When contemplating questions of Classic Hollywood, comedy and the theme of “Laughter is the best medicine”, there are of course, so many directions one could venture. I’m sure as we each put our heads to work, everyone’s mind harkens back to the comedies which shaped us as viewers, readers and ultimately as fans of classic entertainment. There’s an untold number of Old Hollywood comedies; however, one film in particular jumps into my head when thinking about this prompt: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Why have one or two comedians when you can have almost every single funny person working in Hollywood? Few films function quite as much as a love letter to a very specific era of comedy than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and as a result, it is one of my all-time favorites.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World drops viewers into the story as a group of motorists come upon a car crash. As the driver (Jimmy Durante) lays dying, he tells the group about a secret treasure buried under a “Big W”. The revelation leads to a chaotic chase across Southern California as the group attempts to be the first to find the loot. The film features a super-sized cast, including: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers and Edie Adams… to name a few. Stanley Kramer directs the movie from a script by William and Tania Rose.
Coming in 1963, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World comes at the tail end of a period of dramatic change in the entertainment industry. Over the previous decade, television hit Hollywood like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, audiences didn’t have to head to a movie theater for a night of entertainment and as such, the big screen didn’t matter like it used to. A new and popular group of comedians exploded thanks to the small screen. Men like Sid Caesar and Milton Berle redefined comedy and unlike their predecessors, they were coming into audiences homes on a weekly basis with groundbreaking series like: Your Show of Shows and the Texaco Star Theater.
At the same time, the birth of television also ushered the development of the variety show. For example, The Ed Sullivan Show ran in much the same format since 1948. In the quest for acts to fill their air-time, these shows kept a pulse on the creative scene among the night clubs, comedy clubs and supper clubs of the United States (and indeed around the world). As such, specialty acts like stand-up comics who would have in the past been limited to niche crowds in big city venues, received an often world wide platform putting them in front of a wider audiences.
With this greater exposure came a plethora of stand-up comics pulling themselves to new levels of popularity as their stock grew in the entertainment industry. It’s interesting to think about this in hindsight, but at the time It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was released, cast members Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Terry-Thomas and Dick Shawn largely weren’t household names with wide-exposure. Hackett was probably the most active on the big screen thanks to a handful of supporting roles in relatively small comedies throughout the 1950s. Likewise, Shawn landed two colorful character parts in the years immediately before It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World‘s 1963 release. Similarly, Terry-Thomas worked extensively, but in in the United Kingdom, while the film is Jonathan Winters’ live action feature film debut.
In many cases, these comedians jumped into It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with ease thanks to television. Each of these men were working regularly on the small screen which turned them into household names despite not paying their dues on the big screen as men like Phil Silvers and Jimmy Durante had done throughout the previous decades. This was a new breed of comic.
Examining the movie from another level, a look through the supporting and cameo roles demonstrates a real attempt on part of the creative team— led by Stanley Kramer— to make this a real tribute to comedy. To draw a modern comparison, the comedy is like the 1960s comedy version of Avengers: Endgame. Really everyone who could be there is there.
Throughout the more than three hour runtime, the movie incorporates legends of comedy like Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, The Three Stooges and Buster Keaton into often blink-and-you-miss-it cameos. At the same time, ascending (and genius) comedic minds like Carl Reiner, Don Knotts and Stan Freberg are also seen in various roles of both a speaking and non-speaking nature. Heck, even Zasu Pitts is in there. These moments are usually quick and most fun for the audience in this way…
With that being said, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is certainly most fun to watch with an eye towards the casting. Of course these characters are fun, but nothing is ever that simple. The onscreen personas the performers bring to their characters contribute so much to the film and ultimately make these people far more interesting than they would be simply on the page. Each of these characters would be different if other performers are cast in these roles due to pre-established personas and performance styles. The awareness and almost “meta” nature of this comedy imprints dramatically on the feature. All of a sudden, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World grows to become more important than the delightful comedy it is. This is a snapshot of comedy history and an important time capsule.
All in all, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has grown and evolved with the passage of time to become something a little different when viewing it through a contemporary perspective. In 1963 the comedy would have of course been a big-budget, studio prestige piece. However, by 2021, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World becomes a tribute to this era of comedy. This is a time we won’t see again and with a very few exceptions, the cast has all left us. Fans of comedy as well as students of the era of culture should add this one to their lists.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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