Laughs Of The Decades: A History Of Comedy In Film

Comedy has always been not only one of our most popular forms of entertainment, but has also acted as a vehicle for social and cultural commentary, a reflection of the good and bad in society, and a way for individuals to diffuse the hardships of existence with an hour or so of uninhibited laughter.

The subversive nature of comedy can be traced all the way back to some of its earliest stars. Charlie Chaplain became well-known for his outspoken political views. Indeed, he paid a steep price for this, as his political views were seen by many as radical at the time, leading to his eventual exile from the U.S. Though he eventually re-entered the country to be honored at the Academy Awards in 1972, the controversy permanently damaged his relationship with the nation.

The power of comedy didn’t buckle to societal pressures. With the 60s emerged a revitalized interest in the incorporation of social and political commentary into comedic film. It became commonplace for films to incorporate sensitive social and cultural issues, using comedy to make statements about them. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, parodied the Cold War mindset of the time, pointing out the absurdity of the concept of mutually assured destruction, bringing us memorable one-liners like “No fighting in the war room!” Similarly, The Graduate commented on the rapidly changing sexual attitudes of the time, presenting sexuality in a groundbreaking and up-front manner that was considered incredibly provocative at the time.

Social and cultural subversiveness in film carried on into the 1970s, with films such as  Catch-22, which continued to communicate an anti-war message. The lampoons of satirical film extended beyond just social and cultural concepts, but to other films, with the advent of parody. Directors such as Mel Brooks helped pioneer the parody genre of film, releasing films such as Young Frankenstein.  

The premiere of Saturday Night Live in 1975 was a pivotal moment in the comedy industry, bringing the subversive ideals of comedy film to television. Simultaneously, numerous new faces entered the realm of standup comedy. Eventually, comedians such as Richard Pryor, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Steve Martin and many more who found there start in stand-up and on SNL would go on to prosper in the film industry, spawning such classics as Animal House, Harlem Nights, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, The Jerk, and numerous others.

The parody genre went on to spawn other highly influential parodies, such as the 1980 disaster film spoof, Airplane!, which is considered by many to be the quintessential, fast-paced gag and spoof-based film. As the 80s carried on, however, comedy began to evolve drastically.

The 1990s saw a continued evolution of the comedy genre, with a renewed interest in romantic comedies. Films such as When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle helped usher in a new wave of films which incorporated both romantic and comedic elements.

Comedy today is much different than it once was. Like any other art form, it evolves with time. 2001’s Zoolander was a fan-favorite, and developed a cult following, but its release, only weeks following the tragic attacks of 9/11, severely impacted its commercial success. In some ways, Zoolander can be seen as a bookend to an era of comedy film known as “joke-based comedy.” Films such as The Hangover and I Love You Man, pioneered a different approach to comedy, deriving humor from the journeys of characters, and plot-driven, relatable situations.

What’s in store next for this pivotal genre of entertainment? Will the new era of jokeless comedy continue define the genre? Will we get something entirely new? Only time will tell…

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