Not too long ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) released a list of what the cable channel considered to be the ten funniest lines in movie history. The list (accessible at tcm.com/dailies/) was presented in no particular order other than chronological, nor stipulated any parameters for the selection process.
Now, it’s not usual for me to contradict TCM about anything. Ever. However, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with a few of the choices, mostly because some of the selections are not independently funny in and of themselves. Some rely upon context, or at the very least a set up line to truly be humorous. To be fair, TCM did not stipulate any conditions for their rankings, but I think they should have and I’ll tell you why.
“It’s good to be the king” is one of TCM’s choices as funniest movie lines. It’s from the Mel Brooks comedy “History of the World Part II”. Although I am a big a fan of Mel Brooks, I have never seen this film, so I have no understanding of what makes this otherwise simple statement so funny. The line itself is not humorous, let alone distinctive. You might as well select, “Werewolf. There wolf” from “Young Frankenstein” which I think is hysterical, but for someone who hasn’t seen the film the reference is likely lost.
Whereas, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here this is the war room” is intrinsically funny whether of not you know that it is an extremely well placed line delivered brilliantly by Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove”. On it’s own without the aid of a set up or understanding of the situation the statement is quite possibly the most perfect oxymoron ever uttered on the silver screen. One of my other favorites along the same vain is, “Shh! Listen. Smell that?” from “Ghost Busters” although its not an oxymoron, just a funny mingling of different actions.
Another line from the TCM list I have a problem with is one I hesitate to criticize, because it comes from a dear favorite. It’s the final line in “Some Like It Hot”. The Billy Wilder classic is considered by many (myself included) to be the best comedy of all time, and the line itself is arguably the best final line ever. However, if you don’t know the line that precedes it, let alone the set up of the whole movie, then the quip, “Well, nobody’s perfect” is likely to fall flat with you.
On the other hand, “I make more than Calvin Coolidge… put together” is a funny line that stands on its own even if you don’t know that the character saying it has been established as a complete idiot. The humor, as well as the personality of the character’s voice, is built into the phrase automatically. The only problem is that in today’s culture it’s not likely most people would know that Calvin Coolidge is one person, let alone a former president.
Granted, TCM did not place any stipulations on their choices. TCM is also a classic movie channel with a fan base that is far more knowledgeable about old film references than the average TV viewer. With this in mind, the lack of parameters is understandable based on the fact that TCM is talking to its audience and not the world at large. So, I suppose I can’t be too critical. But I think they should have been. After all, there’s a big difference between a funny moment and a funny line. I know that funny is as funny does, but some of the so-called best comedic lines just aren’t funny when read as opposed to being seen within the context of a film.