Ever since Judd Apatow innovated the comedy movie with The 40 Year Old Virgin, his feature directorial debut, by letting his actors lose themselves in each scene and improvise reams of dialogue based on a very loose script, pretty much every comedy movie has been focusing on improvisation as a comedy tool.
This is also partly thanks to the immense success of Larry David’s HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, whose dialogue is entirely ad-libbed from a basic story outline that David writes before shooting every episode. However, this technique can produce mixed results.
Here are the 15 greatest examples of these flashes of brilliance in the history of comedy.
15. “Say my name, bitch!” – American Pie
Alyson Hannigan plays Michelle Flaherty with a cute, lovable quality in the American Pie movies. She tells Jason Biggs about her experiences at band camp and says things like, “Are we gonna screw soon? ‘Cause I’m getting kinda antsy.” T
here’s an innocence to Michelle that is built up throughout the whole movie, so that when she gets in bed with Biggs and says, “What’s my name? Say my name, bitch!” to him, you’re not expecting it at all, and it makes it so much funnier. But that line wasn’t actually in the script.
Hannigan came up with it on the spot (a testament to her comedic talent) and luckily Biggs just rolled with it and stayed in character. Hence, we have one of the funniest moments in the movie. (Not THE funniest – the crown belongs to Eugene Levy walking in on his teenage son making love to a pie in the kitchen).
14. “Cockacidal maniac.” – Shaun of the Dead
Toward the end of the first act of Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright’s zom-rom-com masterpiece, Shaun and Ed are sitting in the Winchester, having a pint. Shaun’s just been dumped and Ed’s trying to cheer him up by telling him that the patrons surrounding him are “rich, interesting characters.”
Shaun asks, “Like who?” and Ed’s response, going around the pub to all the people in there, is entirely ad-libbed by Nick Frost. “Snakehips. Always surrounded by women. He’s a bigamist. Strangled his first wife with a draught excluder. And invented the mobile disco.” Then he moves on to a woman. “Ooh! Cockacidal maniac. She’s an ex-porn star. They say she starred in the world’s first interracial hardcore loop. Cafe Au Lait…Pour Vous.”
All of Simon Pegg’s laughter in this scene is authentic, as he’s hearing it for the first time.
13. “I’m keepin’ it real.” – Clueless
Clueless is the seminal high school comedy, and Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, is the quintessential teenage girl character. The story is a modernization of Jane Austen’s Emma. The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus calls the movie “funny and clever,” and “a soft satire that pokes as much fun at teen films as it does at the Beverly Hills glitterati.”
Various big stars got their big break in Clueless, including Paul Rudd, who went on to have a lucrative career as a comedy A-lister (and now an Avenger), Jeremy Sisto from Six Feet Under and Suburgatory, Breckin Meyer from Road Trip, Robot Chicken, and the crappy live-action Garfield movies, and a Mr. Donald Faison, better known as Turk from Scrubs.
Faison improvised his line, “I’m keepin’ it real,” after overhearing one of his neighbors saying it and thinking, ‘Oh, I guess that’s what the kids are saying these days.’
12. “Oh, that’s not right!” – Galaxy Quest
Next to Spaceballs, Galaxy Quest is easily one of the funniest and most classic sci-fi comedy movies out there. It wasn’t a huge financial success at the time, but its smart storyline and its spot-on skewering of Star Trek have led to it becoming a cult classic over the years.
It has Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Sam Rockwell – of course it’s incredible. They play actors from a sci-fi TV show who get swept up into an actual intergalactic adventure after episodes of their show have been misinterpreted by real aliens.
Rockwell was just starting out at the time, but he managed to steal the spotlight for a moment when he made his mark with one ad-libbed line. After witnessing a gross, tentacled make-out scene, he screams, “Oh, that’s not right!” It’s not that funny on paper – it’s the way he says it that makes it.
11. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Andrea, everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.” – The Devil Wears Prada
As she has done time and time again with the roles that she plays, Meryl Streep created a legendary character on screen when she portrayed fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Streep is a winner of three Academy Awards and she’s probably still got more to come.
Playing Miranda in the movie, she ad-libbed one of her most famous lines – the one that perfectly sums up the self-righteous, egotistical, and empirical nature of the character. She said, “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Andrea, everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.”
Another amazing thing that the real Meryl Streep did after shooting wrapped on The Devil Wears Prada was donate all of the expensive designer wardrobe that she wore in the movie to charity.
10. “What hump?” – Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder put their own creative spin on the familiar Frankenstein story when they crafted Young Frankenstein, one of the silliest, craziest, and most downright hilarious horror comedy movies ever made. However, despite Young Frankenstein being Brooks and Wilder’s movie, it’s often Marty Feldman who steals the show in his role as Igor.
The comedic mind of Marty Feldman never stopped working through the whole production, as he managed to find comedy in every nook and cranny of his character – even the fake hump on his back. He shuffled it around his back throughout the shoot and when one of the cast members finally noticed and asked about it, he improvised the line, “What hump?”
It’s a hilarious ad-lib, but you wouldn’t expect any less from a comic genius like Marty Feldman.
9. “What do tigers dream of…?” – The Hangover
Fans of The Office know that Ed Helms has a penchant for musical performances, and will often play something or at least sing in all of his projects (remember his rendition of Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” in Vacation?). When he was shooting The Hangover, he saw a piano on the set of the Las Vegas hotel suite, and he told the crew to start shooting.
What followed was one of the most beloved and iconic musical comedy moments from recent memory.
“What do tigers dreams of…when they take a little tiger snooze? Do they dream of mauling zebras, or Halle Barry in her Catwoman suit? Don’t you worry your pretty striped head, we’re gonna get you back to Tyson and your cosy tiger bed. And then were gonna find our best friend Doug, and then were gonna give him a best friend hug. Doug, Doug, oh, Doug, Doug, Dougie, Doug, Doug. But if he’s been murdered by crystal meth tweekers…Well, then we’re shit outta luck.”
8. “What an incredible Cinderella story!” – Caddyshack
Bill Murray totally improvised one of his funniest monologues is all of Caddyshack. All that the script called for, according to Harold Ramis, was for Murray to be standing out in front of the clubhouse, chopping off the tops of tulips by swinging a golf club at them.
But then Murray came out with a whole speech in a sports announcer voice, like he’s playing in the U.S. Open or something. “What an incredible Cinderella story! This unknown comes out of nowhere to lead the pack at Augusta. He’s at the final hole. He’s about 455 yards away. He’s gonna hit about a 2-iron, I think. Oh, he got all of that.”
“The crowd is standing on its feet here at Augusta. The normally reserved Augusta crowd is going wild…for this young Cinderella who’s come out of nowhere. He’s got about 350 yards left. He’s going to hit about a 5-iron, it looks like, don’t you think? He’s got a beautiful backswing that’s – oh, he got all of that one! He’s gotta be pleased with that!”
“The crowd is just on its feet here. He’s a Cinderella boy. Tears in his eyes, I guess, as he lines up this last shot. He’s got about 195 yards left, and he’s got a…looks like he’s got about an 8-iron. This crowd has gone deadly silent…Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greenskeeper, now about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac— it’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!”
7. “I can walk, Mein Fuhrer!!” – Dr. Strangelove
In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers plays a bunch of different characters, but namely he plays the title role, a mad scientist in a wheelchair with Nazi proclivities. At the very end of the movie, he miraculously stands from his chair and says, “I can walk, Mein Fuhrer!!”
Kubrick was a meticulous planner, and every single moment, shot, angle, line, and cut in every one of his movies was carefully planned out down to the last detail. He often infuriated the actors who worked with him, as he gave them no wiggle room whatsoever in their performances.
As with Alfred Hitchcock, they weren’t exactly there to perform in a role – they were there to be Kubrick’s puppets. But that’s not Peter Sellers’ style, so he went and improvised and went off script anyway. It’s his thing, and it’s what made Dr. Strangelove a classic comedy, because Kubrick was a smart guy, but he didn’t get comedy.
6. “Listen, pussycat, smile a bit.” – Borat
Anyone who saw Da Ali G Show will know that having the Borat character talk to a group of feminists was never going to be a good idea. Don’t get me wrong – it is hilarious. But the problem is all the cringing that it induces, because that’s the style of humor that Borat actor Sacha Baron Cohen revels in.
When it came to making a feature length movie for Borat to star in (with the catchy title Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), Cohen decided to set up a meeting with some feminists where he would say the most outrageous and offensive things in character and then see their reaction.
The best of the bunch is, “Listen, pussycat, smile a bit.”
5. “So, does anybody wanna play Parcheesi?” – Ghostbusters
What ever happened to Rick Moranis? He’s such a lovable, funny, talented little guy. He was terrific as the lead in Little Shop of Horrors and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and he was also great at stealing the show in supporting roles in movies like Ghostbusters.
There’s an argument to be made that Ghostbusters is the finest comedy ever made, which is mainly down to the chemistry between Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd, but there’s also a gem of a scene in the party at Rick Moranis’ apartment – the party that he gets locked out of and chased away from by a spectral dog.
According to director Ivan Reitman, the party scene was totally improvised by Moranis. He said, “Rick just made all of it up as he was doing it.”
4. “Wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?” – Dumb and Dumber
Like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey is an actor who is famous for his improvisational skills, and for the way he deviates greatly from his script.
According to Peter Farrelly, one half of the brotherly directing duo that made such comedy classics as There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, and The Heartbreak Kid, about 15 per cent of Dumb and Dumber was improvised, with Carrey being the main culprit.
One of the entirely improvised scenes in the movie is the hitchhiking scene, where Lloyd and Harry pick up the bad guy and piss him off until they end up accidentally killing him.
Carrey ad-libbed the moment where he asks the man who wants to kill him, “Wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?” and proceeds to show him what it is – a shrill, deafening, screeching sound.
3. “You’re really doing it, aren’t ya? You’re shitting in the street!” – Bridesmaids
Judd Apatow is the innovator who, for better or worse, introduced the notion of heavy improvisation into the comedy movie. The odd line here and there had been improvised by the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey and Bill Murray, but Apatow was the director who decided that entire scenes should be improvised.
Apatow didn’t direct Bridesmaids, but he was heavily involved as a producer, and apparently the scene in which Maya Rudolph defecates inside a wedding dress was improvised, which would mean that Kristen Wiig’s response – “You’re really doing it, aren’t ya? You’re shitting in the street!” – was improvised, too.
According to the movie’s cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, in an interview that he did with The Huffington Post, that infamous (and hilarious) wedding dress poop scene wasn’t even in the script.
2. “Yooooooooow, Kelly Clarkson!” – The 40 Year Old Virgin
Judd Apatow and Steve Carell revolutionized movie comedy when they made The 40 Year Old Virgin. All of a sudden, foul-mouthed, R-rated comedy movies became popular and commonplace. Another innovation that made The 40 Year Old Virgin stick out from the herd was its heavy employment of improvised dialogue.
Apatow began a longstanding tradition of allowing his actors to let loose and ad-lib wherever the hell they want. One scene in particular in the movie is the one where Carell’s character Andy gets his hairy chest (“I love your sweater. Does that come in a V-neck?”) waxed professionally.
They simply set up a few cameras around the room and let Carell have his actual chest waxed, and what follows are his genuine responses, including, “Yooooooooow, Kelly Clarkson!” Another highlight quote from Carell’s improvised ramblings is, “I hate you! Stop smiling, you jerk!” when he sees the woman waxing him laughing her ass off.
1. “But why male models?” – Zoolander
One of the funniest moments in Zoolander came as a result of Ben Stiller forgetting his lines. After he asks David Duchovny, “Why male models?” and Duchovny explains the entire conspiracy that is the center of the movie.
“Think about it, Derek. Male models are genetically constructed to become assassins. They’re in peak physical condition, they can gain entry to the most secure places in the world, and most important of all, models don’t think for themselves. They do as they’re told. Think about any photo shoot you’ve ever been on.”
“You’re a monkey, Derek! Dance, monkey, in your little spangly shoes! Mash your cymbals, chimpy! Dance, Derek, dance! Mugatu…he’s just a punk-ass errand boy, working for an international syndicate of fashion designers. You do a little background check on your Mr. Mugatu. You’ll find he sold his soul to the Devil for a shot at the big time.”
It explains everything perfectly. But then Zoolander just repeats, “But why male models?” and Duchovny says, “Are you serious? I just…I just told you that a moment ago.” It wasn’t script, but Ben Stiller forgot the line, so he just asked again, and it made for one of the funniest moments in the movie.