Quirky, indie girl meets a corporate guy. They fall in love, break up, and get back together. This is the premise for the Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd film They Came Together — but the basic narrative can be found in dozens of romantic comedies. The parody film opens in theaters this weekend. It just so happens that this weekend also marks the birthday of comedy legend and renowned producer Mel Brooks, whose works combine pop culture parody, vaudevillian gags, and frenetic farce. While masters of the parody film like Brooks found a formula for success, the genre has its share of stinkers. Here are ten big-screen parodies that are actually worth your time.
Gene Wilder plays the wild-haired descendant of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Spoofing classic horror tropes with affection (and less cynicism than in Brooks’ The Producers), the 1974 parody shows the director at his peak. Belly laughs and wickedly funny women aside (the film gives equal time to stars Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, and Teri Garr — a rarity for the period and genre), Young Frankenstein delightfully recreated the visual style of old monster movies, using outmoded camera tricks, black-and-white photography, and the original laboratory equipment from the Universal Frankenstein films.
An erotic retelling of Universal’s Flash Gordon film serials from the 1930s, 1974’s Flesh Gordon brought softcore style to the cliffhanger tales of yore. A loving send-up of sci-fi genre conventions that uses old-fashioned visual effects and oodles of camp, where else can you find a film that contains Penisauruses, sex rays, and characters named Dr. Flexi Jerkoff and Emperor Wang the Perverted?
Board game adaptations seem to be Hollywood’s last roll of the dice, but Jonathan Lynn’s Clue hopped on that bandwagon back in 1985. Modeled after the popular murder mystery game of the same name and the 1976 movie Murder by Death (also a parody of the genre), Clue’s stellar cast of comedy vets (Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Lesley Ann Warren to name a few) captured the spirit of locked room mysteries and pulp anxiety with character-driven hilarity.
Gremlins director Joe Dante has mastered the art of effortlessly combining terror and laughter. His killer fish flick Piranha, released under “B-movie King” Roger Corman’s production banner in 1978, piggybacked the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (like many movies did in the wake of cinema’s first blockbuster). However, the film puts a humorous spin on the aquatic narrative with a touch of dark political satire (involving covert military experiments), tons of gore, and fun performances (hello, Barbara Steele, playing a nefarious doctor). Look for the Jaws videogame reference during the film’s opening scene.
The movie that helped put Leslie Nielsen on the map as a deadpan genius, Airplane! — featuring an ex-pilot who is afraid to fly (natch) — doesn’t put up pretenses. As Roger Ebert wrote in his 1980 review of the movie:
“Airplane!” is a comedy in the great tradition of high school skits, the Sid Caesar TV show, Mad magazine, and the dog-eared screenplays people’s nephews write in lieu of earning their college diplomas. It is sophomoric, obvious, predictable, corny, and quite often very funny. And the reason it’s funny is frequently because it’s sophomoric, predictable, corny, etc.
A blueprint for contemporary comic parodies, Airplane!‘s stellar timing, one-liners, and physical comedy hysterics still deliver.
Taking its title (and loose inspiration) from Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) — full of ‘60s-era misinformation that has to be read to be believed — Woody Allen’s 1972 adaptation takes the book’s pop psychology to (further) absurd heights. Certainly not his best, but perhaps one of his funniest, Allen’s film imagines what sperm might say (“I’m not getting shot out of that thing. What if he’s masturbating? I’m liable to end up on the ceiling.”) and more.
Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in this comical denouncement of political oppression, satirizing the dictatorship of world leaders like Benito Mussolini, and most obviously, Adolf Hitler. The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first real talkie, and it became his most commercially successful film. He later regretted spoofing the tyrannical regime after learning about the devastating acts taking place in Nazi Germany: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
Visit any Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones comments thread on the Internet, and you’ll see fans of the Monty Python troupesmen duking it out over two movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian. Full of religious satire that truly pissed people off (both films were banned and got knocked around in a ratings and censorship war), the comedy group’s puerile (“I fart in your general direction!”) brand of subversive humor continues to provoke the ire of conservatives.
There may be better James Bond spoofs out there (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio from The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius to name a few), but those other zany spy parodies don’t star Vincent Price as a mad scientist, robot babes, Beach Party film icons Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, featuring a title song by The Supremes, with writing by Three Stooges scribe Elwood Ullman.
Satirical swashbuckler The Princess Bride celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. A cult classic that manages to blend fantasy, romantic tropes with snappy dialogue and whimsical antics without sneering sarcasm, Rob Reiner’s 1987 film remains as enchanted as ever. As one of the film’s taglines puts it: “It’s as real as the feelings you feel.”