Until this summer, I had never considered walking out of a movie theater before the film ended. I’ve always thought that no matter how bad the film is, because I paid for the ticket, I want to stay until the end to get my money’s worth. Sausage Party almost changed all of that. It wasn’t that I found the film offensive, it was just that the style of humor grew old after the first five minutes. A little bit of Seth Rogen goes a long way. However, his constant barrage of crude, profanity-laced humor had me checking my watch multiple times waiting for the end of the film. Sausage Party got me thinking: what has happened to comedy in Hollywood?
I suppose that saying Sausage Party is the end of quality comedy as we know it would be an incorrect, unfair and sweeping generalization because there are certainly some very funny films out there. They may not have received widespread success but there were definitely funny films that came out in 2016. The most enjoyable was definitely Shane Black’s crime romp The Nice Guys. So instead, I want to focus on a genre of comedy that has died out over the years: parody.
Good parodies used to be some of the best comedies released. Mel Brooks practically made an entire career out of spoofing classics. His films Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and Blazing Saddles all mocked popular Hollywood films or genres, and these films became classics in their own right. Similarly, the Zucker Brothers produced some of my favorite films like Airplane and The Naked Gun trilogy.
It is difficult to critically laud parody films because they are inherently unoriginal. They are premised on the notion of taking someone else’s work and figuring out ways to make fun of it. But that doesn’t mean that there is not a certain amount of skill that goes into making a good parody. And after seeing where the genre has gone recently, it is quite clear that Hollywood has lost its touch.
One of the few successful parody films of late has been the Scary Movie franchise. The first Scary Movie is a genuinely pretty funny movie. But as the franchise progressed, the jokes got significantly worse. The success of the franchise led to the proliferation of the “[insert word here] Movie” style of film. Films like Epic Movie, Disaster Movie (aptly named), and Superhero Movie drove the parody genre into the ground. Their failures can be boiled down to two main factors: a lack of reverence for the source material, and unfunny writing.
To make a good parody is not to make a judgment on the film being targeted. Instead, it is to poke fun at the film’s iconic scenes or tropes while still maintaining a sense of respect. Scary Movie sets a good example of how to do this well. Yes, it rips off many famous scenes from Scream, but it does so with a sense of reverence. It never mocks the film itself, but instead mocks the tropes it uses. It also doesn’t try to desperately shoehorn in pop culture references, which so many present-day parodies are so reliant on. Epic Movie mocked The Chronicles of Narnia and 300 without respecting their value as works of art. (Yes, I just called 300 a work of art. I didn’t say that it was a good one.)
Next, the writing has to be good. This seems a little obvious, but I think that what so many modern parody movies miss is that just throwing in pop culture references or scenes from other famous movies is inherently funny.There have to be characters we can like and jokes that work in the context of the film. The Naked Gun is an excellent example of how this can work well. Frank Drebin is a great protagonist, and his deadpan style of humor gives him life and makes him feel like an actual human being. I don’t think anyone can name a character from Scary Movie 5 or A Haunted House. Parodies cannot exist solely on the basis of making fun of other movies, they have to be able to make audiences laugh on their own.
Will we ever return to making good parody movies? Maybe not. But there is hope for the future in films that take popular genre tropes and subverts them. A great example of this once again, is The Nice Guys. It may not reach the heights of the hilarity of a movie like Airplane, but it is brilliant in its own way, and perhaps represents a shift from outright parody to more nuanced, clever commentary.