Comedy was among the first film genres to gain global appreciation during the early days of cinema. This is hardly surprising given that such films were silent and that comedy has a universal appeal that can entirely forgo language, particularly slapstick or physical comedy, and still generate big laughs. However this shouldn’t limit our admiration for those that actually produce such memorable film moments; the comedians. Being funny on cue isn’t as easy as these geniuses have made it seem and is even more difficult if it has to be done over and over to get the scene just right. The legacy of film is ripe with the stars and talents who have made cinema comedy one of its most popular genres. Let’s take a closer look at the top 10 most influential comedians in film history.
10) Jerry Lewis
Okay the guy really only has one grade A film to his credit granted, but The Nutty Professor can rightfully claim to be his masterpiece. Lewis took the idea of an uber nerd that becomes Captain Cool by virtue of turning his scientific prowess into comedy gold, and set THE standard for the genre. It’s impossible to watch this film and not feel wholly empathetic to the plight of a schmuck who discovers the miracle of personality transference that gave his character a hip, cool alter ego in the form of one Buddy Love, the swingingest hip cat this side of James Bond. Although many might claim that Lewis is basically a one trick pony, when your pony is this enduring, that’s all he really needs.
9) Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy emerged from the shadows of Saturday Night Live in 1982 with Nick Nolte in 48 Hours and literally created the interracial buddy/cop movie. The film was a huge smash and made Murphy an overnight superstar. Though Richard Pryor had paved the way, Eddie actually owned the road. He starred in one hit film after another since the 1980s to the present, generating billions in ticket sales. He made a career playing the wisecracking, street smart hustler who makes good and provided countless belly laughs doing so. There appears to be no stopping EM’s success or his seemingly effortless ability to connect with filmgoers the world over.
8) Cheech and Chong
At no other time in history before the late ’70s could a film about two dope smoking hippies get a green light in Hollywood, much less a franchise. But in 1978, counter culture comedians Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong released Up in Smoke and the rest is groovy history baby, right on man. The film was a major hit for Paramount and put the stoner comedy on the map forever. There was just something about these two involved in one hazy, smoky adventure after another, fueled exclusively by herb that appealed to audiences worldwide, and the hilarity kept on coming. C&C ushered in an era of modern, culturally relevant comedies that continues to this day; without them the idea of Pineapple Express would never have come to fruition (pardon the pun).
7) Richard Pryor
Not long before Richard Pryor came along, Black comedians were essentially character actors with a few lines uttered while shining shoes or waiting tables. But with the release of Silver Streak in 1976, Pryor made it clear that all that had changed. The film was a major hit and had Pryor sharing top billing with co-stars Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh, which was pretty much a first in Hollywood. His wisecracking repartee with Wilder was the highlight of the movie and made Pryor a serious movie star. It would be difficult to imagine the appearance of Eddie Murphy or Kevin Hart without Pryor’s enormous influence. Already a major concert draw with a score of lesser films under his belt, he easily transformed himself into a box office star. Tragically he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1985, finally succumbing to a heart attack in 2005.
6) Lucille Ball
Lovely, talented, shrewd and incredibly savvy, who couldn’t love Lucy? Though her film career pales in comparison to her legendary television status, it’s worth noting the immense impact LB had on comedy, particularly when it comes to ownership, production and studio management as well as women being headliners. Together with husband Desi Arnaz they created Desilu Studios which produced dozens of hit TV shows. There is no denying that Lucy’s legacy has been to immortalize her character from I Love Lucy as one of the most popular and iconic performances in the history of the medium, but let’s not forget that at a time when women were expected to keep their opinions and ambitions to themselves, Lucille Ball was the head of her own studio and the star of the most popular television program in America.
5) Judy Holliday
Her Oscar winning performance in Born Yesterday, a film adapted from a Broadway role she originated, proved that Judy Holliday had it all; talent, beauty and an amazing ability to endear herself in the hearts of millions. Her signature role as Billie Dawn, the seemingly simple girlfriend of a loudmouthed mobster who proves her mettle in more ways than one, is the one most associated with JH, but she was so much more; a wonderful singer, splendid actress and a beloved Broadway star. Unfortunately her career was typecast as a result and she never did experience the range of roles she deserved. Sadly she succumbed to cancer in 1965 at the age of 44, but left behind an archetypal ditzy, lovable character that continues to delight audiences today.
4) Mae West
If anyone would have said in the early 1930s that a sexually charged seductress with an endless stream of double entendres would take prim and proper Hollywood by storm, they would’ve been locked up. NO ONE was ready for this one woman firecracker who revolutionized the idea that women could be portrayed as sexually aware and active creatures on screen and the sun would still rise the next day. There’s no trivializing how influential Mae West was in normalizing the idea that women could be just as sexually aggressive as men, and ten times as effective at it. While some of her banter may seem tame by today’s standards, Mae West was anything but tame in the eyes of her fans, both men and women alike, who found her sassy, self assured sexuality to be just what the doctor ordered. Every single comedienne who followed in her wake owes her for setting the cinematic standard for feminism before the term was even coined.
3) The Marx Brothers
The term ‘slapstick’ may have been applied to other film comics, but it has become synonymous with these four fraternal cinema icons. Though Zeppo, Chico, Groucho and Harpo (a fifth brother, Gummo, left the act to enlist in World War I, later representing Groucho as a talent agent) came from a Vaudeville background, and they clearly felt this affinity with a live audience gave their movies a sense of pure madcap delirium that was utterly original. In a time of uncertainty during the Great Depression, a Marx Brothers comedy was the perfect means of briefly escaping the chaos of reality to a place where laughter was the only currency. Watching these guys fire off a never ending stream of one-liners accompanied by ever whacky physical gags is still a wonder to behold. It would be impossible to imagine the likes of Phil Silvers, Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers or Robin Williams without the unmistakable influence of the Marx Brothers to inspire them.
2) Charlie Chaplin
The Little Tramp can justifiably claim to be one of Hollywood’s first superstars. Chaplin’s genius was infusing his namesake character with a familiarity that gave him a truly global appeal; people instantly related to his hapless diminutive hobo and his zany, complex antics. Unlike virtually every other silent film star of Chaplin’s era, he was able to survive, at least in part, the transition to sound, releasing what is widely considered his masterpiece The Great Dictator in 1940. After a self imposed exile in Europe resulting from his Leftist political leanings and the lingering backlash from his marriage to then 18-year-old Oona O’Neill (estranged daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill) in 1943, Chaplin finally returned to America for the last time in 1972 to receive a long overdue Honorary Academy Award for his contributions to the medium of film. History however will forever hold a place for him among cinema’s elite and Chaplin’s one of a kind performances continue to inspire fans of his wholly unique talent.
1) Buster Keaton
Keaton was literally brought up on a Vaudeville stage as a toddler and by age 20, was embracing the new medium of motion pictures with an enduring brilliance. What this guy achieved on film is nothing short of astonishing. Blessed with a physicality that would be the envy of any athlete, BK literally made his films come alive with frantically energetic and often incredibly dangerous stunts that still amaze audiences today. The apparent ease with which he pulled off these mind blowing acts of comedy genius belied the intricate planning and precision timing that Keaton’s perfectionist personality demanded. The results are some of the most hilarious and incredulous scenes ever captured on film. There is simply no measuring the depth of his lasting influence that can be seen in everyone from the 1930s to the present day in comedic movies.