Last month, someone I work with posed the question: what was everyone’s favorite spoof film. I heard all the responses and arguments for and against, weighed my own tastes and felt that this question warranted some real work to be put in. There were some classic names being tossed out, along with some more recent films, an homage or two, not really the same as a spoof, but coming up with my favorite was not that easy. So, I figured I better put my nose to the grindstone and come up with, what I believe at least to be, the top ten spoof films of all time.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines spoof as an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. These types of films have been around for years; it is a natural development in the life of any film genre. Perhaps the earliest spoof was the 1922 silent film, Mud and Sand, starring comedy legend Stan Laurel, of Laurel & Hardy fame, in a parody of the film, Blood and Sand. In a direct parody of Rudolph Valentino, Laurel stars as Rhubarb Vaseline.
Genre conventions have evolved from those earliest days and just about every type of film genre has been spoofed, parodied, sent-up, made fun of, and directly ridiculed. The most recent being the long list of parodies by the writing-directing team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer: Date Move, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Starving Games, Meet the Spartans, and the Scary Movie franchise. You won’t find any of those films on this list, I’m sorry, although, Scary Movie and Scary Movie 2 were pretty good (probably because of the involvement of Keenan Ivory Wayans). Those two films would’ve most likely been on my top twenty list; otherwise, no Friedberg-Seltzer. I find those films to really just be pandering to the lowest common denominator. Don’t get me wrong, those films are profitable and as a viewer you’ll probably get a few chuckles but I can’t see myself putting them on the shelf next to the works of Mel Brooks. That’s just me and if I was fifteen years younger that would probably be reversed.
Regardless, I set myself on my task, pouring through a quite extensive list I compiled of just about every spoof film I could track down, and there were tons of them. I was able to quickly narrow the list down to about thirty. That list contained the works of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ZAZ (David Zucker-Jim Abrahams-Jerry Zucker, for the uninitiated) and the aforementioned Mel Brooks, along with quite a few other hilarious filmmakers. After much soul-searching, Netflix marathons and binge-DVD watching, I was able to further narrow my list to the ten films that lay before you.
You might not agree with me but I’ll make my case anyway. Here is my list of the top ten spoof films of all time:
#10 I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)
Yes, I said it! You probably don’t remember this film, do you? I do! You should go back and watch it on DVD, you won’t be disappointed. Originally an idea by Richard Pryor, actor/comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans gained permission from Pryor and ran with it. This film parodies the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s; films that I love by the way, but can still find the humor in. It appears I wasn’t alone in this: Wayans was able to get Blaxploitation icons Jim Brown (Black Gun 1972), Isaac Hayes (Truck Turner 1974), Antonio Fargas (Foxy Brown 1974), and Bernie Casey (Cleopatra Jones 1973), to all appear as parodies of characters they had previously portrayed. The joke is even made when Jim Brown’s Slammer asks Wayans’ Jack Spade, “What makes you think you can be a Black hero?", Spade responds, "I'm an ex-football player." The joke being of course that many of the Blaxploitation action heroes were indeed former football players, including Bernie Casey (San Francisco 49ers, 1961-1968) and Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns, 1957-1965).
This film stars Keenan Ivory Wayans as Jack Spade who returns home to find his brother, Junebug, having died from a case of OG (Over-Gold), the wearing of too many gold chains. Jack then seeks revenge for his brother’s death by going after the man responsible for flooding the streets with all the gold jewelry that is killing the urban youth, Mr. Big (John Vernon). To do so, Slade enlists the help of his childhood hero, John Slade (Bernie Casey), and his team of Black heroes, Hammer (Isaac Hayes), Slammer (Jim Brown), Flyguy (Antonio Fargas) and Kung Fu Joe (Steve James). Together they take the fight to Mr. Big.
The tropes poked fun at include shoot-outs where the guns never run out of bullets, obvious use of stunt doubles, the lock-and-loaded montage (complete with tons of metallic clicking sounds), hero theme music, and the big baddie is a White guy, aptly named “Mr. Big.”
There are many great lines from the film, most of which I can’t repeat here due to the profanity, but trust me, it’s hilarious! If you’re a Wayans’ fan, or a Blaxploitation fan, or just a fan of comedic films, do yourself a favor and get this film. It is definitely worth it!
#9 Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
I’m still waiting for the triumphant return of Mike Myers. I always enjoyed his sense of humor and even found the funny in the poorly received Love Guru (2008). He hasn’t really done any live-action work since, and pretty much capitalized on his animated success with the Shrek franchise. However, back in the day, before Shrek, there was Austin Powers. Mike Myers’ parody of the spy film was solid and poked fun at many mainstays of the famous James Bond series.
Some of the gags parodied scenes and characters from Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967) and the first Bond spoof itself, Casino Royale (1967). What’s funnier is Myers’ ability to portray both the film’s hero as well its villain. Always a challenge for any actor, Myers was able to pull it off and create two unforgettable characters in Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. Sure, the sequels beat the same old gags into the ground, but the first film was something fresh and strong and gave us a ton of quotable lines for years to come. Yeah, baby!
#8 This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This American rock music mockumentary was the creation of director Rob Reiner and the comedic writing geniuses Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. I’m not sure if this was the first instance of the mockumentary, but it is definitely the first one most people remember.
This new classic follows the fictional British heavy metal band, Spinal Tap, and chronicles their outlandish personal behavior and rock posturing. The band consists of David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls, portrayed by McKean, Guest, and Shearer, respectively. All three play their own instruments and speak with an English accent throughout the film. Rob Reiner even appears as Marty Di Bergi, the director filming the documentary, of which he is in reality filming as a mockumentary (hilarious!). The film is so convincing in its depiction of eccentric rock star behavior that it had many viewers believing Spinal Tap were a real band, turning these fictional rock stars into genuine rock superstars!
Due to the film hitting so close to home for many musicians and viewers, many failed to see it for what it was. They actually believed a documentary was made about a band of which no one had heard. This naturally led to the film not being a hit when it was initially released. However, the film found its audience with home video. Since that time, This Is Spinal Tap has received critical acclaim and has been named to numerous ‘Best Comedy of All-Time’ lists.
In John Kenneth Muir’s book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, Harry Shearer is quoted as saying:
We do love that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can't watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life.’ That's the highest compliment of all. It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.
Numerous musicians, Eddie Van Halen, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, among others, have all found similarities between the film and their own lives. Even an incident in the film that actually was not based on any real-life experiences actually did occur just prior to the film’s release.
It involves the famous Stonehenge moment in the film. For the uninitiated, the band wanted a life-size model of Stonehenge on stage during their performance. A miscommunication in measurements leads to a small model of Stonehenge, I mean tiny, to be placed in its place. A related incident occurred during Black Sabbath’s tour in 1983, except that the miscommunication led to their model being too large to fit on stage. Many would think that this incident had to have influenced the film’s writers, however, the gag was reportedly already part of a proof-of-concept short filmed in 1982, to show the producers.
In 2005, when U2 was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guitarist The Edge commented:
It’s so hard to keep things fresh, and not to become a parody of yourself… And if you’ve ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you will know how easy it is to parody what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh. I wept. I wept because I recognized so much and so many of those scenes.
That could be why this film is so good. It really hits home as a spoof, making fun of many of the conventions and eccentricities that too many rock stars still hold true. But hey, that’s why we love them, and that’s why we love This Is Spinal Tap.
In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was nominated for preservation by the National Film Registry as a film that is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. Now that’s turning it up to 11!
#7 Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
“Police Squad” was a short-lived television series that spoofed the popular police dramas of the time. I never saw it originally, but later caught it on mid-afternoon re-runs on Comedy Central. Some six years later, the comedic geniuses of ZAZ (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) were able to resurrect the premise into a feature film. Full of all absurdities, word play, and sight gags of the original series, the film was a hit and received critical praise.
Though based on the television series, spoofing cop shows, the film’s plot actually follows the 1977 Charles Bronson spy film, Telefon. However, the film is more of one long endless string of gags than an attempt at a cohesive narrative.
Having previously made the jump from dramatic roles to comedy, in ZAZ’s Airplane! (1980), Leslie Nielsen stars doing what he has since become known for – deadpan comedy. With Naked Gun, Nielsen cemented his status as the king of spoof actors. Though many of his subsequent films were subpar – his legacy remains with the iconic role of Frank Drebin. He is what made Naked Gun so good, his delivery, his presence, and his indifference when surrounded in chaos. Oh Frank! There will never be another like him!
#6 Black Dynamite (2009)
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka was my favorite Blaxplotation spoof until I saw this film! Black Dynamite was the brainchild of actors Michael Jai White and Byron Mimms. White reportedly would hold Blaxploitation film screening parties where he and his friends would laugh and point out the inconsistencies of the films. Using the encyclopedic knowledge of Blaxploitation films reportedly possessed by Mimms, the pair, along with director Scott Sanders, wrote the screenplay in about three weeks.
White stars as Black Dynamite, a former CIA agent and Vietnam veteran, who returns home to rid the streets of drug dealers and avenge his brother’s death.
Shot on Super 16 Kodak film in about twenty days, the crew strived to keep any modernisms from appearing in the film, in an attempt to keep the entire film and production stuck in the 1970s era. From the low contrast, high saturation look of the film, the actor’s mannerisms and dialogue, to the low budget ‘one-take and that’s it’ routine of leaving any film errors unfixed, the film was as much an homage to Blaxploitation as it was a spoof. I mean, White was a huge Blaxploitation fan; I am too. Many real fans of the genre can find the ‘funny’ in this film. When watching these films, some errors just became part of the fun. For example, in 1975’s Dolemite, a boom mic appears in frame. Michael Jai White put this same error in his, on purpose. In one scene, Black Dynamite stands up from his desk quickly, a boom microphone can then been seen hanging conspicuously above his head. At another point, an actor memorizes the stage directions as part of his lines and recites them during the scene. At another point one actor accidentally really strikes another actor during a fight scene, leading to a sloppy edit where the first actor has obviously been swapped out for a replacement for the remainder of the scene. Little errors that were common in some Blaxploitation films is played up and drawn out.
While I can sit down and watch Shaft (1971) and reflect seriously on what the film is trying to portray, Black Dynamite is there just for the fun of it.
#5 Spaceballs (1987)
As a fan of the Star Wars films, this is a must-see! Our hero, Lone Star, a hard-drinking, hard-lovin’ hero (Bill Pullman) and his faithful companion, Barf (John Candy) are stand-ins for Han Solo/Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca. Together, the pair is off on an adventure to save Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and stop Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) from dooming the planet of Druidia. It’s basically a Star Wars spoof with its own story elements. This film easily stands on its own as a science fiction comedy to anyone who has never seen Star Wars. That is part of what makes it so great!
The other part of what makes it such a great film: Mel Brooks. You can look up his filmography on IMDb, slap the title “Top Spoof Films” on the top of the page and be done with it! The comedic genius is arguably the king of parody. This film is a testament to that argument.
If you haven’t seen Spaceballs, you’re missing out!
#4 Blazing Saddles (1974)
Okay, I know I just sang praises to Mel Brooks in the last entry, but I assure you this list will not be populated with just his films. However, you have to expect at least a few of his great spoofs would appear somewhere on this list. I mean, c’mon!
Starring Gene Wilder and the late Cleavon Little, Blazing Saddles is an off-color spoof of great westerns and a classic! It is truly a unique film that could have never been made today. With its horse-punching, flamboyant homosexuals, fart jokes, and racial epithets, this film is definitely not politically correct; however, it is unquestionably funny!
The way the film starts as a western but then ends up being, without any explanation, mind you, a film set on a film lot where the action carries over is incredible. The entire film breaks the fourth wall and explodes out of the screen, figuratively, and the viewer just goes along for the ride.
In a filmography of great films, this one nears the top of the list for Mel Brooks.
#3 Young Frankenstein (1974)
Blazing Saddles is a great film and I did say it “nears the top of the list” for Brooks; however, the top is reserved for this film, Young Frankenstein.
1974 was a great year for Mel Brooks. He released two of the finest films he ever made, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein; both spoofs of iconic American film genres. This film stars Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a descendant of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The all-star supporting cast includes Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Gene Hackman, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle and the comedic madman that was Marty Feldman.
An obvious spoof on the film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Brooks chose to shoot the film entirely in black and white, hoping to evoke the atmosphere of the great classic 1931 Universal film. Brooks even acquired some of the original lab equipment used in the original film for use as props in this film. Written by Brooks and Gene Wilder, the film was actually Wilder’s idea that he brought to Brooks to direct. It was Wilder’s agent that suggested he cast Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman, who were perfect for their roles as The Monster and Igor, respectively.
Feldman’s comedic genius shined through as he hilariously ad-libbed his role by stealthily moving his character’s hump from shoulder to shoulder until it was noticed by the crew – the joke was kept in the film and a line added to the script, as “Good man. Didn't you, didn't you use to have that on the other side?”, with Feldman’s responding, “what?” His antics were reportedly more than many of his fellow cast could handle. Some stories indicated that as many as fifteen takes were sometimes shot due to Wilder or another cast member busting out in laughs over Feldman’s unscripted hijinks!
Brooks later admitted that for every joke that hit, at least three fell flat. He observed mixed reactions from test audiences and nearly cut the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” musical number, believing that it wouldn’t fit into the overall atmosphere of the film. Wilder, however, was adamant that is was sheer brilliance and argued for keeping the scene. Brooks relented. “I wanted to see how hard you’d fight for it,” said the director, “And I knew if you fought hard enough, it was right...You did, so it's in.”
The finished product is pure comedic genius and a fitting tribute/spoof on the Frankenstein story and classic Universal horror in general. This is truly Mel Brooks’ finest work in my opinion. Though I know he couldn’t have done it without Gene Wilder; a fact I made clear to Wilder when I met him some years ago as a gushing fan!
If you haven’t seen this film, you really need to re-evaluate your life, loosen your tie and find some time to laugh. It’s worth it!
#2 Airplane! (1980)
This one was a no-brainer. I know everyone was waiting for this title to pop up on this list. It’s on everyone’s favorites list. Coming on the heels of the horde of disaster movies that were released in the 1970s, Airplane! took the spoof to a new level. When the crew of a passenger airliner is incapacitated due to food poisoning, a former war pilot with a psychosomatic fear of flying must work together with his ex-girlfriend turned flight attendant to safely land the plane, borrowing heavily from the 1957 film, Zero Hour!, as well as Airport 1975. That’s the basic premise but what ensues around that premise is shot after shot, jokes coming from every angle, sight gags, clever word play, Leslie Nielsen, you name it! The comedic writing team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker really set the tone for spoof films to come. You’ll have to watch the film numerous times to catch every gag!
The Zucker brothers and Abrahams, or ZAZ as they are collectively known, would go on to bring us the Naked Gun movies, showcasing Leslie Nielsen’s brand of oblivious deadpan comedy. In Airplane! Nielsen is joined by Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lorna Patterson, with historically dramatic actors Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves hilariously joining the fray with some of the best gags of the film.
David Zucker explained his casting process, “the trick was to cast actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. These were people who, up to that time, had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of that time were." These actors ultimately agreed as a way to spoof their own character images. Prior to this film, these men were known for portraying rugged, tough-guy characters, with very little humor. Stack was spoofing his own role in 1954’s The High and the Mighty, where he portrayed a captain who lost his nerve, with Graves, his role in the 1977 television movie “SST: Death Flight,” where a supersonic jet is unable to land. Lloyd Bridges pokes fun at his role as an airport manager in 1970’s “San Francisco International Airport.”
Several other cameos were added for humorous effect by casting actors against type: Barbara Billingsley, best known as June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver”, as a woman who speaks jive, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a co-pilot who is secretly actually Kareem Adbul-Jabbar! Ethel Merman appears as a shell-shocked pilot who believes he is… Ethel Merman! Or, the zany and free-spirited Stephen Stucker as the uncontrollable air traffic controller Johnny, whose background comments steal every scene he’s in!
One of the best films of the year, Airplane!, was adored by the critics and filmgoers alike. Though the film is just plain silly, it is an unprecedented spoof chock full of quotable lines and slapstick classics that are just as much fun to watch today as they were in 1980!
#1 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
I know, Airplane! could have easily been the #1 on any list, this one included. I love that film, but after much deliberation, I believe Monty Python and the Holy Grail is just a tad bit better. You could get angry and exclaim that Airplane! is the best and I wouldn’t fault you. However, by a slight margin, this British comedy just squeaked in a win in my book.
British comedy is an acquired taste and the classic comedy troupe, Monty Python has had some very memorable movies that were all quite funny and successful. I believe this one is by far their best and quite possibly, in my opinion, the best spoof film made.
Based loosely on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as well as the legend of the Holy Grail (which features into some of the Arthurian tales), this film contains so many iconic scenes and quotable lines that it has become a staple of late-night theaters still to this day. In fact, just prior to writing these lines, I searched my local film listings to fact-check myself and found that it is indeed screening locally next week!
You have to remember that spoof comedy films didn’t start with Mel Brooks or the Zuckers, and Monty Python had been poking fun at culture for years prior to this film. Their appeal was wide and in the days before cable, I had to catch their BBC show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” in reruns on PBS. Their brand of understated comedy, which could explode into slapstick at a moment’s notice, always appealed to me.
This film was written by the entire comedy troupe consisting of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, each a comedic genius in his own right. Holy Grail was directed by Gilliam and Jones. Unlike their previous film, And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), this film did not feature rehashed sketches from their successful television series. Holy Grail was entirely new and spoofed King Arthur’s quest to possess the Holy Grail.
Filmed on a small budget, it was apparent that the production couldn’t afford real horses to be ridden by the actors, so the comedy troupe decided they would then mime horse-riding while their squires trotted along behind them banging coconut shells together; a now-legendary bit! In truth, this joke came about as it was actually an effect used in classic radio serials when the sound of horse hooves was needed. The budget was so tight that there was no money available for an opening title sequence, leaving only simple white text titles over a black background. To spice it up, Palin suggested adding the joke of increasingly bizarre fake Swedish subtitles about a moose over subtle music in a send-up of snobbish foreign films, of which the troupe all were fans.
Holy Grail is full of classic bits that can be recalled and quoted, including “Bring out your dead,” the Black Knight’s “flesh wound,” the Knights-who-say-Ni’s “shrubberies,” the taunts of the French knights or the riddle of the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. Who can forget the killer rabbit!
The film was a box-office success, becoming 1975’s highest-grossing British film exhibited in the U.S. Its popularity has remained and the film is now a cult classic! So much so that, in 2005, the film led to an award-winning Broadway musical hit, “Spamalot,” with many of the same gags used in the film.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in my opinion, is the greatest spoof film ever made.
So there you have it. You might not agree with me on all titles but, hey, this is my list and you have to admit these are some great films. Think you can dispute a ranking; let me hear your argument. As always, these lists are fluid and can change with the times. Is there some great spoof out there that I haven’t seen that you think should be on this list? Let me know what it is so I can get watching! Thanks for reading but if you’ve ever read any of my other lists then you know there can never only be ten. There has to be an honorable mention; a film that I would’ve loved to have included but didn’t.
So here it is:
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Okay, I know, it’s more homage than spoof, but it is a take-off on George Romero’s Living Dead films. Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who also direct and star, respectively, the film also stars Nick Frost, Bill Nighy and Kate Ashfield. The story revolves around a sad-sack sales manager who has to win back his girlfriend while his small English town is being overrun by the living dead!
This film is one of the rare instances when the parody film is actually better than most of the genre films it is parodying! This first part to the Cornetto Trilogy is a masterpiece and a credit to the Wright-Pegg screenwriting duo. This film is so great that even George Romero loved it and asked the pair to cameo in his 2005 film, Land of the Dead (they are the photo booth zombies in the carnival scene).
With numerous references to other television series, video games and films, especially earlier Romero Living Dead films, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg put themselves on the map with this one. The pair had been around for a while and were quite well-known to British audiences from their television series, “Spaced.” However, this film was their breakout success and helped bring zombie films back into the forefront of popular culture (remember, this was a full six years before “The Walking Dead”).
The only reason this film isn’t on my list is because it is more of an homage that is not quite a spoof but a truly unique piece of cinema. I love this film and had to mention it at least!