Saturday, 28 May 2011

The funniest – and unfunniest - comedy films of all time tend to be parodies

There’s nothing quite as unfunny as a bad parody film, and there’s been a spate of American turkeys over the last few years. By the same token, no type of film has made me laugh more over the years. I’ve no idea why this should be. (Just as I’ve no idea why, in my experience, spoof films seem to appeal almost entirely to males.) 

As for my favourite parody films, the only thing they have in common is affection for the genre they’re making fun of - you can tell the film-makers are huge fans of the original material – and charm. 

Without further ado, here’s my Top Ten.

Young Frankenstein
For me, this is the greatest parody film ever made. Gene Wilder’s script is the best screenplay parody I’ve ever roared through. Mel Brooks – for the only time I’m aware of – does a great job of lovingly directing a film, rather than delivering a stream of gags with the camera pointing vaguely in their direction. The comic acting (apart from the leadenly unfunny Marty Feldman) is superb, whether it be Wilder himself as Dr Frankenstein, Cloris Leachman as the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (cue horse neighing) as the housekeeper, Madeleine Kahn as the doctor’s fiancée, Peter Boyle as the Monster, and Kenneth Mars as the one-armed Inspector Kemp. Practically every scene is a comic masterpiece. Gene Hackman’s cameo as a gay blind hermit (“You must have been the tallest one in your class!”) is a real gem, as is the “Puttin’ On The Ritz” sequence, and the violin-playing Frau Blücher’s proud declaration, “He was my boyfriend!”, and the wonderfully overwrought  darts game involving Inspector Kemp and the Doctor. 

The Court Jester
The earliest film on my list is The Court Jester (1956), a parody of a host of medieval sword and armour movies being churned out by Hollywood in garish Technicolour at the time. Danny Kaye is one of those comics who must simply have seemed funnier in their day that they do now (Robin Williams has already entered this category). While the highly successful The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) now strikes us as laboured, The Court Jester, which only recouped $2.2m of its $4m cost when first released (the largest amount spent on a comedy at that time), reveals the talent which had theatre audiences flocking to see Kaye in the flesh. (He appears to have been a thoroughly unpleasant man, by the way – travelling the world gushing about little kiddies as a UNICEF ambassador while treating his own daughter with chilly indifference. In a biography I once read, the phrase most often used by those who came into contact with him was “miserable prick”!) The whole film exhibits a genuine jeu d’esprit, but what everyone remembers, deservedly, are the “Yea, verily, yea!” induction sequence, and the “Vessel with a pestle” business. They still work brilliantly. 

Airplane! I & II
If the above films are the classiest parodies ever made, then the Airplane 
movies are the best examples of straightforward spoof yuckfests. It’s particularly enjoyable watching four great second-string stalwarts - Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves – released from their leading man strait-jackets. Here’s the “gladiator movies” sequence and a trailer featuring some of the best bits.

The Naked Gun 1 & 3  (2 was disappointing) The makers of Airplane! return to the well, with equal success. (A friend told me recently that the failure of Police Squad, the original TV series on which the films were based, was due to the fact it was just too sharp – it’s thought 1980s’ American audiences weren’t willing to pay sufficient attention lounging in front of the box to get the jokes!) Here are two sets of compilations - Part One and Part Two - featuring some of the good stuff.

Love at First Bite 
Strangely neglected these days, George Hamilton as Count Dracula gives a startlingly good performance - given he’s usually as animated as my desk (and roughly the same colour). The script sparkles with great lines, including “Creatures of the night – shut up!” and “Wake up, master – there’s someone at the door. They want to see you, I think they’re from the government.” “How do you know?” “They’re wearing shoes.” These are both included in this chunk from the start of the movie.

This Is Spinal Tap
The, if you will, rockumentary. Here’s the scene that introduced the concept of “going to eleven” to the English language.

Blazing Saddles
Not quite as amusing as it seemed at the time (the knowing New York Jewish comic coolness grates after a while), but still full of good bits, like the arrival of the new...sherrif

Austin Powers Trilogy
Yes, these aren’t exactly the subtlest films on the list, and it really shouldn’t work – but it just does. The Jerry Springer sequence from The Spy Who Shagged Me is a spoof within a spoof, and still makes me snort.

Galaxy Quest
As warm, affectionate and loveable as Love At First Bite – an absolute delight from start to finish. Tim Allen (as the Captain Kirk figure), Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman (no, honestly!) are all brilliant, and they’re matched by the actors playing the charming aliens. Here’s a good bit.

The Princess Bride
One of the most charming films ever made, based on one of the most charming novels ever published: a swashbuckling treat. Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Guest are outstanding, especially in the scenes in this mini-compilation.

I’ll end with a shameful admission. I have always loved Top Secret, a 1984 parody of (amongst other things) Elvis and WWII spy films. It was made by Abrams, Zucker, Abrams, who brought us Airplane! and The Naked Gun. It was a horrible mess, and it failed at the box office, but, despite that, it’s still very, very funny.


  1. The funniest parody film recently was "Robin Hood" in which Ridley Scott proved he could direct comedy as well as everything else. Much superior to Brooke's "Men in Tights". Russell Crowe speaks in a very comical accent, the action is standard medieval-incomprehensible, Richard "Coeur de Lion" is a dead ringer for the risible Marquess of Bath and Maid Marion suddenly appears riding into battle in full body armour for no reason. In another RH film Alan Rickman tried to do a spoof of the Sheriff Of Nottingham, but nobody had told the rest of the cast [he also tried it with his portrayal of Rasputin with the same dire result].

    Why do women not find spoof films funny? I once took a girl to see "La Grande Bouffe" [1973] - about 4 Parisian males eating themselves to death. Michel Picolli spends much of the film fighting growing and noisy attacks of flatulence until he finally "burns out". I hugely enjoyed this [see Robert deNiro sitting in the cinema in "Cape Fear"] until I realized that my companion was stony-faced. Since then I have darkly suspected that women are generally lacking in the sense of humour department [although they have a great sense of joy, as DH Lawrence is quoted as saying]. I could adduce various facts in support of this, but I fear I have already taking the first shaky step on the road to becoming a social pariah. I'll get my coat.

    I have added Galaxy Quest, Bride and Top Secret to my LoveFilm list. So thank you for that. Val Kilmer - started off brilliantly and then ends up as a bloated Phillip of Macedonia with a mangled eye in "Alexander". Life is unkind.
    Monday, May 30, 2011 - 06:24 PM

  2. Young Frankenstein struck me at the time as a great idea that didn't turn out quite as funny as I had hoped but on the evidence of the clip I need to give it another go. One of my favourite TV programmes as a boy was a spy spoof called Get Smart. I've always had a fondness for the genre which not even Hot Shots could shake.
    Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 12:03 AM

  3. Sometimes it’s books. We disgraced ourselves once in Italy, sitting by a pool, reading PG Wodehouse out loud, laughing helplessly and so out of control that we rather frightened some nearby Italians.

    Sometimes it’s songs. We know every word of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and some of us are prepared to repeat the words of London Underground.

    But mostly it’s films. “If anyone can, so can Frank”. These little snatches are inserted into conversations at the slightest provocation, acknowledged with a perfunctory “I’m a psychiatrist, I don’t do impressions”, or whatever, and then the conversation carries on. “Thank you, I just had it stuffed.” Not just when it’s just us either, but even when there are friends here of whatever age, “Did I leave the iron on?”, and the friends kindly ignore it and wait for the spasm to pass so that they can be re-admitted to the conversation, “that’s how I wanna go”.

    It’s not the only thing that binds us together as a family, you’ll be pleased to know, but it’s a very obvious thing that does, this shared set of references which, I’m sorry Film Fan, includes Robin Hood, Men in Tights, “my name is Little John but don’t be fooled, it’s just a name”.

    Appropriately enough, one of our greatest sources is Addams Family Values. When the children were young, if another child came to the house and recognised some of the lines, we knew they were being properly brought up ...

    ... just as the children know they’ve done their job if we can say “this one goes to 11” and extol the merits of lighter fuel.
    Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 01:17 AM

  4. Another thought. "Tropic Thunder". The film that killed off Oliver Stone's "Platoon". For example [from memory]:
    Tug Speedman: "When you get back to the world tell them what happened here."
    Kirk Lazarus: " I promise. Err...what did happen here?"
    Tug Speedman: " I don't know, but tell them anyway."
    Additionally, the film performed the miracle of making Jack Black funny.
    Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 09:31 AM

  5. Film Fan, I watched half an hour of the latest Robin Hood with my mouth agape. Ridley Scott directed “Alien”, for God’s sake! Russell Crowe broke the first rule of film accents by constantly forgetting which one he was supposed to be using. I can only assume the continuity girl and the director were scared to point this out in case he beat them up.

    I remember “La Grande Bouffe” well – and I have to tell you, it is not a great date movie, unless your date weighed around 18 stone. (That reminds me of the sequence in “Airplane” when Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley are shown leaving a cinema roaring with laughter – the camera pans up to reveal they’ve just exited “Platoon”.) Are you sure you’re not thinking of Robert DeNiro taking the pristine political campaign worker to a porn theatre in “Taxi Driver”? As for Val Kilmer, he appears to have had the same treatment as John Travolta – i.e. someone inserted a bicycle pump up his fundament and blew air into him for several hours. I don’t think he ever recovered from playing Jim Morrison in “The Doors”.

    I warn you that “Galaxy Quest” and “The Princess Bride” may be too gentle for some tastes, but some parts of “Top Secret” are classic, especially the French resistance fighters called things like Fuselage and Déjà Vu (“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”) and Omar Sharif (!) as a spy delivering coded messages: “When watching women’s tennis, I always support the heterosexual”.

    Ex-KCS – I was going to write a longer piece about spoofs, citing the excellent “Get Smart” as an early enthusiasm (especially the Cone of Silence). And I’ll admit to smirking at both “Hot Shots” on several occasions (the double pupiloptomy and the hapless airman marked for death). “Young Frankenstein” might be worth another look when it’s on next, if only for the immortal lines, “He must have an enormous schwanstucker! Voof!” “That goes without saying.” And “Are you saying I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, 54 inch wide gorilla?”:

    DM, the only quote giving me trouble is, “If anyone can, so can Frank” – Airplane or Spinal Tap?
    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 - 09:35 PM

  6. If anyone can ...

    The son and heir told me that was a mean one because it doesn't appear in the film, only the trailer,
    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 - 10:34 PM

  7. DM, that;s just cheating, that is.
    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 11:37 AM

  8. The German word is "Schwanzstücke". The more expressive Yiddisch word is "Svonz". The Yiddisch vocabulary has a tremendous richness which American comedians have tapped into for years and which this country has ignored. One of the great pleasures in this life is to explore Yiddisch dictionaries on the internet. 50% of the words are pejorative. Wish I could speak it.
    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 06:00 PM