History of Comedy Films

The history of comedy films extends back (literally) to the beginning. The first movie copyrighted in the U.S., Fred Ott's Sneeze (1894), was a comedy. Comedies have evolved from the simple slapstick farces of the 1920s to the gross-out comedies of today. Well, maybe the term "evolved" is a bit strong.

Just For Laughs: Comedies Through The Ages

  • You can see it's funny. Due to the technology of the time, early comedy films were silent. The lack of sound meant that most comedic elements were physical or visual. Some of the masters of this form of comedy were Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. These actors were known for their expressive faces, their gymnast-like physical abilities or both.
  • Of course, I can hear you! As sound technology was perfected in the 1930s, dialogue began to take center stage in film comedies. The sly humor of W.C. Fields and the rapid-fire delivery of Groucho Marx are early examples of comedy's new success with sound. The 1930s proved a transitional period, however, with comedians like the Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy relying heavily on slapstick humor to spice up their films.
  • But seriously… At the start of the 1940s, most comedy films were war or military themed. During the postwar period and into the 1950s, movies moved away from the simple storylines and began to seek out more mature audiences. The number of comedies produced also dropped significantly during the 1950s as Hollywood producers faced stiff competition from television-the new kid on the block.
  • Transition. Although the 1960s produced a number of star-studded farces like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965), the decade also saw a move toward comedies that used satire to address social change (Dr. Strangelove (1964)) and movies that acknowledged the sexual revolution (The Graduate (1967)).
  • Dark, but funny. The 1970s saw the rise of the dark comedy, with antiwar pictures like Catch 22 (1970) and M*A*S*H (1970). The 70s also saw the rise of parody with films that openly borrowed from classic genre films to generate stories and laughs. Mel Brooks was particularly successful with Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974).
  • A new golden age? The 1980s saw a resurgence of comedy, as parody films continued to be successful and new players entered the stage. Many of the original actors from the TV show Saturday Night Live moved on to successful comedy films careers during the 1980s. The 1980's also saw a flood of teen comedies including Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Sixteen Candles (1984). The action comedy sub-genre also got its start in the 80s with 48 Hrs. (1982) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984).
  • What a character. In the 1990s, actors who could create larger-than-life characters using exaggerated voice, movement and expression dominated comedy. Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Mike Myers became household names and major Hollywood stars playing in movies like The Mask (1994), The Wedding Singer (1998) and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).
  • We don't need no limits! The current trend in comedy films is to stretch the bounds of propriety and taste. Although these so-called "gross-out" movies often cause many to wince, they are still profitable at the box office. Directors like Judd Apatow and the Farrelly bothers seem to have no trouble keeping busy, so the trend may continue for some time.
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