It was only when I came to compile this list that I realised just how many of my favourite movies fall into the ‘80s comedy’ bracket. The decade was an extremely strong one for comedies with the likes of Murray, Akroyd and Martin all squarely in their pomp. There are numerous notable big hitters I ultimately had to leave out of this top ten including Trading Places, Caddyshack, When Harry Met Sally, Beetlejuice, A Fish Called Wanda, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and National Lampoon’s Vacation to name but a few. It was great to relive some true comic masterpieces though and then the ten I went with must surely rank amongst the all-time great comedy movies.
#10 Scrooged (1988)
A bona fide Christmas staple starring Bill Murray at his misanthropic best. Murray is the detestable Frank Cross, a modern day Scrooge who looks upon the world with disdain and thinks nothing of firing a man on Christmas Eve. Able comedy support comes from crotchety old John Forsythe as Frank’s mentor Lew Hayward and New York Dolls frontman David Johansen as the growling Ghost of Christmas Present. This is very much Murray’s movie however and he’s never better than when he’s being a total bastard. The early scenes before he’s begun his journey of self-discovery are definite highlights, particularly when he is berating his put-upon staff, “you’ve got a promo featuring America’s favourite old fart reading a book in front of a fireplace! Now I have to kill all of you!” Even if the end is cheesy in the extreme, it remains a festive treat nonetheless.
#9 Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Eddie Murphy is another comedy actor who I’d argue had his heyday in the 1980s. The likes of 48hrs, Trading Places and Coming to America also fall into this prolific ten year spell. His best work for me though came in Martin Brest’s Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy is at his motor-mouth best as streetwise cop Axel Foley, the Detroit cop who journeys to Beverly Hills to try and avenge his friend’s death. There’s plenty of action in the mix as well but this is very much a star vehicle for Murphy and his cocky foul-mouthed demeanour. He’s given complete free reign to be as brash as possible and it works a treat with lines like “disturbing the peace? I got thrown out of a window! What’s the fuckin’ charge for getting pushed out of a moving car, huh? Jaywalking?” He bounces off straight-laced local cops Taggart (John Ashton) and Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) perfectly and scenes like their jaunt out to a strip club allow Murphy to play on the mismatched buddy element of the story brilliantly.
#8 The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad! (1988)
I’ll hold my hands up now and say that the likes of Naked Gun and Hotshots often have me in absolute tears. It may not be the cleverest of comedy, but the slapstick and silliness gets me every time. Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebbin is a classic comedy creation, woefully inept and yet ultimately incredibly effective. The wacky and unashamedly stupid comedy is unrelenting throughout and while its hit rate isn’t quite as high as Airplane, another Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker penned comedy, it’s still a tremendous onslaught of goofy one liners, painful sight gags and childish puns. The plot is completely secondary and serves only to loosely link the gags together, but that matters not a jot when you’ve got lines like “ It’s true what they say: Cops and women don’t mix. It’s like eating a spoonful of Drano; sure, it’ll clean you out, but it’ll leave you hollow inside.”
#7 Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
A classic John Hughes movie here and one which features two stars at the peak of their powers. Steve Martin had a run of solid comedy outings in the 80s, Dead Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains, Three Amigos, Roxanne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to name a few. For me though, it’s this buddy road movie that really stands out as his finest movie of the decade. Martin’s increasingly frustrated Neal Page and John Candy’s motor mouthed eternal optimist Del Griffith are forced into a laborious journey across America in order to make it home in time for Thanksgiving. Martin is noticeably more restrained than in other movies, effectively playing the straight man to Candy’s bumbling fool. However both men share out the best comedy moments with Martin’s profanity laden rant at the hire car company equally amusing as Candy’s ill-fated late night air-trumpet boogie. For all the laughs though, that surprisingly heartfelt ending still gets me every time.
#6 Ghostbusters (1984)
This supernatural comedy undoubtedly benefits from Ivan Reitman’s creative direction and Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis’ hilarious script, but once again it’s Bill Murray’s deadpan comedy delivery that makes Ghostbusters a classic. That’s not to do the rest of the cast a disservice however, it wouldn’t have worked without them being there for Murray to bounce off, but as Peter Venkman he is just magnificently dry as hell throughout. Practically every line is solid gold but his emphatic “I don’t have to take this abuse from you, I’ve got hundreds of people dying to abuse me” always cracks me up. The film as a whole is great fun from start to finish and much like Back To The Future, it remains a joy to watch no matter how many times you go back to it.
#5 Back to the Future (1985)
Simply one of the most infinitely enjoyable movies of all time. It’s not necessarily a laugh-out loud gag filled comedy, but it’s hard not to watch without a big broad smile pretty much glued to your face. Michael J Fox is perfect as our hero Marty McFly, Christopher Lloyd suitably barmy as the Doc, Crispin Glover awkward and wet as peeping tom George McFly and Thomas F. Wilson is just plain brilliant as arch-bully Biff Tannen. The film’s ingenious plot is intricately woven and there is plenty of fun to be had with the idea of a kid going back and meeting his parents when they were his age, even if the Freudian elements remain a little eyebrow raising. Director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale mine every last bit of humour from Marty’s adventure and created a bona fide cinema classic in the process.
#4 The Blues Brothers (1980)
“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.” With that iconic line the dead-pan cool of Jake and Elwood Blues is summed up perfectly. Dan Akroyd and James Belushi star as the two blues loving brothers who are on a mission from God to save their old orphanage. It’s an unruly thrill ride that gleefully escalates the chaos as the brothers wind up being chased cross country by neo-Nazis, a vengeful country and western (both kinds) band and countless law enforcement officers. The music is of course a vital part of the film’s cult charm and any film that combines great one liners with an all-star soundtrack including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown is always going to be onto a winner. It’s over the top in some areas, and downright silly in others, but that all just adds to The Blues Bothers enduring appeal.
#3 Withnail and I (1987)
Comfortably one of the greatest British comedies ever, this cult classic is also one of the most quotable movies of all time. It’s a distinctly British movie, one which combines lines such as “I’ve got a bastard behind the eyes” with genuine pathos and an unshakeable melancholia. Bruce Robinson wrote and directed the film and his biting script was turned into movie gold by its two leads, Paul McGann and Richard E Grant. The latter especially gave a tour de force performance as the flamboyant alcoholic Withnail, a man with only the loosest grasp on reality and who thinks nothing of downing lighter fluid if it’s on offer. When the two friends get away from it all at Withnail’s Uncle’s country home, it also then allows us to meet another comedy creation for the ages, Richard Griffiths’ glorious Uncle Monty. Monty chips in with his own unforgettable lines including the disturbing classic “I mean to have you even if it must be burglary.” It may be unrelentingly dark, but it remains a wonderfully scripted comedy.
#2 Airplane! (1980)
Where do we begin with Airplane. I was tempted to just paste a list of one liners from the film, but I suppose that could be construed as lazy journalism. Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker’s Airplane is an unrelenting comedy whirlwind, a never ending barrage of hilarious lines that hit with such alarming regularity, it can often lead to some pretty serious jaw ache. The film revels in its corny and silly nature and is never afraid to go with a painfully predictable gag. The slew of spoof movies it spawned have gradually stooped so low that it only serves to remind you just how hard the genre is to get right. If it doesn’t raise a smile to your face when you hear a back and forth as excellent as: “you got a letter from headquarters this morning.” “What is it? “It’s a big building where Generals meet, but that’s not important”, then there must be something inherently wrong with you. Like Naked Gun several years later, it combined puns, sight gags and gleefully stupid jokes to unparalleled great effect.
#1 This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rob Reiner’s legendary Rockumentary chronicling the tale of British rock band Spinal Tap as they embark on an ill-fated American tour, is not just one of my favourite comedies, but one of my favourite movies period. The mostly ad-libbed dialogue courtesy of Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer is the sort of lightning in a bottle genius that years of scriptwriting will simply never reproduce. The perfect timing and manner in which all three stars riff off other so effortlessly is what gives Spinal Tap its unique appeal. The spot-on spoofing of rock and roll pretentions was so eerily close to real life that numerous rock musicians noted how much truth they found in the bizarre escapades of the group. While Withnail delivers cutting dialogue and Airplane joyously silly quips, This Is Spinal Tap manages to combine the two and be at the same time goofy and yet incredibly witty. Asked to choose my favourite lines from the movie and I’d end up with a list as long as this article, from the revelation that St Hubbins was the patron saint of quality footwear to Derek’s positioning of himself as lukewarm water, it’s none stop hit after hit. Plus, you know what they say, “as long as there’s, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll.”