From ‘Airplane!’ to Friedberg and Seltzer: the downfall of the parody movie

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Once upon a time, the parody movie was a regular source of comedic greatness, with some of the genre’s leading lights regularly poking fun at cinema, music, and pop culture to phenomenal effect. Unfortunately, it failed to move with the times, becoming such a shadow of its former self that the very best that could be reasonably expected today is rank mediocrity.

There’s an art to the spoof, one that straddles the fine line between leaning into well-known names, faces, and events for the sake of it in favour of lovingly lampooning anyone and everything in sight. The 1970s and the 1980s saw the medium at its peak, and there were plenty of gems to be found in the 1990s before the turn of the millennium saw a startling nosedive in quality.

Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were both released in 1974 to take shots at westerns and horror, establishing Mel Brooks as a master of the bespoke art form. From there, Jim Abrahams and siblings David and Jerry Zucker picked up the mantle to collaborate on three of the finest parody flicks that have ever been made.

Airplane! took its cues from the disaster boom of the 1970s to craft a classic. Top Secret! ribbed the spy genre for all that it was worth, while The Naked Gun used the short-lived TV series Police Squad! to firmly establish Leslie Nielsen as a comedy great by satirising the procedural. Before and after that, though, a litany of memorable titles played a significant part in making the parody such a frequent source of side-splitting hilarity.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spaceballs, This Is Spinal Tap, Hot Shots! and its sequel Part Deux, Mars Attacks!, Austin Powers, and Galaxy Quest – as well as the aforementioned Brooks and ZAZ films – were all released with a period of 23 years, and the fact every single one of them is a beloved favourite that skewers everything from Arthurian legend and sci-fi to the music industry and espionage displays the creative fertility on show. Over the following 23 years, though, the parody became a shadow of its former self.

There have been several bright spots along the way, in fairness, with Team America: World Police blasting Michael Bay, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz placing zombies and buddy cop capers in the firing line, Black Dynamite tickling blaxploitation, and What We Do in the Shadows pulling off the double-whammy of painting both the mockumentary and vampires in a brand new and deliriously offbeat light.

Those are largely the exceptions that prove the rule, and the decline of the parody can largely be attributed to two writers in particular. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer co-wrote Scary Movie – which would recoup its budget 15 times over at the box office – and then proceed to run the entire operation into the ground.

The irony is that they didn’t pen any of the additional entries in the Scary Movie saga but decided to strike out on their own and substitute wit and smarts for a nauseating cavalcade of cameos and pop culture references that were outdated by the time their films had even reached cinemas.

Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, The Starving Games, Best Night Ever, and Superfast! are all irredeemably awful works of cinema that don’t even raise so much as a light guffaw. Thanks largely to their efforts, the parody has been rendered virtually obsolete as mainstream comedy movies focus their attention elsewhere. What was once a proud tradition of unforgettable gems has been left largely abandoned, a galling downfall considering what came before.

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