The trouble with a lot of parody movies is that they’re very context specific. They spoof specific pop culture trends that most people won’ even remember six months later. The years are not kind to those parody movies, and watching them is like pulling up an old Tonight Show monologue from 15 years ago. You get that it’s supposed to be funny, but you have no idea why anyone’s laughing. (Unless it’s a Bill Clinton joke – those are timeless.)
The good news is that there are plenty of parody movies that transcend time, not needing an audience up to date on the latest pop culture. The best parodies are able to appeal to those who can appreciate the spoof of the source material, and to those who have no clue what’s being spoofed. If the movie is well-written and funny enough, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s a parody at all, which is the case for many of the movies listed below.
Parody of: Airport 1975
Prior knowledge needed: Any kind of disaster movie.
Why it can stand on its own: Surely you can’t be serious? You don’t know why Airplane! can stand on its own as a comedy movie? Does the fact that it’s still beloved 30 years later and almost no one remembers Airport 1975 answer your question. Like many of Weird Al’s more famous songs, Airplane! lives on while its inspiration is an obscure movie from the 70′s, and that’s because it’s an incredibly funny movie.
Whether it’s the dry delivery of Leslie Neilson, the gruff insanity of Robert Stack, or the jive-talking Barbara Billingsly, anyone who watches this movie comes away with something they can’t stop quoting. Anyone old enough to see movies in the 80′s will tell you that Airplane! quotes were how you broke the ice in social situations. Even now, walking into a room and asking if anyone there likes movies about gladiator movies will get someone to answer back on the topic of seeing a grown man naked.
The movie is timeless and should be shown in schools. Yes I’m serious, and don’t call me Shirley!
Parody of: Fairy tales in general, the Disney corporation specifically
Prior knowledge needed: If you’ve read a fairy tale, you’ll be fine.
Why it can stand on its own: While the later sequels focused too much on pop-culture references, the first movie is a simple story about an Ogre in a world of fractured fairy tales. He finds himself on the usual quest to save a Princess, but it doesn’t’ quite turn out like anyone expected. It’s a sharp script that’s still funny today, and the story was so good they turned it into a successful Broadway production.
The reason it works is that the story is not dependent on the audience getting the sly references to Disney theme parks, The Dating Game, and Peer Gynt. Those who do will appreciate them, of course, but the characters are so ridiculous and fun that you don’t mind if you miss them. All you really need is a talking donkey, and Ogre, a damsel who’s read far too many fairy tales, and a prince who’s clearly compensating for something. The humor is in the situation, and the pop culture references are just icing on the cake.
Parody of: Top Gun
Prior knowledge needed: Most any action movie involving planes, the first Gulf War
Why it can stand on its own: You might only remember Charlie Sheen from CBS sitcoms and going crazy, but in the 80′s and 90′s he was box-office gold. In this movie, he plays a cocky fighter pilot, parodying Tom Cruise’s Maverick. But it’s more of a parody of the genre than that movie in particular, and that’s why it works.
The film does take a few cues from world events, which is why Saddam Hussein is a character in this one and it’s sequel. However, most of the comedy is snappy dialogue, clueless characters, and good, old-fashioned physical comedy. Even twenty years later, when we’re removed from most of the references, the movie is still funny and Charlie Sheen proves that no matter what decade he’s in, he’s still funny.
Parody of: Westerns
Prior knowledge needed: If you’ve seen a Western, you know the drill. If one of the cartoons you watched growing up had a “western” theme, you know all you need to know.
Why it can stand on its own: Screwball comedy stands the test of time, which is why the Three Stooges and Abbot and Costello still get laughs. This movie is everything you love about Mel Brooks, as he addresses race, friendship, and corruption in a timeless tale that’s so big it spills into other movies.
The plot is about a Black sheriff trying to fit in and tame the old west, and while we’ve come a long way in race relations, many of the themes in this movie still ring true. It’s sharp cultural commentary is bolstered by fantastic performances from the great Madeline Kahn, Gene Wilder. Mel Brooks, and many other great character actors and comedians. Gene Wilder is at his best in this film, and it’s around the time he also made Young Frankenstein (also a Mel Brooks movie) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.