College is among the most formative times in life, at least for the financially fortunate, loan-securing, and/or moderately ambitious among us. This is probably because it’s the first taste of freedom most people get away from home, their parents, and everything else that has defined them for the first 18 years of their lives. The experience is also pretty much similar for everybody.
You know who went to college? Screenwriters and filmmakers. When looking to write what they know, these Hollywood types will make a movie about what it’s like to pursue a degree in liberal arts while a character also learns a little bit about themselves along the way. And they will do that by drinking a lot and doing sex a bunch, and maybe making a friend or two, and developing a huge rivalry with the mean fraternity. Here, then, are the best college comedies ever made.
Here is a variant on the usual college sports movie, like Rudy or Glory Road, where one inspirational figure, be it an underestimated player or a coach in over their head, propels the underdog to victory. Except that Drumline isn’t a trope-filled drama, it’s a pleasant comedy, and it’s not about sports, it’s about the far more cutthroat world of competitive college marching bands. Nick Cannon, who used to be a comedian before he became famous for marrying Mariah Carey and hosting reality shows, is a bundle of charisma as a new-to-college street drummer named Devon who just might have what it takes to make it in this surprisingly and humorously tough world of band geeks. If anything, it’s a nice glimpse into the seldom-explored world of the band on the field at games, and it’s nice to know it’s just as bewildering as the rest of the college experience.
Van Wilder (2002)
There actually is an American Pie set in college — American Pie 2 and a whole bunch of direct-to-video quasi-sequels bearing the brand name that consist mostly of nerdy freshman trying to glimpse breasts — but the true successor to the sex-comedy landmark of the late ’90s is Van Wilder. And that’s not just because Tara Reid is in both. From National Lampoon, the same company that brought us Animal House, comes this story of a “man” that Ryan Reynolds was born to play — a supercool (his name is “Van”) college dude-bro who is clearly afraid to leave college because college is awesome for him, what with the nonstop partying and women throwing themselves at him. It’s like if Zach Morris went to college, which he did in Saved by the Bell: The College Years, but Reynolds is so smarmy and charming that Van Wilder doesn’t come across as a sociopath.
When it came out in the ‘90s, PCU felt like (and was thusly marketed) as an Animal House for the ‘90s, depicting a college’s most squalid, quasi-fraternity and how it just wants to party down in the face of a stuffy, PC-to-a-fault, “political correctness”–enforcing administration. But now, in retrospect, PCU can be seen for what it is: the rare attempt at a libertarian comedy. Port Chester University’s attempts to be inclusive, as well as its being the hotbed of left-wing protests, are thoroughly mocked by the screenwriters and the protagonists, led by a frat dude played by a way-too-old Jeremy Piven and Jon Favreau as a dreadlocked stoner. PCU attempts to make fun of everybody, not just SJWs, plus it’s pretty great when George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars show up to play an impromptu concert and unite all political agendas under one roof, one nation under the groove.
When this Justin Long vehicle was released in 2006, it was a period in which a “Justin Long vehicle” was a thing, high-concept comedies were the norm, and the usual tropes of college movies had been played out. So filmmakers came up with Accepted, which somehow pulls off its preposterous premise: Long plays a guy who doesn’t get into any of the colleges he applied to, so he starts a fake college near his house and accepts as many rejects and misfits as he can handle before the whole scheme blows up in his face. The movie explains it all, but it’s just a nice way to get a disparate group of people into a campus acting like jackasses together, the kind of people who one normally doesn’t see in college movies outside of Revenge of the Nerds.
Back to School (1986)
When Rodney Dangerfield finally got famous after years of struggling in stand-up obscurity, Hollywood paid the respect he was due and jumped on the bug-eyed bandwagon, putting Dangerfield in a bunch of loosely structured comedies where he could do his shtick for 90 minutes. In this one, Dangerfield plays a clothing tycoon, albeit an uneducated tycoon, and when his son (Keith Gordon) goes to college, he goes along, too. The son has been miserable at college, but Dad perks him up when he becomes the most popular guy in school, what with his romantic pursuits of an English professor and his Triple Lindy dive. Back to School isn’t as good as Caddyshack (or Life of the Party, which has basically the same plot), but it’s a surprisingly sweet take on college, and serves as an allegory for the late-in-life success of Dangerfield himself.
Horse Feathers (1932)
This second-tier Marx Brothers movie still holds up, which is remarkable considering that it came out in 1932 and carries a title (it means “nonsense”) that sounds as outdated and cheesy as She’s All That. It’s an old-timey movie about old-timey college life, when things were a bit more upper crust and formal — college the way Mr. Burns and Lorelai Gilmore’s father remember it. Revolving around the big annual rival football game between Huxley and Darwin Colleges (obvious stand-ins for Harvard and Dartmouth), Groucho Marx plays Quincy Wagstaff, president of Huxley, and Zeppo is his son, Frank. Together they try to recruit pro football ringers to boost the school squad’s chances. Instead, they mistakenly wind up hiring a couple of lowly bootleggers (Chico and Harpo), who take the chance to enroll in school and provide some hijinks while poking fun at the stratified and elite world of early–20th-century academia.
The Waterboy (1998)
Adam Sandler movies get a bad rap, but you know you loved them in college, or in the ’90s, or when you were in college in the ’90s, because that’s when Adam Sandler was at his best and when you were his target audience. After playing normal-voiced buffoons in his first few movies, Sandler goes full goofball here as Bobby Boucher, the wildly Cajun-voiced man-child who serves as a mean college football team’s waterboy. Then he gets hired by their scrappy rival, and gets promoted to linebacker because he turns into a violent rage monster whenever anybody teases him. All told, The Waterboy is a pretty strong fish-out-of-water comedy — the sheltered, poorly educated Bobby has to go to class, too, which is just an excuse to have a professor that looks like Colonel Sanders and to hear Sandler say “medulla oblongata” in a silly voice.
Starter for 10 (2006)
With mainstream movies as one’s only source of information, the average American might reasonably believe that there are only two universities in England: Oxford and Cambridge. Yet there are many smaller, public, and less-prestigious institutions in the U.K., of course. Its setting at a run-of-the-mill, regular-person university is part of the reason why Starter for 10 is so pleasant and refreshing. Another reason is that this laid-back comedy from 2006, about some college kids’ attempt to make it onto the long-running British quiz show University Challenge, features every English actor you love, such as James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Pitch Perfect (2012)
Who goes to college for the classes? No, you go to college for the activities, and, as the movies tell us, to forge those lifelong friendship and to create the “squad” with whom you will have future adventures in movies like Girls Trip and Rough Night. Herein is the redemptive and illuminative tale of one the most maligned social groups on every campus in America: that a capella team that think it’s cool. Damn, Pitch Perfect actually made them cool with this sort-of musical about incredibly competitive, accompaniment-eschewing singer kids that turned Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson into household names.
The House Bunny (2008)
Anna Faris goes all-in and does whatever it takes to get the laugh, which includes everything from scatological humor to slapstick to bringing pathos and depth to characters who could be unsympathetic or one note. In The House Bunny, Faris plays Shelley, a young lady raised at the Playboy Mansion who gets thrown out and becomes the house mother at a sorority of misfits, wallflowers, and self-loathers, including Emma Stone and Kat Dennings. Shelley teaches them to believe in themselves and gives them slightly trashy makeovers, such is her way, but the message here is what’s important. Besides, if we’re not going to dress like that in college, when should we?
Life of the Party (2018)
Melissa McCarthy plays self-awareness-free people very well, so she’s the right person to finally bring to the screen a send-up of a universally recognized bastion of college: the overeager, overbearing “nontraditional” student, i.e., the middle-aged person going back to school. They’re often annoying in real life, but they’ve definitely got a story to tell (and they will tell it to you), and Deanna’s (McCarthy) is particularly heartbreaking: Her husband (Matt Walsh) dumps her on the day they drop their daughter (Molly Gordon) off at her sorority for her senior year. McCarthy moves into the house and enrolls, of course, and she surprisingly plays the “straight” character in an ensemble of weirdos, including Gillian Jacobs as a fellow returning student (she’s internet famous for being in a coma for years). Deanna does college right, giving everything a vigorous try, from themed parties to hazing to advanced archaeology to dating a dude who’s half her age.
How High (2001)
Finally, a stoner comedy that is also a college comedy, because those two lifestyles are pretty much the same lifestyle for a lot of people. Also, who knew that two of the best rappers of all time were hilarious, and could also do the whole Hope and Crosby comic team thing? They are, because it took some comedy precision and boundless chemistry to sell this movie, which is about two slacker potheads who go to college after they ace their THC entrance exams (get it?) after smoking marijuana fertilized with the ashes of their friend, who, as a ghost, tells them all the test answers. Then they get to college and lay waste to the snooty status quo, led by the nefarious dean, Dean Cain (not played by Dean Cain, but Obba Babtundé).
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Billed as the “spiritual sequel” to his quintessentially mid-’70s, high-school-set Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s breezy, delightfully plotless, and thus hyperrealistic college comedy takes place in the early ’80s and explores those magical few days where everybody arrives on campus — in this case, members of the baseball team — but before classes have started. It’s a purely recreational and bonding-oriented time, without anything to get in the way of meeting new people, finding one’s bearings, and hooking up. College comedies are usually about these themes, but Linklater distills it down as these jock dudes used to being BMOCs figure out the new pecking order, their living situations, and their friends. That means they pretty much just partying and listening to Van Halen.
School Daze (1988)
Spike Lee has dedicated his career to chronicling the African-American experience, and in this one he looks at campus life at a historically black college in Atlanta. It’s only his second feature, and one of the few times the writer/director/actor has attempted comedy, and he pulls it off. The story concerns Dap (Laurence Fishburne), a socially conscious big man on campus trying to effect change by leading anti-apartheid demonstrations. There’s lots that Lee pointedly satirizes here, like racial and identity politics, as well as students feeling impotent when faced against an incompetent administration, or dealing with townies who think the students are out-of-touch rich kids. And yet there’s an undercurrent of joy and playfulness in the movie, celebrating a subculture (HBCUs) not often seen onscreen, and with a soundtrack full of great ‘80s R&B to boot.
This is a college-adjacent comedy about a young family unfortunate enough to live adjacent to a frat house. College is a bubble of a life, and it turns out that college kids act that way even when they’re interacting with the real world. The result: A fraternity of jerks, populated by the likes of Zac Efron and Dave Franco, wage war with Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, adults who just want to get some sleep and live their lives in peace and not have to listen to parties or deal with dumb fraternity pranks. If you’re under 25, Rogen and Byrne are the bad guys; any older than that and you really feel for them and see their actions to get the frat shut down as totally justified.
Damsels in Distress (2012)
The great Whit Stillman applies his weird eruditeness to college, where a small group of women (lead by a marvelous Greta Gerwig) attempt to make the lives of other students better — whether they think they need or want help or not. The trio, who all have flower names (Violet, Heather, and Rose; they become a quartet when new student Analeigh Tipton’s Lily joins up) runs a suicide prevention center, and also do stuff like invent a dance sensation and date ugly guys so they’ll get more confident. It’s like Mean Girls on Opposite Day, or an idealized look at what the grand social experiment that is college could be if people turned outward instead of inward.
22 Jump Street (2014)
It’s kind of surprising that a sequel to a remake/comic version of a bad ‘80s TV show would explore one of the most squeamish and perhaps relatable elements of college life: when old friends from the same school drift apart as they meet new people. In 22 Jump Street, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill get promoted from playing cops going undercover at a high school to going undercover at a second-rate public university. Tatum’s character embraces his inner bro and throws himself into the glories of college he never got to experience, like rushing a frat and joining the football team, while Hill’s guy clings to his old buddy in this strange, scary world. But also, the movie is ridiculous, giving way to dude-bro hijinks between Tatum and his new best friend (Wyatt Russell), who are enthusiastically and innocently into each other like a couple of kindergartners.
Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
It’s a classic tale of good versus evil, or rather the two extremes of the student-life spectrum as ’80s pop culture would have it: jocks and nerds. And not even just your casual student athletes and the academic-minded student mathletes — these are broad, over-the-top stereotypes of both, in that the jocks (Stan Gable and Ogre, the guy who shouts “NERRRRRRRRRRRDS!”) are smug assholes for no reason and who wear their letterman jackets around, and the nerds (Lewis, Gilbert, Dudley) are social misfits (although not really because they come together as a team) who wear pocket protectors and high-water pants. One grossly unfair thing after another happens to the nerds, and when the Alpha Betas burn down their own frat house and steal the nerds’ dorm, the college makes them live in a gym. So the nerds form their own quasi-fraternity, and then the jocks keep on trying to screw with the nerds because they are jocks, and that’s what jocks do. But nerds are smart, and in a satisfying series of fulfilled wishes, the nerds get their, you know, revenge. But really, Revenge of the Nerds is more about those special friendships in college that last a lifetime, even if they were occurred mainly due to of proximity.
Animal House (1978)
There have been a lot of frat movies since Animal House came out in 1978; some of them produced, like Animal House, under the “National Lampoon” banner, and all of which want to be Animal House. But none are Animal House, because only Animal House captured the unbridled crudity of both campus Greek life and the National Lampoon periodical at its peak. Has the movie aged well? Not in the least. You could say that the movie’s hedonism and anarchy are a social comment on the past; the film takes place at a stand-in for Dartmouth in the early ‘60s, depicting debauchery that conventional wisdom states didn’t happen until the late ‘60s. There’s also that scene where the white frat guys run away from scary African-American guys who are scary because they are African-American, plus Bluto’s Peeping Tom antics, and the “funny twist” about how one character has been carrying on an affair with a 13-year-old girl. But apart from all those highly problematic things … we couldn’t make a list of college comedies and not put Animal House on it, now could we?
Real Genius (1985)
Remember fun Val Kilmer, an actor who was on his own weird wavelength long before Christopher Walken and Nicolas Cage became walking memes? He’s probably the best he ever was in this comedy. Kilmer plays Chris Knight, a chilled-out, cool-guy super-genius finishing up his run at a prestigious scientific institution, but refusing to burn out on the tremendous pressure he’s under to help an evil professor. It also involves him making a really cool laser. It’s an absurd, sci-fi take on college, but what universal college experiences there are in here are the most fun — like Chris’s many absurd pranks, including turning the floor of his dorm into a sheet of rice that dissipates into gas in a few hours without a trace. Weird, science.
Monsters University (2013)
Only Pixar has the confidence — and ability — to make a great college movie and then market it to children, who, by and large, cannot relate to the college experience. The studio could have picked any of their characters and sent them back in time and back to school (Lighting McQueen from Cars goes to racing school?) — but they picked the ones with the dynamic that would lend itself to some common college-movie themes. It turns out that Mike and Sulley from Monsters, Inc. needed high-level training to be professional scarers, and so Monsters University puts them in college. The two meet and become friends, but the forces of college society and economic disparity conspire to tear them apart. Mike (Billy Crystal) studied hard to get into college, while Sulley (John Goodman) comes from a long line of scarers and coasts his way through, the way those guys do. Also, Sulley of course gets accepted into the best frat on campus while Mike doesn’t. Here’s a movie about how hard it is to make and keep friends in college, even if you aren’t a literal monster.
Old School (2003)
The best college comedies deconstruct what college is all about, and this one surmises that college is really only great in retrospect, with the sunny tint of nostalgia obscuring the truth. When you’re in college, it’s stressful, expensive, and bewildering, but a lot of people only remember the beers and the bros … and you can’t go back in time. That’s this movie’s secret, subversive message. The plot: A guy (Luke Wilson) leaves his cheating wife and moves into a house adjacent to a college campus. His friends (Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell) throw him a wild party and Wilson’s character is ordered to move because the house is zoned for students-only housing. Not so logically, they make the house a frat house, i.e., party central. Wilson and Vaughn use the brief return to college life to jump-start their lives while Ferrell, as Frank the Tank, embraces it fully and looks foolish, mainlining beers and streaking. It’s Ferrell’s breakout movie role and emblematic of the characters he’d masterfully and frequently play: immature idiots unaware of their own mediocrity.
Dear White People (2014)
In 2014, writer/director Justin Simien made a layered, masterful comedy about racial politics and identity issues on a college campus, that also presaged what would play out in various ugly and shocking ways in the real world post-2016. Dear White People centers around the lead-up and response to a club’s astonishingly insensitive “blackface” party. And the college is already hypersensitive (if not combative) to such things because of a college radio show called “Dear White People” in which a host (played by the now-ubiquitous Tessa Thompson) deftly skewers white people for cultural appropriation. This film is equal parts satisfying, heartbreaking, and hilarious.
Wonder Boys (2000)
It’s the rare college movie told from the point of view of a faculty member, not a student. In this extremely faithful adaptation of one of Michael Chabon’s best two or three novels, Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, the be-scarfed picture of a Serious Writer resting on his laurels and his tenure by barely teaching creative writing at a tiny Northeastern liberal arts college. (Also, Pittsburgh has got to be the most beautiful college town in the world.) Of course, the follow-up to his Great American Novel is an out-of-control mess, and his brilliant students are outpacing him, and that freaks him out. Wonder Boys demonstrates what it’s like to be old and fading away in a place that is all about the future and potential. (Also, Pittsburgh has got to be the most beautiful college town in the world.)
Legally Blonde (2001)
Reese Witherspoon had been a in a few big movies before the college-set Legally Blonde — like Election, probably the best high-school movie ever made — but it was here that the world fell in love with her because she nailed her brand of really funny mixed with really charming. She plays the great Elle Woods, of course, a stereotypical sorority girl who gets dumped and follows the guy to Harvard Law. In doing that, Elle delivers both the best line and thesis of Legally Blonde: “What, like it’s hard?” It turns out she’s wicked smart, and so the film forever dispenses with the “dumb sorority girl” cliché, showing that a person can be a lot of things. You can be smart without being cynical, and you can like pink stuff while also being a lawyer. Discovering one’s multitudes is what you’re supposed to do in school.