How the 1980s Became the Golden Age of Spoof Movies (And Why It Couldn’t Last)

Otto, Leslie Nielsen, and Robert Hays in 'Airplane!' (1980).
Otto, Leslie Nielsen, and Robert Hays in 'Airplane!' (1980). / Paramount Pictures

For almost as long as there have been movies, there have been spoofs: 1903’s iconic The Great Train Robbery was the subject of an all-child parody just two years later, made by the same director. But it was eight decades later that Hollywood’s silliest genre really came into its own. 

Not that there weren’t plenty of spoofs in the interim. Abbott and Costello, Roger Corman, and the Carry On team all made several; Peter Sellers’s Casino Royale (1967) is a deeply baffling all-star farce; and Monty Python released their takes on Biblical epics and Arthurian legend.

The 1970s arguably brought the cultural high-water mark courtesy of Mel Brooks, who managed to release both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in 1974. But it was the 1980s that made spoofs explode, much like the almost-doomed Flight Two-Zero-Niner seen in 1980’s Airplane!

Created by the writer-director team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, better known as ZAZ, who had experienced some cult success with Kentucky Fried Movie (a sketch movie poking fun at the world of television), Airplane! pretty much defined what the next few decades of spoofs would look like, including fourth-wall-breaking moments, surreal continuity lapses, frenetically-paced gags, and cheerfully inconsistent stakes. Despite being deeply, deeply silly, Airplane! makes sense as a movie, thanks in large part to a plot borrowed from 1957’s Zero Hour, which ZAZ bought the rights to before making their comedy. 

Hilarity at 40,000 Feet

Airplane! didn’t feature any big movie stars—the most famous member of the cast at the time was basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—and it cost a mere $3.5 million to make. Yet it generated $180 million at the box office, received overwhelmingly positive reviews (including three stars from Roger Ebert), became an even bigger hit on video, and eventually made its way into the National Film Registry. It also led to a bit of a big-screen comeback for a quartet of gray-haired former leading men delivering absurd dialogue in a deadpan manner. 

Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, and Leslie Nielsen were all dramatic actors and action men, with projects like High Noon and Forbidden Planet behind them. By 1980, however, none of them were exactly household names any longer. But their shared and impressive resumes lent a solidity to the proceedings, which were frequently undercut with absurdity (“Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”). All four of them continued to show up in spoof movies throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Nielsen in particular is arguably the greatest thing to ever happen to spoofs; Ebert called him “the Olivier” of the genre. Square-jawed and handsome with a natural gravitas that only enhanced the hilariousness of lines like his iconic “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” Nielsen became essentially the face of spoofs for the rest of his life. When an interviewer mentioned to him that he had been cast against type in Airplane!, Nielsen argued that the opposite was true, and that he had actually been cast against type for his entire prior career. He had been known on-set, even in deadly serious roles, as a comedic figure who was obsessed with farts and whoopee cushions. 

Airplane!’s first gag is a riff on 1975’s Jaws, as the tailfin of the plane carves through a bed of clouds like a shark’s fin. Crucially, in 1980 you could make the assumption that everyone had either seen, or was at least passingly familiar with, Steven Spielberg’s killer shark movie, which kickstarted the blockbuster era. It’s hard to spoof things people don’t know, as the genre relies on a shared bank of references, which is why in the ‘70s and earlier, the biggest spoofs were riffing on tales from decades, if not centuries, before. Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, Young Frankenstein, and High Anxiety poked fun at movies that predated them by six decades or more, while Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Life of Brian went back even further in time. 

The Blockbuster Effect

In the pre-blockbuster era, this was the only way to guarantee the audience would know what you were talking about and recognize the clichés and iconic moments you were riffing on. But in the age of the blockbuster (and, in fact, Blockbuster, as home video played an enormous part in making certain movies culturally ubiquitous), this was suddenly a lot easier. 

“I would say the moment in E.T. where Elliott showed E.T. his Star Wars figures marked the point at which blockbuster movies began to show up on their own radar,” Tom Shone, author of Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-town, tells Mental Floss. “It would have been inconceivable for Elliott not to have seen Star Wars.” 

Movie conventions and clichés, as well as fairly recent iconic moments, could now be assumed knowledge. Rather than waiting 50-plus years for ideas to seep through deep enough to make fun of them, you could now operate on the basis that people who hadn’t seen huge recent movies were in the minority.

“A few years later, the moment in Die Hard where Hans Gruber taunts John McClane by suggesting he thinks he’s John Wayne or Rambo and McClane answers ‘Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually,’ is the seminal moment in American movies, marking the end of the age of innocence, and the beginning of our endlessly self-reflexive film culture,” Shone says. “After this point, people in movies seemed to see, and draw on knowledge of, as many movies as we did. It is a short step from Willis’s love of Roy Rogers in Die Hard to his appreciation of samurai swords in Pulp Fiction: Thereafter, the movies became their own audience, and spoof became the lingua franca of the Hollywood mainstream.”

While there were still genre-wide spoofs (like Top Secret!, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Johnny Dangerously), every summer brought new enormous cultural phenomena to mock on top of the decades of movie knowledge everyone had, and the relatively cheap nature of spoofs—with minimal star power needed, as the property being mocked did a lot of the marketing work—led to a bit of an assembly-line model, with varying results. Between them, ZAZ did Police Squad on TV, transitioning it to the big screen as The Naked Gun trilogy, as well as two Hot Shots! movies. These were co-written with Pat Proft, who had also collaborated with Mel Brooks, who brought out History of the World, Part I and Spaceballs. Meanwhile, the Wayans brothers brought out their first spoof, the blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, which started a spoof-heavy media empire. Nielsen became very busy—as a general rule, the more funny faces he made in a movie, the fewer funny jokes it contained.

Just Add Farts

Until about the mid-’90s, the Hollywood spoof machine chugged along just fine, churning out plenty of affable non-masterpieces that guaranteed nothing beyond a few good gags and half a dozen kicks to the nuts. But the number of spoof movies that full-on sucked began to sneakily increase. Repossessed, Loaded Weapon 1, Fatal Instinct, The Silence of the Hams ... It all started to feel a bit more artless and cynical, a cut-and-shut way of making films by smashing together a few recent hits and adding some farts.

Good spoofs are genuinely hard to make. Craig Mazin, writer of the Chernobyl miniseries and the forthcoming post-apocalyptic HBO drama The Last Of Us, says those projects were vastly easier to write than spoofs, which he describes as “relentless” and “brutal.” “Honestly, nothing is harder than writing those things,” he said on a podcast. “I will never work harder in my life than I did writing Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4.”

A run of lazily-made spoofs in the 2000s, in which vague familiarity with an idea seemed to replace actual jokes—i.e. someone walks on screen dressed like Napoleon Dynamite and that’s it—all but killed the genre, along with a few other cultural shifts.

Culture, in general, sped up a lot, and social media means new movies can be mocked relentlessly as soon as they come out, making the idea of a theatrical spoof largely redundant. The last really good one that poked fun at specific movies was probably Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which was released 15 years ago.

Between umpteen streaming services, reduced theatrical releases, and fewer mid-budget movies being made, the whole landscape is different now. Realistically, in 2022, the only movies big enough to assume everyone has seen them are those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they are themselves laden with jokes and characters pointing out their own absurdity, making it hard to bust their chops. 

Airplane! is still hilarious, though. And however dated some elements of it (and The Naked Gun movies) might be, there is a timelessness to it that will surely have people finding it funny forever.

Time will tell—and don’t call me Shirley.

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