Best film parodies
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I recently watched The Shining for the first time, and was amazed at how many parts I recognized from the Simpsons parody “The Shinning,” from the ghost in the bar to chief Wiggum on the radio in the police station. So I was wondering, what is the best/greatest parody of a film you have ever seen? —Thomas
I hope this list doesn’t end up entirely Simpsons-centric, especially since Simpsons movie parodies have gotten formulaic over the years, even in the once-hilarious annual Treehouse Of Horror episodes. (Too bad the “Clown Without Pity” segment from “Treehouse Of Horror III” is parodying Twilight Zone rather than a film, or I’d be all over it. The Frogurt, after all, is also cursed.) That said, one of my all-time favorite Simpsons episodes is also a parody of one of the most celebrated films of all time. Maybe the “Rosebud” episode had its biggest cultural and lingual impact when Apu sells a bag of ice with a rotting teddy-bear head visible inside it: “Oh, a head-bag! Those are full of… heady goodness!” But while there are plenty of random hilarious moments in the show (“Have The Rolling Stones killed!”), it gets extra points for its specific swipes at Citizen Kane, like when young Montgomery Burns discards his family and his childhood life of poverty without a single sentimental glance back. (“Let’s roll!”) Or the weird-ass Planet Of The Apes ending, with robo-Burns and his devolved Homer-ape-slaves finding his teddy bear Bobo again in 1 million A.D. What the hell?
The Godfather has been parodied a gazillion times, which is what it gets for being so eminently parodyable. But my favorite spoof of the mafia masterpiece—or of any film, really—is SCTV’s “The Godfather,” a 1981 episode devoted to sending up the Coppola original. Not only does it sport a stellar performance from Joe Flaherty as the titular crime boss, it’s a mash-up of The Godfather and The Andy Griffith Show, years before mash-ups were a thing. Eugene Levy plays Andy Griffith’s Floyd the barber, only here, the character’s mincing eccentricity is spun to a sinister extreme: “Opie… He used to be such a nice boy,” lisps Levy, who then petitions Flaherty to “break Opie’s arm, the way he broke my barber pole.” That superimposition of bloodthirsty vengeance and squeaky-clean Americana—not to mention Flaherty’s response: “I may ask a favor of you… perhaps a haircut or a trim, or perhaps to lay down your life for me”—still busts my gut all over the place. (It doesn’t hurt that one of my favorite bands of the ’90s, the mighty Don Caballero, took its name from Flaherty’s character.)
Are we allowed to double up on SCTV? Because I’m about to. That show is especially beloved to me, as a Canadian and lover of Canadian content, for its spot on skewering of Canadian social-realist films. Its parody of the 1971 Love Story-modeled hockey drama Face/Off comes to mind. But even better is its sendup of 1970’s Goin’ Down The Road. For anyone not familiar with the fineries of Canada’s cinematic canon, Goin’ Down The Road is a neo-realist drama about two East Coast good ol’ boys who trek to Toronto to seize the economic prosperity, only to end up destitute and depressed. SCTV’s take, “Garth And Gord And Fiona And Alice,” treats the Maritimers as overeducated rubes in search of “doctorin’ and lawyerin’” jobs in the Big City. When the finally arrive in Toronto, the two men (John Candy and Joe Flaherty) marvel at buildings with windows and balconies, before getting sucked in by the comically seedy allure of Toronto’s main thoroughfare, Yonge Street. You kind of have to have seen the movie to get it, but it really is aces, and a great example of SCTV’s tender lampooning of Canadian culture.
This is a question dear to my heart, since parody—as practiced in the pages of Mad and on Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and The Carol Burnett Show—was really my introduction to the art of criticism. I was a real sweetheart as a little kid, and though I saw plenty of bad movies on TV, I used to look at incoherent storytelling, indecipherably bad lighting, flatline pacing, and incompetent acting, and just assume something was going on that I wasn’t yet smart enough to appreciate. (If I’d stayed on that track and gotten to the point where I mistook these qualities for daring experimentation and challenging artistry, I might be reviewing movies for The New York Times now.) By recognizing absurdity as absurdity and calling it out, these folks helped wise me up. But it was listening to a comedian who died before I was born goof on the movies of his childhood that really opened my eyes to a few things: that satire can be a wise guy’s nostalgia; that if you just hang in and see enough movies, you can fill your brain with enough clichés and stereotyped actors to start your own studio in your head; and that certain people can create a full movie experience with just their mouths. Lenny Bruce’s “Father Flotsky’s Triumph” may be a little dated now—some people will find the screaming jailhouse queen who serves as deus ex machina as gross a stereotype as the shuffling-darky stereotype Bruce makes fun of earlier in the bit—but as an update on Brute Force and Each Dawn I Die, I’ll still take it over Oz.
It feels too easy to go with a Mel Brooks film for this one, so I’m going to go with one by his longtime cohort Carl Reiner. I didn’t know the first thing about film noir when I went to see Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in the theater—in fact, probably the only thing I knew about the film at all was that it starred Steve Martin, who at the time I probably only cared about because of his work with the Muppets on their show and in their first movie—but that didn’t stop me from enjoying gags like Martin’s well-intentioned readjustment of Rachel Ward’s breasts, or lines like, “I hadn’t seen a body put together like that since I’d solved The Case Of The Murdered Girl With The Big Tits.” (Hey, what do you want from me? I was 12. Breasts were just becoming en vogue with the girls in my class.) But while I was aware that the film was borrowing scenes from old movies, it would be years until I actually saw any of those films, and once I did, I realized how much fun Reiner, Martin, and their co-screenwriter George Gipe—who, for the record, was also in the mix for the Reiner/Martin follow-up, The Man With Two Brains—were having with the stars and tropes of film noir. Thanks to the film’s Wikipedia page, I’ve been able to find out precisely which clips were borrowed from which films and enjoy their merits as well. I’m curious how many others can claim that Steve Martin was directly responsible for introducing them to The Killers, Dark Passage, and The Big Sleep. I can’t imagine I’m the only one.
I grew up on Mad, “Weird Al,” The Simpsons, and the films of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, but for some reason, when I think about top-notch cinematic spoofery, the film that immediately springs to mind is Michael Jai White and Scott Summers’ mind-blowingly awesome blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite. The key to any great parody is cultural specificity, and Black Dynamite absolutely nails the eminently spoofable fixtures of blaxploitation, from its hilariously hyperbolic conception of rugged masculinity to the wandering boom microphone that habitually wanders into the frame and nearly knocks over half the cast. Black Dynamite gets the details, look, and feel of the era and subgenre it’s spoofing so right that it’s able to seamlessly edit real stock footage from actual blaxploitation movies into its narrative. Michael Jai White is a deadpan delight as the title badass: He plays it entirely straight, which makes his performance all the more hilarious. Best of all, Black Dynamite is coming to Chicago’s amazing Music Box as the latest installment of Scott Tobias’ remarkable New Cult Canon series. If you haven’t seen it and live somewhere in the Midwest, you honestly have no excuse not to be there.
Part of what made fall in love with Mr. Show was its specificity, a quality much in evidence in Bare Ambition, a film by director Famous Mortimer. Presented by the SMC (the Seventies Movie Channel), Bare Ambition doesn’t parody anything specifically, but it gets all the beats of we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place small-town melodrama, all based around the “then slightly popular fad” of streaking. It’s every movie about a kid with a dream whose parents don’t believe in him, crossed with every movie put into production to cash in on a passing craze. (It also pays homage to a lost time when there was still a theatrical market for low-budget films that could attempt to cash in on passing crazes, and it captures a bit of why we’re poorer for its loss.) If you like it, stick around for its ill-conceived science-fiction sequel (“shot over the course of the following weekend”).
I love Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy with a fierceness that at times alarms my wife. But I am not blind to the fact that its intense seriousness leaves it ripe for the picking when it comes to parody. The Sarah Michelle Gellar/Jack Black-hosted 2002 MTV Movie Awards did a fantastic job inserting the pair into the council of Elrond, for example. But my favorite LOTR parody has to be South Park’s sixth-season episode “The Return Of The Fellowship Of The Ring Of The Two Towers,” a pitch-perfect episode that accomplishes the same magical feat as the film Galaxy Quest: It simultaneously sends up and honors nerd fandom. Sure, South Park substitutes Butters for Gollum and an adult film for the One Ring, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone manage to write a beat-for-beat re-enactment of the trilogy while keeping things perfectly calibrated with the show’s twisted sensibility. Of all the LOTR parodies, this one is my precious.
Before Airplane! and Police Squad!, Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker (with help from John Landis) gave us The Kentucky Fried Movie, and it contained one of the earliest kung-fu-movie parodies—“A Fistful Of Yen.” The segments were interspersed between other sketches and “coming attractions” such as “Catholic School Girls In Trouble.” This one was pretty much a direct rip-off of Enter The Dragon, with better dubbing (because there wasn’t any). The parody was full of the quick one-off jokes that would be a ZAZ signature for years to come. One of the best throwaway jokes was when the lisping hero Loo infiltrates the headquarters of the evil Dr. Klahn and trips an alarm, we seem him bolt out of Klahn’s office, ready for battle. That’s when we see that the alarm is nothing more than a guy in a jogging suit and a hat with a spinning light going “haap haap haap” into a megaphone. I think I spit out my beer when I saw it for the first time when I was in college.
Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is such a terrific movie that calling it a parody almost seems too limiting. To be sure, the movie takes on the Tony Scott/Michael Bay action style with a relish bordering on obsession, but part of the reason it’s such a joy to watch is that every joke made at the expense of frenetic editing, ultra-slick violence, and absurdly overwrought machismo is told sincerely and lovingly. The best example of this is in one of the film’s major characters, the bumbling police officer/side-kick played by Nick Frost. Frost spends most of the first half of the movie lambasting Simon Pegg (who plays the straight-edge, by-the-book bad-ass hero) with an endless series of questions designed to lampoon the expectations created for cop thrillers by stuff like Point Break, Die Hard, and Bad Boys II. Pegg, initially reluctant to play along, is gradually won over by his friend’s enthusiasm and loyalty; and while many of Hot Fuzz’s best gags come from contrasting Frost’s 12-year-old boy take on crimebusting with hard (and boring) reality, it all builds to a glorious climax which simultaneously embraces the excess of the Scott/Bay model while still finding a way to make it more palatable to people who don’t like watching faceless baddies being blown to bits. (The secret? Non-lethal assault.) My favorite parodies are the ones that point out the absurdity of their targets with love rather than contempt, and as someone who’s never been a huge fan of Scott or Bay, I still managed to get a huge kick out of how Wright (along with an immensely talented cast) managed to reveal the beating pre-adolescent glee which lies at the heart of so much empty noise. It’s a goof that manages to mock while still being a completely satisfying, exhilarating movie in its own right. That’s hard to beat.
As with Zack, the word “parody” trips me up, since any worthwhile comment on an existing work transcends mere mimicry. Starship Troopers has parodic elements, but it’s more a satire on incipient fascism than an attack on any specific predecessor. So let me pick something that makes no pretension to art: the repurposing of a scene from the Hitler’s bunker thriller Downfall to address an apparently endless series of minor complaints. The obvious joke comes from the juxtaposition of the apoplectic rage of one of the 20th century’s greatest monsters with, say, the inconvenience of a Twitter outage or the difficulty of procuring Kraftwerk tickets; eventually, Bruno Ganz’s Führer even weighed in against the spread of copycat videos. But I like to think there’s a subtle, perhaps unintentional undertone to the Downfall videos that acts as a critique of the original movie, which inadvertently lionizes Hitler by making him the hero of a tragic biopic. That’s something really worth ranting about.