Top Ten – Comedy Ensembles

The comedy ensemble is the direct descendant of Vaudeville, which is what people went to go see before there were movies.  Groups of performers would tour the country and deliver to their adoring public a cavalcade of random music, comedy, drama, and pretty much anything they could think of that wouldn’t get tomatoes thrown at them.  Among these groups, the most popular were often the comedy teams.

Here are my top ten comedy ensembles from the movies, based on influence and creativity.   The definition of a comedy ensemble for purposes of this list are: at least three people including directors, at least two of which appear in at least two different movies of the same style.  The ensemble has to be represented in at least four movies total.  Sequels involving the same characters or an extension of the same plot do not count. “Double Acts” do not count either.

10.  “The Frat Pack” (Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Christine Taylor) Movies:  Zoolander (2001), Old School (2003), Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy (2004), Wedding Crashers (2004).

The first entry on our list is the ill-defined “Frat Pack” of the early 2000’s.  For purposes of this list, I’m not counting the Wes Anderson or Judd Apatow pieces that some consider part of this particular set.  Also, I don’t particularly care for the name “Frat Pack” since I feel as though it’s a bit pejorative (Ben Stiller is on record as agreeing).  Besides, it’s an allusion to the Rat Pack, and these actors did not collaborate as closely as the Rat Pack did by their own admission.

So why such a recent group on the list?  The “R” rated comedy ensemble film had been a lost art since the early 1980’s, and this group is responsible for a revival of that form.  Also, the quality writing of these films is reflected in the fact that they are quoted in casual conversation more often than any films released in the last ten years.

9. The Hawkes/Cukor/Capra Screwball Comedy Actors (Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur) Films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

The Screwball Comedies of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s featured some of the most talented actors of the Hollywood Golden Age.  The films of Howard Hawkes, George Cukor, and Frank Capra stand apart as the finest works of this genre. These three directors cast their best works from the same pool of actors, and in doing so, organically created a loosely connected comedy ensemble.

What is a Screwball Comedy?  A fast paced, witty, usually romantic comedy usually involving a battle of the sexes or class conflict.  While modern romantic comedies are not as absurd as their screwball ancestors tended to be, almost any romantic comedy you see today can be traced back to these films that contained some combination of the actors listed above, and almost always Cary Grant.

8. “The Road Movies” Ensemble (Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamar) Films: The Road to Singapore (1940), The Road to Zanzibar (1941), The Road to Morocco (1942), The Road to Utopia (1946), The Road to Rio (1947), The Road to Bali (1952), the Road to Hong Kong (1962).

As soon as there were movies, there were movies making fun of other movies. The logical extension of the Hollywood golden age was a series of films starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamar called “The Road Movies.”  The plot didn’t matter, the script was often improvised, and none of Hollywood’s finest achievements were sacred.

The popularity of the Road movies opened up the doors for other satires.  From the good (Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane (1980), The Naked Gun (1988), South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut (1999)) to the bad, these movies owe a great debt to to Road movies.  And the best part is that the three principals were pretty much just goofing off the entire time.

7. The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop) Films: Ocean’s 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), 4 for Texas (1963), Marriage on the Rocks (1965), The Cannonball Run (1981).

Were the Rat Pack really a comedy ensemble?  Probably not in the purest sense, since comedy was often third or fourth on their agenda after chasing tail, drinking, and music.  The name itself was coined by Humphrey Bogart to describe his 1950’s Hollywood drinking club.  Sinatra’s 1960’s group called themselves “the Summit,” but thanks to the media, the Rat Pack name stuck to their group rather than Boggie’s (although there were several common members, like Sinatra himself).

The Rat Pack are remembered as cool first and foremost – even at Dean Martin’s most drunken and incoherent.  The style itself was more prominent in their off-screen endeavors than their films.  Still, if it wasn’t for the films that style wouldn’t have reached such a wide audience,  and may not have become the definitive combination of comedy and cool.

6. Mel Brooks’ Ensemble (Mel Brooks, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Dom Deluise, Gene Wilder) Films: The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974), The Young Frankenstein (1974), Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World, Part 1 (1981).

Mel Brooks is one of the funniest people ever to get behind, or in front of, a camera.  He is a master of satire, timing, and dialogue.  Admittedly, his humor often comes from a dark place, but shows us that the best way to disarm a monster is to drag it out into the open, put it in tights, and make it into an object of ridicule.

In several of his earliest films, he assembled a brilliant cast that brought his hilarious vision to life.  Where did he find these brilliant people?  You’d have to ask him – but by finding them and putting them together he created a type of comedy where nothing is sacred, nothing is off limits, and there are absolutely no rules.

5. The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Curly Howard, Larry Fine, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser, Joe “Curly Joe” DeRita) Films: Over 220 Films between 1934 and 1975

In the 1920’s, two brothers, Moe and Curly Howard, and their friend Larry Fine joined a Vaudeville act led called “Ted Healy and his Stooges.”  By 1933 they had their own film contract with MGM.  The rest is history.  Even three decades after the deaths of Moe Howard and Larry Fine, the act is still a staple of Sunday morning syndication and still has legions of fans.

So what has made the Three Stooges the most enduring ensemble in all of American comedy?  The short, simple storylines focusing on slapstick comedy are certainly part of the reason, as the Stooges’ antics provide a quick and funny escape from daily life.  Their mastery of the quick, funny, and basic slapstick routine inspired unnumbered masters of physical comedy, and continue to do so today.

4. Monty Python (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin)  Films: And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), Monty Python and Holy Grail (1974), Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983).

And now for something completely different.  For a long time Hollywood thought that Americans would never like British comedy.  It is too dry, too goofy, they said.  Boy were they wrong.  Soon after “And Now for Something Completely Different,” a compilation of greatest hits from their television series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” started touring American college campuses, the Pythons became one of the most popular comedy teams of all time.

The Pythons’ most notable features are their goofy, often dark, usually dry, comedy. Like the work of Mel Brooks around the same time, their work infused an anything-goes style of comedy that was lacking in Hollywood, albeit from a different perspective.  The influence of their comedy can especially be seen in popular television shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

3.  The National Lampoon Radio Hour Team/Original Cast of Saturday Night Live (John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, John Landis (Director)) Films: National Lampoon’s Animal House (1979),  The Blues Brothers (1980), Caddyshack (1980),  Stripes (1981), National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Ghostbusters (1984). 

The popularity of Saturday Night Live, and some of the most beloved comedies of the 1980’s can be credited to a team that started working together on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a syndicated radio series created by the staff of National Lampoon Magazine.  The Radio Hour became a feeder during the early years of SNL, which launched the film careers of this team, most of whom remain household names and working actors today.

The success of this ensemble helped turn SNL, and its feeder system of New York and Chicago comedy clubs, into a pipeline to fame for dozens of comedic actors.  Certainly many more individuals behind the scenes have made this possible, and I only named the some members of this ensemble who created the films listed above.  Indeed, the rich collection of talents that this process has brought to the American public over the last three decades is far too numerous to name here.

2. The Muppets (Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, et. al.)  Films: The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), Muppets from Space (1999), The Muppets (2011).

For many of us, the Muppets brought us our first experience with performed comedy.  But the genius of Jim Henson and his team’s creation is that it appeals to both adults and children.  As is standard, I have listed the Muppet characters, but men and women behind the Muppets are just as important, although like their creations, too numerous to list here.

The Pixar movies, the Shrek Movies, and anything else that adults and children both enjoy owes a debt of thanks to the Muppets.  That of course isn’t to say that the Muppets can take sole credit for the popularity of their successors (although I’m sure Miss Piggy would beg to disagree).  But the popularity of their style of humor certainly has built an entire floor above their predecessors.

1. The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo Marx) Films: 15 Films between 1921 and 1949 including Animal Crackers (1930), Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and A Night in Casablanca (1946).

In 1912, a family Vaudeville act was interrupted by a loud, braying mule.  Annoyed that the audience had turned their attention from the stage to the suffering animal, one of the performers started cracking a series of jokes at the audience’s expense.  Instead of throwing various fruits and vegetables at the stage, the audience absolutely loved it.  The performer’s name was Julius Henry Marx, better known to posterity as Groucho Marx, and he and his brothers would go on to change the nature of comedy in the United States forever.

I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that none of the other ensembles on this list, with the possible exception of Monty Python, would have become what they became if it weren’t for the path cleared by the Marx Brothers.  Certainly individual comedy was already extremely popular in the movies by 1930, but it was their ensemble comedy that first demonstrated the potential of what a group of comedians, working together, could produce on the screen.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

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