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The Desolation of Spoof Movies


Spoof Movies, loosely connected slapstick or sketch comedy scenes strung together by parodying one genre or more. We’re talking Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Airplane! This genre was popular for decades due to its fast pace and simplicity, making for comedies with the fat trimmed off. That is, till a glut of subpar entries squatted over the entire market and stained the reputation of spoof films and comedies in general to this day.

There were the progenitors; Abbott and Costello, spoofing Universal Monster Movies, though these didn’t incorporate the quick-fire visual gags or non-sequiturs we expect from parodies, same goes for spy spoofs of the 60’s like Our Man Flint and Casino Royale. Monty Python flirted with the idea in Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but Mel Brooks truly shaped the modern spoof into existence, before long perfecting it, and continuing well into the '90s. Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, all great, but not the proto-typical spoof. No, for that we must turn to the cream of the crop: the ZAZ team.

The Desolation of Spoof Movies

Jim Abrahams and brothers David Zucker and Jerry Zucker were childhood friends, remaining united by a fastidious commitment to ludicrous gags, and the joy of going to great lengths to achieve them. They were parody perfectionists, kicking off by writing Kentucky Fried Movie, supplying no less than 26 sketches. It’s unrefined, but still funny, and marked by that same stupid sense of humour. Roger Ebert pointed out the guilty pleasure aspect of ZAZ movies perfectly; “You laugh twice, once at the joke and then a second time at yourself for laughing”. Their most beloved film, for this reason, is probably Airplane! which was a huge hit, and is stuffed with classic lines (“Surely you can’t be serious?”, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”). Many of those lines get their charm from their severely grave delivery, provided by Leslie Neelson, who would star in the subsequent Naked Gun trilogy, making for an actor-directors pairing for the ages. He embodies a fundamental truth about the characters of great Spoof movies: They’re not in on the joke. No matter how absurd the world they inhabit, play it straight.

But, their best work remains Top Secret!, mashing up World War II spy films and Elvis musicals, starring a young Val Kilmer. It features their most impressive routines, some of which verge on the surreal (including their absolute best; a fist-fight that plummets from train tracks into a river, and continues in a sparsely decorated underwater saloon). They completely surrender logic, and allow the movie to get as bonkers as possible, without getting tedious. The ZAZ trio ended up having diminishing returns as the years went on (David contributed to the Scary Movie series, Jerry made Ghost, yes, Ghost with Patrick Swayze), but in 20 years they gifted us some of the funniest movies comedy has to offer.

Now we flash forward to today, where a lack of comedies in general means an outright drought in spoof movies. What could have led to this? Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

These two “filmmakers” are responsible for some of the worst monstrosities mislabeled as movies ever made, all spoofs. They hit the mark they were aiming for, but there may be no more despicably lazy, insulting, stupid, chauvinistic, Neanderthal-esque mark. Their oeuvre (including Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, The Starving Games, Meet the Spartans, et al), disrespects their audiences, the material they’ve piggybacked off, and the stander-bearers for the genre they’ve beaten into extinction by flooding the market with movie experiences so unpleasant that audiences have avoided parodies entirely since, because “they’re all like that, right?”.

As a result of all this, Friedberg and Seltzer have undergone relentless dogpiling by critics, to the point that you could almost feel bad them, if not for everything they do. The pair may be a little more than embarrassed by their work, avoiding interviews like the plague, outright refusing to do them in person (leading to some conspiracies theories that the duo are a cover name for directors looking to make a quick buck on garbage that takes less than a month to film, funneling profits to their dream projects). They got their start by writing the Naked Gun rip-off Spy Hard as a vehicle for Leslie Neelson, who wasn’t quite done with the genre. In unrelated news, Friedberg is the son of a director who worked with Neelson on a golfing video, and directed Spy Hard himself.

Still, their touch is noticeable, they’re practically auteurs. The Friedberg and Seltzer method: Pick out trailers or production stills for films you think will be hits, then incorporate literally any iconography from them into your script, something to the effect of “oh no, Britney Spears got punched by Kung Fu Panda”. Then film the movie as cheaply and quickly as possible, and put it out ASAP so that the films being referenced are preferably less than a month old when audiences catch the trailer. Ideal response: “Hey, I just watched Kung Fu Panda, now he’s in this comedy, this I’ve got to see.” Pro tip, it does not matter if the referenced character or celebrity or whatever else is only in the film for a few seconds, just cut the trailer with whatever will get butts in seats. It also doesn’t matter if they walk out, once the ticket is bought, you’re golden.

There is a joke in Top Secret! that has aged terribly. The villains accidently back into a Ford Pinto, barely tapping it, causing it to spontaneously combust. This was a direct reference to a scandal at the time regarding the placement of the gas tank in the rear of this model of Ford, meaning that if it were rear-ended, it would ignite. That’s a lot of explaining to get this very 1984 reference. Friedberg and Seltzer ask the audience to suffer the same amount of awareness of contemporary pop culture for the full runtime of their projects, and most of their allusions have aged shockingly in the past 10 years.

Adding insult to injury, their budgets are bloated. Disclaimer: the following is hyperbole, conjecture, and a joke (I understand Friedberg and Seltzer have trouble recognizing those). Basically, they commit fraud. Their films have multi-million dollar budgets, which I doubt make it very far past the higher ups before being scalped for vacation funds, none of which are justifiable in the slightest.

Maybe you think all this is a little harsh. After all, they’re artists who are trying to make people laugh, so what if some armchair psychologists think they have contempt for their audience? Well, burdened with knowledge, I direct you to the video above, a highlight reel of moments from their commentary track for Date Movie. They share their open contempt for their material, their disdain for their actors (insinuating one star’s drug habit lead him to stoop to roles in their films), their ignorance of their trade (frustrated with themselves that they still don’t know what a gaffer is), and their depressing acceptance that their movies are indefensible, but “f**k you” for disliking them. The conversation devolves into a self-reflexive dirge on the futility of listening for insights from these two. Then they discuss what they each did the night before. My favourite quote of theirs; “That test audience must have been really dumb, because they fell for everything, they clapped.” It would be too laborious a task for them to make a joke this long, so it can be concluded that it’s sincere. They’ve had a Star Wars parody in the pipeline for some time, though it’s unlikely anyone could stomach even a good Star Wars parody right now. Hearing that news for the first time stirred up a lot of contempt, but, knowing what Friedberg and Seltzer think of themselves, it’s impossible to be mad anymore. It’s just depressing.