Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, in-depth discussion, introspective interviews…you name it; we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we usually cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Laura Stewart’s favorite Spoof/parody films!
OK, this week I’m going to crank it up to 11, and I’m counting up to the top! These are my favourite spoof films, and the genre they parody is all part of the fun. If you think you’re going to be seeing the likes of Scary Movie or Vampires Suck on this list? No. Just no. I am old, and my choices will be old too.
1. Airplane! (1980)—Disaster Movies
Leslie Nielsen is the King of Spoofs. OK well, he does have competition in Gene Wilder, but when it comes to the most ludicrous and slap-stick comedies, there is no other. It was hard to choose which of his movies to go here, but in the end, it had to be Airplane! With its visual and verbal puns, gags, and obscure humour, Nielsen’s ability to keep a straight face in these surreal situations is what makes it all the funnier.
This movie is a parody of many disaster movies, particularly the 1957 film Zero Hour! The story follows an ex-fighter pilot, Ted Striker, who suffers post-war PTSD. He has a fear of flying and a drinking problem—he can’t take a drink without splashing water over himself. After his girlfriend, an air stewardess, leaves him; he boards the flight she is working on to try and win her back. After everyone who chooses fish for their in-flight meal gets food poisoning (including the captain), a new pilot is needed. Nielsen plays Dr Rumack, who has to attend to all manner of different medical problems during the flight, even delivering a baby.
There are certainly some jokes that raise a few eyebrows and would not make the cut these days, but Airplane! is still one of the funniest films ever made, and pretty much timeless.
2. Spaceballs (1987)—Star Wars/Sci-Fi movies
In a galaxy far, far away, planet Spaceball has used up its air supply, leaving its people reliant on a product called “Perri-Air.” In desperation, Spaceball’s leader President Skroob (Mel Brooks) orders the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of oxygen-rich Druidia and hold her hostage in exchange for air. Help comes in the form of renegade space pilot Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his half-man, half-dog partner, Barf (John Candy).
I probably prefer Spaceballs to the films it parodies. Well almost. Mostly based on the first Star Wars trilogy, but with a slice of Alien, Star Trek and Planet of the Apes chucked in, Mel Brooks does what he does best by going to extreme lengths for a bad pun or a cheap visual gag. Like naming a character Colonel Sanderz for a single one-liner (“What’s the matter, Colonel Sanderz? Chicken?”) or taking the phrase “combing the desert” to its literal extreme, or building an extraordinarily giant model spaceship just for a joke on how unwieldy motherships tend to be in movies like these.
3. Dragnet (1987)—A parody of itself
The 1987 film Dragnet starring Tom Hanks, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis isn’t a spoof as such, but a parody of the ’60s TV show of the same name.
It’s one of those films that if you catch it showing on TV over the holidays, you can’t switch it off. The movie takes the essential ingredients of the Dragnet TV show, then throws them into a bizarre plot about a cult of Los Angeles pagans who hold satanic rituals involving giant snakes and goat heads. Dan Aykroyd stars as Joe Friday—nephew of the original Friday. He was born to play this role, with his off-the-rack brown suit, his felt fedora and his square jaw. Tom Hanks is his partner, the rebel Detective Streebek, game for anything but puzzled by Aykroyd’s straight-arrow squareness. Jamie Lee Curtis plays the virgin Connie Swail, which is a strange role for her. I never saw her as the damsel in distress type.
4. Top Secret! (1984)—Elvis and WWII Spy movies
Made and apparently set in 1984, Top Secret! stars Val Kilmer in a rare comedic role as Nick Rivers, an anachronistic rock ‘n’ roller—a mutant crossbreed of Cliff and Elvis. It sends up the bizarre combo of touring pop star and World War II spy movie. If there’s ever a time when mocking Nazis isn’t funny, I don’t want to live in it.
If the mantra of the spoof is to fire lots of jokes at the proverbial wall and hope most of them stick, then few films can come close to Top Secret!‘s hit rate. The sheer number of visual jokes happening in the background is astounding, and the cast is star-studded. The late Omar Sharif is made to pick up dog crap and is compacted into a crushed car. Peter Cushing has an enormous fake eye and works in a bookshop where everything seems to go backwards. Michael Gough—Alfred in four Batman movies—is held captive, making a giant magnet and digging the best escape tunnel ever seen. And there’s an early movie role too for Jim Carter as Deja Vu, some 25 years before he’d become Carson in Downton Abbey.
Top Secret! was never a hit, which is an absolute travesty. Certainly it is one of the most surreal spoofs on my list, and that’s probably why I love it so.
5. Shaun of The Dead (2004)—Zombie movies
Shaun of the Dead is not an outright slapstick parody film. In fact, it transcends spoof and become its own film genre. First off, the zombies are genuinely scary, and there are some really gruesome moments in the film when characters get torn apart and eaten. What makes it funny is that Shaun (Simon Pegg) barely realises that there has been a zombie apocalypse, as it’s not that different from everyday life. He’s like a zombie (its why his girlfriend has just dumped him) and everyone else around him is pretty de-sensitised to the horrors of living.
Shaun’s mother being called Barbara is a direct reference to the character of the same name in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, arguably the most important zombie film ever made. At the beginning of that movie, when the zombies first show up, Johnny mockingly says, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” Later, when Shaun is on the phone with Barbara and she doesn’t want him to bother coming over to see if she’s all right, Ed paraphrases the film when he yells down the phone: “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)—King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
Monty Python films are for me the funniest in the world. In 1974 the Monty Python crew were on the verge of collapse. Their sense of humour hadn’t transferred over to The States as they’d hoped. So as one final hurrah, they took inspiration from the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. They created a comedy film which delighted in undermining tradition, parodied modern society and delivered numerous timeless scenes and characters of laugh-out-loud ridiculousness. Shrubberies were demanded, hamster insults traded, relative wing velocities of European and African swallows debated, and a generation of students were never again found wanting for conversational material. Even to this day if I find myself in a tricky situation that I just can’t take seriously, I have to shout, “Run away!” and make the clopping noise of me on my horse trotting away.
7. Evil Dead II (1987)—A parody/comedy remake of itself
Evil Dead II can be seen as a sequel to Evil Dead, a remake, or a little of both. Rather than starting off where its predecessor finished, Evil Dead II goes back to the beginning—sort of. The first ten minutes of the second film essentially recap what occurred in The Evil Dead. Ash heads up to the cabin, although, in this movie, his only companion is Linda, not the other three friends he had in the original. The two discover the Necronomicon, and, in no time, Linda is a zombie and Ash is forced to chop her up to save himself. Before long, Ash is possessed, but he manages to fight off the demonic influence.
Although The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II share numerous plot similarities, the tones of the features are significantly different. While both movies contain elements of satire, the first is much more of a straightforward horror film than its sequel. Evil Dead II raises the stakes by introducing outright slapstick and one-liners into the mix. Consequently, the “scare level” of the movie drops a notch.
Sam Raimi uses gore in such copious quantities that the sheer volume of fake blood often becomes humorous. Red is not always the colour of the goo either—there’s black, green and yellow blood. Heads and arms are frequently severed, but it’s all done in such a good-natured and over-the-top manner that it’s difficult imagining any horror aficionado being remotely distressed by it. At one point a bodiless head tries to chew on Ash’s hand; later, he is attacked by the headless body. Even Ash himself succumbs to the evil in this movie, becoming a Deadite, but he is saved by the rising sun.
8. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)—Teen College/Summer Camp movies
Wet Hot American Summer is in many ways a send-up of the goofy teen comedies (often set at college or camp) that were quite popular around the time period the movie is set in, but without ever parodying individual scenes. It has no real overarching plot. Instead, it’s a collection of intertwined vignettes that get increasingly ridiculous as they go on and run the gamut of teenage emotions, from angst to wangst. It is simply a masterpiece. Fans of the film know it’s intentionally, overwhelmingly silly, but the absurdist humour did not play well with critics, and it was universally panned.
But how wrong they were! The movie has become a cult classic, and has a cast full of huge names including; Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni, Michael Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Zak Orth and A. D. Miles. Plus my secret famous husband, Paul Rudd., who plays such a dick in this film, but I still can’t help but love him.
9. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)—Biblical Satire
Back with the second film on my list for Monty Python, The Life of Brian just about edges it for me. Thirty-nine local authorities in the UK either imposed an outright ban, or imposed an X (18 years) rating upon its release, effectively preventing the film from being shown, since the distributors said it could not be shown unless it was unedited and carried the original AA (14) certificate. Torbay Council was the final constituency to remove the ban after 28 years.
The film was misunderstood on release in the sense that it was not a depiction of Jesus Christ. Instead, the premise is based on a case of mistaken identity. Everyday man Brian is wrongly cited as being The Messiah. At no point does Life of Brian make fun of Jesus. It’s worth noting Monty Python were mindful and respectful of the religious figure. The movie does not criticise the church, but the hypocrisy and stupidity that can affect religion.
The genius of Life of Brian is the way it took the social concerns of the time and launched a humorous attack through satire and wit. Even the trade union movements come into the crosshairs amidst the bitter rivalry shown in the film between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front and the Campaign for a Free Galilee. Despite sharing the same ideals, they all differ on hilariously minor details. Instead of actively achieving something, they spend their time debating what should be done.
The film also pokes fun at other parts of British left-wing politics, such as the idea that nothing is ever good enough in society and everything is open for debate. As Reg asks: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
10. Blazing Saddles (1974)—Westerns and Racism Satire
There is absolutely no way on earth that Mel Brooks would get away with making Blazing Saddles today. Brooks has never been known for his subtlety; there are no long-winded speeches about racial harmony that characterised movies like The Defiant Ones; instead, the film, co-written by Richard Pryor, tackles race and racism head-on and with humour. While Bart (Cleavon Little) and Jim’s (Gene Wilder) interracial relationship wasn’t the first such on-screen friendship, it was one of the first in which race wasn’t treated as an obstacle. Bart and Jim are never pitted against each other; they’re allies right off the bat, and the enemy, in this case, is white racism.
It’s so un-PC that no ethnic or racial stereotype goes unmentioned: Mexican Bandidos, Chinese labourers in straw cone hats, Middle Easterners riding on camels, even a Jewish Native American (Mel Brooks himself), all make cameos in the absurd world, but they’re not the butt of the joke. Blazing Saddles is a satire of racism, makes it look as stupid as it is, and back in 1974 that was seriously groundbreaking. Clearly, more people need to watch Blazing Saddles today and take a long hard look (and laugh) at themselves. Forty years on and sadly, the world still has a massive problem with racism.
11. This is Spinal Tap (1984)—Mock/Rockumentary
This is Spinal Tap is the perfect comedy for me: subtle yet absurd. I love rock music, and actually, the band are musically pretty good! The musical numbers acutely mimic the crashing drums, thudding bass lines, whining lead guitar solos, and juvenile, sexist lyrics of heavy rock.
Not only is this one of the funniest films ever made about the music business, but of all time. Filmed in cinéma vérité style, it follows the group on tour from venue to venue, observing the trials and tribulations of life on the road, personal tensions within the group, girlfriends taking over, managers being useless and problems with expanding egos. Interviews with the group fill in the details of their chequered musical career: they have trouble keeping their drummers, one of whom choked on vomit (somebody else’s), while another spontaneously combusted on stage.
It’s hard for me to believe that David St. Hubbins is played by Michael McKean, whom many of us know as Jimmy McGill’s brother in Better Call Saul. He’s such a different character, but absolutely perfect as guitarist and vocalist. He’s primarily up against lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) in a battle of egos throughout the film. It is a scathing portrait of both the music industry and the common pitfalls of any outfit trying to make on the music scene. And 35 years later, it still works. It’s parody done perfectly.
So these were my favourite Spoof or Parody films. I don’t think they make them like they used to, but I encourage you to try to change my mind! Let me know your favourites. What are the greatest modern spoofs?