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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

It is to laugh

Recently, the American Film Institute announced its list of the 100 funniest (Hollywood) movies.

Now, the word “funny” has two basic meanings. There is funny/ha-ha (as in “That Robin Williams sure is funny!”), and there is funny/strange (as in “There sure is something funny about that Michael Jackson!”).

Clearly, the movies on the AFI’s list are meant to be funny/ha-ha. But the list itself, in some ways, in just plain funny/strange.

The first thing we learn from scanning the list is that cross-dressing is humorous. Both the No. 1 and No. 2 funniest films (Some Like It Hot and Tootsie) mine chuckles from men dressing as women. Maybe this is why legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s little-known nickname was “Chuckles.”

We also learn from studying the list that 1990s was supposedly one of the least funny decades. Only five films from that decade (City Slickers, Groundhog Day, Mrs. Doubtfire, Fargo and There’s Something About Mary) made the list, tying with the 1920s for the low spot. Even stranger, the funniest decade for movies was allegedly the 1980s, a decade which has no fewer than 22 movies listed. Personally, I don’t remember the Eighties being all that funny, but I guess we were doing all of our laughing at the cinema.

But what is particularly interesting is what the AFI considers funny/ha-ha. Many of the films on the list are indeed gut-busters, e.g. Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, A Fish Called Wanda, This Is Spinal Tap, etc. These are no-brainers. A movie that makes you laugh a lot while watching it has to be considered funny. The tricky part is that not everyone laughs at the same thing, so this kind of judgment is pretty subjective.

There are also very good comedies that don’t make you laugh out loud very much or at all. Their humor comes from things other than pratfalls and gags. Some just make you feel good and smile because of some emotional satisfaction. These are movies like Big or Moonstruck or even Diner or Annie Hall. Other movies make you feel content because of some intellectual satisfaction. They parody something you love or make you think about things differently but in a pleasant way. Movies in this category might be Being There, Young Frankenstein, The Graduate or Dr. Strangelove. All of these films made the list, but you have to ask yourself: how funny are they? They may be great movies and they may put a big smile on your face. But are they all laugh riots? Not really. Okay, Young Frankenstein is pretty darn funny, but it also has stretches that can only be entertaining to a true movie buff.

And then some films on the list just plain make you scratch your head. Fargo? It has its moments, but is it really funny? Bull Durham? Broadcast News? The Apartment? Clearly, this is meant to be a list of great comedies: light, dark and otherwise. As good or great as some of these movies are, they aren’t really funny.

Just what makes a movie funny? Well, since the AFI list gave short shrift to the 1990s, I have just compiled my own personal list of the ten funniest movies of the past half-decade or so, which I will foist upon you next time. Until then, I will pass on the secret to big laughs, as revealed by my list. It is anything to do with Luchino Visconti’s 1971 classic Death in Venice and which involves people going into the wrong movie theater.

-S.L., 22 June 2000

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