Movie Genres: Comedy–Source of Talents and Ideas

As a genre, comedy has never had it better at the domestic box-office than in the 1980s, not even in the golden age of the screwball comedy during the Great Depression.

The vast majority of the decade’s blockbusters have been comedy-adventures, and the ruder and louder the comedies are the better their chances for profitability. In the l980s, screen comedians seem to have made their mark with a vengeance. In addition to Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams scored an unexpected triumph in Good Morning Vietnam, Tom Hanks in Big and Turner and Hooch, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, and Steve Martin in Parenthood.

As could be expected, the overproduced Ghostbusters and its sequel, Ghostbusters, did well for their performers. Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who also wrote the script), the original was a funny “horror” film, full of skit humor and disjointed parodies that were best suited to their talents. The special effects are not always to the point of the story, but the Ghostbusters movies are not about coherence or structured narrative; there are too many loose ends in their screenplays.

TV: Source of New Movie Stars

The most distinctive attribute of the decade’s big stars is that many of them have come from television, where they were groomed and polished their craft. We are not talking about one or two TV stars that made it big in Hollywood. We are talking about a group of performers who, singly jointly, have come to dominate American film comedy of the l980s. As alumni of the Second City revue companies or NBC’s Saturday Night Live, they wrote, produced, and starred (in different capacities and different combinations) such popular films as Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Animal House and its variants.

Is it premature to celebrate the togetherness of film and TV, mediums that were once in direct competition with each other Gone are the days when the two cultural media used to be “natural enemies.” Unlike radio, which was always considered a legitimate avenue for screen actors to pursue before or during their screen careers, television was regarded a threat to the very existence of film.

As late as the 1950s, there was a good deal of resentment and suspicion of the new, increasingly popular, medium. Hollywood’s studios feared so much the competition from television that they prohibited their stars from appearing on the small screen. For example, Clark Gable’s MGM contract stipulated that he would appear in television productions only if they became a substantial part of the business (i.e as advertisement for his big screen work). Gable’s lengthy screen career was marked by only two TV appearances, both in the late l950s: the first when he presented an Academy Award, and the second, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

For better or for worse, this suspicion forced television to develop its own stars: Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Bill Cosby and, of course, the performers of Saturday Night Live. The transition from TV to film stardom is not always smooth and not always possible. Mary Tyler Moore and Shelley Long are still struggling to find the right vehicles.

It took several years for Tom Selleck to have made the transition from Magnum P.I. to a bankable screen star. However, Three Men and a Baby (l987) showed that with the right vehicle, he and Tad Danson, another popular TV star (Cheers), could attract moviegoers. While only thirteen of the l00 top-grossing movies have lacked bankable movie stars, at least half of them were directed and or produced by a star filmmaker, Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg and his entertainment empire are their own stars, dominating the shape and form of such starless blockbusters as E.T., Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, and the technologically wonderful Who Framed Roger Rabit. Bob Hoskins is a talented British actor, but it’s doubtful whether viewers flocked to see the film because of his performance.


The few blockbusters marked by the absence of star directors or performers have been high-concept films. Behind the success of each one of them stands a hip factor, an original idea, a technological innovation, a spoof of previously made films. For example, the l980 comedy Airplane was a zany spoof of the Airport disaster movies. Fast-paced, with a nonstop string of gags, Airplane had three directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who collaborated again in “Ruthless People” (l986).


Written and directed by Bob Clark, the starless “Porky’s” (1982) was another bawdy, raucous comedy. Set in the Eisenhower era, its rude humor was specifically designed for teen-aged audiences, who made it the fifth most popular film of the year. Porky’s also has the distinction of being the only blockbuster to have opened in the winter (March). Most of the hits have been released in the two high-seasons of filmgoing, during the summer or Christmas.


The success of Ron Howard’s “Cocoon” (1985) depended less on its narrative and protagonists (played by distinguished stage or screen actors), than the format and visual style of a Sci-fi comedy, in the best tradition of the Lucas-Spielberg movies. Cocoon was marked by an adolescent sensibility, being a tale of elderly people’s need for rejuvenation, told from the point of view of young people.

1980s Comedy Box-Office Hits

Police Academy
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

This essay was written in 1990