Top Ten Comedies Every Highbrow Should Watch

Kurt Thurber


Even the most highbrow of highbrows needs to relax and, on certain days when a retreat to the solarium in a favorite alpaca sweater while sipping on a red from the Bordeaux region simply doesn’t cut it, there is another outlet. The comedic offerings of film from across the ages to relax the wary mind burdened with the world’s problems.  The highbrow thinkers of  the world can indulge in film entertainment between solving global warming by using algorithms from a Harvard library window and discussing why James Joyce hated punctuation over tea at 4 o’clock Greenwich time.

In that vein, the following is a list of comedies that are highbrow-worthy. Adam Sandler is nowhere to be found. Thus, the IQ of this list is up tenfold. Let us begin in no particular order…


“Duck Soup” (1933)

Director: Leroy McCarey

Stars: The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, Chico)

While this movie often gets lauded as one of the great comedies of all time, it should be right up there with the big boys (Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind) in consideration for the greatest movies of all time. The Marx Brothers ruthlessly and gleefully dissect the war-profiteering practices of War World I, what was to come in in War World II and beyond.  Whether it is Groucho Marx as the inept leader of Freedonia, Rufus T. Firefly in a boyscout uniform throwing out one-liners, or Harpo Marx’s silent antics in the much duplicated but never replicated mirror scene. This one hits on all levels of intelligence and entertainment.



“Some Like it Hot” (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder

Stars: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe

Sure, two guys meet one girl and she has to choose between them is formula as old as Gilgamesh and Enkidu. However, “Some Like it Hot” is much  funnier than a Sumerian ancient poem (hard to believe).  Lemmon’s and Curtis’ characters witness a mob murder. They go on the run and disguise themselves as female musicians. Hilarity and hijinks ensue as they try to remain in disguise and woo Marilyn Monroe’s character. While there may not be any deep social issues explored, even the most intellectual movie-watchers need to relax and enjoy great writing, comedic timing and slapstick action.



“The Jerk” (1979)

Director: Carl Reiner

Stars: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jackie Mason

On one hand it is a commentary on race relations in the United States and socio-economic circumstances that lead to “success.” On the other hand, “The Jerk” is pure movie comedic perfection. From Steve Martin’s opening voice-over, “I grew-up a poor black child,” to Navin Johnson’s (Martin) exuberance at the arrival of the phonebook, director Carl Reiner and Martin never let this comedy slow down for the audience to realize how the film’s many conceits operate on a high level.



“Ghostbusters” (1984)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Stars: Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis

There is something for everyone in this Ivan Reitman classic. Anti-government oversight? Then look no further than the Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy, Richard Peck’s pivotal role in allowing Gozar the Gozarian to cross dimensions and bring a giant marshmallow man to destroy New York City. Think the world of academia is filled with liberals who should be thrown to the curb? Then watch with mirth as the protagonist gets fired. No strong political leanings, just watch anyway for Bill Murray at his apex.   


“O’Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000)/”Raising Arizona” (1987)/”Big Lebowski” (1998)

Director: The Coen Brothers

Stars: John Goodman in all of them

When it comes to the Coen Brothers, why choose? Enjoy all of their smartest, deep thought-provoking and giggle-inciting works. Looking for a bluegrass musical based on an ancient Greek epic poem? Feel free to ponder George Clooney’s performance in “O’Brother Where Art Thou?” Want to explore the frustrations of child conception and necessity of family, then bask in the excellent performances of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as loving baby-snatchers in “Raising Arizona.” Finally, have a nightcap with a White Russian and the philosophical yarn-spinning of the Dude (Jeff Bridges) in “The Big Lebowski,” in which John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak refuses to roll on the Shabbos.  



“The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)

Director: Wes Anderson

Stars: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson

No one encapsulates melo-chic and hipster-dramatic better than Wes Anderson. Anderson’s trademark pangs of growing up and sweet sadness as childhood drifts further and further away are on display. Through this, Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the world’s greatest/worst father to perfection. Luke Wilson plays the Baumer, Owen Wilson writes a novel that supposes George Custard did live, and Gwyneth Paltrow is a secret smoker. Quirky and intelligent have so rarely been blended and been as satisfying.   



“Private Benjamin” (1980)

Director: Howard Zieff

Stars: Goldie Hawn

“Private Benjamin” is both a commentary about the place of feminine independence amongst the military-industrial complex and a screwball comedic vehicle for Goldie Hawn. It shows that women can be empowered and as strong as men when given opportunities to find their strengths. Then again army life is tough and Goldie Hawn doesn’t let a comedic moment pass.  


Trading Places (1983)

Director: John Landis

Stars: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jaimie Lee Curtis

Feeling good and looking good. “Trading Places” has it all - from drunken Santas, social engineering and the volatility of orange juice commodities. The plot of a one-dollar bet between two slightly racist finance tycoons allows Aykroyd and Murphy to portray two men out of their depths with verve and wit. As a bonus, this movie never needs to be rented since it is on all the time during the holiday season.



“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

Director: Stanley Kurbrick

Stars: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens

Stanley Kubrick puts the irrationality of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War and how precarious life on the planet really was and still is in the hands of human beings center stage. Also the audience gets to fantasize about riding a nuclear bomb rodeo-style, the best of both worlds.


Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen

Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

Is it even possible to have a highbrow movie discussion and not include Woody Allen? Probably not. “Annie Hall” may be Allen’s seminal work as a filmmaker as it examines the dichotomy of relationships between balancing love and individuality. The film and writing move between conscious and subconscious interactions of characters. Pithy lines and introspective commentary are exchanged. Highbrow status achieved.


The author’s sincerest apologies to “The Princess Bride,” Monty Python’s catalogue, “This is Spinal Tap,” “Caddy Shack,” “Spies Like Us” and” Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.” All funny and all smart movies, however, how fun is a list if there is not a cutoff? Feel free to lodge complaints below.


Author Bio:

Kurt Thurber, a Highbrow Magazine contributing writer,  grew up in Caroline County, the only landlocked county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After matriculating through the public school system with no distinctive accomplishments whatsoever, he attended Mary Washington College, graduate school at Villanova University and completed a successful apprenticeship as a masked vigilante crime-fighter. He is ready for a highbrow discourse on any number of subjects. Did Han Solo shoot first? Heck and yes. What was MacGyver's first name? Angus. Can anyone put baby in a corner? Yes, Patrick Swayze from heaven. Read more of Kurt Thurber's musings at his blog

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