Saturday, March 29, 2008

“I am serious… And don’t call me Shirley.”

A list of 10 Favorite Spoofs.

Friday saw the release of yet another spoof flick. “Superhero Movie” promises to skewer the recent barrage of comic book superhero-inspired blockbusters with all the irreverence of a yak at the Grand Canyon. If you don’t understand what I mean by that, it makes two of us. But with most spoof flicks that is the type on non sequitur that passes for comedy, and if you aren’t able to make the mental leap—read “lapse”—required for the unabashed guffawing most spoofs so desperately yearn for, then the spoof is a genre that might never work for you.

With entries like the recent “Date Movie”, “Epic Movie” or the “Scary Movie” franchise, it might seem as if the spoof genre has all but been beaten to death. Most of these films can’t even stick to the genres they are trying to spoof for a mere 80 minutes of running time. “Epic Movie” didn’t seem to have a clue what an epic movie was. “X-Men”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and “Nacho Libre” were among the many non-epic movies lampooned—read “harpooned”— in it.

But not all spoofs are stupid, or as The Young Ones might say, “stoopid!” Nor is the genre dead. “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”— releasing on DVD April 8—received mostly favorable reviews, and tackled a decidedly narrow movie genre to spoof—the musical bio-pic. And it only takes a short trip down memory lane to come up with a long list of movie spoofs that hold a special place in your funny bone.

Here are ten of my favorites:

Blazing Saddles. (Dir. Mel Brooks)
Mel Brooks’ 1973 send up of the once most popular western genre has been called by many better than I the best spoof of all time. It contains ageless lines of absurdity and hilarity. It is the pinnacle of irreverent humor from one of cinema’s greatest humorists. Just the characters are a slap in the face of western standards, with a black sheriff (“Can’t you see that man is a ni--?”), a falling down drunk gunslinger (“Look at my hand.” “Steady as a rock.” “Yeah, but I shoot with this one.”), a French/Jewish, pandering Governor (“We’ve got to protect our phoney baloney jobs, gentlemen!”), a mongoloid enforcer (“Candygram for Mongo!”), a greedy land barron with a girl’s name (“I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.”), a narcoleptic, mumbling, singing prostitute (“Ah who am I kidding! Evewything fwom the waist down is kaput!”), and the greatest fart joke in cinematic history.

Young Frankenstein. (Dir. Mel Brooks)
Brooks almost outdid himself the very next year with the release of “Young Frankenstein”. Spoofing the popular Universal monsters horror movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, “Young Frankenstein” retold the story of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with Brooks’ unique brand of irreverence. (“No. It’s pronounced ‘Fronkensteen.’”) Brooks made much of his career as a comedy director making spoofs. He lampooned everything from historical epics (“History of the World, Part 1”) to Alfred Hitchcock (“High Anxiety”) to “Star Wars” (“Spaceballs”) to Robin Hood (“Robin Hood: Men In Tights”) to Hollywood’s Silver Age (“Silent Movie”) and back to Universal monsters again (“Dracula: Dead and Loving It”), but never did he reach the pinnacle of genius again that he did with “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”.

Airplane! (Dir. Jim Abrahams and David Zucker)
Taking the blueprints laid out by Brooks, writers/directors Jim Abrahams and David Zucker cast the mold for the spoof flick as we know it today with this 1980 classic riff on the disaster movies of the ‘70s. Making direct references to films of the spoofed genre and other pieces of pop culture, “Airplane!” makes fun of not only disaster films like “Airport”, but also everything else Abrahams and Zucker could fit in there, such as Hari Krishnas, racial stereotypes, drinking problems, sex aids, terminal illness, flower power music, courtroom dramas, flashback sequences, rear screen projection special effects, and “Saturday Night Fever”. While this is the closest relation to most of the bad spoofs that find their way into multiplexes today, “Airplane!” was an original in its day and was made with more wit and sass in one of its gags, than today’s typical spoof fits into it entire running time.

This Is Spinal Tap. (Dir. Rob Reiner)
“This one goes to 11” and then some. Rob Reiner’s 1984 directorial debut “This Is Spinal Tap” may not have been the first “mockumentary”, but with this spoof of the documentary format and rock culture as a whole, Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer created a phenomenon that would follow each of them through the remainder of their careers. Not only did the originally fictional band on which this movie focuses eventually return to touring in real life as if the events depicted in this fake documentary were true, but Christopher Guest went on to direct several more mockumentaries that celebrated their characters’ quirky lifestyles and personalities who pursued everything from small town theatrical productions to dog show trophies. When Spinal Tap sent the mockumentary genre into cult and eventually popular status, the “reality” of spoof filmmaking changed forever.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Dir. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)
The Monty Python crew revolutionized sketch comedy with their spoofs of British society in their television show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. When they made the leap to the big screen the set their sights on broader targets with riffs on British folklore (“Jabberwocky”), Christian teachings (“Life of Brian”) and their most often quoted work revising Arthurian legend, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. From highly intellectual debates on the geo-political workings of the British hierarchy to breast jokes, nothing is beyond the spoof in this witty and gritty goof on precious British and religious tradition. Even the absurd is tackled in pure Pythonian style. It isn’t every retelling of legend that ends with the hero being arrested for the accidental death of an innocent bystander.

Love and Death. (Dir. Woody Allen)
Woody Allen isn’t really known as a spoof artist, but much of his greatest work incorporates spoofing. Perhaps his style of spoof is a bit more on the intellectual side for the tastes of most film goers looking for silly laughs. It is that intellectual bent that spurs what may be his only feature length all out spoof flick. 1975’s “Love and Death” puts the spoof treatment on the romance literature of the Russians. It may not appeal to people looking for fart jokes, but a literature or drama major in college will find it a laugh riot. Allen has no end of fun ridiculing young lovers tearing the hearts and brains out over unrequited and unsolicited love. It’s a he-loves-her-but she-loves-that-guy-who-is-in-turn-in-love-with-this-other-girl-who-is-that-woman’s-cousin-and-had-relations-with-her-without-knowing-it-but-she-loves-him-anyway sort of thing. And if it seems I got the genders confused there, well that’s probably all part of the joke as well.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. (Dir. Jay Roach)
It seems that after the third installment in the Austin Powers spoof trilogy of the spy genre as a whole and James Bond pictures in particular, creator Mike Myers suffered some backlash for retreading the same jokes over and over again. That stigma is not likely to end after this summer’s Myers picture “The Love Guru”, whose trailer promises more of the same Myers jokes. But in a strange way that is more than a fitting tribute to the spy genre, which does tend to mine the same territory repeatedly. But before it all became old hat, the Austin Powers characters and retro vibe was a rather fun and carefree ride of laughs that carried almost three movies. I think most fans would choose the original “International Man of Mystery” as their favorite of the series, before Myers got too stuck on what was working for his multiple personalities. But I prefer the better titled “The Spy Who Shagged Me”. I like the way he pushes things just a little bit further than is comfortable in the series’ sophomore outing. Is drinking another man’s waste funny? Only when Myers tags it with his tentative smirk.

Beerfest. (Dir. Jay Chandrasekhar)
The traditional idea of a spoof is a film that makes direct references to other films and pop culture nuggets and ridicules them in some base manner. But there are some films which simply spoof ideas or mindsets and try to have some semblance of their own reality. It can certainly be said that the films of the comedy troupe Broken Lizard exist solely within their own reality. Their film include the refer toking highway patrol comedy “Super Troopers”, the outright slasher spoof “Club Dread”, and what could be considered either the dumbest or most ingenious underground sports flick ever conceived—“Beerfest”. “The Dukes of Hazard” has been struck from their record in order for me to justify respecting them. “Beerfest” takes a beergoggle-eyed look at the seedy underworld of drinking beer for sport. Conjuring up memories of Bob and Doug Makenzie’s beer adventures in “Strange Brew”, “Beerfest” has its own silly story to tell, but it is not the overall picture that makes this film worth watching. Its genius is in the details. These guys had to watch a good deal of your typical underdog sports flicks when they were writing this story about five Americans who travel to Germany to regain their family glory at the World Beer Drinking Championship. And when you’re finished watching this one, you’ll know how to properly drink beer from a boot.

Scream. (Dir. Wes Craven)
While it was the “Scary Movie” franchise that pulled the outright spoof treatment on this and so many other modern horror flicks, “Scream” was not made by master of horror Wes Craven without his tongue edging into the fleshy parts of his inner cheek. Like “Beerfest”, it is a more gentle ribbing of its respective genre that is just as interested in sustaining its own credibility as it is at destroying similar films’. When you make a slasher flick about teens obsessed with slasher flicks, there has to be some degree of self deprecation involved, and Craven is even better here at poking fun of the formula of slasher flicks than he is at bringing the scares themselves. It is hard to truly be scared during Rose McGowan’s death by automatic garage door, but what a great riff on the notion that every slasher pic has create new and original ways for people to die—although “The X-Files” actually did garage door death one better in one of its episodes when some poor soul was killed by a sprung garage door spring.

The Man with Two Brains. (Dir. Carl Reiner)
When this movie first popped into my head as a contender for this list, I thought it might just be too weak an entry. But then I looked up some clips from it on YouTube and was reminded of the raw comedic genius of Steve Martin’s early career teaming with Carl Reiner. Their 1983 movie “The Man with Two Brains” is a send up of those mad scientist b-movies from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. While most of those original mad scientist flicks contain inadvertent laughs enough to inspire a series like “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, Martin and Reiner were well prepared to funny up the already laughable with a story about a man named Hfuhruhurr, a brain surgeon that falls in love with one of his patients only to learn she is merely interested in his money. So he plots a way to kill her and replace her brain with that of his beloved late wife’s. Like so much of Martin’s comedy, it is his earnestness that makes it possible for him to sell his particular brand of ridiculousness—which includes yelling at children for not being as experienced as an adult, brains jumping around and singing, and a cat on an operating table.


Alan Bacchus said...

I forgot about this posting of yours. There's lots of films I have to rediscover, including the Brooks films. BTW: I also happen to be a big fan of 'Airplane 2: The Sequel.' Sure, it's the exact same jokes, but it has a great cameo by William Shatner

Andrew D. Wells said...

I agree with you on Airplane 2. It's just a do over, but they still had a lot of great gags left in them.