“The Best Comedy of the Year!” 1970’s

The 1970’s are widely considered to be an era of cinematic genius. Most of this reputation is built on a boiling revolution of elevated realism; the mainstreaming of the work started on stage in the 1930’s by the Group Theatre. It manifested itself in the dark modern dramatic works of Coppola, Scorsese, Cimino, Friedkin, DeNiro and Pacino, among others. At the same time, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were ushering in the age of the special effects spectacle, the sequel and the t-shirt and toy deal. Comedy is not what first comes to mind.

But the 1970’s were also a powerhouse of iconic comedy. Of course, as a child born at the beginning of the decade, I knew nothing about any of this at the time. What I was getting was Sesame Street and Happy Days. Not that Grover wasn’t a master of vaudeville-style humor. So let’s take a look back at what I was missing and had to discover as a teenager once video tapes of movies became widely available. Let’s travel back to the wild and wooly “Me Decade.”

1970 – The Out of Towners 


Decades tend to fade in and out of one another. After all, how much does your life really change just because you have to write a new number on your checks? The Neil Simon/Arthur Hiller “fish out of water” comedy The Out of Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis sure feels a lot like the late 60’s, doesn’t it? Well, the film was shot in New York City in the summer of 1969 (no Bryan Adams appearances, though). Lemmon had only recently started transitioning into middle-aged roles, a development which would be punctuated by his later Oscar-winning work in 1973’s Save the Tiger. As a fan of city living, the movie runs counter to many of my own tastes in its depiction of the metropolis as a cruel and careless abuser of people. Its anti-city bias is mitigated though, by two things: 1) It was partly true at the time. New York City from the late 60’s through the early 80’s was beset by financial ruin and a decaying infrastructure 2) The movie is funny. Lemmon and Dennis have great chemistry as a perfectly normal Ohio couple who turn into a nightmare pair of overwhelmed complainers on a trip for a job interview that would land their family in Manhattan. Inconveniences turn to catastrophes and back again as they blunder into every possible roadblock to their mission, whining and taking names.

Other 1970 comedies: M*A*S*H and Start the Revolution Without Me.

1971 – Harold and Maude


Yet again, we see a 1970’s comedy that is a clear indication of the fallout of the decade which preceded it. The dark comedy of the film, most obviously through Harold constantly faking his own death to the boredom of his controlling mother and the horror of the society girls she tries to set him up with, helped to make Harold and Maude a critical and box office disappointment. I can’t imagine that many people find the idea of a romance between a teenager and a geriatric enticing, either. But it gradually found its audience in part through both novelization and stage versions of the story. The Cat Stevens songs which populated much of the film’s soundtrack also helped bring fans back and it finally turned a profit more than a decade later. My high school’s sister drama program at First Colonial put up a production of the stage show, bringing almost as much consternation to its upper-class parents as Harold does to his.

Other 1971 comedies: Woody Allen’s Latin American revolutionary comedy Bananas.

1972 –

Well, it was liable to happen eventually. After searching around quite a bit, I found nothing but disappointment from 1972’s comedies. John Waters’ Pink Flamingos was certainly important, but it is a great deal more appealing as an idea than as a reality to watch. The cross-dressing Divine leads her clan in hope of maintaining her title as “The Filthiest Person Alive.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Nope. Last of the Red Hot Lovers, with Alan Arkin seems promising too, but boasts way too few laughs. What’s Up Doc? is written by Buck Henry and has a strong reputation, but Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal just rub me the wrong way in it. This isn’t surprising since neither of them appeals to me in many other films, either. If you like this pair, maybe give What’s up, Doc? a try. Hey, it’s set in San Francisco, so it has that going for it. Avanti! also could’ve been great, written by the brilliant Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond and starring Jack Lemmon. It’s a combination that looks great on paper, and it is a good movie, but it doesn’t come close to stacking up to other greats by Wilder and Lemmon. His character is mean and again there aren’t many real laughs. Based on the decade’s output so far, the future of comedy in the 1970’s looks pretty bleak.

1973 – Sleeper


Things start to look up in 1973 with one of the comedic stars of the time. Woody Allen would reach greater cinematic heights with his later offerings and get branded a genius in some quarters, but the core of his best work still leans on his unique brand of smart, self-depricating Catskills humor. Sleeper stars Allen as a health food store owner who goes in for minor surgery in the early 70’s and wakes up 200 years later to find that quite a lot has changed. A lot of the fun, of course, is Allen himself being placed around people who are taking him seriously.

Diane Keaton co-stars as an establishment socialite who Allen kidnaps after briefly posing as her robot butler (see above), and the two gradually come to understand each other while on the run. There is a futuristic revolutionary plot that the gags hang on which eventually involves the DNA information available in a person’s nose. Try not to place too much importance on the story…

Other 1973 comedies: Paper Moon, and The Sting are both entertaining movies which had good success at the time. Neither gives me the pleasure of Sleeper, though.

1974 – Young Frankenstein


After only mild success with The Producers and the outright flop of The 12 Chairs, Mel Brooks returned to the big screen with a vengeance in 1974, teaming up with Richard Pryor for Blazing Saddles and Gene Wilder for Young Frankenstein. I had a hard time choosing between these two irreverent satires of well-worn film genres. Both are laugh factories which lovingly overturn audience expectations and break with the mores of the time. In the end, I went with Young Frankenstein because I re-watch it on a nearly yearly basis without ever getting bored with it. The film’s gorgeous black and white photography, fastidious attention to detail and beautiful musical score give it just the air of respectability which help the gags to really land. Wilder has never been better, in a project which was his idea, and is joined by Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Terri Garr, Cloris Leachman (He vas…my BOYFRIEND!!), and Kenneth Mars in a gang of vulnerably wacky performances. Oh yes, and there was this from the great Gene Hackman:

Other 1974 comedies: Obviously, there was the previously mentioned Blazing Saddles, but I’d also like to bring special attention to the film version of Eugene Ionesco’s genius stage comedy about political and personal conformity, Rhinoceros.  This is visualized by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as citizens of a town whose inhabitants are gradually transformed into…well…you know. The film loses some of the play’s bite and was subject to criticisms over changes that were made, but I still consider it worth mentioning. ’74 was a great year for Gene Wilder!

1975 – Monty Python and the Holy Grail


For many American audiences, Monty Python’s wonderfully irreverent and surreal comedy first came to light with re-broadcasts of their BBC television program on PBS in 1974. The following year, the Pythons would release their parody of the King Arthur legend, shot on a shoestring budget with John Cleese returning to the group after leaving between seasons of the TV show. Holy Grail was a big success, eventually earning over $120 million after spending only $365,000 on production. The budget had been so low, in fact, that it ended up inspiring one of the film’s iconic bits. Because they couldn’t afford to use real horses, the knights of the round table pranced around pretending to ride while their manservants banged coconut halves together. It did not go unmentioned by the other characters. The killer rabbit scene was shot with a borrowed white bunny which was then covered in fake blood for the shoot. Unfortunately, the inexperienced crew had permanently stained the little rabbit and the Pythons themselves hurriedly attempted to wash off the large spatters of red before its owner discovered the mistake. The bunny was unharmed, but would forever hop around looking like the fabled Rabbit of Caerbannog.

Other 1975 comedies: Gee whiz, sometimes I wish some of these films were made in different years! It was painful to leave The Rocky Horror Picture Show out. It would’ve been selected in just about any other year.

1976 – Murder by Death


Murder by Death is another in a long line of fun comedies by playwright legend Neil Simon. The whole idea is to get variations on some of the most famous private eyes in film history in one dark mansion for the most confounding murder mystery they’ve ever encountered! Oh, and it’s a comedy. And their nemesis is played by Truman Capote! The script includes some soft-touch stereotype humor, but it doesn’t really offend, perhaps because it’s delivered by greats like Peter Sellers and Peter Falk, and maybe because some of it is really funny. In addition, we get David Niven (The Pink Panther), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey), James Coco (Ensign Pulver), Alec Guinness (Star Wars), James Cromwell (Babe), and Eileen Brennan (The Sting). Don’t get caught up in trying to solve the mystery in this one. Just enjoy the performances and the well-turned goofs on the genre. By the way, Maggie Smith has been awesome for a long time.

Other 1976 comedies: I came very close to naming Network the top comedy of 1976, but after going back and watching it again, I came to the conclusion that it was not enough of a comedy to win out here, even though I get in a few good laughs every time I watch it. It is, however, the best film of 1976. Don’t come to me with Rocky. A couple of decent comedies from the bicentennial year are Bad News Bears  and The Sunshine Boys, both starring Walter Matthau.

1977 – Annie Hall


Annie Hall is one of those perfect movies in which every scene both entertains and casts light on the characters as it does. This is quite a surprise, given its development. Famously, it was originally as much of a murder mystery as a romantic comedy, and then it was a much longer bit of self psychoanalysis, but the film was majorly re-cut and the Annie Hall character was emphasized. There has been much disagreement about exactly how autobiographical the film is, with Allen himself claiming that he is not much like Alvy Singer, the intellectual Jewish stand up comedian he plays. For her part, Diane Keaton says that parts of her previous romantic relationship with Allen had been mined for the Alvy/Annie relationship of the movie. Consider that Keaton was born with the last name of Hall and had been known by the nickname of “Annie” earlier in her life. Allen had set out to make a much more dramatic film than the screwball comedies he was known for at the time, but ended up with one of his funnier films, perhaps due to the sheer volume of material that was written and filmed for it. Since it is a story being told by Allen’s character and defined by his character’s thoughts and obsessions, it veers frequently from the world of the real into imagination and fantasy. Like when Allen and Keaton become cartoons…or like in this classic scene:

Favorite Line: “I heard that commentary and dissent had merged and formed ‘dysentery'”

Other 1977 comedies: Lots of sports-inclined men will trumpet the Paul Newman hockey comedy Slap Shot. High Anxiety has a few great gags, but an inconsistent and at times flat visual style which undercuts its satirical punch. Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl is an enjoyable romantic comedy with a happier outlook than Allen could probably muster at the time, but it, along with these others, could not match the idiosyncratic poetic humor of Annie Hall.

1978 – Animal House


For many years, John Landis and Harold Ramis’ Animal House provided a model for the idealized debauched university experience. Who knows? Maybe it still does. We sure danced to “Shout” and “Louie Louie” quite a lot at our high school functions and the movie seemed to play in the background of about every third or fourth college party I attended for a while. I guess if you’re going to keep up as strong a party schedule as we did at East Carolina you’re going to need a little inspiration from time to time. The activities depicted by Belushi, Hulce, Furst, Matheson, et al had somehow become an expected rite of passage for every fun-seeking young person. Did we care that Belushi’s party lifestyle had been partly to blame for his sad early demise? Nope. Neither did Chris Farley. Nor did a couple of classmates who became (or maybe already were) true alcoholics.

Is it fair to lay all of this at the feet of a movie. Heck No. We all make our own choices. The movie certainly had no role in my decision to drink heavily during college and for a few years after. The culture of alcohol on the nation’s campuses was well entrenched long before the film’s release. Animal House was, in fact, based on the experiences its writers had while participating in fraternities at separate schools. Oh by the way, it’s a funny movie.

Other 1978 comedies: The same can not be said for the undeservedly legendary Cheech & Chong vehicle (natch) Up In Smoke. Yawn.

1979 – Monty Python’s Life of Brian

After the huge success of their previous venture into full-length filmmaking, the members of Monty Python were asked what their next movie was going to be. Eric Idle suggested the title “Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory” as a joke. When the whole group convened to try to write on the theme, however, they agreed that they generally admired Jesus’ teachings, even as they mistrusted most organized religion. What they decided to do instead was to create a new character named Brian who would be followed as a savior despite his rejection of the role. The film would take place at the same time and in the same general location as the stories of the New Testament. Despite the Pythons’ move to avoid making fun of Jesus, the film was picketed heavily with charges of blasphemy. As is usually the case in these situations, most of the protesters had no knowledge of the actual content of the film. And, of course, to see the film and find out whether it was blasphemous or not for themselves was out of the question. Some localities imposed an outright ban on Life of Brian, leading to one ad campaign claiming “So funny it was banned in Norway!” Despite the roadblocks put in its way Life of Brian was a huge commercial success, becoming the fourth-highest earning film of the year in the UK.

Other 1979 comedies: After a few disappointing years in film comedy, the 70’s closed strong. The Jerk kicked off Steve Martin’s fantastic movie career with a bang, Being There was Peter Sellers’ last major release, The In-Laws cut a goofy figure for Peter Falk (Serpentine!!) and Alan Arkin, and Manhattan bounced back for Woody Allen nicely after the dreadfully dour Interiors. That’s a very good year for comedy in cinema!

The 1970’s

The decade certainly had its share of great comedies, but there looks to be a lack of real depth of quality here. I’ll be interested to see if there is a rebound when we look at the 60’s or if general tastes continue to create a sort of bell curve for me that others may be able to reproduce.

It appears that I’ll have to write a wrap-up article to go over the hard numbers produced on my tastes once we’ve gotten back to ’59.


Posted on March 2, 2013, in Best Comedy of the Year, comedy, Movies, reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Danielle Charney

    great choices and clips- the one from Annie Hall besides the MM one that is still in my head is the drive to the airport with the raging suicide talk -a classic – thanks for the post


    • Thanks for reading!
      Yeah, I realized after I posted that I’d forgotten to mention Christopher Walken’s appearance in the film. There is so much more to say about Annie Hall than I could possibly include in this article’s format.
      There have been times in my life when I became aware of myself pontificating in public and put the brakes on for fear someone was nearby with a large sock with horse manure in it.


  2. OK with this decade we are now officially into the RB formative years. At the beginning of the decade, not comedies but RB was molded by the likes of ‘Oh Shenandoah” and stuff like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. RB distinctly remembers that Paper Moon, Bad News Bears and The Sting were HUGE among the young set those years. “Born Free” also made elementary and Jr High kids swoon for all the right reasons. As far as ratings, forget it. RB snuck into an adjacent theatre to see “Blazing Saddles” with the other members of her girl scout troop. The Monty Python movies, like the shows, were required viewing for the high achieving students as intelligent humor. And Murder by Death, more of the same satire. What really made the most impression on all of us back in that day was Star Wars. We were ALL in awe. We girls wanted Luke and Han, the boys wanted to be them and loved Princess Leia. As we graduated, there was “Animal House” with its promise of what collegiate life would be like. No wonder there were so many academic casualties in the early 80s.


  3. Please forgive the babbling. RB is enamored of the 70s in general and tends to get excited when discussing the movies and music of that decade. I also didn’t mean to sound like a snob with the comment about “achieving” students who loved Python. Let me explain. At my particular school, it was the nerds and academics who liked these sorts of films. Which brings up another point about the 70s and even into the 80s. The pace of many of these films was slower and film editing has changed noticeably over the years. The first Dundee movie comes to mind, although that was mid 80s. If it were being edited today I fear scenes from the finished product would have been edited out. The finished product worked, to me, in part because of the slower pace of the Australian outback sequences. My kids were more impatient with it. Going back to the 70s, Star Wars was seen as visionary and groundbreaking in terms of special effects and editing, although not actually a comedy film, many comedy elements and the feel-good movie of the decade.


    • That was definitely my experience with Monty Python as well as a student in the 80s. The Pythons were being shown on PBS, meaning that they were a little out of the mainstream in America and their lead-in was typically something educational. Because of this, more educationally enthusiastic kids were more likely to run across them. Their heavy dialects also rewarded more patient American viewers who did not mind that sometimes they had trouble understanding what was being said.
      Star Wars was our Beatles, it’s just that Ringo was 7 feet tall and covered with hair.


      • We talked before about “discovering” comedy. That was what was great about the Pythons. They were off the beaten path waiting to be discovered. I actually came to the party a little late in the 80s. But it was still a discovert even then.


  4. Nice list as usual. Any Italian-style comedy in your ’60s’ list? 😀


  5. Just an FYI Richard Pryor was never in Blazing Saddles. He was suppose to be in it with Gene Wilder but due to Richard Pryor’s stand up Brooks could not get financing to make the movie so Pryor had to be dropped.


  6. Blazing Saddles is a movie where the comedy stood the test of time for quite a while. I’d have to watch it again to decide if it still does in 2013. The Out of Towners, have not thought about that one for decades, it’s great. Going to look for it on amazon.


  7. We watched “The Out of Towners” on the weekend. It did have that 60s stage-play feeling, didn’t it? Interestingly my daughter (11) enjoyed it. Then again did Neil Simon write any bad plays?


    • like any artist, Simon had his ups and downs. The sequel to The Odd Couple, for example, was not good at all. Kim Basinger notoriously had trouble with the script for The Marrying Man. But overall, it’s hard to look at a lot of his work and not come away with enormous respect for his skill, experience, and talent. His writings are staples of American theatre and comedy. He is a giant.
      I would definitely recommend his autobiography as an entertaining read.


      • I haven’t read the original script for The Marrying Man. But I don’t take Basinger’s disapproval as being indicative of a lack of quality. Reportedly, she didn’t realize who Simon was while he was on set and made a comment that “Whoever wrote this doesn’t know anything about comedy”. D’oh!


  8. For the 1970s, it turns out that after excluding comedies that are too hazy in memory to comment on meaningfully (e.g., Freaky Friday, The Shaggy D.A., Meatballs) or didn’t leave me with strong feelings (e.g., Heaven Can Wait, I Wanna Hold Your Hand), there aren’t many films to talk about.


    Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – Just wanted to note it’s one of the earliest movies I retain any memory of; I hardly remember enough to offer an assessment.


    The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean – A fanciful, sometimes surreal Western very loosely inspired by The Law West of the Pecos. Excellent, an impression confirmed by a viewing within the past few years.


    Sleeper – Caught it on TV as a kid (I may have missed the beginning), and thought it was hilarious.


    Blazing Saddles – Finally caught up with this one on VHS in the 90s. Lots of laughs, yet somehow not one of my favorites. Perhaps it felt a little crude and not very deep.


    Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Finally saw this one in the past couple of years, and it was a letdown. Some bits were more amusing than others, but overall I didn’t think it was all that good, and large parts were just silly. Some people will think that makes me uncool, but I didn’t join the cult.


    Silver Streak – My dad really talked up this movie, and I also enjoyed the Wilder/Pryor team.


    Annie Hall – I didn’t see this until recent years, and I agree that it is a witty, sophisticated classic. My personal favorite laugh is where he is convinced that a record store clerk is anti-Semitic because he hawked Wagner. (Requires a bit of knowledge of history to get the joke, however.)

    Oh, God! – Fondly remembered, but I haven’t seen it in a long time.


    Revenge of the Pink Panther – Liked this one when I saw it as a kid.


    Love at First Bite – I loved this Dracula comedy in my youth, and watched it more than once on TV.

    Unidentified Flying Oddball – I actually read the novelization before I saw the movie; I liked it then, but it probably wouldn’t hold up seeing it as an adult.


    • What’s your opinion of Monty Python in general? The BBC television show is up and down but so different from anything else that it lives in its own spectrum. I personally prefer Life of Brian above all of their work, and I’m a fan.


      • I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with Monty Python in general. I started watching The Meaning of Life, but the disc turned out to be scratchy and unwatchable after the first segment. I remember laughing a lot during A Fish Called Wanda, but I’m not as enthusiastic as this blog’s readers, it seems.


      • Before you give up on Monty Python, give Life of Brian a try. It is better structured than Holy Grail and I think it is smarter, with more biting social commentary humor.


        • Don’t worry, if I’d given up on Python, I wouldn’t have started watching The Meaning of Life. I did like some segments of Holy Grail (“no one shall pass,” leftist peasants, riddling troll), just not the whole product.

          I forgot that there were movies from another Python alum, Terry Gilliam. As you can see now from my 80s comments, I hated Time Bandits, loved Brazil, and am blah on Munchausen. It’s probably not a coincidence that I liked those movies in inverse proportion to how reminiscent they were of Holy Grail.


  9. While you’ve been resurfacing this old series, it’s been a straight reposting, without any updates. Of course, author daffy is busy right now with the Oscars, and such updates might come at the expense of other work he might do. But in five years, he might have reconsidered some of his opinions. He might even have watched a few more comedies worth mentioning– not even a film buff can watch every movie, and that’s even more true if watching movies isn’t your day job.

    In many cases, his omissions are as interesting as his picks. For instance, when he failed to cite Ferris Bueller, that did not go unnoticed. I happen to agree with that, but I wasn’t the only one to bring up Bend It Like Beckham and The Devil Wears Prada in the comments, for example. While daffy did engage in the comments, often it was to explain why he didn’t consider certain good movies to be comedies, rather than why he didn’t care for comedies that others consider great. But surely there is a discussion to be had about why he considers Miss Congeniality to be a better film than Bend It Like Beckham.

    He also spoke of doing a roundup article that would offer an overall analysis, but as far as I can tell, that never came to pass. To be honest, I’m skeptical that enough data and objectivity is available to make an analysis meaningful. There’s subjectivity about what to even consider a comedy, with great movies being disqualified, then Django Unchained being declared not just a comedy, but the best of the year..

    Also, half these articles are categorized in Analysis and the other half aren’t, and they don’t link to each other, making it a little hard to find them all.


    • I have done a little bit of clean-up on the articles. It’s all been cosmetic stuff. I’m not sure if Daffy is interested in revisiting the content. I will leave that to him to address.

      I will add a “Best Comedy of the Year” category to make navigation easier for anyone wanting to read the entire series without waiting for the reposts.


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