In the days leading up to the release of Tower Heist, one of the many, many stories I read about Eddie Murphy stated that from roughly 1982-1986, the actor had the greatest five-year stretch of any comedian, ever. The writer was including not only his gig as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but also his stand-up routine and his films. That got me wondering whether, in fact, Murphy did have the best half-decade of all-time, with one exception: to only include movies. So, I looked at the filmography of every lauded, respected, and hilarious comedian (and I chose only people who we’d think of as comedians first, otherwise Joe Pesci from 1989-1993 would have owned this thing – Goodfellas, Home Alone, AND My Cousin Vinny?!?) since 1960 for the quality of the films they released in a single five-year range. Here are my results below, which seperates the comedies and non-comedies for every actor and actress, and I’m as surprised as you are that Steve Martin wasn’t included.
#10. John Candy, 1986-1990
Comedies: Armed and Dangerous, Little Shop of Horrors, Spaceballs, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, She’s Having a Baby, Hot to Trot, Who’s Harry Crumb?, Speed Zone!, Uncle Buck, Masters of Menace, Home Alone, The Rescuers Down Under
I’m only 24, and I already feel too old for most of John Hughes’ movies. When you’re out of high school and have graduated college, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink feel overly sentimental, unrealistic, and unnecessarily melodramatic. But know which of Hughes’ movies are still great? Nope, not Baby’s Day Out, but rather, any featuring John Candy, Uncle Buck himself. Candy appears briefly, yet memorably in Home Alone as the Polka King of the Midwest, and he’s at his best in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, while Little Shop of Horrors, Spaceballs, and The Great Outdoors wouldn’t be the same without Candy’s larger-than-life, big-hearted presence. He even made for a convincing albatross.
#9. Seth Rogen, 2005-2009
Comedies: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, You, Me, and Dupree, Shrek the Third, Knocked Up, Superbad, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Horton Hears a Who!, Kung Fu Panda, Step Brothers, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Pineapple Express, Fanboys, Monsters vs. Aliens, Observe and Report, Funny People
Non-Comedies: Paper Heart
In 2007-2009 alone, Seth Rogen starred in 14 movies, 15 if you include his “Ranger In the Helicopter” voice from Strange Wilderness. Though some were total duds (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Paper Heart), his filmography in that three-year span does include instant classics Knocked Up, Step Brothers, Superbad, and Pineapple Express, the last two of which he co-wrote, as well as the stand-out animated comedies, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens. And if you stretch the range back further to 2005, you include The 40-Year-Old Virgin, one of the funniest and most important comedies of the past 20 years, with Rogen’s character, Cal, appearing in maybe the film’s most memorable (and totally improvised) scene. Hint: it involves Coldplay.
#8. Eddie Murphy, 1982-1986
Well, Tower Heist – and the chance of an Eddie Murphy revival – has come and gone, but at least we’ll always have the five films listed above, from the riotous 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop, to the underappreciated The Golden Child, made when Murphy was all of 25 years old. Even more impressive is that Murphy starred in many of these films at the same time as being a regular on Saturday Night Live and touring the country doing stand-up, as seen in the HBO special, Eddie Murphy Delirious.
#7. Madeline Kahn, 1972-1976
Comedies: What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood
Non-Comedies: At Long Last Love
Madeline Kahn, who Mel Brooks once called “one of the most talented people that ever lived,” was rarely the star of any of her movies, but she was a scene-stealer, the person everyone talked about after seeing the film. Kahn overshadowed Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand in What’s Up, Doc?, and she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Paper Moon (where she played stripper Trixie Delight) and Blazing Saddles, quite possibly the funniest movie of all-time, largely because of Lili Von Shtupp (“Would you like another schnitzengruben?”). And none of those are even her most recognizable role: that would be Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein, just for the final scene of the film alone. True, Won Ton Ton wasn’t very good, but I blame the dog.
#6. Woody Allen, 1969-1973
It came down to Better vs. Funnier for Woody Allen. It’s not a stretch to argue that romantic comedies Annie Hall and Manhattan (and The Front and Stardust Memories to a slightly lesser extent) are better movies than slapstick Take the Money, Sleeper, etc., but they’re also not as funny. Bananas, in particular, might be Allen’s most hilarious film (“I’m doing a sociological study on perversion. I’m up to Advanced Child Molesting”), because it feels like an extension of the comedian’s lauded stand-up act. Another reason: a friend once said that a Bob Dylan album is only as good as its name (Blonde on Blonde, great title, great album; Knocked Out Loaded, awful title, awful album); the same goes for Allen’s character names in his films, and Fielding Mellish is just slightly better than Alvy Singer.
#5. Will Ferrell, 2001-2005
Comedies: Zoolander, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Boat Trip, Old School, Elf, Melinda and Melinda, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Starsky & Hutch, The Producers, Wedding Crashers, Winter Passing, Bewitched, Kicking & Screaming, The Wendell Baker Story
To not point out the awfulness of Boat Trip, Melinda and Melinda (such a good idea, such bad execution!), The Producers, Bewitched, and Kicking & Screaming would be unfair to you, the reader, so: Boat Trip, etc. are terrible, terrible movies. So, why is Will Ferrell on this list, and why so high? Because Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Starsky & Hutch, Wedding Crashers, Winter Passing, and The Wendell Baker Story are all good movies, and Zoolander, Old School, Elf, and Anchorman are all very good-to-great. Elf, in particular, is the one that stands out the most to me, not only because it became an instant holiday classic and it’s very funny (“I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR”), but also because of Ferrell’s nuanced performance. If another actor had played Buddy, the character could very easily have been exasperating and annoying; the way Ferrell plays him, he’s charming. I regret not being able to include Talladega Nights (as well as Stranger Than Fiction) on this list, by the way, but I would have had to drop Zoolander, and c’mon, Mugatu’s funnier than Ricky Bobby.
#4. Gene Wilder, 1970-1974
Comedies: Start the Revolution without Me, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Rhinoceros, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein
Non-Comedies: The Little Prince
This was a tough choice because it pitted Gene Wilder against his frequent creative partner, Mel Brooks. I chose Wilder because his presence is larger in Blazing Saddles* and Young Frankenstein (which he co-wrote), and also because Willy Wonka and Everything You Always Wanted to Know are superior to the films that fit into Brooks’ 1974-1978 span, Silent Movie and High Anxiety. No one has ever done high-class absurdity quite as well as Wilder, and his performance as Willy Wonka is one of cinema’s greatest. If only his final (for now) IMDb credit wasn’t for Will & Grace…
*My three favorite Waco Kid quotes from my favorite comedy of all-time: 3) “I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille”; 2) “What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?”; and 1) “Well, my name is Jim, but most people call me… Jim.”
#3. Jim Carrey, 1994-1998
Non-Comedies: Batman Forever, The Truman Show, Simon Birch
The January 1996 issue of Disney Adventures, which was to eight-year-old Josh what The New Yorker is to 65-year-old Upper West Siders, featured Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura on the cover. The magazine blared, “WIN ACE VENTURA’S MOVIE COSTUME,” and inside, there were instructions on how to dress yourself and style your hair like the pet detective, just in case you didn’t win and nature called. Before The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family was published a year later, this issue (which also contained a Holiday Movie Guide – I wonder if Dracula: Dead and Loving It was included?) was my Bible.
I hadn’t re-watched either of the Ace films since I turned double digits in age until relatively recently, and I was shocked to see how well they held up. There’s just something about a guy talking out of his butt that’s always going to be funny (ditto two dudes walking around in hideous blue and orange tuxedos and a man beating himself up in a public bathroom), no matter whether you’re an eight-year-old who loves Disney Adventures or a 24-year-old who hasn’t seen an animated Disney film in the theaters since 1999’s Tarzan.
And if you don’t love The Truman Show, you’re a monster.
#2. Peter Sellers, 1963-1967
Comedies: The Wrong Arm of the Law, Heavens Above!, The Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The World of Henry Orient, A Shot In the Dark, What’s New Pussycat, The Wrong Box, After the Fox, Casino Royale, Woman Times Seven, The Bobo
Before guys like Adam Sandler and later-era Eddie Murphy pretty much ruined the concept, a single actor playing multiple roles in the same movie was a sight to behold. It’s already tough enough to make an audience laugh as one character, but to have to do the same as two or even three characters is nearly impossible. As Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular doctor in Stanley Kubrick’s dark-comedy masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers gave the performance (performances?) of a lifetime, and he was deservedly rewarded with a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. Yet Sellers is probably best known now as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series, a role he would play in six films, none as successfully as the 1963 original.
#1. Bill Murray, 1980-1984
Non-Comedies: The Razor’s Edge
There are three separate ranges of Bill Murray’s career that could be included on this list, not including the one I actually chose, none including such worthy efforts as What About Bob? and Scrooged: 1993-1997, with Groundhog Day, Mad Dog and Glory, Ed Wood, Kingpin, Larger than Life (so much better than Operation Dumbo Drop), Space Jam, and The Man Who Knew Too Little; 1998-2002, with Wild Things, Rushmore, Cradle Will Rock, Charlie’s Angels, Hamlet, Osmosis Jones, and The Royal Tenenbaums; and 2003-2007, with Lost in Translation, Coffee and Cigarettes, Garfield: The Movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Broken Flowers, The Lost City, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, and The Darjeeling Limited.
To make my decision, I asked a friend to do a word association. I instructed him to say Bill Murray and I’d respond with the first character of his that came to mind. He said Bill Murray, I responded, “Venkman!” It’s not the most scientific evaluation, no, but are you really going to argue against Ghostbusters and Caddyshack and Tootsie and Stripes? And that’s the FACT, Jack. Also, none of the movies in the first range involve Michael Jordon, elephants, zookeepers, angels, or Garfield.