Exploring: ’80s Comedies

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Freese has been a staff writer for Videoscope Magazine since 1998. He also contributes to Drive-in Asylum

Film scholars are forever writing about the 1980’s horror movie scene. I won’t lie. It was an awesome time. But it was an awesome time for all kinds of movies.

A little exploration quickly proves that the ‘80s were a banner decade for comedy movies as well, of all types. Comedies of the era moved in the same exact trajectory the horror movies were following, building on past successful films and constantly pushing the envelope of what had been done further. (Many of the people who made these comedies, both in front of and behind the camera, worked concurrently in the horror genre throughout the decade as well. The high school screamers in the slasher movies were the same party-hearty kids in the comedies.)

What I’ve tried to do is nail down these movies into a specific comedy subgenre and show where they may have originated. (One box office blockbuster begets numerous, sometimes seemingly countless, imitators.) In trying to categorize these movies, I realized many combine various different comedy subgenre plot points simultaneously. There’s a thin line between a Teen Sex Comedy and a Snobs vs. Slobs Comedy, but within my attempt to define flicks, I placed them in the categories I felt they best fit. Any number of my selections can easily be questioned and rationalized for inclusion in a different category, I’m sure. My intent is to simply try and show the diversity of these comedy movies from my favorite decade showed.

I hope I get you curious enough about some of these movies and you seek them out. I believe all are available on some format of home video, analog or digital. 

80s

Snobs vs Slobs/Loveable Losers/Men Behaving Badly

Although a good number of 80’s comedies concern some clash with authority, the movies we’re talking about can be seen as “David and Goliath” tales. These movies have been around forever, but they were given a new life at the end of the ‘70s with the one-two punch success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and Meatballs (1979). These movies earned astronomical amounts of money back when movie tickets were about two dollars and fifty cents. National Lampoon genius and Animal House co-writer Doug Kenny barreled into the ‘80s with a film that is possibly one of the most quoted movies of all time, the ultimate Snobs vs Slobs movie, Caddyshack (1980). As the decade moved forward, plenty of slackers and losers raged against the establishment in films like Mad Magazine’s Up the Academy (1980), Stripes (1981), the video game-inspired Joy Sticks (1983) and D.C. Cab (1983). When 1984 rolled around, there was a renaissance of sorts of lovable losers bucking authority. Early in the year Warner Brothers had a surprise hit with Police Academy (1984), which provided the new template for what misfits could do when they put their super powers together. Later that summer, 20th Century Fox released Tom Hanks’ finest film to date,  the ultimate lovable losers/men behaving badly movie, Bachelor Party (1984). For as big a success as it was, they outdid it with their next comedy hit, Revenge of the Nerds (1984) the same summer. 1984 was the year for misfits, geeks and dweebs. This subgenre also includes any film wherein the misfit heroes have to deal with insurmountable circumstances to win at some contest against the crooked authority figures, such as Savage Steve Holland’s hilarious One Crazy Summer (1986), which ends with one such boat race where our heroes try to save grandma’s house from evil and corrupt land developers.

Caddyshack (1980)/ Gas (1981)/ Lunch Wagon (1981)/ Stripes (1981)/ The Beach Girls (1982)/ Splitz (1982)/ D. C. Cab (1983)/ Easy Money (1983)/ Get Crazy (1983)/ Joy Sticks (1983)/Bachelor Party (1984)/ Hot Dog…The Movie (1984)/ Oddballs (1984)/ Police Academy (1984)/ Revenge of the Nerds (1984)/ Snowballin’ (1984)/ Up the Creek (1984)/Weekend Pass (1984)/Beer (1985)/ Moving Violations (1985)/ My Chauffeur (1984)/ Real Genius (1985)/ Stitches (1985)/ Tomboy (1985)/ Back to School (1986)/ Hamburger the Motion Picture (1986)/ Happy Hour (1986)/ Jocks (1986)/ One Crazy Summer (1986)/ Playing for Keeps (1986)/ Recruits (1986)/ Wimps (1986)/ Party Camp (1987)/ Summer School (1987)/ How I Got into College (1989)/ Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) 

Sex Comedies/Teen Sex Comedies

After the Snobs vs Slobs subgenre, the next popular and most common comedy subgenre of the ‘80s is the Sex Comedies/Teen Sex Comedies, or what I’ve always referred to as the “Everybody gets laid” movies. Sex comedies have been around as long as cinema itself but by the ‘70s, sex in cinema experienced new-found freedoms with skin on screen. By the ‘80s, these movies had figured out their money-making formula. The Teen Sex Comedies’ popularity mirrors that of the other popular cinema craze that started in the early ‘80s, the slasher movie. Slasher movies were a horror off-shoot that usually revolved around teen sex and hijinks that ultimately resulted in death, usually in a glorious manner. The Teen Sex Comedies cut out the death and added more skin. With that in mind, Friday the 13th (1980) was to slasher movies what Porky’s (1981) was to Teen Sex Comedies. Bob Clark’s mix of raunchy humor and sweet nostalgia for growing up in Florida during the ‘50s was a runaway success. It was so popular they could not make a sequel fast enough so the following year they just re-released it. With Porky’s, the die was cast. Sex comedies were even cheaper to make than slashers movies, and as long as all the people in them were pretty to look at, they made money. The list of these titles seemed endless and their popularity seemed destined to last forever, but they eventually dried up, as late night pay cable channels started programming more raunchy shows to attract the same crowd. (Teen Sex Comedies experienced a major resurgence in 1999 with the release of American Pie and one or two still get made every now and again.) These movies also often work as wish-fulfillment or fantasy tales, at times dealing with secret potions, supernatural themes or, literally, deals with the devil. Movies appearing on this list use these plot points as a way to engage in sex with the opposite sex. 

Pick Up Summer (1980)/ Goin’ All the Way (1981)/ Porky’s (1981)/ Private Lessons (1981)/ Waitress! (1981) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)/ The Last American Virgin (1982)/ Let’s Do It! (1982)/ Pink Motel (1982)/ Zapped (1982)/ Class (1983)/ The First Turn-On! (1983)/ Losing It (1983)/ My Tutor (1983)/ Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983)/ Private School (1983)/ Screwballs (1983)/ Spring Break (1983)/ Blame it on Rio (1984)/ Delta Pi /Mugsy’s Girls (1984)/ Hardbodies (1984)/ Hollywood Hot Tubs (1984)/ Joy of Sex (1984)/ The Party Animal (1984)/ Preppies (1984)/ The Rosebud Beach Hotel (1984)/ Where the Boys Are ’84 (1984)/ Cave Girl (1985)/ The First Turn On (1985)/ Fraternity Vacation (1985)/ Hot Chili (1985)/ Hot Resort (1985)/ Loose Screws (1985)/ Mischief (1985)/ Paradise Motel (1985)/ School Spirit (1985)/ Screen Test (1985)/  Takin it Off (1985)/ The Malibu Bikini Shop (1986)/ Separate Vacations (1986)/ Sex Appeal (1986)/ Stewardess School (1986)/ Beach Fever (1987)/ Party Favors (1987)/ Takin’ It All Off (1987)/ Beach Balls (1988)/ Fast Food (1989)/ Summer Jobs (1989) 

The Parody/ Spoof/Send-up/Take-off

These movies live or die based on an audiences’ familiarity with whatever subject is being roasted. They can be an acquired taste, since the broad, rapid fire delivery of nonstop sight gags and nonsense jokes are not everybody’s cup of laughs. The team of Jim Abraham and David and Jerry Zucker skewered the popular 70’s trend of disaster movies in general and the 1957 food-poisoning-on-an-airplane thriller Zero Hour! specifically with their smash hit Airplane! (1980). This joke-a-second spoof proved fertile ground for low brow hijinks and opened the flood gates for parodies that are still being made today. The ZAZ team returned with the spy movie/beach movie/Elvis movie send-up Top Secret (1984) and then The Naked Gun (1988), which was the big screen adaptation of their short lived television show Police Squad! (1982). All manner of movie genres were spoofed over the decade, but the one genre that really took to the parody/spoof format was the horror genre, creating an almost sub-category of spoof slasher and horror parodies. Horror spoofs flooded screens big and small throughout the decade and included Student Bodies (1981), Jekyll & Hyde…Together Again (1982), Wacko (1983), Transylvania 6-5000 (1985), Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Lobster Man from Mars (1988), to name a few. This subgenre of horror parody/spoof got a second life in the early 2000’s. Many of the parody-spoofs had an appearance by Leslie Nielson, who re-created himself with his deadpan, stoic performance in Airplane! His career got a second life in comedy, after many decades of playing heavies and bad guys. It is interesting to note that the spoof premise also helped morph into what today is referred to as the “mockumentary,” the spoof documentary. The fascinating This is Spinal Tap (1984) is still the best and every mockumentary since owes its existence to this one film. 

Airplane! (1980)/ Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980)/ Full Moon High (1981)/Saturday the 14th (1981)/Student Bodies (1981)/Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)/ Young Doctors in Love (1982)/ Hysterical (1983)/ Jekyll & Hyde…Together Again (1982)/ National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982)/ Wacko (1983)/ Bloodbath in the House of Death (1984)/ Johnny Dangerously (1984)/ This is Spinal Tap (1984)/ Top Secret (1984)/ Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985)/ Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)/ When Nature Calls (1985)/ Back to the Beach (1987)/ Spaceballs (1987)/  Elvira- Mistress of the Dark (1988)/ Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988)/ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)/ Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988)/ Lobster Man from Mars (1989)/ Transylvania Twist (1989)

The Hustle/The Con/ The Fake I.D.

The premise for The Hustle/Con comedies usually concerns a fast-thinking protagonist in some dire situation who needs to be someone else to get out of said situation. Movies of this nature have been around for decades, most centering on con men types trying to take advantage of some poor mark or an ill-begotten fortuitous situation. Sometimes it is a situation of mistaken identity or someone taking on a number of personas to get out of comedic situations. After the dawn of Saturday Night Live and that first batch of Not Ready for Prime Time Players trickled into Hollywood, The Hustle/Con type comedies were recharged and redefined. First up to bat from SNL was Dan Aykroyd in Doctor Detroit (1983), the quintessential Hustle/Con comedy. By day Dan plays an uptight college professor but at night transforms into a crazy haired, metal gloved pimp to keep four pimpless hookers safe from harm. During the movie’s finale he has two simultaneous engagements at a swanky hotel where he must divide his time between a formal dinner for the college and the annual Player’s Ball, respectively. It’s madcap comedy of the highest degree. Later in ’83 Aykroyd returned for a different kind of con, swapping lives with a street smart Eddie Murphy in Trading Places (1983). Murphy went on to perfect the Fake I.D. comedy schtick in Beverly Hills Cop (1984), wherein he plays fast-talking Axel Foley, a Detroit cop who uses his wits, and oft times transforms into different characters to collect information, to solve the murder of his friend. Chevy Chase played a similar type private eye in Fletch (1985), depending on costumes and disguises to collect the clues he needed to solve cases. SCTV alumni John Candy and Eugene Levy played security guards that did a little dress up in Armed and Dangerous (1986). There is plenty deception in high school  and one of the best of the high school set Hustle/Con movies ever made is 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love. Unpopular Ronald Miller (played by Patrick Dempsey) gets popular girl Cindy Mancini (played by Amanda Peterson) out of trouble in exchange for her pretending to like him so he can move up the social ladder of high school, dump his nerd friends and infiltrate the circle of popular kids. It works amazingly well until it all comes crashing down around him. After that, the student body questions the motives of everyone, and if anyone seems to be trying to take advantage of someone else, they accuse them of trying to play another “Ronnie Miller Scam.” I know many who still use this phrase today. “Man! The two for one cans of corn are sold out, and now I have to buy the expensive canned corn! This is a Ronnie Miller Scam!” 

Night Shift (1982)/ Tootsie (1982)/ Doctor Detroit (1983)/ Trading Places (1983)/ Beverly Hills Cop (1984)/ Making the Grade (1984)/ Oh, God! You Devil (1984)/ Fletch (1985)/ Just One of the Guys (1985)/ Volunteers (1985)/ Armed and Dangerous (1986)/ Three Amigos! (1986)/ Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)/ Hiding Out (1987)/ The Secret of My Success (1987)/ Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)/ Tapeheads (1988)

Wish Fulfillment/Fantasy/Time Travel/Body Swap

The premise for these comedies revolves around, usually, the granting of a wish, the using of a potion, the gaining of some extra sensory power, two people swapping bodies or sharing one body or personality or a straight up time jump from one place in time to the other. Wish Fulfillment comedies straddle the fence, as it can be similar to the Snobs vs Slobs and Sex Comedies. Many of the Wish Fulfillment movies are very blue collar based, with regular people like you and me getting a moment to shine, or just following through with some crazy plan to get on top. Three housewives strike back at the system with an elaborate plan to heist money from a giveaway at the mall in How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980). A newly appointed executive bucks the system when he has to go back to his hometown to shut down the local brewery in Take This Job and Shove It (1981). Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin share the same body in the still pretty funny All of Me (1984). 1985 was a huge year for Michael J. Fox. First he traveled back to the fifties to change his family’s future and make sure his parents smooched at the big “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance in Back to the Future, and then he transformed into a better basketballer through lycanthropy in Teen Wolf. 50’s greaser Lewis Smith died in a chicken run then spent some time in purgatory before being sent back to earth to redeem himself and help a nerd kid be cool in the delightful The Heavenly Kid (1985). Robin Williams gets a do-over for losing the big high school game years later in The Best of Times (1986). Finally, Andrew McCarthy finds love when a department story dummy comes to magical life in Mannequin (1987), a film whose premise was well mined decades earlier as plenty of horny department store mannequins came to life during the era of the Nudie Cuties. 

How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980)/ Take This Job and Shove It (1981)/ All of Me (1984)/ Back to the Future (1985)/ The Heavenly Kid (1985)/ Teen Wolf (1985)/ Weird Science (1985)/ The Best of Times (1986)/ Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)/ Hello Again! (1987)/ Hunk (1987)/ Like Father, Like Son (1987)/ Mannequin (1987)/ 18 Again! (1988)/ Heathers (1988)/ Vice Versa (1988)/ Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Screwball Comedies 

Screwball Comedies came about in the early 30’s and were a mainstay of popular cinema through the 40’s. Most subscribed to the “Comedy of Errors” plot, where stories revolved around characters in love and they face a number of crazy, calculated misinterpretations and misunderstandings. By the ‘70s, the Three’s Company sitcom pretty much mined this premise each week for all it was worth. The ‘80s were full of these types of comedies and an army of loveable scamps faced these “love and bad luck” challenges. 1985 was a big year for screwball comedies. Secret Admirer’s thin premise hinged on a love letter that made it into the hands of all the wrong people and shenanigans ensued. Summer Rental saw John Candy trying to get away from the rigors of daily life and nearly losing his mind during his beach vacation with his family. John Cusack is a loveable ne’er do well who decides to snuff himself after his girlfriend breaks up with him in Better Off Dead. 1986’s The Money Pit tests the relationship of Tom Hanks and Shelly Long while they renovate their dream house from Hell, and Charles Grodin takes his family on a cut-rate island getaway in the “kind-of-funny-if-you-like-Charles-Grodin” Last Resort. 

Hardly Working (1980)/ The Nude Bomb (1980)/ Arthur (1981)/ Modern Problems (1981)/ Better Off Dead (1985)/ Brewster’s Millions (1985)/ Clue (1985)/ Secret Admirer (1985)/ Summer Rental (1985)/ The Boss’s Wife (1986)/ Last Resort (1986)/ The Money Pit (1986)/ The Great Outdoors (1988)/ Screwball Hotel (1988)/ The Wrong Guys (1988)

Comedic (Mis) Adventures

Comedic (Mis) Adventure movies usually begin at Point A, and then are all over the map trying to get to Point B. Some never get to Point B, skipping it entirely and landing on Point Q. These movies are shenanigan and hijinks driven and usually build to loud, obnoxious finales. One of the best is still the often-quoted classic The Blues Brothers (1980), which ends in an earthshattering finale that has nearly every law enforcement agency in Illinois, as well as a group of irate Illinois Nazis, converging on the State Tax Accessors Office in Chicago trying to nab Jake and Elwood Blues (played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd). In 1983, the National Lampoon brand got a much needed boost with their road comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation. SCTV characters Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) went on a journey of deception, adventure and tainted beer in The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew (1983). The Comedic (Mis)Adventure movies have mashed with other genres  many times, delivering such diversity as They Call Me Bruce (1982- Kung-Fu), Yellowbeard (1983- Pirates) and Ice Pirates (1984- science fiction).

The Blues Brothers (1980)/ Galaxina (1980)/ Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)/ Bustin’ Loose (1981)/ Cannonball Run (1981)/ Condorman (1981)/ They Call Me Bruce (1982)/ Tag: The Assassination Game (1982)/ Strange Brew (1983)/ Yellowbeard (1983)/ Vacation (1983)/ Ice Pirates (1984)/ The Lost Empire (1984)/ Gotcha (1985)/ Into the Night (1985)/ Lost in America (1985)/ My Science Project (1985)/ Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)/ Spies Like Us (1985)/ After Hours (1986)/ Free Ride (1986)/ Adventures in Babysitting (1987)/ Hot Pursuit (1987)/ Innerspace (1987)/ Raising Arizona (1987)/ Terminal Exposure (1987)/ Three For the Road (1987)/ Midnight Run (1988)/ The Night Before (1988)

Sketch, Skits & Anthologies

Comedy based skit anthology movies thrived throughout the ‘70s. Movies like The Groove Tube (1975) and Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) delighted audiences on scattershot plotlines made for little money. Also, sketch/skit comedy shows were prominent on television with programs like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in (1968-1973), The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978), The Muppet Show (1976-1981), as well as SCTV (1976-1984) and Saturday Night Live (1975-2019). By the ‘80s, the reliable format seemed to have run out of steam. The first big movie made with the skit comedy structure was a studio picture made for enough money to finance 50 Groove Tube sequels, Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I (1981). It was one nonstop madcap comedic vignette after another. (“Hitler on Ice” is still a highlight.) In 1981, National Lampoon’s Movie Madness spoofed self-help films, soap operas and police procedural shows. It was touted as “National Lampoon’s first film since Animal House!” It sat on the shelf for a year before finally seeing release in 1982 and failing miserably at the box office. 1983’s Flicks wasn’t released until 1987. It is a comedic homage to the Saturday matinees of yesteryear. It hasn’t been seen since its release on VHS over thirty years ago. The format got a major re-fresh, especially if you were looking for some raunchy laughs similar to the films from the ‘70s with 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon. The decade ended with another winner that has attained major cult status over the years, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s insane UHF (1989), a gag-a-second send-up of the public access UHF days of the boob tube. (Three decades later and I still run across people who quote from the “Conan the Librarian” and “Spatula City” skits.) I think it is worth noting that a small bit of Sketch/Skit DNA be credited to the current “Mocumentary” films, which are direct descendants of the Parody Spoof Comedies. The structure of many “Mocumentary” films follow a similar Sketch/Skit format, with a number of interwoven vignettes, all on the same subject, telling one story rather than various.

Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I (1981)/ National Lampoon’s Movie Madness (1981)/ It Came From Hollywood (1982)/ Flicks (1983)/ Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)/ Amazon Women from the Moon (1987)/ UHF (1989)

Horror Comedies/ Gore Comedies/ Yech! for Yuks!

Not to be confused with the Horror Parody/Spoof movies, Horror Comedies are movies that play their scares for chuckles instead of screams and land more sure footedly in the horror genre rather than comedy. In the beginning of the decade, the Horror Comedy actually did a good job juggling honest scares with honest laughs with such films as An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Howling (1981) and The Return of the Living Dead (1985). By decade’s end, the monsters were pretty much the butt of the joke in Return of the Living Dead Part II (1987) and CHUD II: Bud the CHUD (1988). The Horror Comedies have always been hit or miss depending on your sense of humor, but every now and again a pretty good one comes along like I Was A Teenage Zombie (1987) or Lucky Stiff (1989- a cannibal comedy directed by Anthony Perkins). Also, in the mid-80’s, Gore Comedies were big. In the spirit of the early gore movies by Herschell Gordon Lewis, The Toxic Avenger (1984), Blood Diner (1987) and movies of their ilk offered over the top gore gross-outs for laughs.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)/ Slumber Party Massacre (1982)/ Microwave Massacre (1983)/ Ghoulies (1984)/ Gremlins (1984)/ The Toxic Avenger (1984)/ Return of the Living Dead (1985)/ Re-Animator (1985)/ The Stuff (1985)/ Class of Nuke ‘em High (1986)/ Evil Laugh (1986)/ House (1986)/ Psychos in Love (1986)/  Terror Vision (1986)/ Troll (1986)/ The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986)/ Vamp (1986)/ Bad Taste (1987)/ Blood Diner (1987)/ Doom Asylum (1987)/ I Was A Teenage Zombie (1987)/ Return of the Living Dead Part 2 (1987)/ Street Trash (1987)/ CHUD II: Bud the CHUD (1988)/ Dead Heat (1988)/ Scared Stiff (1988)/ Vampire’s Kiss (1988)/ Blood Salvage (1989)/ Cutting Class (1989)/ Lucky Stiff (1989)/ Parents (1989)

Bizzaro/Cult/Weird

Bizzaro Comedies tend to be head scratchers. Some of them see it as their mission to offend everyone watching while others you watch and watch and by movie’s end you have no idea what you just saw.  Many are experimental, made to challenge an audience. Most work best as a midnight movie experience; with a rambunctious audience where the on screen weirdness works more on the collective audience as opposed to trying to watch it alone on the couch. Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980) is a perfect example of this comedy subgenre, as well as just about anything made by John Waters. (Back during the video store days, Waters’ films were almost always found in the Comedy section of the shop, but many rental outlets eventually created a Cult Movie section because of Waters’ and similar movies.)  Al Adamson’s family film Carnival Magic (1982) probably wouldn’t be included here if the chimpanzee in the film didn’t start talking for no good reason. (Seriously!) Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi played against type for the upside-down tale of suburban torture Neighbors (1981). I don’t even know how to describe Going Berserk (1983), a very strange film featuring John Candy and Eugene Levy doing very strange things. Paranoia in the suburbs makes everyone in a cul-de-sac lose their minds in the trippy, sometimes nightmarish The ‘Burbs (1989). Finally, for a bit of meta-weirdness, Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989) feature the shock magicians as themselves, appearing on a late night talk show and wishing out loud that it would be fun if someone was trying to kill them. This premise plays out as a psycho fan takes their request to heart and stalks them. It’s got lots of weird twists and turns, but it is exactly what you’d expect from P&T.

Forbidden Zone (1980)/ Neighbors (1981)/ Polyester (1981)/ Carnival Magic (1982)/ Eating Raoul (1982)/ Going Berserk (1983)/ Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)/ Repo Man (1984)/ Surf II (1984)/ The ‘Burbs (1989)/ Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

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