Surely you can’t be serious

Special to The Times

WHAT’S the least-respected product cranked out by the major studios? It’s not so-called torture porn; at least the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies occasionally warrant an Abu Ghraib-inspired think piece. And forget about the work of critical punching bag Adam Sandler; he’s teamed with Paul Thomas Anderson and starred in a 9/11 drama. No, when it comes to frowned-upon Hollywood films -- the kind they don’t give awards to and definitely don’t screen for critics -- the spoof movie is king.

Two of last year’s spoofs, “The Comebacks” and “Epic Movie,” each scored single-digit percentile ratings on (if you’re unfamiliar with the “Tomatometer,” that’s very, very rotten). Most likely, this weekend’s “Meet the Spartans” won’t fare much better. The film was written and directed by the team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who were also responsible for “Epic” and 2006’s “Date Movie.” One “Epic” reviewer opened with the line, “Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer must be stopped”; another suggested they be kidnapped. And you thought Rodney Dangerfield got no respect.

Yet audiences enjoy spoof movies enough to make them consistently profitable; “Scary Movie” and its endless sequels are wildly popular. (The first installment, made for under $20 million, took in more than $278 million worldwide.) “Airplane!,” the film that set the template, might’ve seemed like a fluke when it was released nearly 30 years ago, but after three decades of pop-culture parody, bad puns and smutty sex jokes, it’s time to acknowledge the spoof movie as a significant genre.

Its roots stretch back to the Marx Brothers, at least. But a forgotten classic most clearly points the way to today’s more topical, less story-driven spoofs: 1941’s “Hellzapoppin’.” An anarchic vehicle for the comedy duo of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, “Hellzapoppin’ ” sacrificed plot for a series of then-current sight gags, including appearances by “Citizen Kane’s” sled and the Frankenstein monster.


At the same time, Warner Bros. cartoons set a new standard for broad humor, frenetic pacing and zeitgeist swipes; Bugs Bunny frequently goofed around with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and other stars of the day. Warner Bros. director Frank Tashlin made the switch to features with frenzied gag-fests such as “The Girl Can’t Help It” in 1956. That film’s notorious set piece, with sex symbol Jayne Mansfield strutting past a milkman whose strategically placed bottle erupts in his hands, would be right at home in any modern-day spoof.

Mad about the mag

According to “Airplane!” creator Jim Abrahams, though, he and his writing partners -- brothers David and Jerry Zucker -- were inspired less by movies than by another phenomenon born in the 1950s.

“The big influence was Mad magazine,” says Abrahams, whose most recent work was the screenplay for “Scary Movie 4.” “They had a feature called ‘Scenes We’d Like to See,’ where they’d present a cliched movie scene, totally straight, until the last panel.” Mad’s trademark cluttered illustrations -- packed with visual jokes in the background -- clearly paved the way for “Airplane’s” barrage of sight gags. But most important, Mad parodies were not the affectionate satire of the 1940s. There was an acidity to the humor, a pronounced intention to deflate the self-serious and take down sacred cows.


“There’s a rebelliousness to parody movies,” says Sanford Panitch, president of New Regency -- the production company behind “Epic Movie” and “The Spartans.” “Especially teenagers respond to that. In ‘Epic,’ for example, the reverence for ‘Harry Potter’ was great to send up.”

The mold had been cast: irreverent jabs, topical references and anything-for-a-laugh gustiness. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks -- the two faces of post-1950s Jewish humor -- based spoofs around their own distinct personas. Arguably, Brooks more directly influenced the current crop with his cheerful vulgarity; for many years, his “Blazing Saddles” (1974) was the benchmark for sophomoric parody. But a new generation of wiseacres was on the rise -- one raised on television. This breed of short-attention span comedy was embodied by Kentucky Fried Theater, a Los Angeles performance troupe founded by Abrahams and the Zuckers.

“Kentucky Fried Theater was the YouTube of its day,” says Abrahams. “We used to set a recorder to tape off TV all night, because that’s when the stupidest commercials played. One night, we accidentally taped an old disaster movie, ‘Zero Hour.’ That was a fortunate break for our careers.” The 1957 drama told the tale of a routine flight that succumbs to food poisoning. Kentucky Fried Theater saw the scenario’s potential hilarity and bought the film rights in 1973. Six years later, filming began on “Airplane!”

Budgeted around $3 million, “Airplane!” went on to gross more than $80 million, which set in stone the greatest factor inthe spoof movie’s resiliency: cost-effectiveness. Panitch says, “All three of our spoof movies were made for very aggressive pricing -- and they were all profitable, domestic and internationally.”


Joel Gallen, director of 2001’s “Not Another Teen Movie,” notes that spoof movies do not require an A-list cast. Sony Chairwoman Amy Pascal, he says, “green-lit the concept without big-name talent, so you saved a lot of money there. ‘Teen Movie’ cost about $15 million to make and grossed $13 million in its opening weekend alone.”

Ready for takeoff

“Airplane!” proved the spoof movie could be a blockbuster, and it added rapid-fire pacing to the formula, along with plenty of corny one-liners (“Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”). Roger Ebert, writing in 1980, summed up the film’s appeal by stating, “Movie comedies today are so hung up on being contemporary, radical, outspoken and cynically satirical that they sometimes forget to be funny.” To think there was a time when that list of adjectives was the tired old norm for movie comedy. Nevertheless, for better and worse, the spoof floodgates had been opened.

The deluge included horror parodies (“Saturday the 14th,” “Silence of the Hams”), mob parodies (“Johnny Dangerously,” “Jane Austen’s Mafia!”), cop parodies (the “Naked Gun” series, “Loaded Weapon 1"), erotic thriller parodies (“Hexed,” “Fatal Instinct”), war parodies (“A Man Called Sarge,” “Hot Shots!,” “Hot Shots! Part Deux”), sci-fi parodies (“Spaceballs,” “The Creature Wasn’t Nice”), “ ‘hood movie” parodies (“High School High,” “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood”), indie film parodies (“Plump Fiction,” “My Big Fat Independent Movie”) -- and on and on and on.


When the Wayans Brothers’ “Scary Movie” crossed the all-important $100-million mark in 2000, the bar was raised. Spoof movies now had to be more outrageous and, most importantly, more current.

“If you’ve got a joke that’s a year old, it might as well be 10 years old,” explains Panitch. “Teenagers today are moving so fast.”

Abrahams agrees. “References today can’t be as old as they were then. But you’ve still got to write what makes you laugh.”

Regardless of “Meet the Spartans’ ” box-office take, the spoof movie’s prognosis is healthy. Scripts circulate around Hollywood: A parody of “Stomp the Yard"-style dance movies here, a James Bond/"Bourne Supremacy” mash-up there. David Zucker himself is in post-production on “Superhero!,” with the inevitable presence of “Airplane!” alum Leslie Nielsen.


“As long as there are hit movies that are revered culturally,” says Panitch, “there are targets to be hit.”

He adds with a sigh, “You have to be very clever to look like a dumb spoof.”