Sports comedies exist smack dab in the center of my Venn diagram of favorite hobbies: sports and movies. While detractors may say sports comedies are cinematic fast food, deliciously entertaining but devoid of any real technical merit, I say, “Slow down, asshole.” Sure, the genre’s best offerings possess about as much nuance as a fastball to the crotch (timeless gag), but who actually enjoys applying their critical faculties 24/7? Only snobs can take umbrage with the sports comedy’s promise of laughs and hijinks aplenty. It’s a simple genre, but one of the most reliably amusing.
Part of the genre’s delightfulness stems from its familiarity. Despite dating back to the advent of narrative film (silent-era star Harold Lloyd played a waterboy-turned-football star long before Adam Sandler in 1925’s The Freshman), sports-comedy plot lines usually slot into one of three categories:
1. Unlikely person (or animal) realizes their gift for playing [insert sport here]: With encouragement from [insert quirky secondary figure] and guidance from [insert quirky coach/mentor figure], they ascend the ranks of an established sports hierarchy, upsetting the old guard. The old guard pulls some tricks resulting in a crisis of faith and/or eligibility issue. In the end, our protagonist plays on the biggest stage yet and, in true unlikely fashion, pulls it together to win big.
See: Happy Gilmore, Kingpin, The Waterboy, Cool Runnings, The Replacements, Goon; Air Bud, etc.
2. Established athlete with a storied career faces adversity: After a period of self-pity and/or misbehavin’, our protagonist gets linked up with [insert person that just couldn’t be more different than our lead]. After a rough adjustment period, the once-star athlete learns [insert valuable lesson about life and/or love] and becomes an even better person than they are an athlete.
See: Bull Durham, The Longest Yard, Diamantino, Mr. 3000, Blades of Glory, etc.
3. Pretty much a hijinks story — with elements of both 1 and 2 helping to form something vaguely resembling a sports plot.
See: Caddyshack, Slap Shot, Talladega Nights, Semi-Pro, Space Jam, Major League, etc.
Ultimately, this reliance on genre conventions and tropes makes watching sports comedies not dissimilar from watching any regular-season sporting event: There are always plenty of viewing options, and they’re all pleasant to have on in the background. Sure, they kind of blend together in your memory … unless what you watched features a standout performance at its center. And therein lies the ultimate variable that distinguishes a great sports-comedy film from the regularly entertaining.
Having spent my childhood watching more sports-comedy films than playing any one particular sport, I’ve become intimately acquainted with almost every one of the genre’s character archetypes. They are as follows:
The Superstar is one of the few character archetypes that appears in every sports-comedy movie. Without fail, the Superstar is a flawed human being whose athletic prowess stunts their ability to relate to others. The Superstar’s talents are a God-given gift, which explains why they almost never respond well to adversity (they’ve never had to truly work at or against anything). Never will you see them working hard for their skills because, shit, this is a comedy and what’s funny about working hard? Almost always obnoxious, the Superstar’s usual obliviousness is used to either endear or repulse the audience, making them a bit of a utility player in relation to plot. They can be the film’s villain (Bill Murray in Kingpin), heroine (Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On), or entire B-plot (Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire).
All-Star Performance: Andy Samberg in 7 Days of Hell.
My biggest complaint about his brilliant performance as Aaron Williams, the third Williams sibling (brother to Venus and Serena), is that we only get to spend 45 minutes with him. A pitch-perfect parody of the tennis stars of the 1980s and ’90s, his “Bad Boy of Tennis” character goes into hiding after killing a line judge with a rogue serve and shoving a royal. Eventually, after a stint in Swedish prison, the humbled Superstar comes out of retirement to play the sports’ longest match, which ultimately results in his death. Samberg’s performance represents peak sports-comedy Superstar: a truly pitiable human being who wants nothing but success and to reclaim a spark of his former glory.
Second-Team performances: Ben Stiller in Dodgeball, Bill Murray in Kingpin, Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On, Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire, Margot Robbie in I, Tonya.
The Lovable Underdog
The Lovable Underdog is often a complete outsider uniquely drawn to his or her respective sport — possibly later in life or under extenuating circumstances. Almost nobody believes in this person, except one or two people who say the perfect thing in order to motivate him or her to step up. While the Lovable Underdog’s initial skill level varies from film to film, they make leaps and bounds for the first three quarters of the film until they hit an inevitable wall. The Person Who Knows What to Say can no longer find the right thing to say. Crisis is inevitable. Until, of course, a different person who knows a different thing to say presses the right button. They might not always get the big win, but the Lovable Underdog tries anyway.
All-Star Performance: Buster Keaton in College.
One of the earliest appearances of the Lovable Underdog remains the archetype’s greatest: Buster Keaton in the 1927 silent film College. Playing a high-school valedictorian who makes a graduation speech about how “books are better than athletics,” Keaton changes his tune after a girl he likes tells him she prefers athletes to bookworms (a.k.a. virgins). In an effort to win the girl, Keaton tries his hand at nearly every sport around in the 1920s, and fails at all of them. Well, almost. In the end, he masters one track and field technique in an effort to rescue the girl from her violent, possibly CTE-stricken boyfriend. Would I have ever watched this if I didn’t go to film school? Absolutely not. Does it remain one of my favorite sports-comedy performances? Yes! Was learning about this movie worth however much film-school tuition cost? Jury is definitely out!
Second-Team Performances: Randy Quaid in Kingpin, Alan Tudyk in Dodgeball, Everyone in Cool Runnings.
The Rugged Veteran With As Much Wisdom to Impart As Life Lessons to Learn
Take the Superstar archetype and fast-forward seven to ten years. Boom. It’s the Rugged Veteran With As Much Wisdom to Impart As Life Lessons to Learn. The Rugged Veteran is a reluctant teacher, having had students unwittingly hoisted upon them by an authority figure (GM, coach, warden) or the pressures of life (needs money, is in jail, faces clerical error that leaves them three hits shy of a record). Stuck in the old ways that made them the Superstar, the Rugged Veteran initially refuses to evolve and accept there’s more to life than professional sports. This refusal, of course, leads to some pretty sticky (see: hilarious!) situations. And over the course of the movie, The Rugged Veteran, originally the teacher to younger athletes, becomes the student themselves. This character traditionally shows up in sports rom-coms or dramedies, requiring at least one scene of capital-A acting.
All-Star Performance: Kevin Costner in Bull Durham.
A more heartwarming example of the Rugged Veteran, Kevin Costner embodies the archetype as minor-league vet “Crash” Davis, a catcher demoted to single-A baseball and tasked with training young hotshot pitcher Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (an excellent, dreamy Tim Robbins). Costner gives an all-timer Rugged Veteran speech while telling off potential suitor Susan Sarandon with the iconic “I believe in …” speech. The tenuous relationships between Costner, Sarandon, and Robbins’s characters fuel the rest of the movie as Crash realizes how much he can help Nuke reach his potential — and love can make Crash a better man. Costner gives Dances With Wolves–level intensity in this baseball comedy, making for a completely satisfying character transformation. I mean, by the end, my dude is literally wearing a kimono and boning in the kitchen!
The Idiot With a Heart of Gold
My personal favorite of the sports-comedy character archetypes. The Idiot With a Heart of Gold indulges the common man’s fantasy that anyone athletically gifted must be a complete and total moron. The IWAHG’s brain can barely comprehend the roots of their own athletic ability, much less any worldly issues. The origin of each character’s stupidity differs, but it’s typically compounded by a life spent in the gym or surrounded by hangers-on. Whereas an idiot could provide entertainment enough, it’s the Heart of Gold that gives the character a pathos that makes the laughs stick.
All-Star Performance: Carloto Carro in Diamantino.
Diamantino, a deeply bizarre Portuguese soccer comedy about a Cristiano Ronaldo–type superstar, features Carloto Carro giving one of the greatest sports comedy performances of the past decade as Diamantino Matamouros. The utterly clueless but well-meaning Diamantino can only attribute his on-field success to “the puppies” he hallucinates while playing, which guide him through defenders to victory. After missing a penalty kick in the World Cup, Diamantino can no longer find his giant Pekingese and promises to dedicate his life to helping “the [re]fugees.” His idiocy and goodwill are perpetually exploited by no less than his sisters, a pair of government officials, a genetic physicist, and several right-wing nutjobs. A bonkers story grounded by Carro’s iconic performance as a slack-jawed footballer with abs of marble.
Second-Team Performances: Kit Harrington in 7 Days in Hell, Seann William Scott in Goon, Bill Murray in Caddyshack.
The [Blank] Who’s Actually a [Blank]
Truly the most unfortunate of the sports-comedy character archetypes. The [Blank] Who’s Actually a [Blank] mostly functions as a vehicle for cheap, mean-spirited jokes (Johnny Knoxville in The Ringer, Miguel A. Nunez Jr. in Juwanna Mann, Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man). Chuckle-worthy when you’re a kid, maybe, but incredibly cringeworthy in hindsight.
Let’s just say there are no all-stars here.
The Wildly Prone to Violence
A character type with diminishing returns now that we all know about CTE. Still, the Wildly Prone to Violence plays off the audience’s transparent love of carnage and hard hits. Feared by opponents, the Wildly Prone to Violence typically plays the part of a true team player, protecting their own while feasting on opponents. In the locker room, these characters are always the weirdos and outcasts, often unknowingly the subject of others’ ridicule. Their penchant for violence gives them an outlet to make connections with others since their personalities leave plenty to be desired.
All-Star Performance: Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, and David Hanson in Slap Shot.
Slap Shot captures the appealing brutality of sports better than any other movie, and the Hansons’ violence exists at the film’s core. The Hanson Brothers could almost fall into the Idiot category, but there’s no heart of gold in any of these psychopaths. All three actors actually played minor league hockey and their familiarity with sports violence rings truer than any other performance of this variety. Theirs are gritty and realistic performances, played so straight you can’t help but laugh.
Second-Team Performances: Adam Sandler in The Waterboy, Jon Favreau in The Replacements, Liev Schreiber in Goon.
If Adam Sandler kept the mainstream sports comedy afloat in the mid-to-late 1990s, Will Ferrell brought the genre to a new zenith in the 2000s. Whereas Sandler’s films engage with sports culture, Ferrell’s films use pro sports as a launching pad for both his trademark histrionics and satire of the capitalist professional sports machine. This duality makes the Will Ferrell archetype simultaneously stupider and headier than your average sports comedy character. These are (mostly) brilliant comedic performances that just happen to fit squarely in the genre of sports comedy.
All-Star Performance: Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights.
The stupid-smart dichotomy of a Will Ferrell sports-comedy performance is best exemplified in Talladega Nights. On one hand, you have Will Ferrell doing his overgrown man-child thing, running around shirtless, pretending to be on fire like the elite physical comedian he is. On the other, you have a searing indictment of ubiquitous product placement: “If you don’t chew Big Red, fuck you.”
It’s a performance possessing elements of all four previously mentioned character archetypes: It’s stunningly stupid and sneakily smart.
Second-Team Performances: Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro, Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory.
The Beatnik Who Just Doesn’t Respect Golf Culture
Pretty simple premise here: Golf culture sucks and the game’s stodgy gatekeepers need to be taken down a peg. These characters provide the raucous energy that’s otherwise missing from a sport requiring silence, focus, and collared shirts. All these characters love playing golf, they just love hijinks and a good time even more!
All-Star Performance: Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack.
Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Czervik isn’t as much a character as he is Rodney Dangerfield with a different name. His whole narrative arc is roasting the uptight Judge Smails (Ted Knight) and partying.
Second-Team Performances: Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore, Bruce Bruce in Who’s Your Caddy?
The Lovable Underdog
Essentially the Lovable Underdog archetype but go literal on the dog part. The dog (who is sometimes an ape) embodies pure joy when they’re on the court/field/pitch/etc., but without fail, some uptight, fun-hating authoritarian figure points out the rule that prevents animals from playing sports alongside humans. The townspeople get upset (and it’s always townspeople — none of these gifted animals get playing time on major-market teams) and rally around the resilient animal, who always vaguely seems to understand they’re being oppressed.
All-Star Performance: Air Buddy in Air Bud.
You don’t go to Italy and order ramen. You don’t talk about the Underdog and not show love to the titular star of Air Bud, the crème de la crème of animal performers. Could have used more than three minutes of Air Bud draining buckets, though.
Second-Team Performances: Ed in Ed; Jack in MVP: Most Valuable Primate.
The Actual Athlete
A staple of so many sports comedies: the Actual Athlete. A stroke of cosmic justice, if you will — for if an actor can play an athlete, why not let an athlete play the role of actor? The answer, of course, is that pretending to be an athlete is famously much easier than its opposite. The best performances come from athletes who have inherently funny off-court personas (Charles Barkley in Space Jam) or own up to real-life transgressions for a laugh after years of scaring off accusers with legal intimidation (Lance Armstrong in Tour De Pharmacy). That’s not to say athletes can’t be funny (see: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in Airplane!), just rarely when they’re showing up as themselves in the context of their actual profession.
All-Star Performance: Lee Trevino in Happy Gilmore.
I doubt I’m the only person who didn’t realize Lee Trevino was a professional PGA golfer with six major championships under his belt the first time I saw Happy Gilmore. Not because I was 8 years old and oblivious to pre-Tiger Woods-era PGA, but rather because how could such a funny-looking man be a professional athlete. Every facial expression Lee Trevino makes in Happy Gilmore is nothing short of a revelation. When Happy’s golf instructor, Chubbs, falls out a window and Lee Trevino looks back up at Happy in astonishment? Pure comedic bliss. When Lee chimes in about Grizzly Adams’s beard at the end of an argument between Happy and Shooter? Laugh-out-loud funny every time.
There have been plenty of sports cameos in Adam Sandler’s movies but nobody other than Lee Trevino managed to actually outperform the Sandman himself.
Second-Team Performances: Charles Barkley in Space Jam, Lawrence Taylor in The Waterboy, Lance Armstrong in Tour De Pharmacy.