Comedy is the hardest thing to pull off, despite what the Academy Awards would have you believe. If you want proof of that, think of how painful it is to watch an attempt at comedy that isn’t actually funny. If a drama’s not that good, and can still get a cheeky enjoyability by how seriously everybody takes it. If a comedy sucks, there’s no saving it. Now, we all love “Anchorman” and “The Big Lebowski,” but here’s a quick list of undernoticed, underseen or underrated comedies that should not be dismissed just because they don’t have huge cult followings.
1. “The Jerk” (1979)
One might argue that Steve Martin’s classic can’t be underrated, since Judd Apatow made the enjoyment of “The Jerk” the barometer about whether or not a girl is worth dating in “Freaks and Geeks,” but it makes the list because it’s impossible to overrate this absurd gem, and it should be talked about a lot more than it seems to be. It’s Martin at the top of his wild and crazy game, before he transitioned into the erudite and droll intellectual aura he cultivates today, and as much as we love him now, the gloriously ridiculous wordplay, clever satire and innocently goofy charm of Navin Johnson’s naive stumbling into the real world is what made us love Steve Martin in the first place. Back when he was carnival personnel.
2. “Johnny Dangerously” (1984)
Often (although not often enough in the right places, apparently), one hears the sentiment that Michael Keaton should be in everything – or at least, why isn’t he in more stuff? He can do it all. He’s excellent at drama (both acting and directing), as evidenced by “The Merry Gentleman,” but he cut his teeth with comedies like this truly oddball gangster parody, also featuring Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, and the best stuff you’ll ever see out of Joe Piscopo. It’s light, it’s breezy and a whole lot of fun, and Keaton is really damn charming even though he’s playing a fargin’ icehole. We defy you not to enjoy yourself while watching this movie. And for more evidence of great Keaton comedy, check out Ron Howard’s 1982 movie “Night Shift” – also underrated. He and Henry Winkler run a brothel out of a morgue. Come on. You gotta see that one, too.
3. “The Ten” (2006)
If Entertainment Weekly hadn’t done a big profile piece on “Wet Hot American Summer,” that would be the David Wain entry on this list. But they did, so instead, we shine a spotlight on “The Ten,” directed and co-written by Wain with Ken Marino. The all-star cast (including Paul Rudd, Famke Janssen, Liev Schreiber and Jessica Alba) really establishes the tone, pacing and insanity that eventually made “Children’s Hospital” a hit – featuring Gretchen Mol having a fling in Mexico with Jesus Christ, Winona Ryder’s delirious tryst with a ventriloquist’s dummy, and a song and dance number with a great deal of naked men.
4. “The Foot Fist Way” (2006)
For those of you who might be wondering where the hell Danny McBride came from, go watch this low-budget Jody Hill movie about cuckolded North Carolina taekwondo instructor Fred Simmons and you’ll be enlightened. Word has it that “Anchorman” greats Will Ferrell and Adam McKay loved this movie so much that they made a huge push to get it distributed – and said as much in the advertising for the film. Simmons battle of wills and skills with his celebrity martial-arts-movie idol Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (who turns out to be a drunken jerkface who sleeps with Fred’s wife) , as well as his unorthodox teaching methods and hard-line dojo philosophy are what make us all understand what McBride brings to the table and why he’ll always be welcome there.
5. “Burn After Reading” (2008)
The Dude gets most of the attention as far as Coen Brothers comedy goes, and “Raising Arizona” gets the rest, and they both deserve all the attention they get. However, there’s something sublimely wonderful about taking all the banal story elements of a by-the-numbers crime thriller movie and treating them seriously, but populating the cast of characters with the biggest stars in the world playing absolutely ridiculous morons. Frances McDormand’s surgery obsession, Brad Pitt’s energetic idiocy, John Malkovich’s profane rage and George Clooney’s sleazy skullduggery just make this a joy to watch.