Total Recall

Total Recall: History of the Spoof Movie, Part One

A fond look at the finest practitioners of cinematic satire.

by and | August 27, 2008 | Comments

Three spoof movies in one year! Is America fortunate or what? Following January’s

Meet the Spartans
and March’s

Superhero Movie
, the genre comes roaring back with

Disaster Movie
, cobbled together from trailers, Internet memes, and films dating as far back as December 2007. But the spoof genre runs a deeper cinematic legacy than current trends suggests, and in this week’s Total Recall we salute the filmmakers who paved the genre’s path and made it possible for Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer to find jobs.

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Abbot and Costello

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy


Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were certainly not cinema’s first spoofers, but their inspired silliness cast a long shadow over the movie parody subgenre. After conquering vaudeville and radio (their classic “Who’s on First?” routine remains a classic of the medium), Abbott and Costello brought their bewildered, bumbling shtick to Hollywood, where they were among the biggest comedy stars of the 1940s and early 1950s. Their forte was taking on a variety of genre pieces, from war films to Westerns, and injecting their wild and wooly personalities in a way that sent up movie conventions with a fond sense of humor. One of the team’s most successful outings was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein had Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. on board to spoof their iconic portrayals of Dracula and the Wolf Man, respectively. However, Lou and Bud also found themselves embroiled in misadventures with such iconic movie characters as the Invisible Man and Captain Kidd.



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Woody Allen

What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

Casino Royale


After Abbot and Costello, the spoof genre lay dormant without poster boys for decades. But come the swingin’ ’60s, Woody Allen brought it back in the biggest, broadest way possible. His 1965 “directorial” debut,
What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, is actually a re-dubbing of a ridiculous Japanese spy thriller called International Secret Police: Key of Keys. The new dialogue, written by Allen and a troupe of six other comedians, turns Key of Keys into an espionage story about a secret egg salad recipe.

Allen would re-enter the world of spy spoofs with 1967’s
Casino Royale
, a total comedic reworking of the James Bond story.
Following that, Allen made a minor final spoofing effort in
Play it Again, Sam
, a parody of
set in contemporary San Francisco. Afterwards, he came into his own as a writer/director/actor, though he did experiment with self-parody in a string of late 90s/early 2000s movies.


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Mel Brooks


Blazing Saddles (1974)


Silent Movie

High Anxiety

History of the World: Part 1



Hood: Men in Tights


Mel Brooks: the man who never met a genre he didn’t want to spoof. In 1974, he and Gene Wilder (the man who could make any line funnier by yelling it and looking hassled) developed one of America’s greatest comedies (coming right after another Brooks/Wilder spoof, Blazing Saddles): Young Frankenstein, an outrageous screwball spoof of gothic horror movies. 1987’s Spaceballs, Brooks’ send-up of the Star Wars saga, is a more hit-or-miss affair but has been bestowed cult classic status over the decades.

Brooks’s other targets include Hitchockian thrillers (High Anxiety), historical epics (History of the World, Part I), and silent movies (er, Silent Movie). After Robin Hood: Men in Tights came out to diminishing returns (joke-wise and box office-wise) in 1993, Brooks abandoned the genre and filmmaking in general, now managing The Producers mini-empire and all Springtime for Hitler marketing tie-ins therein.


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Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker


Fried Movie


Top Secret!

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!


Hot Shots!

The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear


Hot Shots!
Part Deux

The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult

Scary Movie 3

Scary Movie 4

For the David and Jerry Zucker and their friend Jim Abrahams, “How Silly Can You Get” wasn’t just a catchy tune sung by Elvis proxy Nick Rivers in Top Secret! It was a manifesto, a raison d’etre. These Milwaukee jokesters and pop-culture archivists first came to national prominence with 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie, which gleefully lampooned women-in-prison movies, martial arts flicks, and educational films. But it was Airplane! that set the template for future parodies to come, skewering everything from disaster movies to The Blue Lagoon to Saturday Night Fever, and featuring lines almost every fan of screen comedy knows by heart (“Oh, stewardess? I speak jive”; “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious. and don’t call me Shirley.”). They subsequently short-lived but much beloved cult TV series “Police Squad” (and the subsequent Naked Gun movies), a parody of hard-boiled cop shows, and Top Secret, which sent up spy flicks and Elvis Presley musicals. In addition, Abrahams scored with the Hot Shots! movies, which obliterated the clichés of mindless action flicks; David helmed the horror film parodies Scary Movie 3 and 4, And Jerry directed the multi-character chase comedy Rat Race, as well as non-spoof fare like Ghost. However, in spite of their deranged looniness, the ZAZ boys understand the power of the straight man; no matter how ludicrous their films may get, they get a ton of mileage out of the fact their cast members don’t seem to notice a thing.


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Mike Myers

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

Shrek (2001)

Powers in Goldmember


Mike Myers’ jokes are awash in pop-culture references, so it’s little surprise that the SNL star’s movie career would be awash in loving, winking joshes of the medium. Wayne’s World successfully sent up both the anything-goes vibe of public access television and the insane devotion of rock fans. However, it was the Austin Powers movies that took his brand of twisted satire to new heights. Playing both the anachronistically ribald title character and the nefarious Dr. Evil, Myers lampooned the inherent absurdity of the James Bond movies, throwing in a healthy dose of swingin’ 1960s cinema (Help!, Blow Up, Barbarella, and the original Casino Royale, itself a 007 spoof) for good measure. In the series’ third installment, Goldmember, the Blaxploitation/ hip-hop eras got the same treatment; such genre classics as Foxy Brown and SuperFly got shout-outs, and the movie features a rap video parody that’s practically worth the price of admission alone.

And with Myers’ recurring role in the Shrek series, the movies that opened the
floodgates for snark and irony in animated features, it shows his continuing
fascination with dissecting the standard.


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Trey Parker and Matt Stone

The Musical

Orgazmo (1998)

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

America: World Police

It seems that nothing is sacred to Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the wiseguy brains behind a number of successful parodies. Their flagship enterprise South Park is entering its 13th season, continuing its demented skewering of American culture, cinema, religion, video games, and anything else that enters the zeitgeist — usually with the help of a catchy tune. On the big screen, the pair have turned their jaded, cynical eyes toward virtually everything, including Disney animation and censorship (South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut), Westerns and slasher flicks (Cannibal! The Musical), superheroes and pornography (Orgazmo), and Michael Bay-style action movies (Team America: World Police).


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Steve Oedekerk

Kung Pow! Enter the Fist

The name Steve Oedekerk probably isn’t familiar to most. In fact, we bet he gets confused a lot with Bob Odenkirk. But in 1999, Oedekerk launched his Thumb series with Thumb Wars: The Phantom Cuticle, a TV special lampooning the original Star Wars trilogy and imminent release of The Phantom Menace. And, yes, if you couldn’t tell from the title, the entire production is done with dressed-up thumbs that have face superimposed on them. Oedekerk followed his amusing (if gross-looking) Phantom Cuticle with The Godthumb, Bat Thumb, Frakenthumb, The Blair Thumb, and Thumbtanic.

And taking a cue from Woody Allen, Oedekerk released Kung Pow: Enter the Fist in 2002, a recreation of a 1976 martial arts movie called Tiger & Crane Fists that inserts into the action Oedekerk and a lot of cows (an obsession he’d carry over into Barnyard). A sequel to Kung Pow has been long rumored.


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The Wayans Brothers

I’m Gonna
Git You Sucka

Scary Movie

Scary Movie 2

A new millennium, a new type of spoof. With Scary Movie 1 and 2, three Wayans brothers take the Zucker comedy style (random jokes threaded around a loose narrative) and repurpose it for modern audiences. In other words, forcibly shoving it into R-rated territory with filthy jokes and drug references. The first was a huge $150 million hit, rekindled interest in the genre, and launched Anna Faris’s career.

Jim Abrahams and David Zucker took over the series after the second Scary Movie, but by then the Wayans had already laid down the formula of “(Solid Object
x Velocity + Testicles) / Pop Culture
” that American spoof movies have followed since.


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Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer

Date Movie

Epic Movie

Meet the

The works of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer represent a critical nadir in the spoof genre — not to mention cinematic comedy in general. Their films string together pop cultural references at will, but — and this is crucial to a successful parody — without additional comment or subtext, so audiences are asked to simply laugh because there’s something on the screen they might recognize from other movies. After cutting their teeth as the screenwriters for such (vastly superior) films as Spy Hard and Scary Movie, the pair took over the helming duties for Date Movie, and the critical daggers were sharpened. If you add the combined Tomatometers for Date Movie an the next two films the pair directed and wrote — Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans — you get a combined 10 percent. In a blistering, hilarious review of Meet the Spartans, Slate‘s Josh Levin lambasted Friedberg and Seltzer with the following diatribe: “They are not filmmakers. They are evildoers, charlatans, symbols of Western civilization’s decline under the weight of too many pop culture references.” Will Disaster Movie break these guys’ losing streak? It’s too soon to say, but judging from the trailer, expect more of the same.


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Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost

Shaun of the

Hot Fuzz

It takes an outsider perspective for the spoof movie to work, and you can’t get more outsidery than a group of English comics lampooning American movies. Director Edgar Wright and regular actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost made waves with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, a loving send-up of Romero zombie films. And they followed that up with last year’s Hot Fuzz, a takedown of 80s and 90s action flicks, Point Break-references included. What separates Wright from nearly everyone else on this list is that he’s a filmmaker first, creating strong visuals, and storylines and characters whose backdrop just happens to involve bloodthirsty zombies and barrel explosions.

Though Wright and company are in high-demand these days, the three are committed to completing the spoof trilogy, which Wright indicates is likely to be sci-fi oriented.


Check out past editions of Total Recall in our column archives.