Let’s say it’s a Saturday night and you and your roommates find yourselves with some much-coveted free time. You decide to watch a movie – a funny one. You probably want to pick something universally-enjoyable, despite your urges to lobby for some obscure indie movie. So you google “most popular comedies box office.”
Here is the “Box Office History for Comedy,” according to TheNumbers.com:
Meet the Fockers doesn’t seem like a fair representative for centuries of award-winning films. As someone who’s never seen it, I might be wrong. But comedy is supposed to be subjective, right? Anyways, you decide that selecting a movie from some kind of “greatest comedies” list would heighten your chances of fun.
Now that you’re on the hunt for the greatest comedy ever, let’s look at the trends. It Happened One Night circa 1934 is #4 on Rotten Tomato’s ranking and #7 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest comedies. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (circa 1974) is #6 according to AFI, and finds its place alongside Anchorman and Bridesmaids on various other lists. Those are good odds!
Most of us haven’t seen either of those. But you know what we have seen? Mean Girls.
Mean Girls was my go-to pajama party flick all throughout eighth grade. And all the other grades. Today, quotes from the movie are lovingly stitched into youth culture, appearing on T-shirts and laptop stickers, or shouted from across classrooms. For a while, my friend’s Tinder profile description was Regina George’s terrifying proposition, “get in loser, we’re going shopping.” Just like Regina George at prom, Mean Girls definitely takes the crown of popularity.
But you and your friends are sick of that one because at this point they’ve seen it twelve times each. It’s time to consider the older options.
It Happened One Night, Blazing Saddles, and Mean Girls were all made 30-40 years apart from each other, and despite their vintage appearance, they are all equally enjoyable films.
It Happened One Night is a Screwball comedy, which means it satirizes the traditional girl-meets-boy love story. This genre made its debut in the 1930s.
Ellie is rich, Peter is poor. She claims to need his travel-savvy help getting to New York but proves to be just as clever as he is. Love blossoms!
The movie is crammed with theatrical rebellions, all of which stretch the cultural boundaries of the time. Ellie shows off her leg to pick up cars while the two are hitchhiking, and Peter pretends to be her husband in a mocking-troubled-couples sort of way. While some of their hijinks are a team effort, most are done to prove some kind of point to the other. The fun in It Happened One Night is not just fun for fun’s sake, it’s fun in the face of disagreement. The audience knows that Ellie’s goal is to prove that she’s more skilled than Peter at picking up cars. On a deeper level, she’s showing him that even though he’s her travel guide, he can’t dictate her every action. These scenes aren’t awkward or uncomfortable to watch, though, because we understand that Ellie and Peter aren’t really going to hurt each other when they argue. That’s what makes a comedy – scenes that shed a comical light on conflict, rather than resulting to actual violence. Good comedies have politically savvy conflict (this one has hints of feminism and classism) and new, refreshing hijinks.
In order for this special sort of conflicted-yet-funny relationship to work, commitment to the joke is crucial. This requires good acting, which is definitely present in It Happened One Night. Peter is so bent on proving that he’s not interested in Ellie, he talks to her like she’s a boy scout, all gruff and practical. It contrasts with the building romantic tension, which satisfyingly bubbles over in the end.
Making fun of a tricky situation is what Mean Girls is all about. If socializing with the Plastics is the tricky situation, destroying their popularity is the game. Tonally, there is a difference between Mean Girls and It Happened One Night. The characters in Mean Girls approach their tricky situation with war-like passion. Janice, for example, makes a map for Cady to navigate the cafeteria with as if her survival depends on it. The fiery early 2000’s soundtrack only adds to the badassery that is being a high schooler.
In It Happened One Night, avoidance is the game. While traveling, Ellie and Peter are on the lamb at one point, and frequently run into the police. Neither appears to have a plan for when this happens, but the audience knows they will get by on their quick wit. Unlike Cady in Mean Girls, Ellie and Peter dance away from danger as joyfully as the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins. This is certainly not a bad thing, if you’re looking for low-stress entertainment.
Ok, so we’ve established this: Mean Girls is a war movie, and It Happened One Night is about escaping. So what about Blazing Saddles?
Blazing Saddles takes place in cowboy territory, and it’s about racism. This movie contains every derogatory name for people of color that exists, each carefully placed and perfectly timed to shed light on this director’s interpretation of racism.
In this movie, Bart, a black man, is hired to look after a small, all-white cowboy town. Decked out in Gucci brand cowboy clothes, he is the nicest, most pleasant sheriff there ever was. After a series of awkward interactions, it becomes clear that the townspeople are blind to his niceness.
What makes each of these scenes hilarious is their comic strip-like simplicity. In one scene, Bart and a friend are sinking in quicksand (they yell, “QUICKSAAAAAND!”) Two white cowboys approach and send out a rope, only to rescue a tractor that’s sinking next to Bart. When Bart and his friend finally make it to land, the head cowboy yells, “well boy’s the break’s over. Don’t just lay there gettin’ a suntan.” The situation is charged with unfairness, but none of the characters argue against it. Bart’s pain goes unnoticed and the cowboy’s sins are amplified as if they were in an echo chamber. This isn’t funny, but the framework is. Each scene in Blazing Saddles could be written as a bedtime story for kids, cute embroidered illustrations to match. This allows a highly political subject to be reachable to anyone. The audience feels directly involved in the conflict, so that even the subtlest jokes are detectable. If Bart weren’t so smiley, the movie would quickly lose some of its comedic status.
When I’m looking to watch a comedy, I’m looking to feel better. Blazing Saddles sheds a scrutinizing light on racism, but promises to keep a cheerful attitude while doing it. Of course, a movie’s effect on someone depends entirely on that person. Some movies can make us feel understood by leading us to laugh along with someone who is in the same situation as us. On the contrary, movies can make us feel better about our lives by allowing us to laugh at people who are worse off than us. Or, they can whisk us away to a better realm.
One with fart jokes, fewer consequences, and choreographed dancing.
The good comedies tend to our needs with consistency and intention, which may be the reason It Happened One Night and Blazing Saddles are ranked so highly. I’m an advocate for watching the long-forgotten comedies, but realistically, I might just join you guys for another round of Mean Girls tonight.