What’s Wrong With Spoof Movies and How to Fix Them

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It was the night Borat opened. We were waiting on line for popcorn when a poster caught my eye, something called Epic Movie. Since ‘Epic’ is a broad descriptive word and not a genre, it seemed like an odd choice for a parody. The selection of movies on the poster was even weirder. Pirates of the Caribbean is kind of an epic, and Chronicles of Narnia is almost one. But Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? What did that have to do with anything? And who the hell decided Jack Black’s Mexican wrestling flop Nacho Libre qualified? It was like some dim-bulb middle school kid’s idea of a Fantasy Movie-ball League. The worst offense, though, was the character right in the center: Borat Sagdiyev himself. Borat was the diametric opposite of an epic, and it hadn’t even been released yet, so the parody would have to involve some gag from the trailer. It didn’t make a lick of sense. Unfortunately, Epic Movie made about $90 million worldwide, so sense was beside the point. Welcome to the dark age of the spoof. It really sucks.

Growing up as the son of a Mel Brooks die-hard, I’ve always had a weakness for spoofs. No matter how lame they end up being, to me there is something inherently watchable about a parody in almost any context. To see something that people take seriously redone in a silly way is as oddly compelling in an SNL skit as it is an a Weird Al song. When something you like gets parodied, it’s an honor, and when something you dislike gets parodied, they probably had it coming. The broad appeal of the spoof has long been known to filmmakers, which is why these movies have a long, rich history, going all the way back to Abbott and Costello’s many run-ins with Frankenstein and Nikita Kruschev, or whoever. Mostly, though, parody flicks have been the province of four distinct, but occasionally overlapping styles: Mel Brooks, Zucker Brothers, Wayans Brothers, and now Friedberg-Seltzer.

At the peak of his powers, Mel Brooks made a fistful of genre-aping classics like Young Frankenstein before settling into safe, cornball territory with late-career driftwood like Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’s also responsible for the criminally underrated, dead-on Hitchcock send-up, High Anxiety. Close on Brooks’ heels were Jerry and David Zucker, and their collaborator, Jim Abrahams. Together, these three forged the canonical Airplane!, whose best innovation was having hammy actors Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen deliver their lines completely straight, trusting that audiences would get the joke. By the 1990s, though, the restraint used in Airplane! was completely abandoned in favor of Leslie Nielsen mug-fests that even Jim Carrey would find to be in poor taste (see Spy Hard, Mafia!, etc. Or, better yet, don’t.) Pretty soon, it was time for the Wayans brothers.

Keenan Ivory and his very large family came on strong with I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, and brought a fun sense of pomp to their blaxploitation homage. Years later, the Wayans’ were the first to use an absurdly long word-jumble of a title with Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, a ploy that is still being mimicked 14 years later, albeit mainly on the straight-to-DVD circuit. It was the Wayans Brothers’ next project, though, that became the watershed of spoofs: the Scary Movie franchise. This series is a cross-pollination effort from all of the spoof creators listed above, except for Mel Brooks. It was started by Wayanses, taken over by a Zucker brother, and it introduced the world to the particular talents of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg.

If you’re reading this, then you are probably familiar with the reputation of the two Scary Movie co-writers who went on to make Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Disaster Movie. A lot of vile, venomous stuff has been said about them already, but perhaps not enough has been said because they’re still allowed to make motion pictures. Put simply and without hyperbole, the Friedberg/Seltzer oeuvre is difficult to take in. Their movies feel like they were meant as some Warholian exercise, testing the boundaries of what could be considered literally unwatchable. Have you actually seen any of these things? I watched Disaster Movie in order to accurately write this, and I would rather wax a series of lengthy cars than watch it again. Unfortunately, this series is where the state of the spoof movie seems to be stuck right now.

Disaster Movie is just the epitome of laziness. Each gag is clearly the writer’s very first idea, and nobody bothered trying to top it or punch it up. You would have to work pretty hard to come up with intentional anti-gags that sounded more like first-draft ideas. For example, in a Love Guru bit (because how could they possibly leave out The Love Guru?), Mike Myers’ character, Pitka, is rechristened as Shitka. That’s the level we’re talking about here. Just the mere fact of referencing any movie, show, or pop culture occurrence is enough to count as a joke. The film 10,000 BC is acknowledged with a title card that reads, ‘10,001 BC.’ One character’s laptop is open to Facebook, only it’s labeled FaceNook instead. An Amy Winehouse character has an extended cameo for absolutely no reason at all, and the filmmakers don’t even leave it for the viewer to pick up on the reference; another character has to announce, “Amy Winehouse?” with a look of revulsion. This same thing happens again and again: a random reference shows up, other characters react with a dismissive eye-roll like they can’t believe they have to countenance this garbage, and then the reference gets hit by a rock or a cow or some poo. The movie finally ends (after barely an hour-long runtime) with a parody of Sarah Silverman’s “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” that features all the cast members singing about fucking each other. This sequence goes on for a truly absurd length of time and probably ruined the word “fuck” for me forever.

“I think spoof movies are sometimes easier to make because you don’t have to land a big star to make them. The comedy is the star, so traditionally that helps them along the pipeline a little faster,” Jason Friedberg said in an interview with MTV. That would explain why the biggest star who has been with this crew the longest is Carmen Electra. It also explains why these spoof movies that get everything so wrong continue to get made. They are so cheap for major studios to produce that they can’t help but turn a profit. The problem is that the spoof movies that actually get it right don’t seem to make any money until they become cult objects on DVD. The recent Friedberg Seltzer effort, Vampires Suck, made twice as much money as MacGruber over the summer, so studios will probably be more cagey than usual about giving good spoofs a chance in the near future.

But what exactly makes a spoof good? Could there possibly be a formula for success, or at least a series of numbered bullet points? I took a close look at two of the most creatively successful and well-liked spoof movies from the last ten years, Wet Hot American Summer and Black Dynamite, to answer these very questions. These are two very different takes on parody, focused on two wildly divergent genres. What they have in common, though, is how much of what they’re trying to do that they get exactly right. Here then, are some tips for the enterprising screenplay writer on how to make a spoof movie undeniably worth watching.

1. Get the details down

It’s clear that David Wain and Michael Showalter either went to Jewish sleep away camp in the 1980s or at least watched every ‘80s summer camp movie ever. Either way, the creators of Wet Hot American Summer demonstrate their working knowledge of, and affection for, the niche they’re spoofing at every turn, cramming as much period detail in every frame as possible. From the fonts of the opening credits to the kinds of garments hanging from the cabin rafters, every choice made in this movie further serves to illuminate its milieu. Rather than just mock memorable aspects of specific movies, Wain and Showalter painstakingly recreate and have fun with the world these movies exist in.

2. Explore the world

One of the most successful aspects about Michael Jai White’s tribute to blaxploitation, Black Dynamite, is the way he milks the movie’s premise. White, a first-time screenwriter, utilizes the if-this-is-true-what-else-is-true ethos of improv to explore the ridiculous logic that must exist in this world in order for it to function. When the main character, Black Dynamite, returns home in an early scene, his assistant immediately informs him, “Your nun chucks are back from the shop.” Of course they are! Better yet, since someone as cool as Black Dynamite would pepper his speech with “Can you dig it?” like his forebears in Foxy Brown and Dolemite, the rest of the cast answers this rhetorical question with a full, sentence-length response every time.

3. Let there be music

Music is more than just another detail—it sets movie’s tone and brings scenes to life. If you’re going to spoof an action movie, you have to know what songs are played in chase scenes and recreate them in a funny way. In Wet Hot, it’s hard to tell apart the songs composed directly for the movie from the Jefferson Starship and Rick Springfield songs. The originals are hilarious for how close they hew to what they’re parodying. In one scene, the character Coop stumbles through a training montage set to the strains of the most inspirational-sounding song of all times; a song which mainly consists of the lyrics, “Show me the fever/into the fire/Taking it higher/and higher.” If this song were inserted into a scene in any random 80s movie, the audience would never notice the difference, which makes its presence here all the more awesome.

4. Know when to go meta

Who knows which parody movie first acknowledged its movie-ness with the lead character turning to literally wink at the audience? Whatever its origins, this tactic has been done enough times by now to elicit no more than shrugs from audiences. If you’re going to break the fourth wall, it should be broken in a way that gels with the genre being parodied. In Black Dynamite, the camera angles, close-ups, and dolly shots are faithful to the style of 70s cinema, and so is the intentionally shitty dialogue, rhythm, and style of delivery. This authenticity extends to putting mistakes in to echo the occasionally shoddy filmmaking of the era, like weird jump cuts that skip over some of the action. This device is best used when Black Dynamite enters a room filled with agitators facing away from him, and one of them recites his stage directions out loud: “The militants turn, startled.” We in the audience already know it’s a movie; the characters should only acknowledge their awareness if it gets a laugh, not just because.

5. Play with taboos

One of the hallmarks of proper parody involves examining the target genre’s inviolable rules and then totally fucking with them. Showalter and Wain work this angle in Wet Hot by challenging the casual glorification of beer and pot in summer camp movies. In one whirlwind montage scene, a brief field trip starts with sneaky cigarettes and ends with most of the cast strewn about a flophouse, strung out on heroin. Happily, everybody is back at camp and healthy again in the next scene, and it turns out they were only gone an hour. In another taboo-crushing move, the filmmakers mess with the audience’s perceptions of sexuality. Turning on its head the prevailing ideal of aggressively celebrated machismo, Wet Hot American Summer doesn’t contain a single jiggled ounce of naked female flesh, but it does feature one of the most intensely physical gay male sex scenes ever committed to film, outside of porn. In addition to just being funny, these kinds of moments force the audience to consider how much movies tend to reinforce social norms and behaviors, which is something everyone should consider from time to time.

6. Properly handle cliches

Cliches are what lie at the heart of spoofing. A genre of movie is only worthy of parody if it has overused tropes that deserve mockery. Some directors tend to confuse iconic moments from specific movies with actual, widely used clichés. The results can be painful—how many times have we seen the Matrix flying crane kick referenced in a movie? Probably something like 20 times, if we’re being honest. Anyway if it happened in one movie, it’s an incident, but if it happened over and over again, you’ve got a trend. While the best kind of clichés to see toyed with are the subtle ones you never noticed before, that doesn’t mean the most common, obvious clichés should be avoided. It’s all about how you handle them. The two ways to take on a cliché are to exaggerate it or to subvert it.

Black Dynamite has an embellished ‘eureka’ moment where some cryptic thing a person says suddenly jumpstarts his brain-engine and he instantly solves the movie’s central mystery. The movie then grinds to a halt while our hero takes out a chalkboard and, using the Socratic Method, walks everybody through how he figured it out. At another point, Black Dynamite subverts the cliché of random members of the Blaxploitation hero’s harem breathlessly reciting his catchphrases, by showing the hero react to this in a different way than we’re used to seeing.

In Wet Hot American Summer, the clichés tend to get subverted more often than not. The handsome superstud counselor turns out to be a virgin. An invitation extended during a meet-cute gets violently refuted (“I said, NO!’”) One of those arbitrary location-changes that seem to occur in movies when two characters need to talk is arranged thusly: “This is neither the time nor the place—meet me by the picnic table in 10 seconds.” However, one of the crowning moments in Wet Hot is when a minute-long monologue preceding “the big culminating, climactic softball game” against the “anonymously evil” campers from Camp Tiger Claw manages to pack in every single underdog sports movie cliché you’ve ever seen.

All of these examples are clever efforts on the part of the filmmakers to show the viewer things they’ve seen too often in a different light. In contrast, the mission statement of the Friedberg-Seltzer team seems to be to show the viewer things they’ve seen too often slathered in barf. Speaking of clichés, though, it has become a rather trite position to be indignantly outraged over the quality of Epic Movie or Meet the Spartans, so enough about those movies. The only reason their poor quality is so noticeable is that these movies are prominent figures in a sparse marketplace. There is hope, though. Black Dynamite was released just last year. Walk Hard was funny, if flawed. And Edgar Wright’s first two films were excellent. If not necessarily alive and well, the spoof movie is still breathing, and someday it may even recover. When I hear about The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It, though, which is a real movie that someone wrote a script for and someone else pointed a camera at, part of me wants to just pull the damn plug and call it a day.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.