Comedy generates an immediate, undeniable audience response. If audiences are smiling and laughing, then there's a good chance you made an effective funny movie. Thousands of comedies fall under the "effective funny movie" umbrella, of course, but what about the movies that exist beyond that, in another sphere? What about the films that are both hilarious and emotional, hilarious and innovative, hilarious and profound in a way that keeps us thinking about them years and even decades later?
We're here to talk about those movies—but first, a few caveats: One, for the purposes of brevity and sanity, we're talking about English-language comedy movies only this time around. Two, nothing ages faster than comedy, so some films aren't here by virtue of viewing them through a 2020 lens. And three, comedy is extremely subjective, so if your favorite didn't make the list ... hey, at least it still makes you laugh.
With that in mind, here are 30 of the greatest comedies ever made, from the silent era right up through today (in chronological order).
1. The General (1926)
Buster Keaton's willingness to very nearly get himself killed over and over again for the sake of public entertainment is well-documented, and Keaton's particular brand of daring comedy never reached greater heights than with The General. Though its American Civil War setting is a regrettable part of the structure, the real star of the film is Keaton's repeated willingness to do some of the most elaborate, bold comedy stunts of the silent era. The film is worth watching for the moment in which he perches on the nose of a moving train and throws a railroad tie at another railroad tie to bounce it out of the way alone. Yes, he really did that, and yes, it's a gag that still works.
2. Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx Brothers weren't just a collective powerhouse. When they were at their best, they were four powerhouses operating independently of each other, and when joined together by the end of a film they were an unstoppable comedic force. Duck Soup is one among several Marx Brothers classics, but it stands out as the best of the bunch because it's perhaps the purest example of both their separate greatness and their unified talent. And of course, it's a film that makes plenty of room for the legendary honorary Marx, the great Margaret Dumont.
3. It Happened One Night (1934)
You can go as big as you want with your comedy movie, but sometimes the best formula for timeless joy is simply getting two very talented people, putting them together for 90 minutes, and letting them work their magic. That's what Frank Capra did with It Happened One Night, and the chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as two mismatched people on an unlikely adventure retains its timeless power even today. The movie is most famous for the moment when Colbert shows her ankles to get a ride, of course, but the dialogue is still packed with wit and even some occasional wisdom. Plus, few actors could play drunk as funny as Gable did.
4. Modern Times (1936)
Though the image of him as The Tramp is indelibly stamped on American pop culture, Charlie Chaplin was much more than the embodiment of that character. He was a genius of comedic structure both on macro and micro levels, able to perfect the timing of a devastatingly funny overall arc and the subtleties of a single comedic set piece. He made a lot of masterpieces, but Modern Times is arguably the one that still lands with the most profound impact today, even among later films like The Great Dictator. Chaplin's story of his Tramp working himself to the bone only to break down on the job and get swept into a strange saga of poverty, inequality, and comedy still works for a modern audience, which like the film itself is simultaneously sad and funny.
5. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
There's a case to be made that Cary Grant plays the greatest Straight Man in the history of big-screen comedy, and there's no better showcase of that than Howard Hawks's classic screwball comedy about a paleontologist, an heiress, and a leopard. This film has everything: Witty banter, music, jokes so deeply embedded you have to watch it half a dozen times to get them all, and of course a massive comedic set piece involving a collapsing dinosaur skeleton. Plus, in addition to Grant's remarkable performance as an in-over-his-head nerd, it's got Katharine Hepburn doing a version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing way before that was cool, and she still makes it look good.
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6. The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder made a lot of great comedies, and the American Film Institute went so far as to declare one of them, Some Like It Hot, to be the greatest American comedy film ever made. Though that film remains a comedy masterpiece, The Apartment does something it can't. Through a more subdued tone, beautiful performances, and an overwhelmingly big heart, Wilder's film about two lonely people finding their way to each other through twisted circumstances exudes a sense of warmth and honesty that persists six decades later, while also delivering the laughs.
7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick's critics often like to accuse the legendary filmmaker of being a cold, distant technician who could generate stunning visuals but had no real feel for human emotion. However, Kubrick's films seem to disprove that claim time and time again. His most straightforward attempt at comedy, Dr. Strangelove, is a visual wonder thanks in no small part to Ken Adam's amazing set designs, but it also proves unequivocally that Kubrick had a joyful heart. Buried beneath the nihilism of the film's plot is a sense of pure warmth that makes even the darkest jokes land. Of course, having Peter Sellers in three of his most memorable roles certainly didn't hurt either.
8. M*A*S*H (1970)
Though it might be better known today simply for the sitcom it inspired, Robert Altman's M*A*S*H still stands a groundbreaking, gleefully irreverent masterpiece in its own right. Anchored by incredible, understated performances from Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould and driven by the now-famous naturalistic, constantly flowing dialogue, the film remains an intoxicating blend of high- and low-brow comedy, blending the zany with the profound, and the crude with the poignant, to create one of the great anti-war movies.
9. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Whenever Blazing Saddles comes up in conversation, someone always manages to remark that "you could never make that movie today," and that observation remains an extreme oversimplification of Mel Brooks's achievement with his classic Western satire. Yes, the jokes are dirty, transgressive, and in some cases haven't aged well, but "you couldn't make it today" ignores the larger point: You don't need to make it today. Blazing Saddles is still as blisteringly funny and relevant as it was when it was released, and that go-for-broke ending remains one of the gutsiest comedy moves of all time.
10. Young Frankenstein (1974)
You might notice that only one filmmaker, the great Mel Brooks, is given two films as a director on this list, and there's one simple reason for that: In 1974, Brooks had arguably the greatest year any comedy filmmaker has ever had. Blazing Saddles came out in February and became an instant classic, and then in December, Brooks released another all-time great laugh fest: The Universal Monsters send-up Young Frankenstein. Featuring Gene Wilder in full mad scientist mode, Madeline Kahn stealing every scene she's in, Marty Feldman delivering some of the best one-liners ever put to film, and so much more, Young Frankenstein is a brilliant, timeless film that showcases Brooks's skill as a visual artist almost as much as his skill as a humorist.
11. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
You know a movie is good when the opening credits alone are making you laugh with jokes about moose bites. It wasn't necessarily a guarantee that the absurdist humor of Monty Python would translate from big-screen to small, but with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the legendary comedy troupe proved that they could arguably make their brand of comedy work even better with a longer story in which to plan numerous running gags, side quests, and wacky characters. Plus, nearly 50 years after its release, Holy Grail remains one of the most quotable movies of all time.
12. The Jerk (1979)
Some roles are timeless things you can imagine a number of actors playing and nailing. Others are so specific, so informed by a particular comedic sensibility, that they can only come through one performer. No one but Steve Martin could have made Navin Johnson the character he is. No one but Steve Martin could have made an extended sequence of violence as funny by simply yelling "He hates these cans!" And, of course, no one but comedy legend Carl Reiner could have turned Martin's adorably hilarious and oblivious performance into the comic heartwarmer that The Jerk is.
13. Airplane! (1980)
Airplane! isn't the first film to play the "pick a genre and just do a straight-ahead spoof" card successfully, but it remains the standard against which all other films that apply its brand of rapid-fire, throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall humor are measured—and with good reason. There's a timeless purity to the zaniness of it, the sense that anything can and might as well happen for the sake of a joke. Even if the jokes that are dated to the time, like Barbara Billingsley speaking jive, still work in the context of the movie. Airplane! exists in its own hilarious little world, and it's a world that new viewers can still be welcomed into.
14. 9 to 5 (1980)
There's something about seeing Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton all on-screen together in 9 to 5 that basically just insists you love the movie, as it's impossible to not be charmed by the sheer star power of the three of them working together. Look past the glare of their collective glow, though, and you've still got an all-time great film that mixes elements of Golden Age screwball comedies with a very modern look at bureaucracy, office politics, unvarnished sexism, and the power of found sisterhood. And yeah, the song is still great.
15. Tootsie (1982)
So many things about Tootsie could have gone so wrong. The film could have been wildly tonally mismatched, too subtle, not subtle enough, or just plain offensive in its pursuit of a funny story about an egotistical actor literally and metaphorically getting in touch with his feminine side. In director Sydney Pollack's hands, though, the film becomes one of the all-time great American comedies, managing to poke fun at everything from oblivious sexism and gender roles to the strange egos of actors and writers. Dustin Hoffman remains terrific in the lead role, but the real scene-stealer is Charles Durning as a man in love with a woman he doesn't actually know very well.
16. Ghostbusters (1984)
Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail before it, Ghostbusters is a strong contender for the Most Quotable Movie ever made, packed with one-liners and strange non-sequiturs that still have us saying things like "That's a big Twinkie" and "Dogs and cats living together: Mass hysteria!" every day. It's been famously called a film about "nothing" because of the perceived way in which its characters don't really grow or change, and it's also been called a mockery of the perils of government regulation. However you perceive it, the fact that we're still talking about the meaning behind a movie in which guys in jumpsuits shoot sci-fi guns at a giant marshmallow monster is proof of its greatness. Ghostbusters is so unforgettably funny that we can't stop looking for the layers in it.
17. Lost in America (1985)
Albert Brooks's comedies are very specific, very hyper-focused films that say a lot about the time in which they were made while also remaining almost paradoxically timeless. They're all great, but Lost In America stands above the rest as perhaps Brooks's greatest statement on the kind of comedy he's most interested in. The story of a couple who set out to find themselves and only find that they're not really interested in growth, it's the kind of comedy that won't leave your brain for weeks after you've seen it. And though it was aimed at Reagan's America when it was made, it still has a point to make about the capitalist traps set for us even now.
18. The Princess Bride (1987)
Over the course of less than a decade, between 1984 and 1992, Rob Reiner had a nearly unparalleled run as director that included no less than three all-time comedy classics, including This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally..., and this legendary fantasy adventure. The Princess Bride isn't necessarily funnier than those other two films, but it is funnier to a wider demographic than either of them. This is a movie that will have both kids and adults cackling at the top of their lungs at everything from sword fights to wordplay, and it features the single greatest comedic character in any of Reiner's films, full stop: Billy Crystal as Miracle Max.
19. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Though John Hughes is best known for his teen comedies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, the influential filmmaker proved himself to be adept at numerous subgenres of funny movies. His greatest success, though, is a Thanksgiving road movie starring two of the greatest comedic actors of all time. Over the course of travel mishap after travel mishap, Steve Martin and John Candy weave incredible chemistry as they navigate Hughes's slapstick comedic situations mixed with genuine, undeniable heart. In a filmography of modern classics, this one stands above the rest.
20. Coming To America (1988)
Beverly Hills Cop might have been the film that proved Eddie Murphy could be a solo movie star, but looking back on his launchpad period in the 1980s, Coming To America stands out as the best of his comedic juggernaut efforts. It's the first time on the big-screen that we were able to see Murphy flex his SNL-honed muscles as a character actor, embodying multiple roles that were all several degrees removed from just another version of himself. Supporting turns from Arsenio Hall (also in multiple roles), James Earl Jones, and John Amos only add to the powerhouse aura of the film.
21. Wayne's World (1992)
A lot of films have come out of the sketch mines at Saturday Night Live over the years, but many of them fail to outlast the premise that worked for four minutes on late night television a few times. Wayne's World is the rare example of that effort going as well as it possibly can. There's a sense in this film that Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and director Penelope Spheeris were willing to try just about anything to make the jokes land, and their success rate is uncommonly high. A clear grasp of character, a great supporting cast, and a simple warmth that persists through the whole film do the rest.
22. Groundhog Day (1993)
It's not often you come across a film that takes the name of a well-known holiday and literally redefines it, which tells you something about just how powerful Harold Ramis's legendary time-loop comedy really is. Yes, watching Bill Murray suffer for an hour and a half is great fun, and the jokes still land just as well now as they did nearly 30 years ago. But Groundhog Day is after something bigger than a memorable premise. It turned out, jokes and all, to be one of the great life-affirming American movies—a film about smiling through the pain and finding meaning when the world around you is a blur.
23. Friday (1995)
Friday began as the fulfillment of Ice Cube and DJ Pooh's wish to craft a story that showed that the kinds of neighborhoods depicted in movies like Boyz n the Hood were also places of great joy and peace, and the result is a film with an absolutely undeniable sense of comedic personality. Friday remains one of the ultimate "guys hanging out all day" comfort comedies because, of course, it's wall-to-wall funny, but it also feels honest in a way that other stoner comedies just aren't. Craig and Smokey's day is full of funny mishaps, but there's also a real emotional payoff there, and Friday never lets you forget those two things go hand-in-hand.
24. Clueless (1995)
Nothing ages faster than comedy, and Clueless is, like Wayne's World before it, one of those films that feels very rooted to its particular time and place in a way that might cost it as it ages. Yet somehow, also like Wayne's World, there's a magic to Amy Heckerling's modern reimagining of Emma that keeps it fresh 25 years later. Yes, some of the jokes and linguistic quirks are dated, but there's a genuine emotional arc that persists throughout the film. And it's played with such charm and style that even new viewers can find something special in it. This is not just a film that '90s kids remember fondly. It's a film that can keep finding new fans for years to come.
25. Best In Show (2000)
After Rob Reiner proved it would work in This Is Spinal Tap, writer/director Christopher Guest decided to make much of the rest of his career about the joys of improvisational mockumentary filmmaking. The result is a handful of unforgettably funny movies, with Best In Show rising above the rest to become arguably the best mockumentary ever made. The cast is absolutely packed with comedic superstars, the format allows for endless playful forays into absurdity, and it all builds to a genuinely emotionally satisfying conclusion. Plus, it might be the only film that's ever wrung laughs out of simply listing different varieties of nuts.
26. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
The team of writer/star Will Ferrell and writer/director Adam McKay has made several films in the "lovable manchild makes good" genre, but Anchorman is the one that's held up the best and remained the funniest since its release—with all due respect to other triumphs like Step Brothers. The story of an egotistical, clueless, unrepentantly sexist news anchor from the '70s resisting a world rapidly changing around him manages to be a showcase of both Ferrell's boundless comedic energy and of the commitment and laugh-generating power of fellow all-stars like Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, and of course Steve Carell, who won the movie's most-quoted moment simply by saying he loves a lamp.
27. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead is the first in a trilogy of films from director Edgar Wright about men who refuse to evolve as life passes them by. In the case of Shaun (Simon Pegg), that means missing the beginning of the zombie apocalypse right up until it creeps into his back garden. Shaun of the Dead is a relentlessly funny movie, as full of big set piece gags as it is memorable one-liners like "You've got red on you." But the film's staying power is thanks to its clear understanding of a central metaphor: You can be a shambling, undead drone, or you can pick up a cricket bat and take what you want.
28. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Romantic comedies about finding new love after a devastating breakup are often great explorations of emotional humor, but few have ever been as brutally honest and devastatingly ridiculous as Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Inspired by his own romantic failures, Jason Segel set out to write the ultimate breakup movie, complete with wild travel adventures, good advice ignored, bad advice taken seriously, and everything in between. With the help of an incredible cast that includes scene-stealing work from Paul Rudd and Jack McBrayer, and a genuine sense of empathy baked into its resolution, the film became a resounding and timeless comedic success. Of course, capping things with a Dracula puppet musical didn't hurt.
29. Bridesmaids (2011)
In the 2000s, raunchy hard-R buddy comedies had a wave of massive box office success, so on some level the cynical view is that a movie like Bridesmaids was inevitable just from a business standpoint. That said, it certainly wasn't inevitable that the film would be this good. Writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo went far beyond making a "female Hangover" or a "female Superbad" or some other commodification of a comedy moment. What they teamed with director Paul Feig and an all-star cast to eventually produce is a film of tremendous heart and insight into the both the black humor of human despair and the silly joy of having nowhere to go but up.
30. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story may have perfectly lampooned the standard musical biopic formula, but even that instant classic never rose to such meta-hilarious heights as Popstar, The Lonely Island's lampoon of the "all-access" music documentaries made popular in the 2010s by acts like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and the Jonas Brothers. Though the songs are the real star, because no one does genuinely catchy pop beats with ridiculous lyrics like The Lonely Island, re-watching Popstar now reveals a film genuinely devoted to the earnest core of its narrative. It may be one of the silliest films in recent memory, but it has an actual heart, and it's in the right place.