I well remember being taken to Blazing Saddles at the age of 10, when I was far too young to understand most of the jokes. At the same time, I could see how important Blazing Saddles was to my parents and their friends. They quoted from it for months – years – afterward.
As much as savoring a particular joke, I realize now, they were trying to reclaim that initial, joyful shock to the system. There’s not a film on the WGA’s 101 Funniest Screenplays that doesn’t produce such an unexpected jolt, if not a sustained quake, and for the same reasons Blazing Saddles did – by transgressing accepted norms.
One question that this list asks, however: Should a great comedy simply be gauged by the laughter it elicits? “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” George S. Kaufman famously quipped. A number of the comedies on this list went under-appreciated at the box office and by critics; years, if not decades, had to pass before the work began to receive its due. This was as true for Buster Keaton’s The General as it was nearly half a century later for Harold and Maude, and 30 years after that for Office Space.
The oldest movie on the list is Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), while the most recent is Bridesmaids, released in 2011. The latter also has the distinction of being written by two women – Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, working in slapstick, a genre historically dominated by men. Bridesmaids comes in at no. 16, immediately after When Harry Met Sally, written by the legendary Nora Ephron. Comedy screenwriting has long been a playground that women and writers of color have not had enough time in. The work of Richard Pryor on Blazing Saddles, Tina Fey on Mean Girls, Amy Heckerling on Clueless, and Hagar Wilde, co-writer of Bringing Up Baby, makes you wonder what a list would be if the playground had been more inclusive all along.
In the end, the variety of films on the list – as different as Being There is to Airplane! or Duck Soup is to Fargo – indicates how difficult it is to gauge a great comedy by any set of particular criteria. Better to say the best comedy writers and comedians are like astronauts, launching themselves beyond the ozone layer of the tasteful and the expected in order to find the forbidden or the outrageous or the merely uncomfortable. Whether that produces an outrageous comedy like Mrs. Doubtfire or a satire like Dr. Strangelove, the goal is still provocation. And truth.
Paul Brownfield was on staff at the Los Angeles Times for 10 years, where he wrote about television, film and standup comedy and was the paper's television critic between 2004 and 2008.