Comedy film is a genre of film in which the main emphasis is on humour. They are designed to elicit laughter from the audience. Comedies are mostly light-hearted dramas and are made to amuse and entertain the audiences. The comedy genre humorously exaggerate situations, the way of speaking, the action and characters.
Films in this style traditionally have a happy ending (the black comedy being an exception). One of the oldest genres in film, some of the very first silent movies were comedies. Comedy, unlike other film genres, puts much more focus on individual stars, with many former stand-up comic transitioning to the film industry due to their popularity. While many comic films are lighthearted stories with no intent other than to amuse, others contain political or social commentary (such as Wag the Dog and Man of the Year).
The comedy genre can be considered the oldest film genre (and one of the most prolific and popular). Comedy was ideal for the early silent films, as it was dependent on visual action and physical humour rather than sound. Slapstick, one of the earliest forms of comedy, poked fun at physical mishap, usually in practical jokes, accidents and water soakings.
A comedy of manners film satirises the manners and affectations of a social class, often represented by stock characters. The plot of the comedy is often concerned with an illicit love affair or some other scandal. However, the plot is generally less important than its witty dialogue. This form of comedy has a long ancestry, dating back at least as far as Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare.
Slapstick was popular in the earliest silent films, since they didn't need sound to be effective, and they were popular with non-English speaking audiences. The term slapstick was taken from the wooden sticks that clowns slapped together to promote audience applause. Slapstick films involve aggressive, physical and visual action, including harmless or painless cruelty and violence, horseplay, and often vulgar sight gags. Slapstick often required exquisite timing and well-honed performance skills.
In a fish out of water-style comedy, the main character or character finds himself in an unusual environment, which drives most of the humour. Situations can be swapping gender roles, as in Tootsie (1982); an age changing role, as in Big (1988); a freedom-loving individual fitting into a structured environment, as in Police Academy (1984); a rural backwoodsman in the big city, as in "Crocodile" Dundee, and so forth. The Coen Brothers are known for using this technique in all of their films, though not always to comedic effect. Some films including people fitting the "fish-out-of-water" bill including The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man.
A parody or spoof film is a comedy that satirizes other film genres or classic films. Such films employ sarcasm, stereotyping, mockery of scenes from other films, and the obviousness of meaning in a character's actions. Examples of this form include Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), and Young Frankenstein (1974).
The anarchic comedy film uses nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness humour which often lampoons a form of authority. Films of this nature stem from a theatrical history of anarchic comedy on the stage. Well-known films of this sub-genre include Duck Soup (1933) and National Lampoon's Animal House (1978).
The black comedy film deals with normally taboo subjects, including, death, murder, sexual relations, suicide and war, in a satirical manner. Examples include Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Ladykillers (1955), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), The Loved One (1965), MASH (1970), Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), Brazil (1985), The War of the Roses (1989), Heathers (1989), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), Keeping Mum (2005), and Burn After Reading (2008).
Gross-out films are a relatively recent development, and rely heavily on vulgar, sexual or "toilet" humour. Examples include Porky's (1982), Dumb and Dumber (1994), There's Something About Mary (1998), and American Pie (1999).
The romantic comedy sub-genre typically involves the development of a relationship between a man and a woman. The stereotyped plot line follows the "boy-gets-girl", "boy-loses-girl", "boy gets girl back again" sequence. Naturally there are innumerable variants to this plot, and much of the generally light-hearted comedy lies in the social interactions and sexual tensions between the pair. Examples of this style of film include It's a Wonderful World (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Sabrina (1954), Annie Hall (1977), When Harry Met Sally... (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).
It was not uncommon for the early romantic comedy film to also be a screwball comedy film. This form of comedy film was particularly popular during the 1930s and 1940s. There is no consensus definition of this film style, and it is often loosely applied to slapstick or romantic comedy films. Typically it can include a romantic element, an interplay between people of different economic strata, quick and witty repartee, some form of role reversal, and a happy ending. Some examples of the screwball comedy are: It Happened One Night (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and more recently What's Up, Doc? (1972).
Films in this sub-genre blend comic antics and action where the film stars combine wit and one-liners with a thrilling plot and daring stunts. The genre became a specific draw in North America in the eighties when comedians such as Eddie Murphy started taking more action oriented roles such as in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop. These type of films are often buddy films, with mismatched partners such as in Midnight Run, Rush Hour, Bad Boys, and Hot Fuzz. Slapstick martial arts films became a mainstay of Hong Kong action cinema through the work of Jackie Chan among others. It may also focus on superheroes such as The Incredibles, Hancock or Kick-Ass.
Comedy horror is a type of horror film in which the usual dark themes are treated with a humorous approach. These films are either use goofy horror clichés such as in Scream, Young Frankenstein, Little Shop of Horrors, Haunted Mansion and Scary Movie where campy styles are favoured. Some are much more subtle and don't parody horror, such as An American Werewolf In London. Another style of comedy horror can also rely on over the top violence and gore such as in Dead Alive (1992), Evil Dead (1981), and Club Dread - such films are sometimes known as splatstick, a portmanteau of the words splatter and slapstick.
Fantasy comedy films are types of films that uses magic, supernatural and or mythological figures for comic purposes. Most fantasy comedy includes an element of parody, or satire, turning many of the fantasy conventions on their head such as the hero becoming a cowardly fool, the princess being a klutz. Examples of these films include Being John Malkovich, The Princess Bride, Night at the Museum, Groundhog Day, Click and Shrek.
Much like comedy-horror, black comedy, or dark comedy, is a type of comedy film that often uses cruelty as the source of humour. Most black comedies involve crime or other intense moments like average school/workplace bullying. Some examples of these films include The Cable Guy, Ruthless People and Dr. Strangelove.
Sci-fi comedy films, like most hybrid genre of comedy use the elements of science fiction films to over the top extremes and exaggerated science fiction stereotypical characters. Popular examples of these types of films include Back to the Future, Spaceballs, Ghostbusters, Evolution, Innerspace, Galaxy Quest, Mars Attacks!, and Men in Black.
Military comedy films, involve comic situations in a military setting. Examples of military comedy are The Secret War of Harry Frigg, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, Stripes, Up the Academy, MASH, Private Benjamin, Tropic Thunder, The Private War of Major Benson, and the boisterous Flagg and Quirt movies.
Comic films began to appear in significant numbers during the era of silent films, roughly 1895 to 1930. The visual humour of many of these silent films relied on slapstick and burlesque. A very early comedy short was Watering the Gardener (1895) by the Lumière brothers. In American film, the most prominent comic actors of the silent era were Charlie Chaplin (although born in England, his success was principally in the U.S.), Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In his native France and throughout the world, Max Linder was a major comic feature and might qualify as the first true film star.
A popular trend during the 1920s and afterward was comedy in the form of animated cartoons. Several popular characters of the period received the cartoon treatment. Among these were Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and Betty Boop.
Toward the end of the 1920s, the introduction of sound into movies made possible dramatic new film styles and the use of verbal humour. During the 1930s, the silent film comedy was replaced by dialogue from film comedians such as the W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who had made a number of very popular short silent films, used the arrival of sound to deepen their well-formed screen characterizations and enhance their visual humour, and went on to great success in talking films. The comedian Charlie Chaplin was one of the last silent film hold-outs, and his films during the 1930s were devoid of dialogue, although they did employ sound effects.
Screwball comedies, such as produced by Frank Capra, exhibited a pleasing, idealized climate that portrayed reassuring social values and a certain optimism about everyday life. Movies still included slapstick humour and other physical comedy, but these were now frequently supplemental to the verbal interaction. Another common comic production from the 1930s was the short subject. Hal Roach Studio specialized in this form. While Columbia was prolific, producing 190 Three Stooges releases, alone. These non-feature productions only went into decline in the 1950s when they were migrated to the television.
In the United Kingdom, film adaptations of stage farces were popular in the early 1930s, while the music hall tradition strongly influenced film comedy into the 1940s with Will Hay and George Formby among the top comedy stars of the time. In England in the late 1940s, Ealing Studios achieved popular success as well as critical acclaim with a series of films known collectively as the "Ealing comedies", from 1947 to 1957. They usually included a degree of social comment, and featured ensemble casts which often included Alec Guinness or Stanley Holloway. Among the most famous examples were Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).
With the entry of the United States into World War II, Hollywood became focused on themes related to the conflict. Comedies portrayed military themes such as service, civil defense, boot-camp and shore-leave. The war-time restrictions on travel made this a boom time for Hollywood, and nearly a quarter of the money spent on attending movies.
The post-war period was an age of reflection on the war, and the emergence of a competing medium, the television. In 1948, television began to acquire commercial momentum and by the following year there were nearly a hundred television transmitters in American cities.
By the 1950s, the television industry had become a serious competition for the movie industry. Despite the technological limitations of the TV medium at the time, more and more people chose to stay home to watch the television. The Hollywood studios at first viewed the television as a threat, and later as a commercial market. Several comic forms that had previously been a staple of movie theaters transitioned to the television. Both the short subject and the cartoon now appeared on the television rather than in the theater, and the "B" movie also found its outlet on the television.
As television became filled with family-oriented comedies, the 1950s saw a trend toward more adult social situations. Only the Walt Disney studios continued to steadily release family comedies. The release of comedy films also went into a decline during this decade. In 1947 almost one in five films had been comic in nature, but by 1954 this was down to ten percent.
The 1950s saw the decline of past comedy stars and a certain paucity of new talent in Hollywood. Among the few popular new stars during this period were Judy Holliday and the comedy team phenom of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Lewis followed the legacy of such comedians as Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but his work was not well-received by critics in the United States (in contrast to France where he proved highly popular.)
The British film industry produced a number of highly successful film series, however, including the Doctor series, the St. Trinian's films and the increasingly bawdy Carry On films. John and Roy Boulting also wrote and directed a series of successful satires, including Private's Progress (1956) and I'm All Right, Jack (1959). As in the United States, in the next decade much of this talent would move into television.
The next decade saw an increasing number of broad, star-packed comedies including It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and The Great Race (1965). By the middle of the decade, some of the 1950s generation of American comedians, such as Jerry Lewis, went into decline, while Peter Sellers found success with international audiences in his first American film The Pink Panther. The bumbling Inspector Clouseau was a character Sellers would continue to return to over the next decade.
Toward the end of the 1950s, darker humour and more serious themes had begun to emerge, including satire and social commentary. Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a satirical comedy about Cold War paranoia, while The Apartment (1960), Alfie (1966) and The Graduate (1967) featured sexual themes in a way that would have been impossible only a few years previously.
In 1970, the black comedies Catch 22 and M*A*S*H reflected the anti-war sentiment then prevalent, as well as treating the sensitive topic of suicide. M*A*S*H would be toned down and brought to television in the following decade as a long-running series.
Among the leading lights in comedy films of the next decade were Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Both wrote, directed and appeared in their movies. Brooks' style was generally slapstick and zany in nature, often parodying film styles and genres, including Universal horror films (Young Frankenstein), westerns (Blazing Saddles) and Hitchcock films (High Anxiety). Following his success on Broadway and on film with The Odd Couple playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon would also be prominent in the 1970s, with films like The Sunshine Boys and California Suite. Other notable film comedians who appeared later in the decade were Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Burt Reynolds.
Most British comedy films of the early 1970s were spin-offs of television series, including Dad's Army and On the Buses. The greatest successes, however, came with the films of the Monty Python team, including And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979.
In 1980, the gag-based comedy Airplane!, a spoof of the previous decade's disaster film series was released and paved the way for more of the same including Top Secret! (1984) and the Naked Gun films. Popular comedy stars in the 1980s included Dudley Moore, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Many had come to prominence on the American TV series Saturday Night Live, including Bill Murray, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. Eddie Murphy made a success of comedy-action films including 48 Hrs. (1982) and the Beverly Hills Cop series (1984–1993).
Also popular were the films of John Hughes such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He would later become best known for the Home Alone series of the early 1990s. The latter film helped a revival in comedies aimed at a family audience, along with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and its sequels.
One of the major developments of the 1990s was the re-emergence of the romantic comedy film, encouraged by the success of When Harry Met Sally... in 1989. Other examples included Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Clueless (1995) and You've Got Mail (1998) from the United States, and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Sliding Doors (1998) and Notting Hill (1999) from the United Kingdom. Spoofs remained popular as well, especially with the Scary Movie series and Not Another Teen Movie series.
Probably more representative of British humour were the working class comedies Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Other British comedies examined the role of the Asian community in British life, including Bhaji on the Beach (1993), East Is East (1999), Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Anita and Me (2003).
Also there were "stoner" comedies, which usually involve two guys on an adventure with random things happening to them along the way. Big movies of this sub-genre would be "The Big Lebowski", Dude, Where's My Car, Big Nothing, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and Pineapple Express. These movies usually have drug-related jokes and crude content.
Another development was the increasing use of "gross-out humour" usually aimed at a younger audience, in films like There's Something About Mary, American Pie and its sequels, and Freddy Got Fingered. In mid 2000s, the trend of "gross-out" movies is continuing, with adult-oriented comedies picking up the box office. But serious black comedies (also known as dramatic comedies or dramedies) were performing also well, such as The Weather Man, Broken Flowers and Shopgirl. In late 2006, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan blended vulgar humour with cultural satire.
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs (1924–1998, list made in 2000)
- List of British comedy films
- List of United States comedy films
- List of Indian comedy films
- Silent comedy film
- Slapstick film
- Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren, Light and Shadows: A History of Potion Pictures, 1975, Mayfield Publishing.
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