Comedy films that heavily rely on improvisational humor are a force of nature. Here, the plot is only a catalyst for the comedy to take its own shape. Comedians are well aware of how a scene needs to progress, but they add their own spin to the dialogue, situation, and jokes, elevating several cinematic moments. Several actors like Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have paved the way for improv comedy to become popular amongst audiences, and Sacha Baron Cohen has used the method to re-introduce satire in filmmaking.
However, one has to mention This is Spinal Tap for being ahead of its time and taking the creative risk of making an improvisational mockumentary in 1984. One could even say that Borat and The 40-Year-Old Virgin were able to run because This is Spinal Tap walked. Here are 10 comedy films that got only funnier thanks to their many unscripted moments.
10 This Is Spinal Tap
The cult classic This Is Spinal Tap popularized the mockumentary style of filmmaking in fiction and was the directorial debut of Rob Reiner. The film follows a rookie metal band, The Spinal Tap, that becomes the subject of a documentary. Reiner plays Martin Di Bergi, the filmmaker who documents the ups and downs of the dysfunctional group.
The band members are played by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, who are musicians and comedians, improvising through most scenes. In several moments, the actors are seen breaking character because of the unpredictable nature of comedic improvisation. The film mocked the documentaries of rock musicians that were emerging at the time and also caricatured the rebel-without-a-cause attitude of the musicians. The film was an instant hit amongst music fans and experts and has evolved into a cult classic in the later years.
9 The 40-Year-Old Virgin
The-40-Year-Old Virgin follows Andy Stitzer, played by Steve Carell, in ending his four-decade-long virginity. This romantic comedy is entirely lifted by its stellar cast consisting of Catherine Keener, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Romany Malco, who help Andy escape his comfort zone. Andy works at an electronics store and is pushed by his colleagues to explore his wild side, which becomes the center of the film. Steve Carell brings an awkward but amiable quality to Andy, making it endearing to witness his emotional transformation.
The film was directed by Judd Apatow, who is known for his collaborative rapport with his actors. The film has several scenes where the actors improvise to comedic fruition, especially in a painful scene where Andy gets his chest waxed. The film launched Carell’s career in films and introduced new viewers to The Office after the film’s success.
The supernatural comedy Ghostbusters is considered Bill Murray’s most popular film as it is the common representative of the actor’s deadpan humor. The film stands out for diverting the horror genre as it plays around with cartoon-like ghosts. The absurd story follows three parapsychologists opening their own paranormal investigation and removal agency, the Ghostbusters.
The group protects New York from incoming spirits from a parallel dimension by aligning their tricks to stop the ghosts from terrorizing the city. Murray is hysterical as one of the Ghostbusters, along with Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Harrold Ramis, who keep up with Murray’s hilarious improvisation.
7 Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy has an interesting legacy. The film was the directorial debut of Adam McKay and starred Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, a prominent television anchorman. Burgundy faces competition from reporter Veronica, played by Christina Applegate, and has an embarrassing public moment when he insults her on live television. This jeopardizes his career, and he tries to redeem his career once he spots an outrageous story at the San Diego Zoo.
The film also stars Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, who bring tongue-in-cheek humor to the story that parodies a male-dominated newsroom of the ‘70s. Ferrell steals the show with his portrayal of the ridiculous character. One can see glimpses of the actor from his Saturday Night Live! days when he catches his co-actors off guard with his doubling-down improvisation. The film was perhaps too ahead of its time and received mixed responses from audiences and critics. However, it has achieved cult status and is considered one of the best comedy films of the 2000s.
Borat (and its sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) is headed by Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan who interacts with real-life Americans in unscripted interviews. It is impossible to leave behind Cohen’s extensive body of work in the list as his filmography heavily relies on improvisation to accentuate sharp-edged satirical humor. Before Borat, Cohen was known for his character Ali G, a wannabe rapper from England who interviewed Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, and other public figures, testing their patience while answering Ali’s dumb questions.
Borat follows a similar approach through the fictional journalist with a warped worldview and no understanding of American life. In the first film, Borat offends everyone he meets in mostly unscripted scenes and falls for Pamela Anderson as he embarks on a cross-country journey to marry her. In the second film, Borat returns to a post-Trump and Covid-stricken America with his daughter. Both films blur the lines between mockumentary and shockumentary as Cohen goes the extra mile to test American progressivism, bureaucratic complicity, and the country’s shifting values.
Cohen returns with Brüno after Borat, retaining the same satirical essence through a different character. This time the actor plays a homosexual Austrian fashionista, Brüno, who is blacklisted after crashing a runway presentation. He travels to the United States to launch a celebrity interview show. Brüno uses his sexuality to expose homophobia and exoticization of the queer community through his unscripted interactions within show business. Brüno is, at times, unbearable to watch as it operates with a clear agenda to make the viewers uncomfortable. Several scenes from the film had to be censored upon its television release, and it was outrightly banned in Ukraine for its explicit content.
Bridesmaids is another film with stellar SNL comedians, guaranteeing several unscripted gems. Kristen Wiig plays Annie, a young woman managing a rough spot in her life with her business failure and her best friend Lillian, played by Maya Rudolph, getting engaged. To complicate matters further, Lillian has a new friend, Helen, who wants to replace Annie in Lillian’s life. Now, the most awaited position of the maid of honor seems to have competition. The film follows the rivalry between Annie and Helen and the new female friendships that blossom at Lillian’s wedding.
Thanks to Melissa McCarthy, the film is filled with several hilarious moments that her character, Megan, improvised. The flirtatious scene between Megan and Air Marshall Jon in the plane and several other dialogues in the film were improvised. Wiig, too, improvised her scenes on the plane and the engagement party. Both actresses were nominated for Academy Awards in 2012, making it a rare nomination for a women-led comedy.
3 The Hangover
The Hangover, too, has several unscripted moments. The film stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis as three friends who create havoc at their friend’s bachelor party. The film is considered one of the most expensive comedies of all time and is packed with physical humor from Galifianakis and deadpan comedy from Helms. The group calls itself the “wolf pack,” resembling the Freudian trio.
The story follows the group waking up after an unforgettable party and tracing their way back to the previous night, searching for their missing friend. Several moments, such as Stu’s song and Alan’s response to Stu’s grandmother’s ring, were completely improvised. The comedy has an avalanche effect as the night gets crazier as the plot progresses.
2 Between Two Ferns: The Movie
YouTube sketch show-turned-film Between Two Ferns: The Movie stars Zach Galifianakis playing a fictional version of himself. The sketch show, which became popular on YouTube, features the actor asking uncomfortable questions to Hollywood celebrities. The actor plays an egotistic version of himself in the interviews as he belittles and roasts popular actors. The film is an extension of the sketch show where Zach is shown conducting these interviews as well as saving his reputation.
This laugh-out-loud comedy has several actors almost breaking character as Galifianakis catches them off-guard with his impossible questions. The blooper reel of the films is popular on YouTube, where the actors are seen controlling their laughter in the unscripted interviews.
1 Reno 911!: Miami
Reno 911!: Miami is based on the popular television show of the same name and retains its improvisational essence between its hilarious characters. The film returns with the police officers from Reno but transports them to Miami instead, as the Police Department gets an opportunity to attend a law-enforcement convention in Florida. However, a terrorist attack threatens their fun trip, and the officers must team up to save the city.
The plot is an excuse for the actors to enjoy their comedic camaraderie. This can also be observed in the television show where the actors ad-libbing to a loosely scripted storyline was the highlight of Reno 911!.