Monday, March 10, 2014

Whatever Happened to the Spoof?

The wise man says: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Today, friends, I am saddened to announce the death of one of my favorite kinds of movie: The Spoof.

Perhaps, one day, it will rise and live again like Peter Boyle’s monster, but, for now, allow me to eulogize this lost form of filmmaking. I will speak not of what it has become, a meaningless string of pop culture references, bodily fluid jokes and cameos by celebrities who will do anything to get their names in print, but rather, for what it was: a delicate balancing act of homage, roast and celebration, for the best spoofs were only slightly removed from their serious precursors.

The spoof movie is nearly as old as the movies themselves. Silent film comedians such as Ben Turpin, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton all did spoofs. Sometimes they were marketed as “burlesques,” but that which we call a spoof by any other name would be as silly.

The high-water mark of spoofs came in the seventies and eighties, with such classics as Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, and The Naked Gun. The spoof started showing signs of wear by the nineties, with such lackluster pictures as Wrongfully Accused, Spy Hard and the increasingly awful Scary Movie franchise. Today, nearly a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, the spoof as we know it is dead. It has fallen on hard times, a shell of its former glorious self, it now parades across the screen like a half-drunken idiot, only to realize that it is embarrassing itself, only to slink off the stage and hide. Such unfunny (which is the most polite way I can describe these pictures) movies like Meet the Spartans, Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie and Not Another Teen Movie.

But, I came today to praise spoofs, not to bury them. Perhaps, by remembering their former greatness, we can resurrect the genre, bring the funny back to the forefront.

Let us begin the resurrection by examining the two greatest spoofs ever made: Airplane! and Young Frankenstein.

First, Airplane!.

I believe a good friend of my summed it up best by saying this about it: “There’s nothing wrong with that movie.” Once upon a time, another friend of mine said that there was no such thing as a perfect movie, and I disagreed with him. Allow me to use Airplane! as Exhibit A.

First, the jokes: While some of the jokes are topical, (you don’t see Hare Krishnas around anymore, let alone at the locked-down facility that is the modern airport), they are not trendy. They still, over thirty years late, work. Whether it’s puns (the infamous “Don’t call me Shirley”), visual gags (shit literally hits the fan in one scene), movie references (Jaws, Saturday Night Fever, From Here to Eternity), or cameos (Barbara Billingsly, Ethel Merman), every joke in Airplane! hits its mark dead-on. Now, let me talk briefly about the last two points in that previous sentence, movie references and cameos, as it may seem contradictory to praise them in one film while damning them in another. The movie references all referenced movies that were not only years, sometimes decades old by the time Airplane! was released, but, the reference was a joke, not just a reference. Take a look at Disaster Movie (or better yet, don’t). In that movie, there is a scene in which a tornado is coming down the road and a parade of current movie characters all come out, one at a time to face down the storm, only to die stupidly. Hellboy, Batman, et all, come out, say one line and are killed off. There’s no point to the reference, it’s just there to be there. Compare that to the scene in Airplane! when Ted and Elaine are on the beach, recreating the famous Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr scene in From Here to Eternity. Do you know what’s in that scene, under the reference? Exposition. That’s right, the scene is not only a reference, it also furthers the plot of the film. (And furthering the plot of the film should be the point of any scene.) Now for the second point, the cameos. Simply put, the cameos work because the joke doesn’t necessarily depend on us knowing who those people are. When I saw Airplane! for the first time, I had no idea who Barbara Billingsly was, but I got the joke of an old white woman who could “speak jive.” It was still funny. Years later, when I found out who she was, it became funnier. The viewer is left with two choices, their either get the joke, or they really get the joke. (The same principal applies to the guy stuck in the taxi cab.)

Second: the cast. Airplane! is populated with character actors who never did comedy before. Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielson, Peter Graves; none of the actors were known for their comedic sensibilities. The reason that the cast works so well is because everyone is playing is straight. The actors all deliver their lines as if they really mean what they’re saying, not as if they’re trying to be silly. To put it in perspective, imagine a film like this being made today with a cast like Ralph Fiennes, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbender and Daniel Day-Lewis. Serious actors saying very silly things.

Third: Production. This might be the point where I lose a lot of you. Airplane! does not have great production value or special effects. The string on the heart jumping around on the doctor’s desk at the Mayo Clinic is clearly visible, as is the square of putty on the back of the guy who gets stabbed in the bar. However, in spite of this, perhaps even because of this, it makes the gag funnier. The filmmakers don’t care if you see the strings, or the model work, because they aren’t there to create a world you can totally immerse yourself in like Avatar, they are there to tell jokes, to entertain, to make what is the cinematic equivalent of a MAD Magazine comic. My theory is this: if a film accomplishes what it set out to do, then it is a success. In other words, if a comedy makes you laugh, if a tearjerker makes you cry, if a horror film scares you, then it is a success.

Now for part two.

Young Frankenstein is a spoof masterpiece as it takes the source material and tilts it ever so slightly, keeping its focus solely on the Universal Frankenstein films of the 1930’s. It doesn’t spoof Edison, or Hammer or anyone else’s Frankenstein, it takes careful aim and fires. The plot of Young Frankenstein is closest to that of Son of Frankenstein, which starred Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. However, it does take elements from both the original Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein as well. It does its job so well, in fact, that it is difficult for a modern audience to watch the originals and not think of the spoofs. I was at a double feature of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein last year, and during the scene in Bride with the old blind man, you could hear snickers throughout the audience and people whispering, “Where are you going? I was gonna make espresso.” In fact, it’s hard to take Lionel Atwill seriously after you’ve seen Kenneth Mars.

What’s interesting, is that while Airplane! used a cast of serious character actors to help sell the jokes, Young Frankenstein  does the opposite, and casts comedians. Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle and Cloris Leachman and all wonderfully gifted comic actors (even if Leachman does have an Oscar for a dramatic role and Peter Boyle was in both Taxi Driver and Monster’s Ball, neither of which were what I’d call funny) who are at the top of their game. Feldman steals every scene that he’s in, insisting on calling Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “Frahnk-in-steen”) Froderick and breaking the fourth wall on more than one occasion.

As silly as the film is (and it is that), it works because we genuinely care about the characters. The scene in which the monster is chained up in the jail (after singing “Puttin’ On The Ritz”), is quite moving, and I remember feeling true pathos for the character, just as I did when Karloff played him. Again, this works because director Mel Brooks and co-writer Gene Wilder love the original films and decided to make one, just…funny.

I showed Young Frankenstein to my son (as he’s seen all the Universal films) and he thought it was hilarious, even if he didn’t get the jokes about the monster’s enormous “schwanzstucker.” What did he find funny? Inspector Kemp’s wooden arm, the horse’s whinnying every time someone said, “Frau Blucher,” the old blind man pouring soup in the monster’s lap, “Werewolf?” “There wolf. There castle.” and so much more.

A spoof is a balancing act. And perhaps, until a filmmaker comes along who can understand, appreciate and replicate that balancing act, it’s time to put this genre to bed. I am certain that it won’t stay down for long. I know that there are others out there, like me, who long for the days of the funny spoof, and I encourage those with the resources and the drive to make it happen. Please, for our sake.

Surely I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I don’t think I am.

And don’t call me Shirley.  

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