The “fish out of water” formula has been a go-to storyline since cinema’s early days, with filmmakers getting a lot of mileage out of plucking familiar characters from their bowls and tossing them into unfamiliar, non-aquatic settings. Using a fish out of water story can be a quick and effective way to engineer a functional comedy, but this trope isn’t always as transparent and contrived as it seems in the likes of Beverly Hills Ninja or Encino Man. The best fish out of water stories are a little more cleverly-disguised, and some of the greatest comedies ever made happen to fall into this category. Here’s a rundown of some of the best fish out of water comedies ever made.
10. Knocked Up (2007)
The fish: Aspiring porn site entrepreneur/pothead Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen)
New territory: Expectant fatherhood
It only takes one drunken mistake to send Seth Rogen’s unemployed stoner into uncharted territory for someone who’s avoided responsibility at every turn. After unintentionally getting Katherine Heigl’s entertainment reporter Allison Scott pregnant, Ben Stone does the right thing and decides to raise the kid with her. What follows is a crisis for Ben, who is forced to leave his pot-heavy lifestyle behind to start reading child-rearing books, shopping for baby stuff, and threatening to kill flaky obstetricians.
9. After Hours (1985)
The fish: Bookish desk jockey Paul Hackett (played by Griffin Dunne)
New territory: A nightmarish night in New York’s SoHo district
Martin Scorsese’s Reagan era black comedy After Hours is an unfairly overlooked gem that has earned favorable reviews despite not making a big splash upon its initial release. The film mixes comedic elements with a pervading sense of paranoia not found in most comedies, creating a fast-paced, anxiety-ridden story that can really suck an audience in. Scorsese reigns in supporting turns from comedic performers like Catherine O’Hara, Terri Garr, and Cheech & Chong and a wickedly dark screenplay from Joseph Minion to create a distinctive and frightening look at being lost in a big city without any money.
8. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The fish: UK slackers Shaun and Ed (played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, respectively)
New territory: Zombie apocalypse
Comedies don’t always have the most inventive visual style. Unlike other genres, they don’t rely too heavily on the aesthetics of film, instead putting the focus on performance and wit. Director Edgar Wright’s films, though, are exceptions. Wright’s directing technique is fully-formed with his first feature, Shaun of the Dead, which utilizes his affinity for quick cuts and other inventive stylistic choices that heighten the comedy, rather than distracting from it. Astute comedy fans knew the work of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright from the TV series Spaced years before; but, for those who aren’t in the know, Shaun of the Dead was a fitting introduction to this trio’s work. I can think of very few examples of a song being used as effectively in a movie than Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” during the zombie gore-filled scene in the pub.
7. Big (1988)
The fish: Typical 13-year old Josh Baskin (played by Tom Hanks)
New territory: Sudden adulthood
At some point in our lives, everyone has made a wish or two to a haunted fortune-telling machine that had unexpected consequences, but no one’s learned their lesson quite like Josh Baskin. Josh, like most kids, couldn’t wait to grow up and expressed this desire to a creepy fortune teller machine, only to find himself in the body of a 30-year old. At first, Josh takes to being an adult like a … um, a fish to water, and he lands a cushy job at a toy company that perfectly suits his childlike nature. Over time, however, he begins to miss the innocence of childhood, as well as his family and friends, and starts yearning for his old life back. You can’t blame him; even adults with adult minds in their bodies want to be kids again when faced with their first jobs.
6. Being There (1979)
The fish: Simple-minded shut-in Chance (played by Peter Sellers)
New territory: Leaving his sheltered life and venturing into the world outside
Hal Ashby’s one of the most esteemed directors of the 1970’s, which was a fertile decade for American cinema, and the comedy-drama Being There is his last great film. It’s also an excellent career capper for star Peter Sellers (let’s forget about his actual final film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, and treat his second-to-last as his swan song). As naïve gardener Chance, Sellers delivers of one of his finest performances and proves to be as skilled with drama as he is with comedy.
5. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
The fish: Guffawing Detroit lawman Axel Foley (played by Eddie Murphy)
New territory: By-the-book Beverly Hills policing
Eddie Murphy was well-poised before Beverly Hills Cop’s release with two hit movies under his belt, as well as a stint at SNL that was largely responsible for saving the show from the clutches of cancelation. Beverly Hills Cop, though, is the movie that pushed his career into the stratosphere, becoming the highest grossing film of 1984 and besting blockbusters like Ghostbusters and that year’s Indiana Jones installment at the box office. The film earned an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, which is a rare feat for a comedy, let alone an action-comedy. Beverly Hills Cop stands as one of the finest examples of a quality action-comedy, and it’s still Eddie Murphy’s highest-grossing non-Shrek film to date by a long shot.
4. Some Like it Hot (1959)
The fish: Out-of-work musicians Joe and Terry (played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, respectively)
New territory: Posing as women in an all-girl traveling band to escape from the mob
Shakespeare had used cross-dressing in his comedies first, but Some Like it Hot was the gender-switching movie comedy that inspired a subgenre that’s still with us to this day. From the good (Tootsie, Victor Victoria) to the not-so-good (the Big Momma’s House trilogy, White Chicks), all of these films owe a little something to Some Like it Hot. Writer/director Billy Wilder manages to keep things grounded in a way that later filmmakers couldn’t when tackling similar stories and pulls some great performances out of his actors and actresses. This was the first of two back-to-back classics from Billy Wilder and actor Jack Lemmon, the other being 1960’s The Apartment.
3. Sleeper (1973)
The fish: Health food store owner Miles Monroe (played by Woody Allen)
New territory: A totalitarian state 200 years in the future
Woody Allen’s sci-fi satire Sleeper is amongst the most beloved of his early comedies, and it’s not hard to see why. The film works on many levels and shows off the Woody Allen’s fast-paced, gag-driven early 70’s style at its best. The plotline, which involved a cryogenically frozen man waking up in a radically-different future, predates both Futurama and Idiocracy, which draw from similar subject matter. Sleeper was also notable for being the first film in which Woody Allen directed Diane Keaton (although they’d starred alongside each other in Play It Again, Sam), the start of a fruitful creative partnership that resulted in some of the most revered film comedies of all time.
2. It Happened One Night (1934)
The fish: Pampered heiress Ellie Andrews (played by Claudette Colbert)
New territory: Traveling cross country by bus and hitchhiking
One of only three films in history to sweep the Oscars by winning each of the “Big Five” prizes (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), It Happened One Night still holds up fine nearly 80 years later. In addition to being a well-told fish out of water story, director Frank Capra’s film is also a prototype of the screwball comedy subgenre that would dominate Hollywood throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s. Frank Capra gets a lot of mileage out of Ellie Andrews experiencing life outside of her bubble for the first time while on the road with Clark Gable’s out-of-work reporter. Although Capra created many classics throughout his career, few, if any, ever reached the heights of It Happened One Night.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
The fish: 1980’s teenager Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox)
New territory: The 1950’s
Director Robert Zemeckis’s time-traveling classic Back to the Future was the birth of a wildly-popular franchise and a well-executed sci-fi/comedy that threw its hero into a frightening new world. A lot of difficult challenges are put in Marty McFly’s way. He’s tasked with getting his high school-aged parents together so that he and his siblings will actually be born, as well as making it back to the 1980’s to save Doc Brown’s life from Libyan terrorists. Sure, the story inconsistencies you’d expect from a complicated time travel story are present (why don’t Marty McFly’s parents realize that their son looks exactly like their acquaintance Marty who vanished 30 years earlier?), but it’s still a thrilling, unique and complex genre hybrid that I can’t praise enough.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.