Innovative comedies are rare in a copycat business. Generally, one major comedy success will create a rush to emulate the style or exploit a particular actor’s newfound marketability. Some comedies are so innovative, however, they stand alone while creating continuing years of influence. The wave of talent that came from Saturday Night Live in the 70s and 80s created an experimentation in comedy filmmaking, concurrent to the films of Mel Brooks and the Zucker Brothers using a more old-school approach to joke writing. The seeds of this type of innovative comedy filmmaking go back as far as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, which used the genre to force the adjustment of racial norms in film and television.
By the late ’70s, films like Animal House had become so popular, they were spawning a wave of films hoping to capture their appeal to younger audiences, with films as late as Old School continuing the tried and true method. A truly timeless comedy can have a pervasive influence even decades after its release.
The following are 21 comedy movies that were far ahead of their time.
21 The Jerk
The Jerk‘s influence, like that of stand-up legend Steve Martin, is as pervasive nowadays as the years immediately following its release, with everyone from Will Ferrell to Zack Galifinakis emulating Martin’s approach to idiotic characters. The entire premise of the film, which saw Steve Martin’s character growing up in a family of poor black sharecroppers, was humor not typically broached in the 1970s in America — but used such a stupendously moronic main character as to subvert the whole idea. Navin R. Johnson’s attempt to keep a beat is one of the slapstick highlights of 70s comedy, and the film brought Martin from stand-up comedy and television success to full-blown movie star, setting up Martin’s incredible run of 1980s comedies.
Innerspace was a moderately successful action comedy, but its unique approach to practical effects remains its innovative earmark. Steven Spielberg Executive Produced Innerspace, and his fingerprints are all over the movie, which foreshadowed the films of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze — directors who love the tactility of practical effects. The film caught Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan on their way up the ladder to being full-blown movie stars, and Martin Short, whose body becomes the film’s main set, gives one of his greatest slapstick performances.
19 Mystery Train
One of Jim Jarmusch’s most romantic films — and also one of his funniest — Mystery Train embodies all the magic of Jarmusch at his best. The director casts characters from all walks — indie legend Steve Buscemi, The Clash frontman Joe Strummer, Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase, and the inimitable Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as the Night Clerk. Strummer wins the movie — playing a sloppy drunk to perfection (he likely had some extra insight), and embodying all the rebelliousness of Jarmusch’s ’80s films when he blasts Rockets Redglare to kingdom come with a snub-nosed revolver. This film was so far ahead of its time, it remains without parallel — testament to the experimentation in indie films of the ’80s.
At the peak of his powers, Weird Al Yankovic was rifling off one parody video after another on MTV, bringing his polka funnyman routine to an enormous audience and selling many records in the process. His move to film was a rocky road, as his first movie UHF bombed at the box office, leaving Yankovic a gamble that studios weren’t willing to take.
Regardless, the movie is hilarious, foreshadowing talents like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim and the outlandish Eric Andre, who emulate the film’s sketch-like approach to the crazy characters running a UHF television station. The film introduced the world to Michael Richards, who later that year would beam into living rooms as Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld.
17 Top Secret
Val Kilmer, fresh out of Juilliard, made his feature film debut in the Zucker Brothers’ spy comedy Top Secret in 1983, proving to be a triple threat actor, singer and dancer in the role of Nick Rivers, a singing heartthrob-turned-spy. Kilmer excelled in the spoof, which presaged the Austin Powers franchise by over a decade in parodying the James Bond films of the ’60s and ’70s. Kilmer made a brave move passing up The Outsiders for this role, and it paid dividends, as Top Secret showcased his amazing range, only two years before his bullyish role as Iceman in Top Gun opposite Tom Cruise, who opted into The Outsiders. The two continued their decades-long friendship and reunited for Top Gun: Maverick last year, as Kilmer overcame his loss of speech to give one of the most tear-jerking scenes from either actor.
16 Trading Places
Is it possible a film could be ahead of its time and also not have aged well? That may be the case for Trading Places, which raised some interesting socio-economic ideas, albeit in a very politically incorrect manner (even for the ’80s). Still, it was prime Eddie Murphy, fresh off the success of Saturday Night Live and 48 Hours and released the same year as his incredible Delirious stand-up special. It’s the type of plot that could find its way into a Jordan Peele film today, if refashioned into less of a human experiment idea.
15 The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy
The Kids in the Hall had a nice run on MTV and Comedy Central, two ’90s Viacom properties with ties to Executive Producer Lorne Michaels. Still, the genius of their edgy sketch comedy that delved into drag, same-sex relationships and mental health, didn’t always translate well to American audiences of the time. Despite that, Michaels produced The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, which flopped miserably at the box office despite some hilarious vignettes about chemical imbalances and the drugs we use to balance them. Audiences of the mid ’90s may not have been ready to delve into those waters just yet.
14 Super Troopers
The Broken Lizard Comedy Troupe hit new ground with Super Troopers, utilizing a brilliantly moronic brand of lewd humor and the guiding performance of Bryan Cox, long before Succession brought the actor to wider acclaim. The film was a clear inspiration for many subsequent tv series, including Reno 911! and the Trailer Park Boys. The troupe’s most enduring legacy may be Jay Chandrasekhar, who has gone on to be one of television’s most prolific directors.
13 Blazing Saddles
Mel Brooks mined the no frills, forward-thinking stand-up Richard Pryor for the script for Blazing Saddles. Pryor’s drug and arrest history made casting him an impossibility, as Warner Bros wouldn’t pay to insure the actor, but Cleavon Little stepped-up admirably. Gene Wilder and Pryor would continue their partnership in other films, but Mel Brooks coaxed a performance out of Wilder here that rivaled Young Frankenstein.
Included in the National Film Registry for its cultural relevance, Network peered behind the curtain of a television network whose greed for ratings leads to a tail wagging the dog as the programming chief Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) gradually loses control of the situation when a gang of terrorists insert themselves as players in the clamor for airtime. The film was the first to discuss the dealings of corporate powers behind closed doors, becoming a heavy influence on screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who used Network‘s formula as inspiration for The West Wing and The Newsroom.
11 Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin’s 1930s films seem to become more relevant with every passing year, chief among them Modern Times, which sees The Tramp suffer from shell shock as a factory worker at the height of The Depression, getting swept into Communist protests, even ingesting cocaine in a prison scene. This was incredibly provocative material for the time, maybe only second to The Great Dictator, which saw the brilliant Chaplin mocking fascist dictators after WWII had entered it’s second, bloody year. Modern Times remains Chaplin’s most relevant to todays recession-prone economy, global fears, and struggles of the ordinary American life.
10 Galaxy Quest
Galaxy Quest was ahead of it time in tonality, lending an almost sitcom approach to a clever sci-fi idea, which saw Tim Allen essentially play a version of himself, and Sigourney Weaver play completely against type. The result was a cult classic movie, aided by perfectly crafted comedy that played to the strengths of Sam Rockwell and Enrico Colantoni as Mathesar, the leader of the Thermians. Colantoni gets the films greatest laughs, using an absurdist framework and weirdness that made its way into network tv shows in the early 2000s. The film was more influential than you might think, lending credence to the zany uber-fans featured in the documentary film Trekkies, and personified perfectly by Justin Long.
9 Animal House
The campus comedy has become so pervasive over the years, it’s hard to remember it hadn’t really been done before John Landis’ 1978 comedy, Animal House. John Belushi’s performance as Bluto has become the film’s calling card, but it was also a coalescing of talents in including Landis, who went on to direct the Thriller video and Coming to America, and writer Harold Ramis, who also went on to a top-notch career in comedy movies. It was also an important ladmark as a Saturday Night Live cast member crossed over to movie stardom, created the familiar pipeline of today.
8 Raising Arizona
Raising Arizona‘s rip-roaring pace, quick editing and high volume soundtrack set a bar for comedies in the 1980s. This was the film that elevated Nicolas Cage to full-blown movie star after some post adolescent roles in the early 80s that didn’t yet show his talent. H.I. McDunnough remains one of Cage’s greatest roles, as the Coen Brothers brought a new side out of the actor, dressing him up in pantyhose, stealing Huggies from a convenience store with maximal hilarity and physical comedy. Editor Michael Miller and the Coens borrowed a Scorsese-esque editing style to punch up the films sight gags and frenetic pace, creating a lovable slice of Americana that delighted audiences and foreshadowed the amplified cutting of comedies thereafter.
7 Take the Money and Run
Some have argued that it is, in fact, Woody Allen who created the mockumentary and not Fellini, whose The Clowns was released a year after Allen’s film. For better or worse, Take the Money and Run‘s influence on comedy movies may be wider than any other film, as mockumentary has become one of the main outlets for great comedy in the 54 years since this film’s release. That can be hard to negotiate with today’s knowledge of Allen’s transgressions, especially given the autobiographical and sometimes perverse tone of his films. Virgil Starkwell is merely an avatar that Allen used to project the hilarity of his self-depricating shtick, but the knowledge of his past makes watching these films today cringey, even if the humor was so revolutionary that it still holds influence.
Stripes saw Hollywood testing the waters of what would become the buddy cop films of later in the decade, which pitted Bill Murray and Harold Ramis together, after Murray had become a sensation a year earlier in Caddyshack. Murray plays John Winger, who after losing his girlfriend and job enlists in the Army. The film was another hit for Murray, making $85 million against a $10 Million dollar budget, and laying the groundwork for Murray and Ramis joining the Ghostbusters cast. Stripes’ success created a slipstream for 48 Hours, Spies Like Us, and Lethal Weapon all using this same basic duo premise in 80s films. Add in a hilarious turn by John Candy, and you’ve got one of the best comedies of the early ’80s.
5 Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Guy Ritchie’s first feature length film, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels saw the director using a hyper-edited style of comedy, introducing a wider audience to Jason Statham’s talents, as he was, till then, only a model. The film seemed inspired by mid 90s Quentin Tarantino films, adding footballer Vinnie Jones as Big Chris, a mob enforcer not to be trifled with. The once captain of the Welsh national football team, Jones embodied to hard-nosed London charm of the film, which benefitted from an ahead-of-its-time soundtrack of uptempo songs from Iggy Pop and The Stone Roses. Ritchie left an immediate stamp as an entertaining director, and, stylistically, his films have remained largely the same ever since.
4 Being John Malkovich
Ah, the Multiverse. No matter your feelings about the film phenomenon, it certainly got an early look in Being John Malkovich, prescient in its exploration of alternate universes, albeit all of which exist inside the mind of John Malkovich. The stories about the script of this film are the stuff of legend, as Charlie Kauffman’s manuscript got passed from studio to studio, then eventually to Francis Ford Coppola, who passed the film along to his daughter Sofia Coppola’s visionary music video director boyfriend, Spike Jonze. Selling New Line Cinema and Malkovich, himself, on the idea was an uphill climb. Still, the combination of Kauffman’s imagination and Jonze’s visuals proved too much to pass up, and the result is one of the most visionary comedies in the history of film.
3 Wet Hot American Summer
Wet Hot American Summer had an indelible influence on a whole generation of comedy, thanks to the heights its cast rose to and the influence of this type of irreverent period comedy. Built around the Stella Comedy Troupe from Brooklyn, including now-directors Michael Showalter and David Wain, the film was essentially a group of New York City comedians and improvisors going upstate to summer camp to make a film. The film became a cult hit, leading to Amy Poehler joining the SNL cast, and Elizabeth Banks’ rise to taste making director. Did we mention what it did for Paul Rudd’s comedy movie career, as he crossed over into Judd Apatow’s camp shortly thereafter. No film has had such a second life as its cast aged into superstars, paving the way for 8-episode Netflix comedy series and countless anniversary celeberations with live screenings. Not bad for a film that made $300,000 at the box office.
2 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner broke ground as the first film to depict an interracial relationship positively, casting the brilliant Sidney Poitier opposite Katherine Hepburn’s niece Kate Houghton, along with Hepburn herself. To speak to how revolutionary this film was in 1967, look no further than Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever which came 24 years later and dealt with the topic in largely similar social context. Poitier had already wedged open the door for this type of social progress by winning the Oscar for Best Actor three years earlier for Lilies of the Field.