It was about a year ago that I put up a list of the scariest moments I’ve encountered in movies. At that time, I received a request to follow it up with a list of funny moments. The following is my prompt response.
As with the older list, this is a highly subjective affair, which should come as no surprise. It’s also retrospective, meaning that many of the scenes below were childhood favorites of mine. The rankings don’t reflect exactly how funny I find each scene today — an impossible task anyway — but how formative they have been in my overall appreciation of film comedy (slightly less impossible). I picked the nominees entirely from memory, and naturally there’s a lot that had to be left out. Honorable mention should be made of those films that, though I find them consistently amusing, didn’t present a single scene to me that’s demonstrably funnier than the rest — from Dr. Strangelove to Ghostbusters to Back to the Future to Pulp Fiction to Finding Nemo, etc. In other words, a list of the funniest movies would look a lot different. Anyway, have a grain of salt handy.
(TRIVIA: Three movies appear on both this list and the “scariest moments” list. Needless to say, they’re all pretty awesome.)
25. His Girl Friday (1940) “Pettibone Brings a Reprieve”
Just about any scene from this film would do, and it’s kind of a shame to leave one of Cary Grant’s greatest performances out of it, but he’ll show up on the list later. For now, the star is Billy Gilbert as Pettibone, who, in addition to being way too slow for all the fast-talkers in this film, adds some much-needed innocence and warmth amid all the political conniving.
24. Mulholland Dr. (2001) “Gene Clean”
It’s the casual jazz music in the background. It’s the wife’s indignation at her husband for catching her in bed with another man. It’s the fact that the other man is Billy Ray Cyrus. It’s the husband’s silent and rather quirky retaliation. It’s the pounding he subsequently takes, adding injury to insult. Most of all, it’s the fact that this scene comes out of nowhere in a film that is in no way a comedy.
23. The Band Wagon (1953) “Girl Hunt”
It’s more “sequence” than “scene,” lasting over ten minutes, but it’s too great to leave off — a pitch-perfect noir parody, spoofing familiar narrative contrivances, macho gunplay, and hardboiled voiceover narration. Being one of the brilliant ballet sequences that Hollywood was churning out in the early ’50s, it also happens to be outrageously beautiful, featuring Fred Astaire dancing with Cyd Charisse.
22. Love and Death (1975) “Hygiene Play”
This is a scene from one of Woody Allen’s “early, funnier” movies. Allen is an unlikely soldier in the Russian army, about to go on furlough before joining battle with Napoleon’s forces. I love the play itself, an extremely short and sweet lesson on hygiene, but more than that I love Allen’s impromptu criticspeak review. He seems to have gotten more out of the play than the rest of the audience.
21. Fantasia (1940) “Dance of the Hours”
Pirouetting zoo animals make for a fabulously unexpected marriage of cartoon and classical music. The initial concept is great, but the way it keeps building is what makes it hilarious. I have to think that the animators were poking fun at their own pretensions as well as those of high culture. Disney’s most vainglorious project had a sense of humor about itself, and that’s priceless.
20. It Happened One Night (1934) “Quit bawling!”
Here we have a delightful bit of role-playing. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s characters (for reasons too convoluted to get into here) pose as a married couple and extemporize, brilliantly, a marital quarrel. The extra layer of artifice makes it a whole lot funnier, as we realize that while they’re pretending, they’re also revealing some interesting truths about themselves.
19. Airplane! (1980) “Calm down! Get a hold of yourself!”
This might not be anyone else’s first choice from a film that’s packed to the gills with jokes of every kind, but it’s always stood out to me. A female passenger reaches her breaking point amid the unfolding disaster. Unfortunately for her, no one on the plane is really in the mood to soothe her fears. A queue forms of people just trying to make her shut up. My description does not do the scene justice.
18. Groundhog Day (1993) “I’m thinking!”
There are funnier parts in this movie, but when most of the humor derives from the same scenes being repeated over and over with slight variations, it becomes difficult to pick one out. I couldn’t leave Groundhog Day off the list, though, so I went with a scene that only happens once. The moment is a great variation on Jack Benny’s “Your money or your life” routine.
17. The Great Dictator (1940) “We’re upside down.”
Charlie Chaplin saves a wounded pilot, and together they flee a war zone in an airplane. The pilot grows faint, and the plane tips upside down, although the men don’t realize this until Charlie tries to loosen his seat belt. And that’s not even all. As they prepare for a crash landing, the pilot waxes sentimental. Charlie just rolls his eyes while hanging on for dear life.
16. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) “Knife Fight”
These guys surely have more fun with life than any real bank robbers in the Old West ever did. Still, there is underlying tension to this scene that makes it even funnier. Butch’s position as leader is under legitimate threat. But he shows us that being smart is even more important than being tough. There are no rules in a knife fight; you don’t even have to use a knife.
15. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) “Mussburger’s Office (Blue Letter)”
With this scene, the set design alone would be funny. Tim Robbins cautiously inches his way down the long room, on the other end of which sits Paul Newman at a desk, handling two phone conversations at once. There’s a water cooler, a stock ticker, and a trash can. No other furnishings. This setting goes from intimidating to nightmarish when Robbins manages to set an important piece of paper on fire.
14. Bringing Up Baby (1938) “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”
The double meaning in that sentence is pretty hilarious, but the entire scene around it is equally great. Katherine Hepburn’s Susan is in screwy love with Cary Grant’s David, so naturally she steals his clothes to prevent him from leaving, then retreats into the shower, where she may or may not be able to hear his cries for help. David finds a robe for modesty’s sake.
The setup is incredibly simple, but somehow still fascinating (so fascinating I put it on the list twice): how to determine which of two wine goblets has been poisoned. Wallace Shawn’s character tries to find a logical, and psychological, solution to the problem, but he actually isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. On the other hand, the deck seems to have been stacked against him.
12. Horse Feathers (1932) “Speakeasy”
This one is also more of a sequence, lasting about seven minutes from the “swordfish” bit to Groucho cashing a check he doesn’t have. In between, Groucho mistakes Chico for a football player while Harpo manages to collect every coin in the joint. It all makes sense, by Marx brothers logic, and the plot hums along in the background while the boys do their thing.
11. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) “Group Therapy”
Movies making fun of movies — a common thread on this list. Here the target is exposition and backstory, specifically the tendency to use past experiences to explain a character’s current state. This scene also makes fun of support groups and psychiatry, but primarily it’s about the banality of Dr. Evil, as he stands up in front of the group and talks about his (rather weird) childhood.
10. A Bug’s Life (1998) “Welcoming the Warriors”
The ant community puts on quite a show for their arriving champions, who are actually circus performers, not warriors. This is another case of mistaken identity — a staple of comedy — that makes up a good chunk of the film’s plot. The juvenile ants steal the scene here, with their Grand Guignol mural and violent school play. The facial expressions of the kids are perfect throughout.
9. The Seven Year Itch (1955) “It’s like jungle drums.”
Ah, the festering guilty conscience. It’s already physically manifested in Tom Ewell’s Richard Sherman as a twitchy thumb, and now he is left alone to his imagination. He anticipates that his uneventful brush with infidelity will snowball into a scandal, and we get a montage of the potential gossip chain. This scene showcases the (still) underrated comedic skills of Marilyn Monroe.
8. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) “Climax”
The heroes reach the villain’s lair, and an ambush awaits them, and a chandelier falls, and they have to find out which vial will turn the emperor back into a human, and a bunch of guards turn into animals, and the villain turns into a cat, and everyone’s hanging from a giant stone nostril, and there’s real character development conveyed through action, and also there’s a giant trampoline.
7. The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) “Cato’s Ambush”
Nothing intellectual here, just the joy of seeing a long pole swung around in a heavily furnished room, and other acts of destruction. No lamp is safe, obviously, and neither is the television. The scene’s use of slow-motion, unsubtle though it surely is, works wonders anyway. Then, somehow, the two combatants lose track of each other and go into not-entirely-convincing stealth mode.
6. Dumb and Dumber (1994) “Lloyd’s Dream”
For a few minutes, we take a look directly into the mind of Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas as he snoozes behind the wheel of the sheepdog van. Predictably enough, there’s not much there, but it’s a lot of fun to see his fantasies played out with what look like real people. And believe it or not, it’s actually the turn toward grisly violence that seals the deal for me. It’s so over-the-top that it completely works.
A scientist and his “assistant” navigate the intricacies of a secret doorway in an old mansion. The wall behind the bookcase rotates, you see, but the trigger isn’t one of the books. The self-contained episode that grinds the plot to a halt is a longstanding tradition in comedy, and it has seldom been more effective. The audience’s attention is fixed on solving this peculiar problem.
4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) “Dignity. Always dignity.”
Altogether funnier and more cinematic a spoof of the backstory than in Austin Powers, this scene is fantastically layered. Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood spins a romanticized version of his past to his adoring fans, while we get to see how his rise to fame actually happened. On top of that, it’s all an elaborate buildup to Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont’s true entrance a few minutes later.
3. Duck Soup (1933) “Stealing the War Plans”
It’s definitely cheating to pick the entire sequence around the iconic “mirror scene,” but as great as that particular gag is, there are a couple moments surrounding it that I find even funnier, most notably Harpo’s pathological failure to sneak around properly. Also, there’s the fact that Chico and Harpo disguise themselves as Groucho without altering their mannerisms in any way. Throw in the doorbell gag at the beginning, while we’re at it.
2. Toy Story 2 (1999) “The Bowels of Zurg’s Fortress”
Our intrepid plastic heroes sneak into a skyscraper through the vents and find their way to the elevator shaft. What they don’t realize is that they’re not being led by their old pal Buzz but an escaped and un-self-aware version from a toy store. He’s playing the action hero, while all they want to do is find Woody. The fantastic animation complements the comic talents of Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, and John Ratzenberger.
1. The Court Jester (1956) “The pellet with the poison…”
Remind me again which one has the brew that is true. This scene has probably been my favorite comedic bit for as long as I can remember. It spoofs Hollywood’s pretensions to poetry with its pointlessly convoluted mnemonic devices that completely overwhelm poor Danny Kaye. Okay, pointless or not, they sure are fun to say, and I could watch Kaye making mince out of them for at least twice as long as we get here. Then, in true comedy fashion, a totally unrelated element is thrown on top of all the wordplay, an element that will become Kaye’s salvation in the following scene: his suit of armor becomes magnetized. Verbal comedy and slapstick combined — it doesn’t get much better.