Watergate. Vietnam. Disco. The Iranian Revolution. John “Bluto” Blutarsky
Yes, the 1970s had its fair share of horrors, but Hollywood helped by giving us something to laugh about.
No rules. No problem. No one clutched their pearls at a naughty joke or worried about comic actors “punching down.”
The results? Some of the very best comedies ever made, and we’ll start with the ultimate college romp.
Animal House (1978)
The “National Lampoon’s” imprimatur meant more than a marketing tic. The brand’s fingerprints are all over the 1978 comedy, from co-writers Harold Ramis, Chris Miller and Douglas Kenney to breakout star John Belushi.
The setting is the early 1960s, but the film’s raucous style is pure ‘70s. We follow the entire Delta Tau Chi fraternity as it battles both Dean Wormer (John Vernon) and polite society.
Toga parties! “Louie Louie!” Food fight! Iconic scenes abound, and many feature Belushi’s breakout performance as “Bluto.”
Director John Landis kept the chaos under control just enough for it to resemble a real movie.
The National Lampoon brand proved to be short-lived in theaters, and a recent attempt to resurrect fell prey to woke blather. The comedy sensibility may have peaked with “Animal House,” a movie that USA Today wishes never happened.
Then we wouldn’t have classic lines like this: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
Shot at the University of Oregon, “Animal House” remains the gold standard of college comedies. Not that many are being made these days. Cultural pressure prevents the kind of R-rated mayhem showcased in the classic comedy. And who could top Belushi in his prime?
Landis told the young Belushi to channel Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster to bring Bluto to life. The director even paired his dialogue down to let his comic brio bounce off the screen.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
It’s never a breeze to jump from the small to the big screen. For every Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood there are many stars who couldn’t duplicate their TV fame.
Six bawdy Brits made it look easy in the ’70s.
Monty Python’s first feature captured why they became a cultural sensation. The story, a warped retelling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, finds the troupe playing multiple characters in an increasingly unhinged yarn.
Killer rabbits? Limbless knights? Corpses that aren’t quite dead yet? It’s all here, establishing the sextet as movie stars of the first order and experts in physical comedy.
The film’s modest budget came courtesy of an unlikely source. John Cleese said rock giants like Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin helped fund the feature.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Few movies are as quotable, and as re-watchable, as Mel Brooks’ ode to Mary Shelley’s creation.
Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Peter Boyle headline this pitch-perfect satire captured in glorious black and white.
Wilder’s Dr. Frederic Frankenstein (that’s STEEN, mind you) discovers his grandfather’s scientific notes and brings a stitched-together corpse back from the beyond. Too bad that “abbie-normal” brain turns Boyle’s monster into a killing machine.
Classic line after classic line – “What hump?” “Put zee candle … back!” highlight an homage overrun with laughs.
Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld, who was well versed in black and white filmmaking, suggested Brooks tell the bulk of the story in color. The comedy giant stood firm, and Hirschfeld eventually saw the wisdom of that approach.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
File this baseball classic in the “they couldn’t make it today” department.
Walter Matthau plays a beer-swilling ex-jock who reluctantly manages a team of baseball misfits. He’s grouchy and cold, and he passes out on the pitcher’s mound in one sequence. He also drinks and drives, sometimes with kids in tow.
See what we mean?
That crusty exterior hides an open soul that welcomes the wayward pre-teens. Slowly. And when the coach recruits a tomboy pitcher (Tatum O’Neal) and bad-boy rebel (Jackie Earle Haley) this ragtag team gets a pulse.
It’s the ultimate comeback story, a kiddie yarn with edge, humor and heart thanks to Bill Lancaster’s screenplay. (Yes, that’s Burt Lancaster’s son)
And don’t get us started on the film’s foul language, as un-PC as possible.
That’s where that 1970s mojo comes in. It’s all rough edges and bittersweet subplots, all leading to the film’s exhilarating finish.
That might not have been possible had the film’s first casting choices come through. Producers initially sought out Steve McQueen to play the Matthau character. When the screen legend passed on the part, Warren Beatty circled the project but preferred to tinker with a heavier project, the historical epic “Reds.”
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Mel Brooks released not one but TWO comedy classics in a single year.
The comedy legend turned his satirical eye to the American western with this bawdy tale, the ultimate example of a comedy that couldn’t be made today.
Cleavon Little stars as a black sheriff tasked with defending a town against thugs eager to snag their suddenly valuable land. The racist locals reject him until he and a drunken pal (Gene Wilder) convince them they’re the only hope they have left.
Nothing is off limits here, from frequent use of the n-word to the infamous campfire sequence and a third act that shatters the fourth wall. It’s an outrageous attack on racism that only Brooks could concoct.
He did have an A-list consultant.
Richard Pryor helped navigate the trickiest sequences, the two comedy giants collaborating on a project brimming with memorable moments.
“Every time I said to Richard, ‘Can I use the n-word here?’ he said, ‘Yes,'” says Brooks. “I said, ‘Richard, it’s a little dangerous here.’ He said, ‘Yes.'”
The comedy icon had final cut, and the rest is cinematic history.
The Jerk (1979)
Steve Martin wasn’t born a poor black child, but his big-screen debut found him uttering that line culled from his stand-up act. His Navin Johnson barely knows [bleep] from shinola, but he still manages to strike it rich … for a while.
Martin’s first collaboration with director Carl Reiner catapulted him to big-screen stardom, and he never looked back. The film’s $6 million budget gave way to a $73 million box office haul, proving Martin’s curious shtick had mainstream appeal.
The R-rated comedy matched blue material with Martin’s innocent persona, a combination that proved irresistible. The film’s fame only grew from there.
In 2015, Martin reflected on the film’s racial gags, suggesting the purity of the concept would win the day.
I haven’t looked at The Jerk in a long time. But looking back, everyone was treated with such respect, and we had that fabulous opening with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee singing on the porch, two very well-known blues artists. You might get a kind of knee-jerk reaction, but it would be hard to get a verdict in court against it.
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen’s comedy proved more powerful than The Force.
Allen’s neurotic masterpiece won both critical acclaim and the Best Picture Oscar over “Star Wars,” a Comic-Con sin that shall never be forgiven.
The film remains an unexpurgated delight, alternately riotous and wistful in a way only Allen could conjure. Diane Keaton’s wardrobe rocked the culture, and her on-again, off-again pairing with Allen’s Alvy Singer proved romantic yet sour.
The laughs are big – and none bigger than whenever Christopher Walken is on screen.
Allen, his own harshest critic, was disappointed with the results. He remains in the minority.
The New York Times, which called “Annie Hall” Allen’s first “serious comedy,” shared details of several scenes that didn’t make the film’s final cut. One found his Alvy Singer character playing basketball with the New York Knicks.
Allen, again, indulges his slapstick side with this futuristic farce. Allen plays a musician who undergoes a routine medical procedure and wakes up 200 years later after a cryogenic nap.
He’s a stranger in a very strange land, one where America has been police state. Allen once again teams with Diane Keaton, and the duo runs through some increasingly silly, scenarios.
Enter the Orgasmatron.
Roger Ebert hailed “Sleeper” in his review, adding the film “establishes Woody Allen as the best comic director and actor in America.”
Foul Play (1978)
Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase made just two movies together despite sharing wacky, wonderful chemistry and hitting it out of the park together.
“Foul Play,” the first collaboration, fused romance and mystery with a surreal flair. Hawn plays a librarian who gets caught up in a plot to assassinate the Pope. Chase co-stars as the police officer trying to crack the case while falling for Hawn’s charms.
Dudley Moore steals a whole swath of the film as a clumsy lothario, but it’s the sparks between Hawn and Chase that make the film so memorable.
Chase praised Hawn’s movie star chops in a 2022 interview looking back at his co-star’s career.
“The best actors and actresses don’t forget who they are as a person and how to use that in character,” says Chase, who also starred with Hawn in 1980’s “Seems Like Old Times.” “That was Goldie. I thought she was brilliant in everything she did. I never saw a performance that wasn’t real. But she’s also a smart cookie and a serious woman. Not a ditzy blonde. But she knows how to use the ‘blonde’ so it’s disarming.”
Starting Over (1979)
Burt Reynolds put his Alpha Male brand aside for this smart, sexy comedy about a man bouncing back from divorce. It helps to have two killer co-stars (Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen) as well as a script from rising star James L. Brooks of “Broadcast News” fame.
Bergen’s awful crooning of “Better Than Ever,” one of several songs written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager for the film, offers a chirpy highlight. It’s the smaller moments of pain and resiliency that register most, captured by a cast-against-type superstar.
Scavenger Hunt (1979)
A gaggle of B-list stars, from James Coco to Richard Mulligan, fight it out for an old man’s fortune in this silly, infectious romp. The deep cast, clearly having a blast, form dueling teams to complete the titular “Hunt.”
It’s hard to go wrong with Roddy McDowall, Richard Benjamin, Cloris Leachman, Ruth Gordon and Tony Randall.
Tell that to most movie critics who piled on the movie in no uncertain terms. Seen today, it’s a fluffy lark with colorful characters, a can’t-miss gimmick and enough smiles to power through any rough patches.
Good luck finding it, though. The film isn’t available on any streaming platform. The belated 2017 Blu-ray release is your best, and only, bet.
Play It Again, Sam (1972)
Allen’s “Bananas” and “Love and Death” could have made the list, but let’s round out this HiT Allen trilogy with an unsung film from his canon.
Allen turned the directorial reins over to veteran Herbert Ross (“The Goodbye Girl”) for a film sure to make movie lovers giddy. Allen stars as a film critic obsessed with “Casablanca.” He’s lonely and looking for love, so when he meets the beguiling Linda (Diane Keaton) he summons the spirit of Humphrey Bogart for romantic advice.
Bad idea. Big laughs.
Based on Allen’s 1969 Broadway play, “Sam” rarely gets name-checked when we do an Allen roll call, but it remains a singular treat.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
It’s not a pure comedy, of course. Part musical, part surreal experiment, the Roald Dahl adaptation is a marvel because it doesn’t fit into a tidy box. That, plus Gene Wilder’s deliriously droll turn as the chocolatier, makes “Wonka” a true film classic.
It’s embedded in American culture like few films before or since. Johnny Depp’s attempt to slip into Wilder’s shoes delivered a creepy, albeit interesting remake.
American Graffiti (1973)
Fast cars. Beautiful women. Socially awkward teens on the cusp of adulthood.
It’s easy to forget Mr. “Star Wars” himself, George Lucas, uncorked this affecting ode to car culture circa the 1960s. It even snagged a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
It’s the precursor to the “Happy Days”/”Laverne & Shirley” shared universe, and the cast features a who’s who of future stars – Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers and Richard Dreyfuss.
And we have Francis Ford Coppola to thank for it.
The “Godfather” guru produced the film, giving it the Hollywood gravitas necessary to make Lucas’ vision a reality.