Everyone who was ever 12 has fond memories of silly spoof movies; ridiculous films that pastiche Hollywood conventions and pay as much or as little heed to the laws of space and time as is necessary for jokes to land.
Loads of us grew up with increasingly fuzzy VHS tapes of films like Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, relentless laugh-fests laden with background jokes, silly names, ridiculous impressions, daft cameos and hilarious non-sequiturs. But the genre seems to be, if not dead, then pretty unwell. What’s happened?
We don’t have Leslie Nielsen anymore
Leslie Nielsen was magnificent. A straight actor who reinvented himself in his sixties into a comedic genius, legendary film critic Roger Ebert referred to him as “the Olivier of spoofs”. At his best, as Dr Rumack in Airplane! or Frank Drebin in Police Squad! and the Naked Gun films he was just untouchably good, delivering the most absurd of lines completely deadpan, giving real gravitas to lines like, “You take a chance getting up every morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan.”
Even when he had sub-par material to work with - the Stan Helsings and Wrongfully Accuseds of the world - he was hilarious. When he died in 2010 (his epitaph, a tribute to the whoopee cushion he carried with him everywhere, reads “Let ‘er rip”) the world of spoofs lost its heart.
There are these two people that aren’t very good
1996’s Spy Hard is not the best of spoofs - it’s got a good poster, a typically great Leslie Nielsen performance, a funny Ray Charles cameo, an awesome opening theme courtesy of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic… and that’s about it - but it’s the best thing writers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer wrote. (They’re credited on the first Scary Movie but apparently only as a legal thing - Miramax acquired their horror spoof script at the same time as the Wayans’ one.)
Everything else they’ve done - Date Movie (above), Epic Movie, Vampires Suck, Meet the Spartans - just isn’t up to scratch. Their mirthless films invariably feature lazy, immediately-dated references in place of jokes, nonsensical pop-culture namechecks shoehorned in at every turn, and manage the truly impressive feat of making fart jokes unfunny. Unfortunately, their sheer relentlessness and visibility has meant that that’s what a lot of people think of when they think of spoofs now - cynical cash-ins, where once hilarity reigned.
The first four Scary Movies are genuinely funny - the first two feature Shawn and Marlon Wayans at their best, three and four feature spoof veterans Nielsen and Charlie Sheen, and all four have Anna Faris being properly hilarious. It’s also a great title - before becoming the title of the spoof, Scary Movie was the working title for Scream.
Following Scary Movie’s success, studios started slapping ‘Movie’ on the end of anything spoofy, for instance, re-titling the genuinely funny Superhero! (the exclamation mark was a tribute to Airplane! and Top Secret!) as Superhero Movie. The world now contains Disaster Movie, Extreme Movie, Imaginary Movie and, er, Dance Flick.
Big, long, unfunny, SEO-baiting titles
Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood is a great, fun title, combining the names of a bunch of gritty, earnest ‘hood movies’ and making it clear that what you’re about to watch is a really silly film. However, by the time the world’s been subjected to Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth, The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It and 30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, all real, bad, real bad movies, the joke’s worn a bit thin.
Why… why would you spoof a comedy?
There’s a film, The Hangover Games, that’s a spoof of the Hunger Games and Hangover franchises. But… how do you spoof The Hangover? It’s a really silly comedy. Jokes about a comedy, especially ones written quickly for a zeitgeist jump-on, aren’t going to be funnier than the original, surely? Same with that 41-Year-Old Virgin one mentioned above - is making a funny version of a funny thing ever going to be anything other than rubbish? This reaches its potential nadir with Not Another Not Another Movie, a spoof of spoof films, described by one critic as “surreally incompetent”.
The OGs of spoofs are all a bit rubbish now
Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker essentially invented the genre with Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, but haven’t worked together since 1986. David Zucker was the last of them to dip his toe in the spoof world, co-writing the pretty awful Scary Movie 5 and directing the aggressively unfunny right-wing spoofAn American Carol (because after all, what’s funnier than telling bleeding-heart liberals to shut the fuck up about things like gay rights?).
- National Lampoon
The humour magazine turned movie producers responsible for comedy classics Animal House and Vacation, National Lampoon made one really fun spoof, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, before the ‘90s treated the brand really badly and it started just slapping its name on any old shit.
- The Wayans family
Responsible for hilarious Blaxploitation spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Don’t Be a Menace…, the sprawling, ever-prolific Wayans clan continue to make spoof films, they’re just a bit non-good. A Haunted House, A Haunted House 2, Dance Flick and 50 Shades of Black are all films that literally exist - they’re never completely terrible, and most of the Wayanses have charisma to burn, but their non-spoof comedies, TV work and occasional foray into action movies are way better.
- Mel Brooks
The icon behind Blazing Saddles, which regularly tops lists of the funniest films ever made, made the ace Star Wars spoof Spaceballs as well as Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but hasn’t made a film since 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, dedicating his time to Broadway adaptations of his earlier successes and occasionally moaning that everything’s too politically correct these days.
Cheapo crap ones are ten a penny
Scary Movie made a huge amount of money. A lot of that was down to it being properly funny, but it also did really well from the piggybacking aspect - the success of Scream was, in a way, marketing for Scary Movie. Just as it’s easier to sell something by comparing it to another product, it’s vastly, vastly easier to take the piss out of something than it is to produce something original. The people bankrolling low-budget movies seem to have this in mind - it seems a lot easier to secure funding for a project that has a bunch of useful keywords in it and might get some media coverage for spoofing another movie than to get it for any kind of original, imaginative, sincere project. If you’re a struggling filmmaker and you’ve written two screenplays, one a harrowing personal tale of human emotion and one called The Farting Avengers, best get polishing that knock-off Iron Man suit.
Films take a while to make
In an age of Twitter, podcasting and YouTube, where a video criticising a film can run longer than the film itself and it’s easy to be sick of a movie long before you’ve seen it, is there any need for film spoofs? By the time a movie is made pointing out that, like, Ant-Man is a bit of a silly superhero, the world has long moved on. Months before a film’s even out on Blu-Ray, endless pisstakes are all over the internet.
Not dissimilarly, where a huge part of the appeal of something like Airplane! was seeing usually-serious actors delivering absurd dialogue, living in an era where famous people have more avenues to show off their silly side than ever means it just doesn’t feel necessary.
There are definitely exceptions to this rule, but generally, the more specific the spoof, the less well it ages. Broad, genre-wide spoofs like The Naked Gun or Airplane! date much better than the hyper-specificity of, say, The Starving Games, which, unless you’ve watched the Hunger Games films in the last 48 hours, is just an hour and half of poorly-delivered farts. The two Hot Shots! films are ostensibly parodies of Top Gun and Rambo, but you don’t need to have seen either to enjoy them - they’re just big goofy silly gag-filled movies that work completely legitimately in their own right.
But there’s hope!
The desire for fully daft spoofs will never die, and there are still people doing fine work in the genre. The days of queuing outside the cinema to see Hot Shots! Part Deux might be long gone, but Michael Jai White’s Black Dynamite is a pitch-perfect spoof of Blaxploitation martial arts movies, while Jorma Taccone’s MacGruber perfectly nails the absurdity of action cinema. On TV, Documentary Now! manages to combine the highbrow and lowbrow in hilarious ways, while the far-funnier-than-it-should-be Keith & Paddy Picture Show delivers gleefully stupid Hollywood takedowns. Everything from SNL to Horrible Histories offers bite-size spoofs of stuff as soon as it’s out. And the internet - there’s this thing called the internet, full of more silliness than anyone can really comprehend. Leslie Nielsen might be gone, but people saying stupid things before getting hit in the bollocks is here forever.