me more than exercise, I’d have to axe Vacation — which, for the record, is based on a John Hughes short story that he wrote for National Lampoon. Though Vacation may have reached a bigger audience, since we’re ultimately talking about how important things are to me, well, I’m not so sure my brother and I could actually communicate without quoting Fletch. And it’s important that we still talk. You know: family.
F*–k the rules! You can’ have a self-respecting list of the most important ’80s comedies without this film. Speaking of rules, I read somewhere that there are laws on the books about making it illegal not to watch Vacation before embarking on road trips of 1,000 miles or more.
Better Off Dead
The great Savage Steve Holland — inventor of The Whammy — probably deserves two spots on this list. But the world ain’t fair, and I’m going to hold it against him for selling out, even though I fully understand the lucrative draw of the children’s programming market. But while I do think Better Off Dead has been more universally absorbed, both it and One Crazy Summer almost single-handedly launched John Cusack into the rarified air of ’80s comedy. Cusack was the guy we all wanted to be in the ’80s. (For the record, I really just wanted to be anyone that was taller.) Holland’s kookiness jibed perfectly with Cusack’s jaded everyman, and together they created two men we should all be more like: Lane Myer and Hoops McCann. But since Lane skied and Hoops only balled, I gotta give the nod to Lane here.
Revenge of the Nerds
This one defies the norm of whittling down from other films by huge comedic troupes or stars. But perhaps Curtis Armstrong — aka Charles De Mar, aka Ack Ack Raymond, aka Booger — is the tie that binds. Thanks to Booger, and the tremendously inappropriate tone he set, “Nerds” is not just hilarious, but educational as well. Because I, and many other impressionable and horny lads like me, know a whole lot more about boobs thanks to these nerds. Sure, they illegally rigged amoral secret cameras to display those boobs — and bush, don’t forget bush — but hey, it was the ’80s. Because of such memorable boobs, the world was made safe for Bill Gates and his like, and now we have the capital “I” Internet. Now that’s an important comedy.
The Naked Gun
Here’s another of those “which of your kids do I hate more?” impossible decisions: Airplane! or The Naked Gun! Oy, how do you whittle it down? It’s like asking who’s the better athlete: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or O.J. Simpson? Here’s my reason for going with Frank Drebin and the Police Squad: Leslie Nielsen is the best part of Airplane! even though he only plays a supporting role. And he’s also the best part of The Naked Gun, which he carries — like Atlas carries our green earth.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Cameron Crowe’s screenplay is just the beginning of Amy Heckerling’s first era-defining masterpiece (her second being Look Who’s Talking, of course). As the only female represented so far, Heckerling understood, perhaps better than any man, the era’s reliance on a good soundtrack synced up perfectly to gratuitous nudity. But while obviously important, boobs really aren’t all that funny; but boy, Jeff Spicoli, Mike Damone and Mr. Vargas sure are.
9 to 5
Okay, after noting the ladies lack of representation, I think if we’re talking about the most important ’80s comedies, it makes good sense to include 9 to 5. Granted, it’s not nearly as funny as the rest of the films listed here, but this is the end of a very long list, after all.