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The Search For More Money: The Sad, Slow Death of Spoof Movies

The Search For More Money: The Sad, Slow Death of Spoof Movies

Don’t laugh: I think some of the best movie comedies — nay, the best movies period — are spoofs. Without spoofs, we wouldn’t have “Blazing Saddles,” and “Airplane!” and “Spaceballs,” and “The Naked Gun” and the world would be a poorer, less amusing place. Recently though, “spoof” has become a four-letter word at the movie theater (so we should probably start calling them “spoo”s just for clarity’s sake). The days of “Blazing Saddles” and “Airplane!” are long over; these are the days of “Vampires Suck,” “A Haunted House,” and “The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It.” Once a proud tradition of American comedy, spoof movies are now a joke — and not even a good one.

These are also the days of “Scary Movie V,” which opened in theaters last weekend with an estimated $15.1 million gross at the box office. That’s the weakest debut in the franchise’s history by about $5 million — “Scary Movie 2” opened to $20.5 million in 2001; all of the other three films earned more than $40 million in their opening weekends. Still, with an estimated budget of $20 million (according to Box Office Mojo), that’s probably enough to ensure profitability and, one imagines, a “Scary Movie VI” at some point down the line. Scary, indeed.

The “Scary Movie” franchise provides a sort of bridge between the good old days and the brain-meltingly-horrible new days: David Zucker, one of the men who wrote and directed “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!” and “The Naked Gun” franchise has been one of the key stewards of the “Scary” series since the Wayans Brothers departed after “Part Deux.” Zucker directed “Scary Movie 3” and “4” and co-wrote and produced “Scary Movie V.” Zucker’s previous “Scary Movie”s were reasonably funny (and 2008’s “Superhero Movie,” which Zucker also produced, is surprisingly not-terrible) but the latest entry is a mess. It features flashes of the old Zucker Brothers magic — as when we learn what “Inception” would have looked like if the main characters had been dogs — but it also bears all the hallmarks of recent, bad spoofs: ultra-timely pop culture references instead of jokes; celebrity impersonators; a noticeable air of desperation hanging over the proceedings. 

A lot of film writers of my generation share my love of spoofs — we grew up on “Young Frankenstein” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (and, to a much lesser extent, “Spy Hard”) and we miss them. Each time a new, crummy, lowest common denominator parody gets dumped into theaters, these grownup fans write some variation of the piece I’m writing now: Why the Spoofs Got Bad. The reasons given are mostly the same: these movies aren’t funny, the people who make them (like “Date/Epic/Disaster Movie” blah-teurs Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer) aren’t funny, and the poor product is rapidly killing the genre. All true, but those theories diagnose the symptoms, not the causes.

The problem isn’t just the people who are making them; if it was, then “Scary Movie V,” from David Zucker and his co-writer Pat Proft — both comedy gods — would be hilarious instead of just occasionally amusing and frequently embarrassing. The real problem, I think, is the way they’re being made. “Scary Movie V” is cobbled together from spoofs of numerous recent horror and non-horror sources including “Black Swan,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Paranormal Activity 2,” and “The Cabin in the Woods.” But the spine of its narrative is taken from “Mama” — the recent supernatural horror flick about a spirit that rescues two young girls, raises them as feral beasts in the woods, and then follows them back to civilization after they are rescued and returned to their family. 

According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong), “Scary Movie V” was mostly shot last fall — but “Mama” didn’t open in theaters until January of this year. Zucker, Proft, and director Malcom D. Lee might have seen an advance screening of the movie — but how advanced? At best, they had maybe three or four months to watch “Mama,” digest it, leach out the material for jokes, write, shoot, and edit their movie. If the movie feels like a very rough first draft, that’s probably because it was.

The Zuckers and Mel Brooks were, in their prime, more than bad taste peddlers (although they were that as well, God bless ’em). They were also cultural historians with great senses of humor, and the subjects they targeted had years or even decades to ripen into cliched objects worthy of satire. “Airplane!” from 1980 was based on a decade of disaster movies — and its story was cribbed from a 1957 movie entitled “Zero Hour!” There was also a decade between “Star Wars” and “Spaceballs,” enabling Brooks to spoof both George Lucas’ modern classic and the phenomenon around it. Universal provided Brooks with almost half a century of monster movie tropes to plunder in “Young Frankenstein” — the Zuckers had even more cop movie tropes available when they created Det. Lt. Frank Drebin, first on the TV show “Police Squad!” and then in “The Naked Gun” movies. 

Great spoofs, in other words, can’t be produced overnight: they need perspective, hindsight, and time to marinate. But modern spoofs are, with very few exceptions, rush jobs designed to cash-in on fads rather than exploit well-worn stereotypes. “Scary Movie V” includes an entire sequence based on the new “Evil Dead” remake, which preceded “SMV” into theaters by just one week. The extended riff finds the movie’s heroine Jody (Ashley Tisdale) and her sidekick Kendra (Erica Ash) heading to The Cabin in the Woods to find the Book of Evil — and was clearly based entirely on stuff found in the “Evil Dead” trailer. The scene’s not a complete disaster, but it’s also completely forgettable. It’s what happens when you force people to make fun of a movie they haven’t even seen yet.

It would be a mistake, I think, to blame all of this on lazy or disinterested filmmakers. These hyper-timely spoofs are clearly motivated by Hollywood executives who have decided — probably correctly — that the main audience for spoofs are 13 year old boys who don’t know anything about film history and just want to be entertained with some off-color comedy and a few references to movies they’ve actually seen. Why bother being smart when the audience you’re aiming for just wants dumb?

That strategy also explains another dangerous trend in modern spoof movies: casts that are increasingly filled with Disney, MTV, and Nickelodeon castoffs. The classic spoofs were filled with great straight actors sending up their serious images — Nielsen, Robert Stack, George Kennedy — and great comedic actors who could sell anything — Gene Wilder, John Candy, Mel Brooks. Modern spoofs use teeny boppers trying to shed their wholesome family-friendly reputations; actors like “Superhero Movie”‘s Drake Bell (Nickelodeon’s “Drake & Josh”) and “Disaster Movie”‘s Vanessa Minnillo (of MTV’s “Total Request Live”). Before she headlined “Scary Movie V,” Tisdale was a pop star, an actress on several Disney Channel series, and a key member of the “High School Musical” franchise. Tisdale’s no Leslie Nielsen (or even Anna Faris, the previous and far more talented anchor of the “Scary Movie” franchise) but she’s got a built-in audience with the genre’s core demographic.

Studios keep cranking out these cheapie quickie zeitgeist-chasing spoofs, so they must be profitable. But creatively speaking, they’re a zero sum game. Even the timeliest spoof can’t compete with our second screen pop culture, where people raised on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “The Daily Show” essentially spoof bad movies and television shows the instant they premiere on Facebook and Twitter. In this environment, a spoof movie is always going to be late to the party — and the super-contemporary jokes (like “Mama” and “Evil Dead”) make the ones from a few years ago (like “Black Swan” or “The Help”) seem even more dated.

This model of hyper-timely spoofery affects more than just the comedy. Though people tend to look at parodies as derivative schlock, the best ones operate independently from their source material, with characters we like and care about and stories we invest in. Goofy as they are, you worry about the people on that doomed flight in “Airplane!” and you really hope Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) gets a handle on his drinking problem and figures out a way to make it work with Elaine (Julie Hagerty). You love Dr. Frankenstein (Wilder) and his mixed-up creation (Peter Boyle) in “Young Frankenstein,” and you root for Bart (Cleavon Little) and Jim (Wilder) and the citizens of Rock Ridge in “Blazing Saddles.” When Frank Drebin goes undercover at that baseball game in “The Naked Gun” I still get nervous he’s not going to save the Queen of England no matter how many times I’ve seen him butcher the National Anthem. We watch these movies once for the jokes — but we come back to them over and over again for the people.

That doesn’t — and basically can’t — happen with modern spoofs. Not when you’re throwing in jokes and entire sequences at the last minute to make your movie as relevant as possible. Not when the characters are purely there in service of the references and the fart jokes. Not when you value timeliness over timelessness. The characters in Brooks’ “Spaceballs” vowed to meet again someday in “Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money.” It never happened — but that ethos clearly has. The great spoofs elevated comedy to the status of criticism. Modern spoofs are just dumb exploitation.

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