Cinema #9: What Made Us Laugh: Comedies Through the Decades

I was talking with a friend recently about the ebb and flow of comedy in the cinema – how it changed with each passing decade. It’s truly interesting to note how comedy was fairly nonexistent during the 1970’s, and came back with gangbusters right before the start of the 1980’s. Let me explain…

Gritty realism thrived in the 1970’s – this was the era of hard core pornography becoming acceptable in the mainstream. Horror movies demonstrated a level of taboo shattering violence that had never been seen before, and haven’t been seen since. Godforsaken horrors like The Exorcist and The House on the Edge of the Park knew no boundaries – they served only to shock and horrify at all costs.

Beyond horror and porn, dramas also exhibited a gritty nihilism. The Deer Hunter, Midnight Cowboy, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon, etc. were real and they were raw. So where does the comedy movie fit into this rather bleak environment? The answer: it doesn’t.

Comedies in the 1970’sl had a jaded edge, a certain lack of carefree humor. Woody Allen can probably be considered the king of comedy during the 70’s, but his movies are full of neuroses and philosophical confusion. M*A*S*H* was funny…. then again, not really – it was more of a bitter statement against war, harshly reflected in Vietnam. Mel Brooks maybe comes closest to frivolous comedy with Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (however, you could argue that even these had a bit of cynicism, considering they were mocking older movie genres).

I could sit here and list comedies of the seventies all day: Paper Moon, Harold & Maude, What’s Up Doc?, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Smile, etc… but none of these are going to have you rolling on the floor. They might even leave you a bit depressed.

Now, you know that I have a very special appreciation of the 1970’s (some might call it a maniacal obsession), so I’m not criticizing, just commenting. It’s interesting to examine, especially considering that at the tail end of the decade and early 80’s comedy absolutely EXPLODED. All of the sudden, you had The Jerk, Animal House, Caddyshack, Airplane, Vacation, Sixteen Candles, Meatballs, Porky’s, Night Shift, Up in Smoke, Police Academy, etc. What the hell happened?

I don’t really have an answer, other than to say trends just happen. Hollywood smells money in a few successes, and that’s what they flood the market with for several years until it dies out again.

You can’t really blame the lousy economy or Vietnam for the 70's lack of comedy. For one, comedies have thrived during economic depression. And for another, Vietnam was over by 1973. Plus, comedy was alive and well on the boob tube. So what gives?

I think it would be interesting to take a look at how comedy has changed from one time period to another, and why. I’m not sure how I’d classify the comedies of the latter half of the eighties: Plains, Trains, and Automobiles, License to Drive, Good Morning Vietnam, Coming to America, Ferris Beuller, etc. They were pretty funny, but not exactly raucous and gut busting. Maybe they were a little too polished and tame.

The 1990’s was the era of big laughs via ridiculous behavior: Austin Powers, Dumb and Dumber, Tommy Boy, There’s Something About Mary, Ace Ventura, etc. Lot’s of physical humor and lots of potty humor… not exactly high brow stuff, but guys like Jim Carey laughed all the way to the bank.

This all begs the question, what kind of comedy is popular right now? I’d be curious to read your opinions on the subject.


  1. I must ask - are you speaking of comedy in the movies, or on TV? Because 70s TV was full of comedy...

  2. Let's see... You have your Apatowian tales of sex humor and maleness, though often leavened with a heavier theme. Then, earlier in the decade, you had your Will Ferrell ridiculousness. Lots of twee indie ironic/neurotic humor, like Wes Anderson. That's all that springs to mind off the top of my head.

  3. I think two types of comedy prevail today:

    1) Raunch comedy. Comedy that requires graphic shock to get a laugh. The 'naked Chinaman in the trunk' scene from the "The Hangover" would be an example of this. It is funny for a brief moment, but then dissipates quickly.

    2) Awkward comedy. This is by far my favorite type of comedy. Just watch the BBC version of "The Office" and study David Brent's character to see what I mean. Comedy from awkward social situations doesn't need a "franks and beans" or an "ejaculate hair gel scene" to make laughter.

  4. I have to take exception to What's Up Doc. I find that roll-on-the-floor funny. When we show it to college kids today, they always ask, "How come I haven't heard of this movie before? It's great!"

    But on the whole you are correct. I hate the uber low-brow crap that is passing for humor currently. Give me Jack Benny or Groucho Marx any day. Heck, the Smother's Brothers even.

    Neil Simon comedy (his big years were the 1970s) can be very funny, but his is always tinged with a bit melancholy. I'm sure books have been written on this topic. I'll do some research and get back to you.

  5. Don't forget the Monty Python films or Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles - all made during the 70s. I think Animal House (1978) was the catalyst for SNL alumni films in the early 80s.

    @retrohound - totally with you on What's Up, Doc, Jack Benny, and Smothers Brothers. I'd rather spend hours on YouTube or Hulu than watch any of the sitcoms of today.

  6. Giligan, How would you rate Peter Sellers' Pink Pather movies in the 70's? They were definitely not dark humor....just curious.

  7. Barbara - I'm talking about movies. I mention in the post that comedy on TV was booming; so, I'm curious about the contradiction between TV and the movies when it comes to comedies.

    Frank- Well put. Personally, I'm pretty much spent on the Apatow schtick. Funny at first, but grows old quickly.

    Hitch- Excellent comment. I would agree with every word - the awkward comedy is in full effect, and I like it.

    Retrohound- I'm not saying Woody Allen, What's up Doc? or Neil Simon aren't funny - I love these movies. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the frivolous, lighthearted comedies like Caddyshack & The Jerk just weren't around.

    Pam- I mentioned that Brooks was the exception to the rule; and I guess the UK did produce more lightweight material than heavy handed "comedies" in the states.

    Anna- Well, Pink Panther movies certainly couldn't be called "heavy"; however, the series started in 1963, and so the rest were just a continuation of that same premise. Venturing far afield from the Panther movies, Edwars had his wife, Julie Andrews, go topless in S.O.B. Shocking to see Mary Poppins in the buff.

  8. Gilligan, you actually listed some of my all-time favorites--Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Harold & Maude, What's Up Doc.

    (Also loved The Out-of-Towners with Jack Lemmon, The Owl & the Pussycat, Oh God, The Sunshine Boys, Smokey & the Bandit...)

    To be honest, I always saw the comedies of the 70s as being aimed at an adult audience. Weren't the late 70/early 80s known for having the largest teen audiences since the 1950s? The studios knew who they had to cater to...

  9. Comedy as an art form has never been deeper than it was in the 70s. You mention the movie Smile, one of the strongest social satires of the period. You can see Michael Ritchie's decline as a director with Fletch in part due to a renewed emphasis upon silliness and "lightness". This is where things get subjective because some people like their comedy a little darker than others. The main difference is that in 70s movie comedy they combines politically incorrect risk taking with liberal politics, whereas today the correctness sometimes overtakes the political party line.

  10. On the flip side, there's a sardonic side to a lot of 70s dramas - think of the original The Taking of Pelham 123, The Hospital, Network, The Laughing Policeman. I think apachedug is right - both comedies and dramas were aimed at "adult" audiences in the 70s. I think the demographic angle is right, but with a twist - the ratings system as originally set up in the late 60s tended to restrict what could be shown in "young adult" films, and many studios felt they'd lost the young audience to TV. When PG comedies got more risque in the late 70s/early 80s, the young returned in force.

  11. I might add Better off Dead and, even though I dont like it very much, Airplane to the list. BTW, Harold & Maude is comedy?