As somebody who grew up with a young, single dad, I ended up watching a lot of spoof movies. I watched almost every era of a spoof from the golden age of the ‘70s and ‘80s and continue to enjoy the genre with modern-day elevated spoofs like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
But one glance at the genre will show you that spoof movies don’t exist in modern mainstream cinema. Even if they are made, they ultimately don't perform at the box office.
When the news broke that Airplane! and Naked Gun filmmaker David Zucker is creating a new noir spoof series called The Star of Malta, the film world paused, looked, and questioned the decision. Spoof movies can’t survive in modern cinema, right? If so, why?
'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'Credit: EMI Films
The Golden Age of Spoofs
What movie comes to your mind when we talk about spoofs?
Maybe you think of the classics like the Abbott and Costello films or 1903’s iconic The Great Train Robbery. Or do you go straight for the films that defined the genre like Blazing Saddles,Young Frankenstein, or (my favorite) Monty Python and the Holy Grail?
Perhaps no movie was as influential to the spoof genre as 1980’s Airplane!
Airplane! defined what the next few decades of spoofs would look like. The fourth-wall-breaking moments, surreal continuity lapses, frenetically-paced gags, and cheerful inconsistent stakes created a movie that was deeply silly while still remaining sincere to the films it made fun of.
'Airplane!'Credit: Paramount Pictures
The film dominated box offices, received favorable reviews from audiences and critics alike, led to a resurgence of gray-haired former leading men delivering absurd dialogue in a deadpan manner, and landed in the National Film Registry.
So what made the film work?
The creators of Airplane! assumed everyone had either seen or was at least familiar with the major movies of the era. It’s hard to spoof things people don’t know, as the genre relies on everyone knowing big movies. In the pre-blockbuster era, spoofs relied on clichés and iconic moments, but the age of the blockbuster and at-home videos played an enormous part in making certain movies culturally ubiquitous, making spoofs a lot easier to create.
Mental Floss believes that movie conventions and clichés, as well as fairly recent iconic moments in pop culture, could be assumed as the knowledge that everyone had.
Summer blockbusters and small budgets allowed the spoofs to thrive with minimal star power needed. While not every spoof can match the quality of Airplane!, spoof movies did well in theaters.
'Airplane!'Credit: Paramount Pictures
We Have to Talk About Those Spoofs
Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can lead to the oversaturation of assembly-made movies.
In the mid-90s, the spoof machine got clogged, and the increasing number of spoofs started to shift the genre from artless fun to cynical jokes that didn’t always land.
The 2000s provided spoofs that were lazily made with visual gags that replaced jokes. Typically, spoof movies are at their best when they play off of self-serious movies and recontextualized serious dialogue from big-budget films that everyone has seen.
Some spoofs of the 2000s like Superhero Movie and Vampires Suck fall into a chaotic gray zone, making fun of movies that the popular culture either loves or hates. Every second is filled with gags that take away any sincerity from the plot. Nothing is new, everything is supposed to be funny, and, in the end, you are left feeling unsatisfied.
Good spoofs are genuinely hard to make. Craig Mazin, the writer of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and the forthcoming HBO drama The Last of Us, says that spoofs are “relentless” and “brutal” to write compared to dramas.
“Honestly, nothing is harder than writing those things,” Mazin said on the This Kind of Moviepodcast. “I will never work harder in my life than I did writing Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4.”
There are some spoofs from the 2000s that did survive the oversaturation of bad spoofs. Shaun of the Dead worked well because of Edgar Wright's ability to write empathetic characters in horrific moments. Although the film plays on the tropes of zombie movies, Shaun of the Dead doesn't fail to tell a moving story that forces you to think about your own humanity and how you interact with those around you.
The Current State of the Genre
If spoof movies wanted to play against the biggest movies of the modern era, they’d have a tougher time.
2008’s Superhero Movie was able to play off of the few superhero movies that existed, but it's 2022, and superhero movies are making fun of themselves in their own movies. Thor: Ragnarok, for example, took Black Widow’s “Sun’s getting real low, big guy” line from Avengers: Age of Ultron and used it for comedic purposes. Movies within the same franchise are spoofing themselves, so what’s left for the spoof genre?
Even The Fast and the Furiousfranchise has turned into a parody of its former self with an entire sequence in F9 dedicated to cars going to space with a strangely serious tone that audiences couldn't help but laugh at.
'F9'Credit: Universal Pictures
Streaming has also reduced what is relatively known in the collective consciousness. Realistically, in 2022, the only movies big enough to assume everyone has seen them are those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they are even creating a safety net to ensure that audiences don’t have to watch every single piece of media they put out.
But it’s not just the culture of cinema that is affecting the genre. Social media means new movies can be mocked relentlessly as soon as they come out. The jokes only last about a week (if we are being generous) because then something new takes over the interest of pop culture. The idea of making a theatrical spoof is redundant.
For almost as long as there have been movies, there have been spoofs. They are not gone forever but are in a dormant state.
Some spoof movies can still thrive in the modern landscape of cinema. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which was released 15 years ago, will remain relevant as long as there are biopics being made about musicians. The spoof follows the formulas of the biopic perfectly.
I am still very fond of Nick Cage’s recent spoof on himself in The Massive Weight of Unbearable Talent. The film is both sincere in its portrayal of the aging actor, the ambitious desire of someone who wants to break into the movie business, and the visual language of movies that draws inspiration without relying on the self-referential gags that feel overwhelming.
'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent'Credit: Lionsgate
As Mazin said, spoof movies are hard to write. But even if you manage to write a good one, there is no guarantee that it will do well in theaters. Our knowledge of cinema is experiencing some growing pains and we are both overwhelmed and underwhelmed with the amount of media being produced.
That being said, challenge yourself to write a spoof movie that sincerely plays on a genre or a specific topic that is naturally absurd to you. It could be a good screenwriting challenge that will sharpen your wit and help you understand certain tropes and clichés of specific genres.
Do you have any modern spoofs that you think are good? Let us know what they are and why they work for you in the comments below!
Source: Mental Floss