Airplane/Police Squad/Top Secret/The Naked Gun/Etc. – Stokes
I’m cheating a little here: first of all, this isn’t a franchise, it’s two franchises and an isolated movie that happen to be made by the same creative team. It’s also not exclusively an 80s phenomenon. The second two Naked Gun movies were in the 90s, as was the Hot Shots series (which I left out for that reason). In fact, this “franchise” never really stopped at all: one of the Zucker brothers is involved with the Scary Movie series, which is clearly the heir to this tradition.
So why does the Zucker Abrahams Zucker slapstick genre-parody need to be revived? Basically, because the Scary Movie series sucks. I want a revival of the good genre-parody. I happened to watch a chunk of the original Naked Gun a few days back, and I was struck by how – oh, what’s the word? oh yes – how WATCHABLE it was. And more than watchable, fun. Here’s the thing that those early ZAZ parodies got right, that the likes of Meet the Spartans gets wrong: they didn’t parody actions or characters. Or rather, they did, but that was never the point. The current parody movies are all about the comedy of recognition: when you see someone get kicked into the pit of death in Meet the Spartans, it is funny (or rather “funny”) precisely because you remember that scene in 300. This is about the lowest joke you can possibly make. It’s bad enough when writers peg the humor of recognition on something obscure, and you find yourself laughing just to prove that you got the reference: here the references are solidly mainstream… the masonic handshake is just a damn handshake.
Contrast this with the best of the ZAZ films—and here I’m talking about the original Airplane, Top Secret, and the original Naked Gun—where the parodies were funny even if you didn’t know what they were making fun of. (I, and I think for a large portion of my generation, saw Airplane a solid TEN YEARS before I saw Saturday Night Fever, and I still haven’t seen From Here to Eternity.) The brilliance of these movies is that they would seize on some aspect of the original movie’s aesthetics that was already faintly ridiculous, and play it up until it’s supremely ridiculous. You might get a little more out of it if you get the reference, but it’s strictly optional.
And of course, most of the jokes in these movies weren’t parody jokes at all… they were just sight gags, vaudeville quips, or slapstick. But check out the sunglasses scene at 5:00 in. That’s what I’m talking about: it works because scenes where someone whips off their sunglasses are always, always silly.
Arguably there are people still making this kind of parody. You don’t need to have actually seen a bunch of old zombie movies to get a kick out of Shaun of the Dead, and Not Another Teen Movie was, against all odds, actually pretty solid (although note that it’s specific-scene parodies of American Pie, Cruel Intentions, and Rudy were far and away the worst parts). So it’s not like there’s a crucial void in the cultural landscape of Hollywood that needs to be filled… But I want the Dance Flick‘s of the world to shape the hell up. Come on, people, look alive out there! We can do better. It is possible to make a parody movie that is entertaining, and funny, and even one that says something smart about the genre it’s making fun of. Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker are the guys to do it. Those dudes are tapped out… but it can be done. Won’t someone please do it? Please?