What Keeps Spoofs From Being Box-Office Jokes?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to Salmonella, a sepia-toned Sicilian village circa 1912 where sidewalk vendors peddle Spaghetti-on-a-Stick, the priest dons stilts for the annual olive-ripening festival parade and the town's motto is "Home of Warm Mayonnaise."

Or, step into the Las Vegas casino, where the Democratic National Committee backs its donation truck up to a loading dock and hopelessly addicted gamblers play curious games of chance--like guessing how many fingers a dealer will hold up. Three? Nope, you lose, as the dealer raises four fingers on his hand.

Wacky? Yes. Funny? Depends on one's twisted sense of humor. But the rapid-fire laugh lines and sight gags contained in Touchstone Pictures' "Mafia!"--the current sendup of Hollywood mobster movies from "The Godfather" to "Casino"--should be a tonic to fans of movie parodies.

"The idea is to keep the jokes coming," said director and co-writer Jim Abrahams. "Hopefully, if you don't like this one, just hang on for another three seconds and there'll be another one. If you can get 60% of the audience laughing at any one joke, you're successful to the end."

Spoofs have long been a Hollywood staple, but their box-office appeal is tricky to gauge before opening weekend.

Produced on modest budgets and sprinkled with enough B-actors to populate a "Love Boat" cruise, spoofs can generate hefty income for a studio.

Paramount Pictures' police takeoff "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" took in $77.9 million domestically in 1988-89. Two years later, "The Naked Gun 2 1/2" grossed $84.3 million in North America. That same year, "Hot Shots!"--a sendup of flyboy movies like "Top Gun"--earned $68.2 million domestically for 20th Century Fox.

But spoofs can flame out as easily as a stale joke.

In 1993, MGM's "Fatal Instinct," a spoof of modern and vintage films noir ("Basic Instinct," "Body Heat," "Fatal Attraction"), limped home with only $7.6 million in domestic ticket sales. Two other spoofs--New Line Cinema's 1993 "Lethal Weapon" parody, "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1," and Disney's 1996 espionage caper, "Spy Hard"--each took in only $26 million in North America.

How these films (and they are called "these films" in the industry) perform over their domestic theatrical run is only part of the equation. Some spoofs go on to generate strong box-office overseas and remain extremely popular with kids when they hit video outlets.

"I think they wouldn't do them if they didn't make money," said Pat Proft, the director and co-writer of "Wrongfully Accused," a new spoof based on "The Fugitive" that Warner Bros. will release Aug. 21.

"They do very well around the world," Proft explained. "People like visual comedy. I was just in Cologne, Germany, for the premiere of 'Wrongfully Accused' and people laughed at the same places."

Abrahams--who directed "Hot Shots!" and "Airplane!"--said both films did well outside the U.S. "Airplane!" did half of its business foreign, he recalled, while "Hot Shots!" made two-thirds of its overall box office overseas.

"That's sort of surprising," Abrahams said, "because [spoofs] seem to be so specifically American." Foreign audiences, he noted, seem to laugh at the same gags that American audiences do. "They get the jokes," he said.

Abrahams and Proft are veterans of the genre, both having worked with spoofmeisters David and Jerry Zucker on such films as "Airplane!" and "Naked Gun." Proft was a writer on "Hot Shots!" and "Hot Shots! Part Deux."

Abrahams, 54, hails from Wisconsin, where he was college classmates with the brothers Zucker. Proft, 51, was born and raised in Minnesota. Abrahams said his humor was inspired by television shows he grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s. Proft said he was inspired by Laurel and Hardy movies and Hal Roach comedy classics.

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Abrahams believes simple gag-writing is not enough for a spoof to work, as he and the Zuckers discovered in 1984 with the release of the box-office dud "Top Secret!"

The trio had just come off the rollicking success of "Airplane!" and thought it would be a snap to create another hit that spoofed spy movies.

"While we were writing it, we kind of said, 'Let's take 10 of our favorite jokes and kind of weave them together with a plot, and that's how we went about writing it," Abrahams recalled. "In retrospect, we learned a lot because it didn't seem to work quite as well as the other one.

"We thought 'Airplane!' succeeded because of the jokes," Abrahams added. "We didn't really get that you have to pay very careful attention to the nuts and bolts of storytelling, even in parody. It's weird. It just kind of falls apart after a while."

"Airplane!" worked, he theorized, because it was rooted in an old movie called "Zero Hour," which had a plot and character development.

For parodies to succeed, Proft said, the jokes have to hum along at a quick pace.

"I just want to throw something up on the screen all of the time, always have something funny going on," Proft said. "You have to have two or three or five jokes per page [of the script]."

Proft added that the humor can't be mean-spirited or audiences will turn off. For instance, "Wrongfully Accused" spoofs such films as "Clear and Present Danger," "Braveheart," "Mission: Impossible" and "Casablanca," yet steers clear of savaging the movies as movies.

It also helps, the filmmakers say, if moviegoers are familiar with the scene being spoofed--but the jokes should stand on their own.

"What we trying to do is to write so that if you know the pictures, then that's sort of frosting on the cake," Abrahams said.

In "Wrongfully Accused," for instance, Proft spoofs a famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," where Cary Grant runs down a rural road while being chased by a crop-duster plane. In Proft's film, Leslie Nielsen is chased down a road by a crop duster--but it turns out to be a model airplane.

Adroit casting is also essential to a spoof, both directors acknowledged.

Both Nielsen in "Wrongfully Accused" and the late Lloyd Bridges in "Mafia!" were dramatic actors long before their careers were reignited by "Airplane!" Likewise, Richard Crenna, Kelly LeBrock and Michael York, who co-star in "Wrongfully Accused," and Olympia Dukakis, who is featured in "Mafia!," all have dramatic credentials.

"It's nice if you can populate these movies with dramatic actors," Proft said. "Like, getting Charlie Sheen to do 'Hot Shots!' was great. Before that, the man had done macho parts."

Spoofs are probably one of the few genres left where audiences actually like to read the end credits. That's because they are filled with jokes. Like the line in "Mafia!" that audiences would be home by now if they didn't stick around to read these end credits.

Even the titles are meant to be humorous.

Abrahams and his co-writers actually titled their movie "Jane Austen's Mafia!"

"When we turned in the script, we thought it was a good joke--'Jane Austen's Mafia!,' " Abrahams recalled. "As we were writing the script, 'Sense and Sensibility' and several other Jane Austen movies were coming out."

But as the release date approached, Disney marketing executives feared that younger audiences might be confused by the reference to Austen, the 19th century novelist.

So, in a staggering dose of chutzpah even for a movie studio, the film is now called "Mafia!" in its advertisements, but "Jane Austen's Mafia!" on the print.

Spoof that.

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