Monday, April 18, 2022

Parody/Spoof movies

Here’s a Friday Question that became a Monday Post.

Chris Bernard asks:

Are you a fan of spoof/parody movies (Airplane!, Naked Gun), would you ever write one and like to see them come back?

I’m a HUGE fan of those movies.  Can’t get enough of them.  What I like best is their objective — to just make people LAUGH as much and as often as they can.  

Today that’s looked down upon in many circles.  It’s lowbrow. It’s silly.  It uses — God forbid — comic tropes.  

Yeah, well there’s a reason there were lines around the block to see AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN.  There’s a reason, even though very few episodes were made, POLICE SQUAD remains a major cult favorite.

As our writers’ assistant, Lana, used to say when we were writing a script and mulling over some deep moment:  “People want to LAUGH.”  

Kudos to Jerry & David Zucker and Jim Abrams for making AIRPLANE, NAKED GUN and really kickstarting the genre.  And to Mel Brooks whose BLAZING SADDLES pretty much invented the form.

David Isaacs and I worked on one such project.  Before it became a movie, David Zucker was trying to launch BASEKETBALL as a TV series.  We were part of the staff trying to shape the concept into some actual narrative.  Ultimately, nothing ever came of it, but it was fun conceptualizing and pitching jokes.  

Here are the pros and cons of parody/spoofs:

Pros: You can draw laughs from anywhere, any style.  Puns, wordplay, physical comedy, shock humor, absurdity — anything is fair game.  All the things you normally pitch in a room and wish you could do you CAN do.   And parodies give you a target right from the get-go. 

Cons: You’re only as good as your last laugh.  Stories are hard to construct because they mean nothing — just a coat rack to hang jokes.  So there’s no emotional investment.  The only thing keeping the souffle from collapsing is laughs.  So they better be damn good and lots and lots of them.

Ultimately, I prefer writing character-based comedy.   I’m more comfortable doing that and I think it’s what I do best.  

I wish there were more parody/spoofs. I’d be happy to do one, but honestly there are better writers than me if a producer is looking to hire.  You probably don’t know the names but Michael McManus & Pat Proft are currently the very best of that genre.   It’s a unique skill and I’m in awe of their talent.   I can’t speak for all people, but I WANT TO LAUGH. 


Daniel said...

What is it that you think makes the ZAZ parodies (Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane!, Police Squad, Top Secret! (my vote for their best and funniest film), and The Naked Gun) work so well compared to others that have either not held up (e.g., Mel Brooks' films which I find to be almost unwatchable today) or didn't work at all when they first came out (Amazon Women on the Moon, Scary Movie, even post-ZAZ solo projects like Hot Shots)? To me, it feels like there's a level of craft, visual and verbal wit, and universality to the ZAZ humor that makes it feel timeless and not of-the-moment (Scary Movie) or hopelessly old-fashioned (Mel Brooks), but I'd be curious if a practicing writer like yourself has any insights.

slgc said...

We LOVE Airplane! in our house - it's a legitimate family favorite.

One of the reasons it worked so well had to do with story construction. Zucker, Abrams and Zucker bought the rights to the 1957 film Zero Hour! (available on Amazon Prime for a very small rental fee) and lifted 90% of the story. So Airplane! has a very defined beginning, middle and end.

I highly recommend Zero Hour! to any fans of Airplane! It's a real kick watching the source material and adding the jokes from Airplane! along the way.

N. Zakharenko said...

There is one problem if they are too good-

I saw Airplane when it first came out in a full theater of around 600 people.

For the first 25 minutes the audience, including myself, were continuously laughing loudly.
Then the sound of laughter began to diminish, until by about the 45 minute mark the laughter had virtually died.

The film was still funny, but the audience including myself were too exhausted to laugh out loud.

After about 25 minutes the laughter began to return for the concluding part of the movie.

This is partly why Abbott And Costello movies used to throw in musical interludes and serious romance between the comedy.

The TV sitcom of 30 minutes is about the perfect length for potential non stop laughs.
Laurel And Hardy fans generally prefer the two reelers to the movies.

And for 60 minute comedy shows they generally throw in musical acts
(e.g. US: Red Skelton, Bob Hope- UK: Two Ronnies, Morecambe And Wise)

PS: Real Darwin's Ghost - did you see John Oliver's segment on Dr. Oz?

Chris in Cowtown said...

I feel the only Spoof comedy that currently exists on TV is Robot Chicken and perhaps Family Guy.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

"Blazing Saddles" succeeded in combining the gags with an earnest message about mistreatment of Blacks and racial equality.

Mibbitmaker said...

Always loved the Z-A-Z style of comedy. It has real p-ZAZ! It also has great roots, too - though these others were more satirical than Z-A-Z.

MAD - comic book and magazine - had what was called "chicken fat", named for the substance referenced a lot by its master practitioner, Will Elder. Endless gags all through the story/article, primarily from the artist. Besides Elder, very early Dave Berg (pre-"Lighter Side") and Mort Drucker were very good at it.

The comedy album equivalent was Firesign Theater. The audio version of chicken fat with plenty overlapping bits weaved throughout the recordings. Their most famous album side, "Nick Danger, 3rd Eye" was a parody - in this case of old radio shows.

Andy Laitman said...

Have you ever met or worked with Mel Brooks? The Producers, Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein are 3 of the funniest movies ever made. There are occasionally rumors of a History Of The World (Part Deux), but I doubt he could write-produce-direct-star in another movie at his age.

Baylink said...

Pat's still writing? Good. Real Genius, too.

As for "coat rack", that reminds me of the joke on which music theory YouTuber 12tone hung his recent examination of "Carry On Wayward Son":

He said it was "six guitar riffs in a trench coat, pretending to be a song".

And then he justified that. He's right.

It's still great.

Lemuel said...

Agree with this post. I think the reason people enjoy shows like FAMILY GUY is because it's a quick source for easy laughs.

Tyler said...

I think the team of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg may have driven a stake into the spoof genre with their horrendously witless and unfunny series of movies like Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, and so on.

Very far cries from the classics like Naked Gun or Airplane!

maxdebryn said...

I am a fan of laughing, and also of the parody/spoof films that are designed to make me laugh. The Z-A-Z guys' films are always a hoot. Conversely, there are a lot of spoof/parody films that totally miss the mark, so to speak. Off hand, I can think of SUPERHERO MOVIE as one that left me cold, for the most part. The SCARY MOVIE films, that parodied the SCREAM films, didn't make me laugh much, either, being parodies of parodies, more or less.

slgc said...

Not a parody, but Z-A-Z wrote Ruthless People. I contend that is the best top to bottom comedy film ever written - it's funny throughout, and little things that seemed like throwaways wound up being critical to the film's conclusion. And oh, what a cast!

Brian Phillips said...

1. What child actors have you worked with that have given consistently good performances?

2. I love a good choice of words, i.e. Elliott in "Just Shoot Me" said a day after being in in the genitals by an accidental practice golf shot from Jack, "I no longer shriek when I have to use the bathroom."

What instances have changing a word or words helped a line?

maxdebryn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph Scarbrough said...

Since when is lowbrow looked down upon these days? If anything, it seems like lowbrow is one of the only two kinds of comedy you can get today (the other being "sophisticated" to the point of actually being boring, droll, and ghastly).

Brian Phillips said...

There are also any number of great radio parodies. One of the best is "Dick Tracy in B-Flat", which featured an all-star cast sending up the square-jawed hero's comic stip AND also performs it as an operetta. It starred Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore and Bob Hope and the list doesn't end there. Also, the script was co-written by a very young Larry Gelbart.

Jack Benny and Fred Allen were good friends offstage, but on the air, they had a rivalry and would needle each other even while appearing on each other's shows. In one instance, Benny did a parody of Fred Allen's show, complete with some pretty good imitations from the cast.

Here is Dick Tracy in B-Flat:

Brian Phillips said...

"I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" is a great parody of Blaxploitation movies from Keenen Ivory Wayans.

Jim Rafferty said...

The two great Seattle phenomena of the 90s together at last -- GRUNGE FRASIER

maxdebryn said...

There is a smut/parody version of M*A*S*H. It's called "N*u*r*s*e*s of the 407th". I haven't seen it.

blinky said...

We found Angie Tribeca to be a pretty good Police Squad substitute. They do a great job.
I miss Lesley Nielson…

Buttermilk Sky said...

What did you think of WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY, where Woody Allen (I know, very bad man) dubbed English dialogue to a Japanese secret agent movie? Would you consider that a spoof?

Don't Call Me Shirley said...

Tyler stole my thunder. Seltzer and Friedberg ruined parody movies. All they did was literally just replicate scenes from current films and reality shows. There was no wit or thought to their scripts. They relied on audiences laughing purely out of recognizing what was being shown.

One of their crapfests starts as a parody of 10,000 BC, that really iconic and culturally significant classic, into which Amy Winehouse suddenly appears and she's updating her Facebook status. Another character says "Everyone's got Facebook."

Comedy genius, right?

In another scene, a guy jumps out of bed looking like the rapper Flavor Flav and he yells "Flavor Flav" just like the real one in his reality dating show.

Like I said, comedy genius.

Rambo appears and says "Say hello to my little friend" and the camera pans down to show a dwarf dressed as Rambo giggling.


An entire generation who consumed this shit think this is what a parody movie should be. They wouldn't be able to sit through Airplane or The Naked Gun, as they'd find it boring.

gottacook said...

One really silly movie (but not one I care to rewatch) is Joe's Apartment.

Pamela Atherton said...

LOVE that movie!! And I'm with you -- not ready to see the "co-stars" any time soon 😳

Craig Gustafson said...

"Stories are hard to construct because they mean nothing — just a coat rack to hang jokes. So there’s no emotional investment."

There is emotional investment on the best parodies. "Airplane!" has Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays playing their romantic problems dead straight. In fact, with the exception of Johnny (Stephen Stucker), *everybody* is serious, and the problem is genuine - the plane is probably going to crash and kill everybody. "Airplane II: The Sequel" doesn't succeed, because of laziness. Not only is the plot a retread, but the (new) writers obviously don't care about it. They repeat the Favorite Gags from the first one. Just plain lazy.

With the "Naked Gun" movies, there is a serious villain, and the investment is, "Oh, GOD, let Drebin save the day... somehow." With "Police Squad," they don't need the emotional investment - it's only 22 minutes.

"Dragnet 1987" works because Dan Aykroyd's Joe Friday is a completely affectionate parody. He loves the character and makes him a highly competent cop and fighter, whose main impediment is the stick up his ass. Speaking of which:

The movie "Get Smart" was awful because they tried to do an Origin of Maxwell Smart story, making him a misfit idiot nerd, disdained by the Sane World, completely disregarding the construction of the original TV series. 1. In the original, Max (like Aykroyd's Friday) was an expert fighter and for the most part a really good agent who was tripped up by his own ego. 2. In the original, the entire world was just as wacky as Max. He wasn't the odd man out, he was the top of the heap in a world of insanity.

tb said...

I think the casting really helps. Leslie Neilson was great with George Kennedy. I love the scene where he's patting down a suspect and Kennedy is behind the guy and Neilson reaches past the suspect into Kennedy's pocket and pulls out his wallet. "What are you doing with a picture of his wife in your wallet? George slugs the guy. Great stuff.

Mike McCann said...

Wouldn't GET SMART earn a place of honor as TV's first spy spoof? The polar opposite of James Bond, this brilliant Mel Brooks-Buck Henry creation turned the big screen version on its ear.
Think back to Don Adams' bumbling, often clueless government agent foiling the bad guys with a supporting cast of a stoic, by-book-boss, sexy and brilliant partner and a range of other colleagues (such as Hymie the Robot) that were memorable even if only occasionally seen.

Anonymous said...

To the list of great spoofs already mentioned, I would add the underrated "F Troop." It was must-see TV when I was growing up. Great actors having fun with funny scripts and situations. — Bob Johnson

Spike de Beauvoir said...

Ruthless People was written by Dale Launer, it was his first successful feature. Z-A-Z directed it, and I agree it's a great comedy with a winning premise and payoffs throughout. Another great 80s comedy is Big Business with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin.

Michael said...

History professor here. I will say this sort of thing when we get to the building of the transcontinental railroad:

"I know you find a lot of historical documentaries boring. But there's a documentary I want to recommend on railroad-building. It's the best, most accurate documentary I've ever seen. It's called Blazing Saddles." The students who have seen it roar. The ones who haven't? I say, "By the way, in westerns, you may have seen how they always eat beans around the campfire. This is the only documentary that shows you the truth about that."

By the way, in New Mexico, a Jewish trader fell in love with and married a tribal chief's daughter. When the chief died, he took over. Loze im gaym!

Gary Crant said...

I prefer character based comedy as well, although a pointed spoof like BLAZING SADDLES (and really any Mel Brooks film) and THE NAKED GUN are still worth their weight in gold. And the best sketch/improv comedy like SNL and KIDS IN THE HALL are just as worthy.

Chris Bernard said...

"People want to laugh" quote reminds me of an interview with Ben Stiller where he was questioning the "hair gel" scene in "There's Something About Mary". He told the Farrelly Brothers it didn't make sense because he would feel it on his ear (let alone how it go there) and the Farrelly Brothers said no one would care because it's funny.

Don Kemp said...

If you can't watch Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein today and laugh the problem isn't with the movie.

Somebody mentioned F Troop up above. It made me think of the Addams Family. I've seen a few episodes lately. That is still a very funny show written for adults.

DBenson said...

For a modern audience, "The Lady Vanishes" may play like a parody. A sharp and funny one, but still. All Hitchcock's tricks have been imitated and worked over to death, so clear, crisp, expert versions of things we know as belabored cliches register as comment.

Brandon in Virginia said...

Today that’s looked down upon in many circles. It’s lowbrow. It’s silly. It uses — God forbid — comic tropes.

Eh. I know modern comedy tries too hard in many ways, but well-written satire or parody can still happen. Unfortunately, as Don't Call Me Shirley mentioned, too many parody movies went with a lazy "(Genre) Movie" title and simply reenacted famous scenes from movies or pop culture.

And lowbrow humor can exist, but again it requires writers not to try too hard. Comedy Central had one a few years ago called Brickleberry that was just crude for the sake of being crude.

Roger Owen Green said...

The pedantic librarian notes that the great Canadian-American actor spelled his name Leslie Nielsen.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Is that the same Michael McManus from our improv class?


Brandon in Virginia said...

Also, Brian Phillips's mention of I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (great movie BTW) reminded me of Black Dynamite from 2010, which was not only a parody but an excellent homage to the Blaxploitation genre. It came on last night and it still gets me laughing.

powers said...

Captain Nice (1967) was a hilarious TV spoof on the science fiction/ superhero genre that was created by the terrific Buck Henry. So it had a the same comic vibe as Get Smart.

Sadly, it only lasted for thirteen episodes. Science fiction and superheroes were tough sells back then.

maxdebryn said...

This pedantic Canadian notes that Leslie Nielsen's brother (Erik) was a longtime member of Canadian Parliament, who served in World War 2 with distinction. Both Erik and Leslie appeared in the 1985 HBO "mockumentary" THE CANADIAN CONSPIRACY.

YEKIMI said...

I tend to like throwaway lines from actors/characters that tend to reference a prior work of theirs. Watching a re-run of "3rd Rock From The Sun" that had William Shatner's first appearance as The Big Giant Head, he shows up hammered and explained it by saying that on the flight he thought he saw someone on the wing of the aircraft so they gave him alcohol to calm him down. John Lithgow exclaims "The same thing happened to me!" Both referencing the fact that Shatner appeared in the Twilight Zone TV show and Lithgow in the movie version where they saw a gremlin on the wing of the plane.

John Jackson Miller said...

A fun coincidence to this post: this weekend I was at a convention in Indianapolis where I got to meet Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit, and Jeff Maxwell (Igor, the cook). All charming folks, of course -- and I talked with Jeff a good bit about his role in The Kentucky Fried Movie, which is sort of the ur-text of all the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedies.

Jeff played the movie patron who went to see a movie in "Feel-Around." He was friends with director John Landis — and the title of the film-within-a-film, "See You Next Wednesday," was Landis's first reuse of that running joke from his first film. There'd be many more, of course.

When we did our photo, Jeff mimicked the same horrified expression he did in the film! Too fun. A very nice guy!

Seymour Wales said...

Pre-Airplane, there was a disaster spoof called The Big Bus about an unbelievably giant nuclear powered double decker Greyhound-type bus making its maiden voyage across the country. One of its absurdities was a bowling alley on the upper deck. I'm not sure how it would hold up today, but as a kid I thought it was hilarious. I also felt that Airplane ripped it off.

MikeN said...

Friday Question:
Whenever you make lists of your favorites, they seem to be old stuff like Sgt Bilko and I Love Lucy.
What are the most recent(this century) comedies that you consider all-timers?

SueK2001 said...

I;m not sure if Christopher Guest movies are spoof movies but I adore "A Mighty Wind" as it spoofs the 60's folk scene. As a huge fan of that typeof music, it was fun to see it tweaked a bit and even some of my folkie musician friends love that film and the music.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I'm surprised that no one has of yet mentioned John Hughes. "Home Alone" and the first two "Vacation" movies probably don't qualify as parodies or spoofs, but they could be considered farcical. I'm not of big fan of Hughes, but a lot of people of my generation think his movies are funny.


Spike de Beauvoir said...

French and Saunders have done superb movie parodies throughout the series. Some of the best are spoofs of Titanic, Misery, Silence of the Lambs, Kill Bill, Fellini's 8 1/2 (Fellini Creepy Dance is on YouTube).

The Sid Caesar shows did incredible film parodies. Many great sketches posted on YouTube, I especially like the ones directed by Sir Jim Richardson... There's a recent book on Sid Caesar by Karen J. Harvey, published by McFarland with a less expensive Kindle option, that includes a chapter on the sketches.

Craig Gustafson said...

Possible topics: Reversals and Attacks.

Reversals are probably smaller in scope, because I can only think of one: "Green Acres," which is the "George Burns & Gracie Allen Show" spun on its head. Oliver and Lisa are George and Gracie, the spin being that instead of Gracie dealing with a world of sane people, George is dealing with a world full of Gracies. He is the odd one out. Are there any other reversal premises out there?

I love it when sitcoms (usually in their first seasons) strengthen their premises by attacking them - asking questions that the audience is asking, and giving firm answers. One of the most memorable, surprisingly enough, is from "Bewitched." They did an episode where Darrin sees a painting of Samantha from 200 years ago, and realizes that they are not going to age at the same pace. So, given that information - does he want to stay married to her?

"The Phil Silvers Show" did this masterfully.
If Bilko is so smart, why is he hiding in the army? Why isn't he a corporate bigwig?
They did an episode where an old army buddy gives Bilko a corporate job to try on for size - and the frenzied pace with jumped-up responsibility drives him nuts. Back to the army.

If Bilko, his platoon and Colonel Hall all can't stand each other, why do they stay together?
Bilko gets a transfer. His replacement, a hard-ass sergeant so by-the-book that he can't get anything done because he won't finagle anything, runs the platoon ragged and creates more problems than he solves for Hall. Bilko lands a dream post. His new platoon are such rubes that he quickly takes all their money and has them pleading to give him more. And he can't stand it. It's too easy. His con man talents are going to waste because he doesn't need them. Back to Fort Baxter.

Did you ever have occasion for Attacking the Premise?

Gary Theroux said...

My four favorite films are "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" and the three "Naked Gun" movies. That says a lot about my love for rapid-fire, exceptionally loopy comedy packed with visual, verbal and character gags. I've written a Yuletide screenplay in that style, "The Craziest Christmas," which was originally titled "The Knight Before Christmas" before Netflix released a completely different movie under that name.

Pamela Jaye said...

I loved a lot of their stuff but I didn't get into Top Secret.
A few years ago I was laughing hysterically at hot shots part deux, when I finally realized that I had never seen it before. Apparently my husband and I planned to go, but he left me first. Oops. So I've seen it now. It's great.

I also really loved Fatal Instinct. Was that Carl Reiner or Rob Reiner? It seems that no one has heard of it. Luckily for me I had forced myself to sit through all of double indemnity sometime before having seen fatal instinct. I heard they were doing a parody of it on a Carol Burnett special with Scott Bakula so I wanted to see what I was going to see parodied. Wow, that was dull! But the parodies were good.

Of course, sometimes, I don't see the thing which is being parodied until after I see the parody. I remember outside baggage claim at LAX, giggling at the announcements about the white zone or maybe it was the red zone. I think this happened in 1989. People around me must have thought I was nuts, But I had never been there before. It just immediately reminded me of the movie. There were other things like that over the years as I was fairly young when I saw the movie. It was sort of like the gift that kept on giving.

ScarletNumber said...

@Pamela Jaye

In case you weren't aware, ZAZ used the actual LAX announcers for Airplane! In a similar vein, when Imus in the Morning wanted to make fun of the NBC slogan and jingle Proud as a Peacock, they hired the actual singers to make the parody We're Loud (instead of We're Proud). This was a time when NBC was in the toilet, before Bill Cosby saved the network.

The original

The parody

Mark Potash said...

“Our Man Flint” deserves to be a part of this discussion. It’s not the laugh-riot that “Airplane” is, but mocks Bond without farce. Derek Flint out-Bonds Bond throughout. Fun movie!

Mike McCann said...

Where do the Dean Martin "Matt Helm" films fit in this discussion? Parody or knock-off?

Tim said...

The best spoof film from recent years was "Walk Hard" starring John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox. It was such a great parody of the music biopic that it gained popularity as the biopic picked up steam in recent years because all of the trends that those films lean heavily on, Walk Hard parodied mercilessly, like the fact that they have to think about their lives before every performance.

I was one of 3 people in the theater who saw it, and I'm glad I was on board from the start. The music was pretty good too.