20 Hilarious Comedies That Tackled Completely Unfunny Subjects
Laughter, so the saying goes, is the best medicine. It stands to reason, then, that the topics that are the most painful in real life can sometimes be the best subject matter for comedy films. This may often seem to fly in the face of taste and decency, but so long as the material is approached in the correct way, there are arguably no subjects that should remain off-limits for jokes.
Sometimes reality is so ugly, so shocking and so unpleasant that the only way we can really deal with it is to make fun of it – and when films manage to strike the right tone in doing so, the resulting viewing can be hugely cathartic.
Consider the following films, which took decidedly unfunny topics and made their audiences laugh out loud.
20. The Producers
This 1967 comedy classic firmly established its writer-director Mel Brooks as the premier comedy filmmaker of the time – and one of the boldest ever to work in the business.
Taking a sardonic look at the musical theatre industry, The Producers casts Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as a duo of struggling Broadway producers who conspire to make the worst show they can in order to close on opening night and elope with the funds.
And in order to ensure their show goes down in flames, they choose the worst, most flagrantly offensive script they can find: a pro-Nazi musical entitled Springtime for Hitler.
Brooks had been working on The Producers for many years, and originally planned to call the film itself Springtime for Hitler, but unsurprisingly was met with widespread resistance over that title.
As shocking as it was to joke about Hitler barely two decades after the end of WWII, The Producers was embraced by audiences, and landed Brooks a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
This 1970 comedy from director Robert Altman is best remembered for spawning the long-running TV sitcom of the same name.
However, the original film was quite a ground-breaker in its own right, tackling heavy real-life subject matter with an unusually light touch.
MASH centres on the staff of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean war, who are shaken by the arrival of the anarchic surgeons ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and ‘Trapper’ McIntyre (Elliot Gould).
Though set in Korea, it was widely understood that MASH was really commenting on the conflict in Vietnam, which was ongoing at the time of the film’s release.
MASH proved a big hit, making $81 million at the box office and collecting such accolades as the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film was based on a novel by Richard Hooker).
18. The Big Sick
This acclaimed 2017 romantic comedy-drama draws heavily on the real-life experiences of leading man Kumail Nanjiani.
The Big Sick casts Nanjiani as essentially a fictionalised version of himself, a struggling Pakistani-American comedian who enters into a relationship with a white woman, Emily (Zoe Kazan).
However, as if their inter-ethnic relationship did not carry enough challenges on its own, things are complicated even further when Emily falls deathly ill.
Co-written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a loose retelling of their own relationship, as Gordon herself suffered the same affliction the fictionalised Emily suffers in the movie.
The film won critical plaudits for its sensitive and funny handling of difficult subject matter, while Nanjiani and Gordon received a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.
17. In Bruges
Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s debut film casts Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of Irish hitmen taking a holiday of sorts in the Belgian city of the title.
For the most part, In Bruges is a very funny affair, playing on the culture clash between Farrell and Gleeson’s grumpy assassins and their quaint, tourist-friendly surroundings.
However, there’s a considerably darker undertone to the whole endeavour once we learn the reason the duo are in the city.
It turns out that Farrell’s Ray and Gleeson’s Ken are in Bruges under orders of their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after something went badly wrong on their last job: during the course of a hit, Ray accidentally shot and killed a child.
Farrell’s performance masterfully balances sardonic wit with the inevitable anguish of living with such guilt, and justly won him a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
16. In the Loop
British TV series The Thick of It demonstrated the comedic potential in exploring the contemporary political climate – and its feature-length spin-off proved this approach to be just as effective on the big screen.
In the Loop features the core ensemble from The Thick of It, most notably Peter Capaldi’s government communications director Malcolm Tucker.
The cast is filled out with a number of American actors, including James Gandolfini and Anna Chlumsky, as both the UK and US governments get caught up in an escalating conflict in the Middle East.
The heavily satirical comedy pokes fun at the political relationship between Britain and America in the era of the controversial war on terror.
This would not be the last time director and co-writer Armando Ianucci tackled sensitive political material on the big screen, as we’ll see later…
15. The Big Short
This time five years ago, just about the last thing anyone expected from the director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights was a fact-based drama about the global financial crisis of 2008.
However, this is just what director and co-writer Adam McKay made in his 2015 adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book of the same name.
The Big Short boasts a starry cast in Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carrell, with the latter giving a more dramatic performance than seen in his other collaborations with McKay (i.e. the Anchorman films).
Of course, being Adam McKay, the filmmaker naturally brought the story to the screen with more than a dash of sardonic humour: take the scene in which Margot Robbie appears as herself, in a bathtub, explaining some of the more complex financial matters the film explores.
The Big Short was a decent-sized hit, and also won McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
14. Withnail & I
This 1987 British comedy from writer-director Bruce Robinson has long been a beloved cult favourite.
Withnail & I launched the careers of both Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, and gave Grant in particular some of the most enduringly quotable lines anyone’s ever had the pleasure of delivering.
Grant’s Withnail and McGann’s character (the name of whom is the subject of some debate) are both out-of-work actors sharing a flat in Camden, London in 1969 – and in the absence of gainful employment, they spend the bulk of their time drunk.
While the duo’s perpetual drunkenness may result in reams of side-splitting funny dialogue, this doesn’t disguise the fact that the protagonists are impoverished alcoholics who have thus far utterly failed to achieve their dreams of stage and screen success.
Still, for all its underlying bleakness Withnail & I manages to end on a relatively optimistic note, which would not have been the case had they kept the originally planned ending, which would have seen Withnail commit suicide.
13. Team America: World Police
The names Trey Parker and Matt Stone have long been synonymous with boundary-pushing comedy, thanks to their long-running, controversy-courting animated TV series South Park.
With their 2004 movie Team America: World Police, Parker and Stone moved from cartoons to puppets – but the humour remained as barbed as ever, while the targets were every bit as current and sensitive.
Centred on a Thunderbirds-esque team of all-American super-soldiers, Team America: World Police was a very clear satire on America’s War on Terror, in full bloom at the time of the film’s release.
Given that the film reached screens just over three years after 9/11, a comedy tackling such subject matter was very bold indeed (the fact that Parker and Stone also saw fit to ridicule the then-dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, was just as ballsy a move).
Still, as much as Team America: World Police might seem to primarily satirise pro-war attitudes, it’s every bit as ruthless towards anti-war demonstrators, with a slew of prominent Hollywood left-wingers parodied in puppet form, most notoriously Matt Damon.
On its arrival in 1989, Heathers was pitched as darker, harder-edged alternative to the more upbeat and sensitive high school comedies of the John Hughes/Brat Pack era.
The film from director Michael Lehman and screenwriter Daniel Waters centres on Winona Ryder’s popular girl Veronica, who gets swept up in a whirlwind romance with Christian Slater’s bad boy outsider, JD.
Unfortunately, Veronica learns too late that JD is a homicidal maniac, who coerces her into helping him commit a string of murders which they disguise as suicide.
The real crux of Heathers’ humour comes from the community reaction to this ‘suicide’ epidemic, reflecting the attitudes of the time in a far from favourable light.
Heathers quickly became a cult classic, and launched Ryder and Slater to stardom – although director Lehman would soon hit a major stumbling block by making 1991 Bruce Willis flop Hudson Hawk.
11. Jojo Rabbit
Even decades after the end of World War II, Nazi Germany is a tricky subject to tackle from a predominantly comedic angle.
Writer-director Taika Waititi was courageous enough to try with 2019’s Jojo Rabbit, an adaptation of Christine Leunen’s book Caging Skies.
The film centres on Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old boy growing up in the last days of Nazi Germany, who has Adolf Hitler (also played by Waititi) as an imaginary friend. The big-name cast includes an Oscar-nominated Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother.
It’s a bold move to make a broadly family-friendly comedy that might be misconstrued as sympathetic to the Nazis.
However, Waititi (who is himself Jewish) and his cast and crew strike a rare balance between madcap humour and serious themes, without ever being insensitive – and they did such a good job that Waititi was awarded the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his efforts.
10. Blazing Saddles
Seven years after The Producers, director Mel Brooks delivered another hit comedy that found laughs in some of the most sensitive subjects.
Though ostensibly a spoof of the Western genre, 1974’s Blazing Saddles shocked audiences at the time with its commentary on race relations – and if anything, it’s even more shocking today in its no-holds-barred depiction of xenophobia.
The comedy is set in a predominantly white frontier town, whose populace is stunned to find that their new sheriff (Cleavon Little) is a black man.
Co-written by comedy legend Richard Pryor (who was initially poised to take the lead role) and co-starring Gene Wilder, Blazing Saddles is unrepentant in its flagrantly offensive humour and use of racial slurs.
It’s near-inconceivable that such content would fly in a studio-backed comedy today, even though it’s always apparent that the real butt of the joke here is ignorance itself.
9. American Psycho
Admittedly, 2000’s American Psycho is more commonly referred to as a horror movie or psychological thriller rather than a comedy.
However, director Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 novel is indeed very funny – so long as the viewer has the stomach for the blackest of humour.
The real backbone of American Psycho is what proved to be a star-making turn from Christian Bale, who is by turns hilarious and terrifying as the deranged Patrick Bateman.
In line with Ellis’s novel, American Psycho centres on a decadent Wall Street banker who likes to brutally murder people in his spare time.
In contrast with the novel, however, the movie is less interested in the carnage than it is in satirising the greed, machismo and misogyny of 80s yuppiedom.
In modern life, few scenarios are more liable to leave us overwhelmed with despair than a cancer diagnosis.
2011’s 50/50 certainly doesn’t overlook that angst, but it also manages to find a fair bit of warmth and humour within that modern nightmare.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes the lead as Adam, whose world is turned upside down when a malignant tumour is found in his spine, leaving him with a 50% chance of survival.
Touchingly, 50/50 is based on the true-life experience of screenwriter Will Reiser – and the character of Kyle, portrayed by Seth Rogen, is in fact modelled on Rogen himself.
50/50 director Jonathan Levine would reunite with Gordon-Levitt and Rogen on 2015’s The Night Before, and worked with Rogen a third time on 2019’s Long Shot.
7. Life Is Beautiful
If ever any subject seemed off-limits for comedic treatment, it would have to be the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Infamously, this was the subject of the notorious 1972 Jerry Lewis film The Day the Clown Cried, which its late director and star went to pains to ensure would never be seen after he shot it.
Still, this did not dissuade director, actor and co-writer Roberto Benigni from tackling similar subject matter with Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella).
The 1997 Italian film, inspired by true events, centres on a Jewish father who shelters his young son from the harsh reality of the concentration camps by convincing the innocent boy that it’s all a game.
While some critics accused Life Is Beautiful of trivialising the Holocaust, on the whole the film was well-received, inspiring as many tears as laughs.
Life Is Beautiful was also notable for winning Benigni the Best Actor Oscar – a rare feat for a non-English language performance.
6. But I’m a Cheerleader
Director Jamie Babbit’s 1999 indie rom-com But I’m a Cheerleader is set in the decidedly unpleasant world of gay conversion therapy.
Natasha Lyonne stars in the film as Megan, a high school cheerleader who is sent to a camp to ‘cure’ her lesbianism, but instead winds up falling for fellow camper Graham (Clea DuVall).
A broad and colourful satire of an ugly industry, But I’m a Cheerleader conversely also manages to be a surprisingly sweet and tender look at young love.
However, the film was the cause of some controversy, as despite its fairly gentle nature it was initially given the ultra-restrictive NC-17 certificate in the USA.
This harsh ruling prompted fierce debate about same-sex love scenes being treated differently by the classifiers than heterosexual content.
5. Four Lions
The mere idea of making a light-hearted comedy about radicalised Muslims in training to be suicide bombers is liable to send some into an apoplectic fit.
Nonetheless, this is exactly what Chris Morris did with his 2010 feature directorial debut, Four Lions.
Morris has been no stranger to controversy, having prompted widespread outrage in his time with his satirical TV shows The Day Today and Brass Eye.
The director described Four Lions as “the Dad’s Army side to terrorism,” and while the film unsurprisingly left many outraged, it also prompted squeals of laughter from much of its audience.
Four Lions was also notable for giving an early film role to Riz Ahmed, who has since broken big in Hollywood in such hits as Rogue One and Venom.
4. The Death of Stalin
Director Armando Ianucci took a singularly idiosyncratic approach to a dark chapter from history in his acclaimed 2017 black comedy.
An adaptation of French graphic novel La Mort de Staline, The Death of Stalin boasts an eye-catching ensemble of transatlantic big name actors, almost all of whom use their own accents.
Such stars as Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor take the roles of real-life government officials in 1953 Soviet Russia, following their troubles in the days following their leader’s demise.
As chilling a history lesson as the film may be, it’s also gut-rupturingly funny: we defy anyone not to crack up every time Jason Isaacs’ Zhukov says anything.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, though reportedly bootleg copies are popular there.
3. The Interview
While many of the films on this list sparked controversy, none had quite the same impact as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s 2014 comedy The Interview.
The film casts Rogen and James Franco as a duo of TV journalists used to working in light-hearted tabloid fare, and who manage to land an unprecedented interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).
However, before they leave for North Korea, the pair are recruited by the CIA and tasked with assassinating Kim during the interview.
North Korea’s dictator did not take kindly to this satirical representation, leading both to threats of military action against the US, and to the notorious email hack of studio Sony, which had heavy ramifications for many at the studio.
This naturally meant The Interview had a somewhat muted release, but its outrageous, brazen humour hit home with the comparative few who got out to see it. Even so, it’s probably not surprising that Rogen and Goldberg haven’t directed another theatrical film since.
2. Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
If there’s one thing just about all of us can agree simply isn’t funny at all, surely it must be the prospect of the entire human race being wiped out by a nuclear conflict.
Yet this was the subject director Stanley Kubrick chose for his 1964 classic Dr Strangelove, which more than 50 years on is still held up as one of the funniest films ever made.
It’s fascinating that the film wound up this way, as the novel that was the basis for the Dr Strangelove screenplay is an entirely straight military thriller.
Outside of Dr Strangelove (and some of the more colourfully-worded scenes in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket), Kubrick’s films weren’t necessarily known for their humour.
Small wonder, then, that Dr Strangelove relies heavily on the skills of noted funnyman Peter Sellers, who plays no less than three roles in Strangelove, including the mad doctor of the title.
1. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Hugely controversial on release but widely acknowledged as a comedy classic today, 1979’s Life of Brian is surely the crowning achievement of groundbreaking comedy ensemble Monty Python.
Directed by the late Terry Jones, the film follows Brian (played by the also-sadly missed Graham Chapman), a hapless contemporary of Jesus Christ, as he is unwittingly mistaken for the saviour.
Still, as anyone who’s seen Life of Brian knows, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
Though the film has been widely condemned as blasphemous, watch Life of Brian closely and it’s clear the Python team do not in fact attack Christ or his teachings.
Rather, the film takes an extremely critical view of Christ’s followers, and religion in general; this has always been, and looks likely to remain, a sensitive subject.