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Surely you can't be serious

Spoof films are routinely snubbed by Oscar and are even looked down upon by other comedies. But the genre's producers often just laugh all the way to the bank.

January 27, 2008|Aaron Lee | Special to The Times

WHAT'S the least-respected product cranked out by the major studios? It's not so-called torture porn; at least the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies occasionally warrant an Abu Ghraib-inspired think piece. And forget about the work of critical punching bag Adam Sandler; he's teamed with Paul Thomas Anderson and starred in a 9/11 drama. No, when it comes to frowned-upon Hollywood films -- the kind they don't give awards to and definitely don't screen for critics -- the spoof movie is king.

Two of last year's spoofs, "The Comebacks" and "Epic Movie," each scored single-digit percentile ratings on Rottentomatoes.com (if you're unfamiliar with the "Tomatometer," that's very, very rotten). Most likely, this weekend's "Meet the Spartans" won't fare much better. The film was written and directed by the team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who were also responsible for "Epic" and 2006's "Date Movie." One "Epic" reviewer opened with the line, "Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer must be stopped"; another suggested they be kidnapped. And you thought Rodney Dangerfield got no respect.

Yet audiences enjoy spoof movies enough to make them consistently profitable; "Scary Movie" and its endless sequels are wildly popular. (The first installment, made for under $20 million, took in more than $278 million worldwide.) "Airplane!," the film that set the template, might've seemed like a fluke when it was released nearly 30 years ago, but after three decades of pop-culture parody, bad puns and smutty sex jokes, it's time to acknowledge the spoof movie as a significant genre.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie spoofs: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about movie spoofs included a caption under a photograph from "Meet the Spartans" that said the film "300" was from 2006. It was a 2007 release.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 03, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie spoofs: An article last Sunday about movie spoofs included a caption under a photograph from "Meet the Spartans" that said "300" was from 2006. The film "300" was a 2007 release.

Its roots stretch back to the Marx Brothers, at least. But a forgotten classic most clearly points the way to today's more topical, less story-driven spoofs: 1941's "Hellzapoppin'." An anarchic vehicle for the comedy duo of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, "Hellzapoppin' " sacrificed plot for a series of then-current sight gags, including appearances by "Citizen Kane's" sled and the Frankenstein monster.

At the same time, Warner Bros. cartoons set a new standard for broad humor, frenetic pacing and zeitgeist swipes; Bugs Bunny frequently goofed around with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and other stars of the day. Warner Bros. director Frank Tashlin made the switch to features with frenzied gag-fests such as "The Girl Can't Help It" in 1956. That film's notorious set piece, with sex symbol Jayne Mansfield strutting past a milkman whose strategically placed bottle erupts in his hands, would be right at home in any modern-day spoof.

Mad about the mag

According to "Airplane!" creator Jim Abrahams, though, he and his writing partners -- brothers David and Jerry Zucker -- were inspired less by movies than by another phenomenon born in the 1950s.

"The big influence was Mad magazine," says Abrahams, whose most recent work was the screenplay for "Scary Movie 4." "They had a feature called 'Scenes We'd Like to See,' where they'd present a cliched movie scene, totally straight, until the last panel." Mad's trademark cluttered illustrations -- packed with visual jokes in the background -- clearly paved the way for "Airplane's" barrage of sight gags. But most important, Mad parodies were not the affectionate satire of the 1940s. There was an acidity to the humor, a pronounced intention to deflate the self-serious and take down sacred cows.

"There's a rebelliousness to parody movies," says Sanford Panitch, president of New Regency -- the production company behind "Epic Movie" and "The Spartans." "Especially teenagers respond to that. In 'Epic,' for example, the reverence for 'Harry Potter' was great to send up."

The mold had been cast: irreverent jabs, topical references and anything-for-a-laugh gustiness. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks -- the two faces of post-1950s Jewish humor -- based spoofs around their own distinct personas. Arguably, Brooks more directly influenced the current crop with his cheerful vulgarity; for many years, his "Blazing Saddles" (1974) was the benchmark for sophomoric parody. But a new generation of wiseacres was on the rise -- one raised on television. This breed of short-attention span comedy was embodied by Kentucky Fried Theater, a Los Angeles performance troupe founded by Abrahams and the Zuckers.

"Kentucky Fried Theater was the YouTube of its day," says Abrahams. "We used to set a recorder to tape off TV all night, because that's when the stupidest commercials played. One night, we accidentally taped an old disaster movie, 'Zero Hour.' That was a fortunate break for our careers." The 1957 drama told the tale of a routine flight that succumbs to food poisoning. Kentucky Fried Theater saw the scenario's potential hilarity and bought the film rights in 1973. Six years later, filming began on "Airplane!"

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