From the time you’re born, people try to make you laugh. That’s because there’s not much better than laughter. Whether you’re giving or receiving laughter, it’s such a simple and human connection. We all learn about humor somewhere, and pop culture is an undeniable source. There are several actors (and otherwise) who taught me how to laugh. These are the first ten that come to mind.
From the late 70s until late 80s, Chevy Chase was an integral part of comedy, and that era just happens to be when I grew up. Whether he was stumbling around as President Gerald Ford; working his way around a country club as a skilled golfer and ladies man in Caddyshack; perfecting his craft as the Los Angeles equivalent of James Bond in the 1980s as Fletch; or desperately seeking the perfect family (and failing) as Clark Griswold, Chevy Chase dominated American comedy for a decade.
Nobody has pulled off smartass replies as well as Bugs Bunny has, and few characters in history have been as quick-witted. And for that matter, Bugs was a bit of a forerunner in the realm of pop culture satire. Bugs himself is a spoof of Clark Gable’s character in It Happened One Night (1934). For most people, Bugs Bunny is the gateway drug to the humor they’ll have for the rest of their life.
Speaking of satire, Mel Brooks is a master, having tackled silent films, Hitchcock films, Universal’s classic monster movies, Westerns, Nazis, science fiction, and sweeping epics. And they were all hilarious. Along the way, he borrowed heavily from other masters of the comedy genre. The Marx brothers and Buster Keaton instantly come to mind.
Belushi’s whole existence revolved around a perfect dichotomy. He was an oafish slob, but he was also nimble and capable of nearly impossible facial contortions. Belushi’s gift was making people laugh without saying a word. All he needed was an arched eyebrow, a look of shock, or a wild physical contortion to make his audiences laugh. It’s pure comedy.
My appreciation for Keaton’s humor came later in life but it was quite a wave. Keaton taught me that there’s something magical in the willingness to do anything to make people laugh. I could stumble around for superlatives to describe how amazing I think that is, but let’s put the thesaurus aside for a minute. Let’s look at the reality of it. Buster Keaton’s objective in life was to make people laugh, and he was so dedicated to it that he didn’t care if he died doing it. That’s a hero. That’s a legend.
Carol Burnett encompasses most of what makes comedy great. Specifically, she was great with satire, she was willing to sell out as much as possible for laughs, and her timing was immaculate. Her comedy was equally smart and relatable.
What I love about Larry David is that he found gold in the seemingly boredom-filled machinations of everyday life, both in Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Let’s face it- the minutiae of human existence is ridiculous and few are as good at exposing it as Larry David.
It has become fashionable in recent years to bash Kevin Smith. I understand and even agree with some of that point of view. Yet, Smith’s underdog, pop culture-infused early comedies were a significant part of what the 1990s were all about. Whatever else you say about the guy, he’s hilarious.
I’ve spoken quite a bit about selling out for comedy in this article and it’s an art that Lucille Ball perfected. That she did what she did in an era where the boys club dominated makes it all that much more impressive. Everyone has seen episodes of I Love Lucy and everyone has felt the influence of her comedy.
Grouch Marx was a comedy machine gun, firing off one one-liner after another for an entire career. He was in tune with everything around him and could turn anything into a yuk. That his antics were accompanied by his equally genius family is the icing on the cake.