Although we now consider it a part of everyday life, for centuries laughter was heavily condemned and seen as an offense to decency. If we go back to ancient Greece, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle criticized laughter and comedy because they saw it as a way to degrade others. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, laughter was seen as an expression of hostility or lack of self-control, to the point that many Medieval monasteries would even forbid laughing or jokes. Later on, in the seventeenth century, Puritan communities banned comedy entirely. You might wonder, why was something so cheerful as laughter so condemned? Maybe because sometimes it's not that innocent...
If you think about the best comedies in history, most of them have social commentary. The movies on this list have been banned and criticized because they defied authority or institutions with power by pointing out their flaws and parodying them to show they were not as omnipotent or logical as they thought. The unapologetic tone of these comedies has made them indirectly more convincing than any historical documentary because, while watching them, we know they are not giving us sugar-coated versions of reality. As bizarre and funny as they might be, they are irreverent approaches to the core of conflicts, historical events, and social realities.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
The famous black comedy by Stanley Kubrick explores the hypothetical consequences of the United States dropping a nuclear bomb on the Soviet Union. After the fanatic General Jack D. Ripper tells his soldiers to drop a bomb on Soviet territory, disobeying the US President’s orders, Soviet and American politicians gather to avoid a nuclear crisis from happening, especially because the Soviet Union has created a “doomsday device” programmed to destroy the world if they’re bombed by their enemies.
2. The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)
During WWII, Charlie Chaplin released this comedy in which he openly parodies and criticizes the regime of the Third Reich. A Jewish barber played by Chaplin wakes up from a coma and finds out his country, Tomainia, is being ruled by the ambitious and short-tempered dictator Adenoid Hynkel, also played by Chaplin. This critical yet heartwarming movie makes us think about our potential to be the best and worst versions of ourselves.
3. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, (Larry Charles, 2006)
Definitely not a film for the politically correct, this controversial satire and mockumentary deals with Kazakhstani TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev, who is sent by the government of his country to the United States to make a documentary. After seeing an episode of Baywatch, Borat falls in love with Pamela Anderson, forgets his original task, and decides to travel to California to look for her and make her his wife. Throughout his journey, Borat gets to know the best and the worst sides of American culture.
4. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999)
Just as the irreverent TV show by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, this movie explores and acidly criticizes the double standards of our society and how irrational their consequences can be. After the main kids of the show, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, watch an R-rated movie from the Canadian comedy duo Terrance and Phillip, Kyle’s mother heads a movement against Canada for “corrupting children” that eventually evolves into a war between the United States and this country. At the same time, the kids will do the impossible to stop the conflict and thus prevent the world from being ruled by Satan and Saddam Hussein.
5. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004)
This meme-inspiring film starring Will Ferrell tells the story of Ron Burgundy, a successful TV reporter working at the famous Channel 4. When the channel decides to hire reporter Veronica Corningstone to be more inclusive, Ron feels threatened by her will to climb to the top and her success in doing so. As the news anchor tries to take back his place, we see the hardships women go through in male-dominated working environments as well as the fragility behind the sexist mindset that perpetuates them.
6. Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
Banned for being “blasphemous,” this religious satire by Monty Python tells the story of Brian of Nazareth, a man who was born on the same day as Jesus Christ and lives similar episodes to the Messiah’s life. The parallels between Brian’s story and Jesus Christ caused protests from many different religious groups when it was released. In fact, it wouldn’t even have been made without the help of George Harrison, who was a great fan of Monty Python and financed the film after reading the script.
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