There’s nothing the internet loves more than debating a list. We love pointing out obvious omissions, selections we vehemently disagree with and orders we would rearrange if given the opportunity.
The latest example of this has been provided by the BBC, which put out a list of what it considers to be the 25 greatest comedy movies of all time. The list is fine and yes, I could engage in any of the above-mentioned activities, pointing out that because it doesn’t have Anchorman it’s by definition inaccurate or that ranking Blazing Saddles so low is obvious proof of inaccuracy. I could try to create my own list to counter the BBC’s, but that sounds like a lot of work and I’d inevitably leave one or more movies off that I’d never forgive myself over.
A list of “best” comedies is, by virtue of its very nature, going to be subjective because comedy is subjective. What I find hilarious isn’t going to even make you politely smile. You’ll never understand why I think Martin Mull being pushed into a corner in the opening minutes of Clue is a Top 10 comedic moment and I’ll never understand why you love Kingpin as much as you do.
It’s enough to make you ask what even counts as a comedy? The BBC list covers everything from the nuanced pratfalls of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin to the deadpan satire of Dr. Stranglove to the sophomoric humor of Airplane!. There are at least half-dozen sub genres on display in the list, which doesn’t even touch on the more recent caricatures of Will Ferrell or the relationship-heavy humor championed by the likes of Judd Apatow. The lack of anything released after 1998 means it’s ignoring the last 20 years of comedy.
I’m not in a position to offer a definitive, universal explanation of what does or doesn’t constitute a comedy. Instead, I’ll offer this: There’s no movie that consistently makes me laugh out loud more than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which doesn’t even make the Top 10 on the BBC’s list.
The movie just works for me on every level. From the coconuts and the debates about the airspeed velocity of various kinds of swallows to Denise and his mud-farming autonomous collective to Tim the Enchanter and everything in-between, I laugh through the whole thing no matter how many times I watch it. That’s in part due to one thing: The writing and performances by and from the Monty Python troupe all are absolutely committed to the premise.
Too many comedies, both new and old, wink at the audience in the middle of the hijinks. “Look how funny we’re being.” Jokes are underlined and emphasized, taking the audience out of the disbelief they’re suspended in because the actors or filmmakers themselves have stepped outside the frame like a character in The Purple Rose of Cairo to make sure everyone is having a good time.
Holy Grail never does that, nor does the rest of Monty Python’s work. From the TV show to the movies, the troupe never once breaks or looks like they’re taking what’s happening as anything less than totally serious. No matter if it’s a French Taunter or a dispute at a cheese shop, everyone is committed to the moment and their character.
You can write the funniest material in the world. But if the performers can’t convey that without stepping all over the joke, it’s not going to land. It’s that sort of approach that makes Holy Grail the leading example, at least to me, of what constitutes an effective comedy. I can’t argue with most of the BBC’s list, it’s fine. I just know what works for me.