In praise of parodies

I like comedies. And within that genre of films, I particularly like parodies. The best ones are those that are based on clichés of particular genres or specific stories that are well known, since a successful parody depends crucially on the ability of the audience to immediately recognize allusions to the original

A parody idea is not hard to come up with. What is hard is to be able to sustain the conceit over the length of a film. Even in the written form, short article parodies are difficult (I know because I have tried and failed miserably) and only a skilled writer can pull it off. I often come across attempts at parodies that seemed to have started out as a single good idea but the writer could not sustain the conceit and it soon becomes painful to read. The ability to maintain a light tough and not to belabor the point is a skill that only a few seem to be able to master. Stephen Leacock and S. J. Perelman are two writers who were good at it. As a very young boy I read Perelman’s Somewhere a Roscoe, a parody of the hard-boiled detective story, and I was hooked for life.

So here are some of my favorite film parodies. If you haven’t seen any of them, you should check them out.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is a parody classic of Camelot. There are so many good scenes in it that it is hard to choose, so I went with the killer rabbit.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) is a superb parody of life in the time of Jesus. Here is one of the funniest scenes in it.

And since you can never have too much of Monty Python, here is another one from that same film.

Mel Brooks is undoubtedly the master of the film parody and has produced some of its finest examples. Brooks has the ability to insert a parody of one genre into a parody of another. In Robin Hood, Men in Tights (1993), one of the funniest scenes is where comedian Dom de Luise does a dead-on parody of the Marlon Brando role in The Godfather. Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of it was in German, so here is a different scene involving the title song.

In Spaceballs (1987), Mel Brooks took on the mighty Star Wars franchise.

In Blazing Saddles (1974), Brooks turned his attention to the western and showed his ability to use anachronisms to good comedy effect.

And of course, the monster horror film genre was ripe for Brooks’ plucking with Young Frankenstein (1974).

Woody Allen scored a direct hit on the epic Russian psychological novel style of writers like Dostoyevsky with his wonderful Love and Death (1975), which to my mind is his best film.

A little-known but funny parody that I heard about just a month or so ago is Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), in which George Hamilton stars as both Don Diego (the canonical Zorro) and Bunny Wigglesworth, his twin brother who was sent to England as a child and returns home just in time to substitute for his injured twin. Bunny has, shall we say, a more discerning taste in clothes than his brother and disdains the simple black outfits that he favors. In this scene, Ron Leibman playing the despotic Alcalde, starts hearing reports of Bunny/Zorro’s exploits.

I had not thought of George Hamilton as a comedic actor, or even much of an actor at all and was pleasantly surprised at his ability to pull off camp comedy. I knew him as merely the famed possessor of the most perfect year-round tan, which made him a surprise choice to star as a creature of the night, the vampire Dracula in the parody Love at First Bite (1979), which was unfortunately rather uneven in quality.

I have not as yet come across good parodies of the James Bond series. Austin Powers seemed strained to me, too annoyingly caricatured, and I only watched the first one. The original Casino Royale (1967) brought together a whole series of famous actors and was a disaster. Even Peter Sellers and Woody Allen could not salvage a truly ghastly script. The only reason to watch this film is to see a colossal train wreck of a film, and the immense waste of talent.

Another genre that I have not seen a good parody of is the gangster film. It seems like The Godfather series needs a parody of its own, more than just a brief scene in Robin Hood, Men in Tights

Any suggestions for good parodies that I might have missed?


  1. says

    For a Godfather spoof, you might be interested in Mafia! (originally, and apparently once again titled “Jane Austen’s ‘Mafia!’). It’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it at least hits the genre you were looking for. 🙂

  2. Marie says

    “Johnny Dangerously” was a good gangster movie comedy, but I am aware that I am one of only three people on earth who liked it.

    I also liked “Oscar” which isn’t a parody so much as a comedy of errors set in the 30s.

  3. Elizabeth says

    “The Great Race” is an excellent racing movie spoof featuring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood. You’ve got to love any movie with a main premise of an automobile race from New York to Paris. Also, “The Princess Bride” is a parody of the fantasy genre, along with being an all around wonderful movie from start to finish.

    “Hot Fuzz” and “Shawn of the Dead” parody buddy cop movies and zombie flicks, respectively, and come from the excellent comedy team of Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost. If you like them, you should also try to get a hold of their TV series “Spaced,” which is full of parodies of more specific works.

    Also, Stephen Chow does an excellent job with parodies of martial arts movies. “Kung Fu Hustle” is more well known, but “Shaolin Soccer” is also a lot of fun to watch.

    I can’t think of any others at the moment, but I know Rowan Atkinson recently parodied Bond movies in “Johnny English.” I haven’t seen it, however, and can’t vouch for it’s quality.

  4. Anonymous says

    I’d put “The Pirate Movie” on your list. I saw it last over a decade ago, and remember some strained scenes. But it hits at some musicals, including the obvious Pirates of Penzance, as well as poking a few other areas.

  5. says

    Thanks for all the suggestions. I will check out those I haven’t seen.

    I have seen The Great Race and The Princess Bride before and they were both good. I think of them as straight comedies and would not have thought to classify either of them as parodies, but labels do not matter.

    The Princess Bride is in fact one of my favorite films.

    The Great Race was a rare exception to the case where a lot of famous actors making cameos (as in Casino Royale) did not result in a total mess. Having the great comedy team of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis anchor the film helped it a lot.

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