The 1980s were a gold mine for comedy. Plenty of legends were born in the spotlight, but today we’re looking at who was behind the camera. These are our top 10 comedy directors from the 80s.
It’s good to let out a few tears now and then, and a good edge-of-your-seat thrill ride is as good a way to spend Saturday night as any, but in the end, who doesn’t love a good laugh? Today we’re taking a look at the top comedy directors working inside one of the most beloved decades in cinema.
10. Mel Brooks
His most memorable and well-received comedies—particularly Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein—came in the 1970s. Albeit, he still put out an instantly recognizable piece in the subsequent decade with 1987’s Spaceballs.
Poking fun at such a juggernaut franchise as Star Wars is a brave task in itself, but creating a feature length film that satirizes the melodramatic monologues and exaggerated plot points of classic science fiction works is something else entirely. Tack on his release of History of the World Part 1 in 1981, and he more than earned a spot on this list, if not for power in name alone.
9. Woody Allen
Much like Mel Brooks, his popularity pretty much peaked in the years leading up to the decade, but Woody Allen hardly slowed down in the eighties: Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
That’s seven movies in a decade, each with its own idiosyncratic blend of comedy. None of these films are by any means standouts of the genre—save perhaps for Hannah and Her Sisters—but Allen’s signature quick-witted dialogue and awkward character moments provided a certain flair for comedy that set his movies apart from everything else in the decade.
8. Barry Levinson
His directorial debut came in 1982 with the release of Diner. It received an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay, and helped launch the careers of future Hollywood superstars like Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, and Mickey Rourke.
But his reign with iconic actors didn’t end there. Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987 paired Levinson up with funny man Robin Williams, and in the next year, he directed both Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man. The latter film wasn’t nearly as centralized on laugh-out-loud comedy, but there were elements of humor all throughout.
7. David Zucker
Airplane! In 1980, Top Secret! In 1984, and Ruthless People in 1986 were all directed by three guys: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David’s younger brother Jerry. Collectively they were known as, fittingly: Zucker, Abrahams and Zuker.
Now, David did sort of set himself apart from the other two with a film he directed by himself in 1988—The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! This release cemented his legacy in the realm of parodies, and established his name in the Hollywood history books. Sorry, other two dudes.
I’m kidding. All three men would see more success by themselves—as in, not working as a group—in subsequent decades. While a lot of their joints don’t hold up to today’s comedy standards, all three of them did a lot to pioneer the parody genre, and David Zucker was undoubtedly the best of the 80s.
6. Harold Ramis
If someone of lesser esteem directed Club Paradise in 1985, we’d likely write them off in an instant. It’s a blemish on Ramis’ filmography—but luckily for all of us, he released two movies earlier in the decade that are widely recognized as some of the genre’s absolute best. Caddyshack rocked theaters worldwide in 1980 with its outrageous performances and laugh-out-loud dialogue, and get this: it was Ramis’ directorial debut.
Caddyshack is a huge movie either way, but the fact that he was able to pull it off as his first feature flick is a fantastic feat in his filmmaking journey. The other movie was National Lampoon’s Vacation in 1982, which might just go down as Chevy Chase’s best performance to-date as family man Clark Griswold. Ramis was also known throughout the decade for his stints in acting, but it’s his legacy as a director that skyrocketed him to household-name-material.
5. Richard Donner
On the surface, The Goonies may appear more like a fantasy-adventure film as opposed to a straight-up comedy, but once you go through and dissect the amount of laughs, there’s really no question. Goonies is a comedy, and while it may be Donner’s magnum opus, nothing stopped him from putting out comedic gold-after-gold-after-gold with Lethal Weapon in 1987, Scrooged in ‘88, and Lethal Weapon 2 in ‘89.
Those three movies alone are some of the most outrageously funny of the decade—with two of them completely redefining the buddy-cop subgenre—and when you throw Goonies in there as the cherry on top, Richard Donner earns an obvious inclusion on this list, as well as our undying deference.
4. Ivan Reitman
Ghostbusters in 1984 and its sequel in ‘89 constitute one of the most recognizable film franchises in the history of comedies, and really the film industry as a whole. Everyone has the answer ready at the drop of a hat when someone asks, “Who ya gonna call?”
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis lead a cast that could very well stand the test of time, and when you tack on Ivan Reitman’s established proclivity for comedic directing—exhibited in side-splitting fashion with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in the 1981 movie, Stripes—it’s clear that no matter what he touched throughout the decade, the result was comedic gold.
3. Rob Reiner
The thing that stands out regarding Reiner’s comedic prowess is his ability to craft a memorable scene, and three of them from three particular movies in the 80s highlight that facet of filmmaking. The first came in 1984 with a certain amplifier scene in This is Spinal Tap—you know, the amp that went to eleven. Most film fans have at least heard of this scene regardless of whether they’ve even seen the movie.
The second scene was within The Princess Bride, a movie that teems with feel-good, family-friendly moments while remaining a straight-up, inconceivable laugh riot all the way through. The scene that stands out amongst them all is Wesley’s battle of wits with Vizinni. The latter’s obsession with reverse psychology resulting in a fit of unruly, maniac laughter just seconds before his death, emits the same reaction from audiences time-and-time again.
The final Reiner scene to mention is set at inside a diner with Billy Crystal on one side of the table and Meg Ryan on the other—yes, When Harry Met Sally…—with the latter feigning sensual pleasure in front of dozens of strangers to their confusion and the audience’s amusement. These three scenes wonderfully showcase Reiner’s proclivity for hilarity, as well as his ability to control vastly disparate styles, tones, and ambiances in three movies that you would never know were directed by the same guy.
2. John Landis
Grab your fancy suits and prep your best Eddie Murphy impression, because John Landis comes in here at number two. He started the decade off with a bang, releasing The Blues Brothers in 1980 to universal acclaim, with the film’s soundtrack remaining as popular as ever to this day.
He went on to direct Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in 1983’s Trading Places, really establishing a name for himself within the world of comedy. His next two movies—Spies Like Us in 1985 and Three Amigos in 1986—received middle-of-the-road reviews. Albeit, the director rounded the decade out in glorious fashion by once again teaming up with Eddie Murphy—this time in 1988’s Coming to America. Landis also scattered jokes throughout An American Werewolf in London, but those are in a bit of a different, darker vein.
1. John Hughes
In the back of my mind, this placement was always inflexible. Hughes’s standout flick The Breakfast Club may not have provided as many laugh-out-loud moments as it did poignant scenes of back-and-forth dialogue, but John Hughes was a humorous force to be reckoned with in the eighties, releasing stellar teen comedies one-after-another.
He kicked things off in ‘84 with the release of Sixteen Candles, then continued the trend the next year by directing Weird Science. Runaway comedic success, however, came with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986—a film that stands proud to this day as one of the most iconic the genre has ever seen. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles came next, resulting in remarkable rapport between Steve Martin and John Candy.
Hughes released She’s Having A Baby in 1988, then rounded out the decade with Uncle Buck the following year, and get this: out of all of those movies, the only one with negative reviews is She’s Having a Baby...
Since he released seven well-known comedies in six consecutive years—with the majority being of the highest possible quality—there’s no doubt that John Hughes deserves the number one spot.
Thanks for reading our take on the best comedy directors from 1980 to 1989, and be sure to tune in soon for the next installment as we cover the genre of horror!