Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"How Silly Can You Get?" - Top Secret oral history contains the secrets to writing spoof movies

These days, the term "spoof movie" tends to conjure up images of churned out hackery from the likes of Friedberg/Seltzer, whose films play less like the Airplanes and Naked Guns of yore, and more like restaged sequences from recent films with a fart joke or a pop culture reference tossed in.  Product like many of the SCARY MOVIE films plays less like satire on the works it references and more like a series of "Hey, remember this moment from a 9 month-old pop culture phenomenon?" The story is threadbare and many scenes are little more than gag after gag.

The godfathers of this genre are David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, whose career-making film Airplane literally invented the spoof movie genre.  Only Mel Brooks could have a claim to getting there first, but there's a wackiness and joke density that permeates Airplane which films like even Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein don't match.

The ZAZ team made it look so easy with Airplane that when working on the film's follow-up, Top Secret! even they didn't seem to understand what really made the film work.  (I personally love the film, though.)  Its something they cop to again and again in this oral history of Top Secret!

I'm reprinting a number of their quotes here because it goes to the heart of what a good movie needs - a strong story and structure.  Everything else is gravy.

Jerry Zucker: We were funny guys who really didn’t understand, had no clue, about movie structure.

Jim Abrahams: ‘Airplane!’ was based on this movie ‘Zero Hour!,’ and that’s a story about a guy with post-traumatic stress disorder and, if you look at it in ‘Airplane!’ pretty carefully, that’s what Bob Hayes’ character had. He was plagued by demons from the war and it affected his personality.


Jerry Zucker: That’s part of the problem of doing a second movie after a big hit, everybody says, “Well, you must know.” And the fact is, we didn’t. We knew how to tell jokes, but we didn’t understand yet how to make a movie. I don’t know why nobody said, “Hey, take a structure course.”

David Zucker: We thought we hit it out of the park, because it was so funny. We knew we had the jokes. But I think we learned a lesson.

Jerry Zucker: I think some of our best jokes are in ‘Top Secret!,’ but it’s really hurt by not having a story. It doesn’t have much of a story or a hook … joke-wise, we started to run out of gas at the end of ‘Airplane!.’ But the movie doesn’t run out of gas.

Another lesson they touch on is the issue of topical jokes and references:

Jim Abrahams: Especially after ‘Airplane!,’ we started to figure out the rules of comedy beyond just our own instincts of “does that seem funny or not.” And one of the rules that we came up with was if we’re going to parody a specific scene from a movie, that it needs to work on its own. And if you get the fact it’s a parody of a specific movie, well that’s kind of frosting on the cake. 

 David Zucker: When I reflect on it, it’s better that we didn’t do topical humor. And the unique thing about movies like ‘Airplane!’ and ‘Top Secret!’ is that they are still funny. So, when I see them with audiences, they still laugh. 

 Jim Abrahams: There’s a scene on a beach in ‘Airplane!’ where Bob and Julie got wiped out by a wave. In reviews for ‘Airplane!,’ people said, “Wow, wasn’t that a clever spoof of the scene from ‘Here to Eternity.’ Well, we had never seen ‘From Here to Eternity.’ We had no idea that it was a spoof, we just thought it would be funny for a couple to get wiped out by a wave while they’re kissing on the beach. But that got us thinking that if you’re doing a spoof from a scene from a movie, it has to work regardless or not whether or not you get the reference.

 Comedy is about more than just silly gags.  Most comedy writers will tell you that the rules for writing a comedy are the same as writing any other film.  Build off of a strong structure, have a story that makes sense, and have characters who are consistently drawn.  Do all of that and the humor will arise naturally.

You can find the oral history of Top Secret! here.

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