The 80s might’ve been a golden age for films that were pure entertainment. A decade that has sort of maintained an image of being excessive and brash, the 80s has a very particular veneer surrounding its cultural legacy. Big hair, neon lights, excess, and Russian villains are just some of the things that can be expected in a movie from the 80s. And, in the 80s, audiences were introduced to some of the most time-tested, well-regarded comedies ever produced. Franchises like Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and more all were birthed out of the 80s, with a whole host of other box office successes and cult favorites becoming canonized favorites over time. But, we aren’t going to be talking about those in this list.
Instead, we want to highlight some of the comedies of the 80s that don’t get talked about as much. The films that provided the laughs, but maybe never quite got their due in the public consciousness. These films run the gamut of silly, satirical, romps all the way through to darkly acerbic and straight up melodramatic, so there’ll be a little something for everyone on this list. Here is the 10 most underrated comedies of the 1980s, ranked
10 The War of the Roses
As dry and dark as they come, Danny Devito’s directorial effort The War of the Roses is as black of a comedy as they get. Centered on the separation and divorce of lead couple Oliver and Barbara Rose (Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner), War of the Roses takes a much more scorched earth approach to the archetypal divorce drama.
Oliver and Barbara take it upon themselves to stage war against one another, coming up with more and more complicated ways of getting the other person to snap and relinquish control over their marriage. With a screwball premise like that and a uniquely acerbic tone, War of the Roses isn’t for everyone, but it certainly remains one of the most interesting comedies of the 80s.
Starring Chevy Chase in one of his best and most charming roles, Fletch is the type of studio comedy that we are sorely missing nowadays. A slightly dark and snide but ultimately easy-to-digest comedy starring an actor that actually knows how to play a character with full commitment, Fletch meets that criteria and more. Following the exploits of Irwin M. “Fletch” Fletcher (Chase) as he is on the run after a deal to off a wealthy old business executive goes awry.
Fletch is exceptionally 80s in more ways than one, from its tone to its stars to the way in which it presents its wry, over-compensating lead character. The film might’ve gotten a decent amount of love during its era, but after the underperformance of its reboot last year (the Jon Hamm-starring film Confess, Fletch!) we think it’s good to highlight the strengths of its progenitor.
Coming out of a certainly different time period and cultural temperature, Stripes is a markedly different type of comedy than most of this era. Created by a generation of creatives whose cultural appreciation of warfare and American imperialism, Stripes takes a very interesting approach to a comedic turn on the ideas touched upon in previous decades’ war satires like M*A*S*H.
Directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Harold Ramis, and starring Bill Murray and John Candy, Stripes is about two friends who have finally reached the end of their ropes with the dead end jobs they’ve been working: so they decide to join the military. Featuring all the slapstick you can handle from the heavyweights of that era, there is nary a better 80s war comedy than Stripes.
7 Repo Man
One of the most enduring cult classics of all time, Repo Man is the type of film designed to fall onto a list like this. Initially derided after its release in 1984, Repo Man would go on to grow in its audience and estimation over time, eventually being recognized as one of the best satires of its era. Emilo Estevez stars in this grimey comedy about a young punk working for a repo agency who, upon repo-ing a strange Chevy Malibu, unintentionally finds out the truth behind the existence of extraterrestrials.
While being as goofy as it is sort of biting satirical about the rampant consumerism of the 80s, Repo Man manages to stand out from the pack by meshing these tones together into an indelible mix of genre and tone. Estevez is stellar in the lead role, and Harry Dean Stanton provides the necessary supporting character color that he was always so good at. Repo Man has certainly gotten its due over time since its release, but introducing it to more people couldn’t hurt.
6 The Burbs
From the director of Gremlins and The Howling, Joe Dante’s The Burbs is one of the best comedies of the 80s flat out. While initially considered a disappointment by critics and general audiences, Dante’s film would endure, making its mark as one of the predominant entries in the social thriller genre. What is remarkable about The Burbs is that, while it maintains one foot in that socially aware, commentary-heavy genre, it is also a thoroughly riotous comedy.
The Burbs follows overstressed suburbanite Ray Petersen (Tom Hanks) as he begins to fixate on the conspiracy theory that his neighbors might be part of a murderous cult, enlisting the help of his fellow neighbors (Bruce Dern; Rick Ducummon) to investigate what really goes on behind closed doors.
This is the type of movie that is so loaded with jokes and commentary that one viewing will never be able to give you everything the movie’s got. The Burbs endured its initially rocky response because of how ahead of its time it really was, and it continues to entertain those who venture to watch it to this day.
5 Throw Momma from the Train
Another Danny DeVito classic, Throw Momma from the Train has that signature darkly comedic tone that Devito grew to perfect over the course of his career: with this film in particular hitting a particularly harmonious medium between the morbid and silly. Throw Momma from the Train was received somewhat lukewarmly upon release, even though it was mildly successful at the box office and Anne Ramsay received multiple awards nominations for her performance in the film.
Regardless, it’s not a film that outwardly exists in the public consciousness, so highlighting it here feels like a necessity. A clever flip on the premise of the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train, Throw Momma from the Train is a pitch-black comedy about two strangers — a bitter ex-husband craving the death of his wife (Billy Crystal) and an at-his-wits-end momma’s boy who wants his mother dead (Danny Devito) — who decide to trade murders in order to make their lives easier.
Coming from the mind of parodist extraordinaire Weird Al Yankovic, UHF is one of those movies that is just sort of hard to explain. It was made under duress, as Yankovic and his producing partner and director Jay Levey had trouble finding financing and had to make the film on a tighter budget than originally imagined. Regardless, UHF came out and bombed hard, leaving Yankovic’s career on a slippery slope until his 1992 album Off the Deep End would become a smash hit.
UHF maintained such a unique, off-kilter tone and spirit that confused audiences in 1989, but has endured to become one of the best midnight comedies of the 80s. Yankovic stars in the film, which is about a late-night television station operator who finds sudden success with his unconventional programming choices, becoming the object of ire from the bigwigs of the station he’s running. UHF‘s premise and tone allow for Yankovic to really play around with ideas and concepts that something more conventional would not allow, like the films numerous parody sequences.
3 I’m Gonna Git You Sucka
A love letter to the influence of the Blaxploitation genre, Keenan Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka is one of the most unique comedies of the 80s. Wayans says that he was inspired to write this parody of Blaxploitation genre tropes after working with Eddie Murphy on films like Hollywood Shuffle, causing him to pitch the movie and get it made in the nascent days of 1988 for release in 1989. I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, unsurprisingly, failed to garner much attention from predominantly white critics upon release, but was a small success in its own right and made back its budget.
Sucka got its attention from the audience that mattered, however, as it is unanimously considered a classic by Black critics and commentators, and for good reason. I’m Gonna Git You Sucka is one of the best comedies of the 80s and one that, if you aren’t familiar with Black filmmakers or non-studio comedies of this era, you might not have seen before. It’s well worth the watch so long as you’ve familiarized yourself with the tropes and goings-ons of the Blaxploitation genre.
2 Modern Romance
A markedly different film from a lot on this list, Modern Romance falls into a much more Woody Allen-esque camp of comedy than something like Stripes or Fletch. Directed, written, and starring Albert Brooks, Modern Romance is the kind of neurotic, talky dramedy that would play like gangbusters in the mid-70s, but sort of fell out of vogue by the time the 80s came around. Brooks is among the best at this style, which makes Modern Romance‘s tepid box office performance (yet overwhelming praise by critics) all the more unfortunate.
Regardless, this film should be one that you seek out because it manages to be overwhelmingly heartbreaking at the same time as it is making you cackle with laughter. Following a Hollywood film editor with a few too many problems to bear (Brooks) and his well-meaning girlfriend (Kathryn Arnold) as they break up out of frustration with one another, Modern Romance is a portrait of jealousy as much it is about love. That might not sound overwhelmingly funny, but it manages to strike that perfect balance of darkly comedic and suitably dramatic.
1 Something Wild
And, finding its way on the top of our list, is Jonathan Demme’s 1986 masterpiece: the manic road trip comedy Something Wild. Starring Jeff Daniels as a yuppie with a stick up his butt and Melanie Griffith as the freewheeling girl of his dreams, Something Wild is a breakneck trip through the feelings of infatuation and energetic passion that come when you’ve found something you didn’t know you needed: something wild and free.
After being “kidnapped” by Audrey (Griffith), the nebbish Charles (Daniels) takes the hits in stride and goes on a weekend of adventure with the free-spirited woman. Their fun quickly meets an end, however, as her convict ex-husband (Ray Liotta) goes on the prowl to get back his lady and snuff out any competition that stands in his way.
Something Wild is the quintessential 80s comedy — as much about excess and greed as it is about standing in defiance of it. Demme managed to create something incredibly timeless and almost effortlessly effective with this film and its paramount that everyone see it at least once.