The art of the movie parody is one that’s mostly lost nowadays. The last one to hit theaters, Marlon Wayans’ Fifty Shades of Black, was not only crushed by the critics but also mostly ignores by the public, grossing only US$11 million in its whole run. Spoofs were once a staple in Hollywood, though, especially after the works of the famous trio David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, or ZAZ.
In its best, the movie parody makes fun of staples and tropes of American cinema, not necessarily a specific film. It may use the basic outline of one title, but its jokes are more aimed at the public’s perception of a determined genre, its stars or its clichés. ZAZ were masters at doing this, but as our list well represent, there are a few artists who have taken their lessons seriously and constructed spoofs that outlived the films and genres it spoofed.
10. Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
One might think that 2001 is a little late for a movie spoofing teen comedies/dramas/romances that pays homage to John Hughes’ films so heavily the school in which the characters study is named after the famed director of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. The thing is, we never really let go of the stock characters and stereotypes Hughes’ movies explored for dramatic potential. In 2001, our high school movies still divided its characters between jocks, popular girls (generally cheerleaders), weirdos, nerds, and so on.
Nowadays, we do that mostly for comedic purposes, as Everybody Hates Chris, Glee or Mean Girls can attest, but Not Another Teen Movie came with its raunchy jokes (a foreigner student that walked around the school naked, a very old reporter going undercover among the teens, etc.) just a few years removed from She’s All That (1999), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Never Been Kissed (1999), and the way it pokes fun at these movies is, very smartly, through tropes and clichés that would long outlive the movies themselves, now seen as little more than nostalgic curiosities for people that went through adolescence in that time.
9. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
The cult movie that spanned a Netflix miniseries further exploring the ridiculous age difference between the actors and the teens they are expected to portray on screen has become kind of a classic mostly for its cast, a milieu of comedy stars from right now that were absolutely not household names at the time.
Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Joe Lo Truglio and Bradley Cooper are all here (and came back for the miniseries, by the way), and are all predictably great, but Wet Hot American Summer real genius is its reproduction of the 80s teen summer camp movies, from the terrific soundtrack to all the characters’ subversive construction.
One could argue that Wet Hot American Summer’s seemingly timelessness comes from the fact that the movie is spoofing a staple American teenager experience as much as it is spoofing a niche of movies, and they would be probably right.
What stands out watching David Wain’s movie, though, is the fact that Wet Hot American Summer doesn’t limit itself to summer camp movies, making absurdist humor out of staple situations of adventure and sci-fi movies, and throwing in some jokes that just don’t depend on the previous knowledge of any movie. Gene’s love affair with its fridge and Beth’s desperate search for a telephone are laugh-out-loud funny by themselves.
8. The Naked Gun (1988)
One of a few ZAZ movies on our list, The Naked Gun is the movie adaptation of Police Squad!, a short-lived cop spoof TV show. Making the best out of Leslie Nielsen’s extraordinary talent for playing straight men that are inadvertently very funny, this one puts him as Frank Drebin, a highly incompetent detective drafter by his superior to protect Queen Elizabeth II in a visit to their hometown.
Ricardo Montalban plays the villain, who plans an assassination attempt at the queen, and Priscilla Presley graces the screen as Drebin’s love interest.
The Naked Gun is one of the most brilliant efforts from Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, overflowing with physical gags and so many jokes you can’t possibly catch them all in a first viewing. And it’s not that the cop procedural died before The Naked Gun left the collective movie-going unconscious, it’s that the clichés ZAZ’s movie parodies are, sadly, more current than ever.
Detectives in procedurals still make more damage than they can ever try do repair, and the absurd plot of the movie is not so far removed from the stories writer have to pull off after a certain number of seasons drains the original story’s premise.
7. Murder by Death (1976)
The legendary Neil Simon, of The Odd Couple and The Goodbye Girl fame, scripted this wickedly funny, and yet criminally underappreciated, take on Agatha Christie’s country house mysteries. In the plot, eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote in his one and only acting gig) calls upon five famous detectives to solve a murder that will occur at midnight, offering a million dollars as the reward.
The outstanding cast includes Eileen Brennan, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers and Maggie Smith, so there’s no way this film would be less than hilarious.
Simon goes straight for the silliest gags he can think of, subverting the procedural of Christie’s familiar murder mysteries, and making a comedy that still works today, 40 years after its release, and not only because the queen of mystery’s work has aged well, but because of the sheer force of the identification its tropes and templates have with any audience of any time. If you never saw Murder by Death, like most people, you’re most definitely missing out on a film that should, by all means, be a cult classic.
6. Top Secret! (1984)
ZAZ’s terrific take on both Elvis Presley-led musicals and Cold War era spy movies was once declared by master parodist Weird Al Yankovic as his favorite movie of all time, so that’s saying something.
The genius idea here, and the one that generates most of the jokes, is the combination of these two kinds of movies, creating absurd situations that would be funny at any given decade, like the moment in which the troops stop dead on their tracks in the middle of a battle to give a tap dance performance in a musical number.
There’s no shortage of stand-alone sight gags either, just like Police Squad and Airplane, two other ZAZ movies on our list. Another crucial element here is Val Kilmer’s performance as rock and roll singer Nick Rivers, who falls in love while playing a gig in East Germany and gets involved with the French resistance, including the tough French commander called Chocolate Mousse. Kilmer kills it on the musical sequences, and faces every joke the script throws at him or makes at his expense with bravado and great timing.