When you hear the word ‘comedy,’ ‘smart’ is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, one thinks of slapstick humor, silly gags, and hilarious situations that would be deeply embarrassing in real life. So, what causes a comedy to be ‘smart?’ While regular comedies mostly prioritize the funny over other aspects, this subgenre manages to find the balance between profound issues and humor. It deals with subjects like race, class, sexuality, and mental health, to name but a few. However, the blend of satire with these overarching themes often enables smart comedies to present deeper subject matters with more ease, making the experience light-hearted rather than overwhelming. These comedies cause their audience to not only laugh but think.
Throughout the years, many smart comedies have tackled issues that are not discussed enough within the media and entertainment industry. The subsequent list compiles just a few of the great movies that embody the essence of what a smart comedy is. All unique in their way, these films hold a sense of realism wrapped in iconic humor, allowing for wittiness without insulting the intelligence of their audience. These critically acclaimed movies, both from the past and present century, show what it means to step outside of convention and ultimately make a film clever enough to translate across generations.
Updated on August 30th, 2023 by Timothy Lindsey: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
15 Trading Places (1983)
Starring the hilarious Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, and Jamie Lee Curtis, Trading Places presents the effects of when the lives of an upper-class broker (Aykroyd) and a poverty-stricken man (Murphy) are switched. For the best of just one dollar, the characters are taken through hell and back for the amusement of two greedy businessmen, Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, respectively).
This film was an achievement as it confronted the topics of class, discrimination, and prejudice in really hilarious ways that criticize the corruptive influence of money. At the end of Trading Places, the heroes (Murphy and Aykroyd) are victorious as they acquire wealth, leaving the Duke penniless. After this, they escape to a luxury island which is separate from any life of poverty that they previously suffered. While this movie proves that you can never truly understand a situation until it is brought upon you, it also sheds light on the power of money and how it changes a person.
14 The Other Guys (2010)
Any comedy movie with Will Ferrell is going to be worth your time. That is for sure. The Other Guys is no different. Along with the legendary Mark Wahlberg, the two star as two desk-bound detectives for the N.Y.P.D. They are not heroes, nor at they on good terms. However, when the department’s two elite, yet expensive detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) unexpectedly die on duty, there is an open void within the department.
That is when Gamble (Ferrell) and Hoitz (Wahlberg) must step in and become the heroes of the N.Y.P.D. The only problems are Gamble’s goofy, yet dark past and Holtz’s one career mistake of accidentally shooting Derek Jeter. There are lots of buddy cop films out there, but it’s hard to find a funnier one than this Adam McKay classic. The film also manages to prove that you can overcome your past mistakes and heartaches in the quest for redemption.
13 Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future, the iconic ’80s movie directed by Robert Zemeckis follows Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) as he is accidentally sent back to 1955 by a time-traveling automobile built by his scientist friend, Doc Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Stuck in the past, Marty accidentally prevents the meeting of his parents and must get the pair back together so that he can return to the future. Through many memorable scenes like Marty evading the school bullies on a skateboard and later when he plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the dance, the film maintains an empowering theme of taking personal responsibility for one’s destiny.
By taking seriously the dire consequences when Marty alters just one moment in the past, Back to the Future expresses how important the decisions we make are to build a valuable future. Initially, Marty’s home life is fragmented, his father is powerless, his mother is overweight, and his siblings are lazy. However, after helping his father stand up for himself in 1955, Marty returns to the exact opposite. This humorous classic gives hope that even small changes can dramatically alter our futures for the better.
12 Due Date (2010)
The combination of Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis could not have been more perfect. Due Date tells the story of two different guys forced to road trip together after they both get thrown off of a plane after an altercation. Peter Highman (Downey) is an accomplished businessman looking to get on a flight home just in time for the birth of his first child. Ethan Tremblay is a hopeful, pot-smoking actor who is coming off of the loss of his father.
After the two get thrown off of their plane mostly because of Tremblay, they decide to road trip across the country from Atlanta to Los Angeles so that Highman can make the birth of his child and Tremblay can make his audition. For the majority of the trip, Highman cannot stand Tremblay. They are completely different people. But in the end, they grow to become great friends. It is a great lesson to be careful of how you judge people. This film is one of the quietly clever, laugh-out-loud films of the last 15 years.
11 Some Like It Hot (1959)
Some Like It Hot is a romantic comedy directed by Billy Wilder. Starring the legendary Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, this film focuses on two musicians who, to escape vengeful mafia men, disguise themselves as women and join an all-female band. The film was a huge success, which was both to be expected (considering the cast) and a surprise (considering the subject). While the LGBTQ+-related themes within the plot cause the film to be currently adored, it was not celebrated as much in the late 1950s.
However, that is what makes this movie so great– Some Like it Hot presented a progressive narrative of two men dressed as women without any connotations regarding sexuality or mental wellness. It challenged the limitations of the archetypal man as well as the view of a woman from a masculine lens. This movie did not represent a lady as weak or needy but rather as independent and liberated. Monroe’s character, Sugar, was everything women were told not to be. She smoked, drank excessively, and was easily seduced by men. Some Like It Hot comically went against conventions, daring to step over the line of normality and paving the way for comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie to be championed.
10 When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, When Harry Met Sally is a timeless romantic comedy that asks whether a man and a woman can ever just be friends. Starring Billy Crystal (Harry) and Meg Ryan (Sally), the plot follows the title characters as they initially meet in Chicago and part ways before seeing each other again through a series of chance meetings over 12 years.
The relatable story of romantic confusion between male and female friends has caused this film to resonate with many people over the years. Unlike other romantic comedies that opt for a rushed relationship between the characters, When Harry Met Sally holds authenticity as it balances humor and the importance of building a friendship and connection with someone.
9 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
Sometimes, some of the smartest comedy films ever made are the ones that are sort of stupid and goofy. That is certainly true with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. How many films are out there that tell the story of adults playing a kid’s game for thousands of dollars? Not many. Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) and his group of ragtag workout friends from Average Joe’s Gym are in danger of losing their gym. Across the street from Average Joe’s is the ever-popular Globo Gym, which is run by health freak and competitive maniac White Goodman (Ben Stiller).
Globo Gym is going to put Average Joe’s out of business unless La Fleur and Co. can raise $50,000.00. Their only way of raising the money? Winning the grand prize of a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas. It is one of the funniest sports movies of all time and one of the most cleverly crafted. However, it also teaches fans the importance of never giving up on something so valuable to your life. In this case, it’s the gym for La Fleur and his friends.
8 Groundhog Day (1993)
Speaking of over and over again, living the same day on repeat only brings one word to mind: torture, which is what Phil Conners (Bill Murray) has to endure. A cynical weatherman covering the annual Groundhog Day event, Conners becomes trapped in a time loop and is forced to relive February 2nd repeatedly with no apparent way out. Groundhog Day allows everyone to stare their worst nightmare straight in the face and laugh as Phil Conners frustratingly wakes up to the same thing time and time again.
The film is very relatable to anyone afraid of change, as people get caught in a repetitive routine until, eventually, every day feels the same. When Phil stops blaming the world for his problems and accepts responsibility to be the agent of his positive change, things eventually start going in a better direction. Ultimately, there was a new beginning hidden under his suffering. Groundhog Day uses comedy as a way to inspire its audience to sit back, take a look at life, and appreciate what they have, otherwise, the days will start to feel as if they are jammed in a never-ending loop.
7 Liar Liar (1997)
Liar Liar is a comedy that is still providing stomach-clutching laughter to this very day. Directed by Tom Shadyac and featuring one of Jim Carrey’s best performances, this film tells the story of a deceptive lawyer who, after a birthday wish from his son, is unable to lie. Delivering many memorable scenes such as Carrey’s breakdown in the courthouse bathroom, Liar Liar presents its audience with the consequences of not valuing our priorities and those around us.
While this outcome is quite an exaggerated one, it still delivers the message that not appreciating those around you will lead to suffering. However, this film also creates a dilemma between lying and telling the truth. Throughout life, most of us have been told to always be honest and speak our minds; however, a liar seems to present being truthful to be as damaging as a lie. When Carrey tells lies, he alienates himself from his family, but when he speaks the truth, he is humiliated both privately and publicly. Therefore, what is the message? Should we lie more, or tell the truth? It’s up to the audience, but perhaps it depends on if you’re a lawyer.
6 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an intelligent movie about greed and deception, starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as con men trying to swindle Glenne Headly out of $50,000. Overflowing with moments of hilarity, the film simultaneously questions poor ethics and morals while also glorifying them. On one hand, the con men are seen as heinous as they trick gullible women out of thousands. However, on the other hand, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels presents the men as suave, savvy likable characters who the audience wants to see win. And they do. After being double-crossed by Janet, she returns with even more wealthy people to defraud.
While Janet’s calculated behavior did break the stereotype of meek and easy-to-fool women in the movie, there is not any justice. The con men did not learn anything as the cycle is just going to start all over again. However, in a way, this was a win for the audience. We wanted to see them succeed, and therefore it doesn’t feel like an injustice, more of an interrogation of the viewer’s morals. Consequently, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is clever because, just as the con men trick their victims with their undeniable charm, they deceive the audience in the very same way.
5 The Truman Show (1998)
Many people act as if the world revolves around them, however, what if it were true? In this psychological dramedy, Jim Carrey grew up living a normal life but, unbeknownst to him, he is the star of a 24/7 reality show and his entire existence is controlled. This film received many accolades, questioning how much control people have over their lives and what authenticity is.
While the movie is humorous as Truman starts to see the cracks within his environment, Carrey refreshingly embodies a conflicted and lost man as he realizes his life has never been his own. It is only when he becomes more aware of his surroundings and himself that he’s finally able to see what is real and make the decision to escape. The Truman Showcreates a great message of how one can only feel free when one takes control of their life but also how the space we live in can influence our minds, both positively and negatively.
4 National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
The Holiday Season is the perfect time for meltdowns and chaos of all types, especially when extended family is staying over. This is why Christmas Vacation is one of the most timeless and brilliant Christmas movies of all time. When Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) decides he wants to have a fun, old-fashioned family Christmas at his house with his wife and kids, his parents, his in-laws, and his crazy cousin’s family, things don’t exactly go as planned.
Whether it’s his tree burning down, a squirrel going crazy in the house or Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) kidnapping Clark’s boss, craziness happens everywhere. All of this occurs while Clark eagerly awaits his Christmas bonus that can help fulfill his dream of putting in a family pool in the backyard. It is a comedy classic that perfectly illustrates the hectic events that take place around Christmas while also showing us the joy of what makes Christmas so special.
3 Caddyshack (1980)
In another all-time great comedy flick with plenty of brilliance, Caddyshack tells the story of a bunch of old, snotty guys at a prestigious country club who love to golf but have plenty of differences. Another storyline within the film follows fellow caddy, Danny Noonan. Noonan’s goal is to raise money for college, even though he doesn’t know if he truly wants to go to college. He has hopes of gaining the favor of influential club members, including the respected Judge Smails (Ted Knight), while he caddies for them.
He also is called upon to participate in a secret team match between Smails and the rambunctious Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) with the winner being granted $40,000. This film is the epitome of old-time comedy that movie viewers from different generations love. Along with Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, the cast is loaded, and the script is brilliantly written. It also inspires young people who have no clue what to do with their life.
2 Mean Girls (2004)
Mean Girls has earned its position as a classic. Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried, this film has produced hundreds of memes and made “fetch” a word, even though Regina George (McAdams) was certain it was not going to happen. Mean Girls presents the social cliques and bullying found in high school through the eyes of teen Cady Heron (Lohan), as she fights to navigate her way through the social hierarchy while struggling to find her own identity.
The catty behavior provides comedy on-screen but also reflects the daily experiences of many young girls in high school. However, through this, Mean Girls ridicules the behavior of school tormentors, providing a comforting escape to those who feel overwhelmed by it each day. But, it also encouraged them to break free of trying to ‘be cool’ and just be themselves.
1 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Birdman is a dark dramedy that focuses on a faded Hollywood actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), best known for playing the superhero “Birdman” as he struggles to put together his Broadway production. The movie is more of an artistic piece, filmed in what appears to be a continuous shot, save for one exception. Through this style, the audience is taken deeper into the mind of Riggan as he searches for his purpose while also dealing with the tormenting voice of his former character, Birdman, in his head.
Hilarious moments such as Riggan having to wander through Times Square in his underwear complement his midlife crisis. The weight of strained relationships and possible failure is explored comically but emotionally in the film, which features a stunning conclusion about mental freedom and clarity.