9 Favorite Comedy Scores
Because everyone’s sense of humor is different, everyone’s taste in comedy films is also different. (Duh!) I’m not usually a big fan of obvious, slapstick humor. I prefer comedy that has a human element, some darkness to it, and wit and sophistication (he types oh so snobbishly). You likely won’t find me at the latest Kevin James or Adam Sandler yuck fest (with “yuck” being the key word in that phrase). The most successful comedy film scores for me have some heart and drama to them, as well as an inherent musical craft, rather than the bland, interchangeable contemporary sound that plagues so many comedy films today.
As with most “9 on the 9th” posts, the topic is so broad that I had to set myself some ground rules, basically boiling the list down to live action non-musicals and only score per composer. Otherwise, I could have peppered an entire list with music from John Morris and Elmer Bernstein. Some of my favorite comedy films, like WHAT’S UP, DOC? and PAPER MOON, have no original score. But I had no problem pulling together a list of nine, even though I had to leave off musical gems like SOME LIKE IT HOT, SILENT MOVIE and STRIPES.
Oddly enough, I don’t like all of the films listed below. (You’ll see.) While you may not necessarily laugh at the music, this month’s “9” are guaranteed to make you smile.
9. SIDEWAYS (2004)[audio:sideways.mp3]
This thinking man’s comedy goes down like a fine Bordeaux (“no f***ing Merlot!”) and so does Rolfe Kent‘s gentle jazz score. A quartet of marvelous performers speak Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne’s sparkling dialogue. Like the amber-colored drives through California wine country, Kent’s music never overwhelms the emotion in the story and lets the characters be the stars. Smooth and easy, this is a score to be savored.
8. 9 TO 5 (1980)[audio:9to5.mp3]
This larger than life spoof of women in the workplace by all rights should not have worked. But a smart script and three talented actresses (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and newcomer Dolly Parton) overcome some of the story’s silliness to create flesh and blood characters, while still poking fun at corporate politics and having a damn good time in the process. Parton’s title song was an instant classic, but it was up to Charles Fox to musically keep up with the frenetic pace of the film. The score is light and breezy, yet never out of tune with the characters. From classic chase music to spot-on pastiches of country and western and a pitch perfect Disney spoof, Fox matches the actresses’ comic timing from 9 to 5 and everywhere in between.
7. BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967)[audio:barefootinthepark.mp3]
Neil Simon’s particular brand of sitcom one-liners has not aged particularly well. BAREFOOT IN THE PARK is a rare exception. Perhaps it’s the NYC apartment living that still rings true, or maybe it’s just the marvelous combination of Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, and especially Mildred Natwick who make it work. Adding a great deal of joy to the film is Neal Hefti‘s score. With its memorable main title waltz, Hefti composes a jazz paus de deux for newlyweds Fonda and Redford that keeps the stagebound locale dancing on air.
6. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)[audio:ghostbusters.mp3]
With ANIMAL HOUSE and AIRPLANE!, Elmer Bernstein gave his career new life scoring comedy films. What set Bernstein’s music apart from the run-of-the-mill comedies (which still holds true today) is his ability to play straight man under the most ridiculous of circumstances. In GHOSTBUSTERS, Bernstein got to combine sci-fi pastiche with dramatic elements that helped offset the foolish story at its core. I’m not a big fan of the film, not even after having to write the liner notes for the Varese Sarabande CD years ago. But having to research those notes did give me further respect for Bernstein’s talent.
5. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)[audio:peewee2.mp3]
One of the silliest movies ever made works primarily due to the inventiveness of Tim Burton and Paul Reubens’ unique talent. Because I grew up in Texas, the film’s down home humor poking fun at the Lone Star State, especially the hilarious Alamo scenes, still make me giggle. And Pee Wee’s tinge of mean superiority trapped within his childlike voice still hits the mark. But perhaps the film’s greatest achievement was bringing together Burton and Danny Elfman for one of the greatest director/composer collaborations in film. Elfman hit the ground running (or bicycling, in this case) in his first major film with his distinctive style that has now been copied and parodied but never equaled. Forget 1982’s FORBIDDEN ZONE, Elfman’s feature debut. It started here, folks.
4. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)[audio:youngfrankenstein.mp3]
This film is just as funny as it was at age 14 when I literally slid out of my seat in the theater from laughing so hard. The slapstick elements may have been the funniest elements at 14. Delicious performances, a smart script, and pitch perfect cinematography and art direction blend together in this witty spoof that Mel Brooks never equaled before or since. But what truly elevates the film is John Morris‘ score, which veers between horror music pastiche and a sublime, memorable lullaby that gives the film heart.
3. 1941 (1979)[audio:1941.mp3]
I detest this film. I truly do. Steven Spielberg was ripe for a fall after JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and, boy, did this overblown WWII spoof, ahem, tank. It wasn’t funny when I was 17 (the perfect age for such moronic humor), and a recent viewing didn’t change my opinion one whit. How John Williams captured such sparkling wit and joy in the music is beyond me. Williams anchors the score with one of the best marches ever composed for film. Whether it’s period , spoofing his own music, or composing something entirely original, the score constantly delights as the film crashes and burns, sometimes quite literally.
2. IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963)[audio:itsamadworld1.mp3]
MAD WORLD is the 1941 of 1963. Director Stanley Kramer got a little big for his britches, cramming all that comedic talent into an overlong windbag of a film that is painfully unfunny. Not so with Ernest Gold‘s marvelous score. Gold switches gears at the drop of a hat, combining action, ’60s period pop pastiche and inspired melodic content for a wild musical ride that gives the film a circus-like buoyancy that it so desperately needs. If you enjoy watching legendary stars mugging and embarrassing themselves for 154 minutes (it feels longer!), have at it.
1. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961)[audio:breakfast.mp3]
The humor is more whimsical and nostalgic than thigh-slapping. And if you can overlook Mickey Rooney’s yellow face performance as Mr. Yunioshi, TIFFANY’S is an utter delight from its breakfast at dawn beginning to the classic rain-soaked finale. In addition to Audrey Hepburn’s iconic performance, much of the joy of TIFFANY’S comes from Henry Mancini‘s pitch perfect score. Far more dramatic and subtle than the classic LP will have you believe, Mancini’s music never overplays the comedic elements, while “Moon River” rips your heart out every single time. When oh when will someone release the original tracks to this?