"I'll just get my gear."

Hot Shots! / Life Stinks

July 31, 1991

HOT SHOTS! is the story of one Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen, THE ROOKIE, NEVER ON TUESDAY), legendary former jet pilot for The Navy. When Lieutenant Commander Block (Kevin Dunn, BLUE STEEL, MARKED FOR DEATH) tracks down Harley living in a teepee and breathing helium through a pipe, he agrees to return to the S.S. Essess aircraft carrier and join a team for Operation Sleeping Weasel, a mission to blow up a nuclear power plant. But he’ll have to contend with sabotage from high up and his own PTSD about his father causing a crash that resulted in a deadly hunting accident.

Of course not one second of this is done with sincerity, because it’s AIRPLANE! co-director Jim Abrahams doing a parody and/or spoof of the popular IRON EAGLE ripoff TOP GUN with co-writer Pat Proft (POLICE ACADEMY, REAL GENIUS). Abrahams was a writer and executive producer on the first NAKED GUN and then producer on the sequel released earlier in the summer. (Both were co-written by Proft.) This was Abrahams’ followup to WELCOME HOME, ROXY CARMICHAEL, which I don’t think I ever knew was directed by him, and that makes me more curious about that largely forgotten movie seen and thought to be pretty decent by all people of a certain age who felt a certain way about Winona Ryder.

Since TOP GUN is not really a genre like disaster movies or old cop shows it’s a little odd when this doesn’t directly follow the original plot. It feels like they did it wrong. The traumatic flashbacks seem like AIRPLANE! leftovers (maybe they came with the exclamation point?) and, of course they throw in scenes referencing a selection of popular movies (DANCES WITH WOLVES, COCKTAIL, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, ROCKY, GONE WITH THE WIND, SUPERMAN, 9 1/2 WEEKS), like the comedy equivalent of a wedding cover band. “You guys recognize this! Isn’t this fun?”

There are definitely smiles or light chuckles at least every 5 or so minutes, and even a laugh or two. I think for me the biggest one was after Wash Out (Jon Cryer, DUDES) confesses to Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes, THE BRIDE, also NEVER ON TUESDAY) that his dad was the hunter who mistook his father for a deer and shot him, when he adds, “If it helps, I didn’t have seconds.” Also I chuckled a little when soon-to-be-love-interest Ramada leaps off of a horse and does gymnastics on a tree branch – the ridiculousness got me despite not understanding it was some kind of OFFICER AND A GENTLEMEN reference.

There are many jokes about planes being like cars – they have rear view mirrors, they can back up, that kind of stuff. There are jokes like a guy cooks a hot dog in the fire from a jet engine. And etcetera. Like NAKED GUN 2 1/2 it has completely non-political political topicality, like “Read my lips, no new taxes” showing up in a flashback (okay, that’s kind of amusing), and impersonators playing Pope John Paul II and Saddam Hussein. And just as NG 2.5 had a very basic environmental message in the villain’s plot, this one has kind of a military-industrial complex thing that wasn’t present in the feature length recruiting commercial TOP GUN (Block is trying to make the mission fail to convince the government to buy jets from a guy he has a deal with). There are a bunch of pop culture references to things we still remember but that aren’t really funny: The Brady Bunch, Paul Abdul, Tom Jones playing Vegas, Elvis sightings, Don King, that commercial that said “I’m going to Disneyland,” and of course that timeless observation “Latoya, Tito and Jermaine are funny names. Can you believe it? Latoya!? What were they thinking?”

Sheen does good at the totally deadpan thing, as does Valeria Golino (BLIND DATE) as his psychiatrist who unethically falls in love with/fucks him. Lloyd Bridges (JOE V. VOLCANO) is maybe the most classically AIRPLANE!esque in that he’s a now-gray-haired veteran actor doing total buffoonery with a straight face. Some – maybe most – of it is pretty funny, and some of it is banging his head into things. In a smaller part, Kristy Swanson (later in THE CHASE with Sheen) is as likable as she was in MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE as Kowalski, with the kind of cute joke that she seems to be allowed to be a fighter pilot just because nobody notices she’s a woman, even when everybody is shirtless and she’s in a bra.

The best bit that’s specifically about TOP GUN is the character Dead Meat (William O’Leary, LOST ANGELS), who exists as a running gag about the heavy-handed foreshadowing of Goose’s death. Before his fateful flight Dead Meat tells his wife (Heidi Swedberg, KINDERGARTEN COP) he has a solution for global warming and the answer to who assassinated JFK, and he almost signs a life insurance form but the pen doesn’t work.

It’s not nearly a slick enough movie to capture TOP GUN’s style, but cinematographer Bill Butler (JAWS, ROCKY II, III and IV, CHILD’S PLAY, GRAFFITI BRIDGE) does get some good orange haze going a couple of times. They also got TOP GUN aerial consultant Richard T. Stevens (FIREBIRDS) to shoot some flying sequences.

I don’t think this assessment will be met with broad approval, but I was surprised to find that NAKED GUN 2 1/2 held up as surprisingly funny and this much more beloved movie really did not. The former proves that an onslaught of random dumb silliness can still make me laugh in spite of myself, but the HOT SHOTS! version of that just is not effective on me. Most of the jokes just aren’t of a very high quality, and they’re also too tempted to cram in ADR lines that shit all over the flow of their other jokes. Like, at the end of a sequence about a plane crash where the pilot miraculously survives, only to be bumped by a jet and fly through the air and die, why would he say “Oh no!” and then half a second later “Wendy, I can fly!” Well, obviously because it made them laugh when they decided to add it in after staying up too late working on the sound mix or whatever. As is their right. But to me it’s an unfunny joke stepping on the punchline of an okay one. Maybe that lack of discipline is part of the charm of these movies, but it’s not enough for me.

HOT SHOTS! opened at #1, knocking T2 to #2, and it stayed in the spot for a month. It made $69 million – quite a bit less than the NAKED GUN sequel, but enough to come in #12 at the 1991 box office and get its own nonsensically numbered sequel.

Since HOT SHOTS!, Abrahams has only directed its 1993 sequel and JANE AUSTEN’S MAFIA! in 1998. He also co-wrote SCARY MOVIE 4, but I assume they didn’t use all of his stuff otherwise it would be called SCARY MOVIE QUATRO!.

 

One of the movies that HOT SHOTS! obliterated at the box office was Mel Brooks’ LIFE STINKS, released July 26th. I often have a hard time reviewing straight up comedies, but I’ve already done SWITCH, MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE, CITY SLICKERS, DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD, THE NAKED GUN 2 1/2 and PROBLEM CHILD 2 (plus the fancier HUDSON HAWK and BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY) for this series, so for historical purposes I figured I should extend that courtesy to a movie that attempts to address a social issue of the time (and forever) and that, as the third to last movie directed by a comedy legend, shows a shift going on as we entered the ‘90s.

I actually saw LIFE STINKS in the theater at the time, and it’s about as I remembered: not as awful as everyone said at the time, definitely well-meaning, also not good. It’s Brooks’ followup to SPACEBALLS, and his only movie that’s not parodying some other type of movie. Instead it’s a SULLVAN’S TRAVELS type premise, or a rich man’s bet story like TRADING PLACES or BREWSTER’S MILLIONS. Brooks plays Goddard Bolt, a super-rich building-making asshole who dreams of redeveloping a particular Los Angeles slum. In order to do it he must buy the land from another rich asshole named Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor, CITY SLICKERS), which leads to a bet that he can’t survive on the streets without money for a month.

Brooks does a good job of setting up an exaggerated (or maybe not) picture of the class divide. He opens with his character riding through the slums listening to news radio talking about rising unemployment, and the title pops up over a freeze frame of three homeless guys his limo just splashed puddle water onto.


We then watch Goddard’s feet march through the lobby of his building and to his office, followed by an entourage so sycophantic that when he slips and catches himself on someone’s spilled coffee each of his companions do the same.

In his board room he is cartoonishly evil, for example making a heartless joke about an indigenous tribe that would be displaced by his plan to clearcut some Brazilian rain forest. And I like that he apparently hired someone to create a meticulously detailed model of the slum neighborhood just so he could crush it under the model of what he wants to build there.


When he agrees to the bet his lawyers try to talk him out of it, reminding him that “You’ve never eaten out of a garbage can before, you’re used to a hearty breakfast!” There’s some funny stuff here.

So it’s a little jarring when, after sleeping in an alley, being nicknamed “Pepto” by a guy who pisses on him (Howard Morris, SPLASH), and being served at a soup kitchen by Carmen Filpi (last seen eaten in the sewer in ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION), he immediately starts seeming like a sweetheart. There’s something kind of nice about 65 year old Brooks playing a leading man – he even looks kind of handsome – but it doesn’t seem like the same character at all, and I certainly don’t buy the idea that the greedy developers getting rich by ruining cities would have a change of heart after one day of temporary hardship.

Of course, the most condescending aspect is that the homeless community of 1991 all seem like Depression era hobos, wearing dirty suits and old timey hats and stuff. And though the movie is always on their side (Goddard even falls in love with the possibly mentally ill so-called “bag lady” Molly, played by Lesley Ann Warren [BURGLAR]) it treats them as people with no interest in dignity, always covered in filth to the point where it’s even used to Stick It to the Man when they bum rush an event for Crasswell’s rich friends. Ha ha, those uptight jerks have to be near smelly gross people, the movie seems to say.

Of Goddard’s new friends, the most subtle is played by Teddy Wilson (COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, CARNY, THE HUNTER), and then you find out his name is Fumes and he can drink alcohol that would kill anyone else. At least he gets to tell Goddard “Man, you throw a mean face” after he gets beat up by Brian Thompson (FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2) and Raymond O’Connor (HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS).

In a retrospective featurette on the DVD, Brooks talks about Reagan closing clinics and says “It’s always nice to say something about the social dynamics of a time instead of merely having fun with human foibles.” And the movie seems very sincere. Has he ever done another movie with something as heartfelt as him finding his friend dead on the sidewalk? Not that I know of. But maybe that’s why he goes a little too heavy-handed, with a seen-it-all storeowner character yelling “The guys is dead. He’s blocking my place. You know ‘im, get ‘im outta here!”

Soon there’s a sweet scene about spreading the deceased friends’ ashes in the L.A.river where John Connor and the Terminator got chased by a semi. And the ashes blow into their faces much like later happened in THE BIG LEBOWSKI (though the latter executes it better).

Maybe the scene where Brooks’ heart is most firmly attached to his sleeve is when Molly – said to be a former Broadway dancer – performs a whole dance number in some kind of abandoned garment factory. Then they’re about to fuck on a pile of clothes and it fades to black!

(choreographer: Jeffrey Hornaday, FLASHDANCE, ROMANCING THE STONE, STREETS OF FIRE, CAPTAIN EO, TANGO & CASH, DICK TRACY)

A less cutesy flight of fancy is the climactic excavator duel, with creaking metal sounds that make it play like a dinosaur fight.

This is, of course, not the most highly researched depiction of life on the streets. But we see them face violence, starvation, lack of health care, lack of access to shelter during extreme weather, lack of respect when, for example, all of Molly’s belongings are set on fire and a witness refers to them as “just a bunch of junk.” But this is also a fantasy world where LAPD officers show up to stop Goddard from fighting with another homeless guy (co-writer Rudy De Luca, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA) and they actually just split them up. They don’t rough up either of them, not even a little! It’s weird that it shows the head doctor at the hospital he gets dumped off at is much more disrespectful and threatening to him than the cops.

It’s supposed to be a happy ending, with Goddard and Molly getting married and planning to rebuild the neighborhood with free housing and clinics. But it’s ironic that it ends with the two leaving their wedding in a white limo without mirroring the opening by splashing mud on some rich guys somewhere. Instead Goddard gets in another altercation with the same mentally ill homeless guy from earlier, and it freezes on that. The status quo has not changed.

I can’t find LIFE STINKS on the box office charts. It reportedly made $4.1 million on a $13 million budget. Reviews were mostly abysmal too, though Roger Ebert gave it three stars and wrote, “It has its laughs, but it’s a more thoughtful film, more softhearted toward its characters. It’s warm and poignant.”

In 1992 Michael Medved – the critic who popularized making fun of Ed Wood in the Golden Turkeys book, then was a Siskel & Ebert replacement with Jeffrey Lyons on Sneak Previews – published the book Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War On Traditional Values. I checked it out from the library way back then and for some reason it stuck with me that he was really offended by the title LIFE STINKS, which he took to be a straight forward nihilistic message despite what a fucking idiot you’d have to be to watch it and not notice that it’s arguing the opposite. Medved goofily holds up the movie’s box office failure as proof that America rejects Brooks’ life stinking agenda. The book was asinine enough to land Medved a guest host spot on Rush Limbaugh, which led to him having his own long-running radio show broadcast from here in Seattle. He was still sore about LIFE STINKS decades later, as seen in this CNN piece about the 2010 Oscar ceremony.

After the poor reception of his sincerity in LIFE STINKS, Brooks returned to parody, as he may well have done anyway. But it’s worth noting that his two subsequent directorial works, ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, are headlined by HOT SHOTS! co-star Cary Elwes and NAKED GUN star Leslie Nielsen respectively. Even the director of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN eventually seemed like he had to follow the lead of the AIRPLANE! dudes. So I respect that in ’91 he put himself out there and tried something riskier.

 

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63 Responses to “Hot Shots! / Life Stinks”

  1. I agree that NG2.5 is better than HOT SHOTS; I sort of feel, correct me if you think I’m wrong anyone, that PART DEUX has pretty much eclipsed the original in the popular consciousness, despite the making about half as much money at the time.

  2. When I saw PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, I was curious where I recognized Valeria Golino from, and quite surprised when the answer turned out to be HOT SHOTS!

    (Similar to when I figured out that the reason Tom Wilkinson looked familiar was from the Martin Lawrence film BLACK KNIGHT)

  3. I prefer Hot Shots! to NG2.5, which I think must really just come down to taste? I get more laughs out of Hot Shots, but I would also agree that it has more sloppy misfires than NG2.5. Really, I quite like both of them, though.

    Pacman, I don’t know if Part Deux has actually exlipsed the original, but from what I can tell, it does seem to be at least equally beloved (and which is at least as good), which is interesting considering its considerable box office drop from the first.

  4. Main thing I remember about this was Lloyd Bridges was hilarious and that Sheen got seriously ripped — or carved, if you’re watching ITYSL — for PART DEUX, which was nominally anchored in a RAMBO parody.

  5. Ha I read that Medved book too because I saw it discussed a lot of movies I liked. I don’t remember anything that specific but sounds about right, missing the point for the sake of outrage.

    Part Deux is definitely superior, perhaps because it satirized a genre I was much more interested in than Top Gun, or maybe because war movies are an actual genre as opposed to “there was that plane movie once, and these other ones.”

    The evolution of these parody movies could make an interesting series. From OG Brooks to ZAZ to Friedberg/Seltzer. The late 90s are a weird middle period where veterans like Abrahams and Nielsen couldn’t make it funny anymore. (What a disappointment the Nielsen/Brooks collab was.)

    When I saw Lebowski I did remember the ashes joke from Life Stinks. It bummed me out that they included a used joke but honestly the Coens or anybody else probably never saw Life Stinks.

  6. If PART DEUX is better-remembered today, I assume it’s for the same reason as BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO? Sequel names more seared into people’s memories than any of the movies themselves?

  7. I was watching RUTHLESS PEOPLE a while ago — maybe my favourite of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films, though it’s near-forgotten nowadays — and man, there are so many badly looped lines. Why did they think all that ADR was a good idea? Why didn’t they at least put more money into the sound editing?

  8. Oh shit, despite what I said about NAKED GUN 2 1/2 being the first ZAZ (style) movie I ever saw, I now realize that it was actually HOT SHOTS! It was at a friend’s birthday 9th birthday party. Man, that was the funniest shit I had ever seen! Of course I didn’t know TOP GUN back then, but it still worked, because the whole thing was so fucking ridiculous.

    Can’t speak for the rest of the world, but LIFE STINKS is pretty popular here, thanks to a period in the late 90s/early 00s where it seemed to be constantly on TV. One station just showed the scene of Mel Brooks dancing for money as a trailer for it and it made me laugh every damn time. But yeah, it always rubbed me a bit the wrong way that homeless people were here more portrayed as a quirky group of outsiders who might have some (admittedly pretty bad) problems, but at least have each other.

  9. LIFE STINKS is Brooks being political. And even if he simplifies things a bit, the movie still has some sound ideas. And it’s funnier than people seemed to think at the time.

  10. Thomas Caniglia

    July 29th, 2021 at 5:44 am

    Medved’s the worst. Vern came to save us all from the dark reign of that kind of critic.

  11. Wow, that’s really interesting to hear that LIFE STINKS is popular in at least one other part of the world. Here it was completely rejected when it came out and has not improved in reputation. I don’t think many know of it, and those who do mostly haven’t seen it. I think part of it is just the title being pretty unappealing, not for Medved’s reasoning that America rejects nihilism, but just that “stinks” was already a dated term at the time that makes it sound cheesy, and I think it’s supposed to be a pun about living in garbage, but if not it sounds like one.

  12. Abrahams actually directed one other post-HOT SHOTS film, the forgotten 1997 Meryl Streep movie …FIRST DO NO HARM. I guess like former partner Jerry Zucker, he decided to give the ol’ “prestige Hollywood” route a try: even though it was made for TV, it starred Meryl Streep so that seems like it must have been a big deal. (Meryl would steal his trademark exclamation point later for MAMMA MIA!)

    Also since I’m already being obnoxious pointing things out, Mel Brooks made the underrated, non-parody THE TWELVE CHAIRS in 1970 before he started his series of cinematic send-ups.

    I can see the appeal of LIFE STINKS, doing his own take on SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, but it seems like the kind of project he would produce for Brooksfilm rather than directing and acting in himself. The next movie they produced (and the last one not directed by Mel or a remake of one of Mel’s movies) was THE VAGRANT with Bill Paxton being victimized by a crazy derelict played by Marshall bell, which probably erased all the sensitivity towards the situation of homeless people generated by LIFE STINKS.

    He at least should have cast Anne Bancroft as Molly, although I seem to remember Lesley Ann Warren being fine.

  13. Look, I love Naked Gun 2 1/2, but it will always pale to the original. Hot Shots! meanwhile was a new strategy parodying a single movie for its structure then leaning on references to segue. It’s not “hey it’s that movie I remember that, it’s that funny”, it’s the joke of where it fit in the “story”, the (hopefully) cleverness of placement and execution.

    Vern already quoted my favorite bit but I also love when Sheen is going on about his motorcycle and Cryer says, “A loner”, and Sheen replies, “Nah, I own it.”

    There are also a lot of great background bits as opposed to the foreground stuff like the hotdog. Watching out the windows during Bridges scenes are a highlight, as is his bit with the pudding.

    If you want real unfiltered Proft (who also was a writer on the awesome Bachelor Party) check out the following year’s BRAIN DONORS. Love that silliness.

    And Matthew I’ll never forget RUTHLESS PEOPLE if for no other reason than Bill Pullman at the fish tank going, “Crockett and Tubbs. They’re floatin’.”

  14. “Hot Shots! meanwhile was a new strategy parodying a single movie for its structure then leaning on references to segue.”

    Isn’t that just the AIRPLANE! strategy? The script for AIRPLANE! famously cribbed its structure and even much of its dialogue directly from an old picture named ZERO HOUR. It’s such a shameless lift that ZAZ had to be told to change some of it so they wouldn’t get sued. The jokes, however, are more free-ranging in their targets, from blaxploitation to coffee commercials to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.

  15. While I prefer part deux, og Hot Shots still has plenty of silly gags that make me smile. All the ones everyone mentioned, for sure. But the running gag of Bridges never remembering Dunn’s name, as well as the story behind all his injuries, always bring me joy!

    Also, Eagle River?!? is oft brought up by me and friends whenever a geographical coincidence is had.

    The biggest problem with Naked Gun/Hot Shots is that ZAZ divided but did not entirely conquer. They did good stuff but the ratios weren’t exactly right.

    But they supplied plenty for me and my friends to laugh over for decades, so its alright.

    Still have never seen Life Stinks. I remember that and Mobsters opened at the 3-pled, and we opted for Mobsters because it had guns and the alluring possibility of gratuitous nudity. (Manna from heaven for my pubescent teen mind).

    But I will defend one scene in his Dracula. Its a dream sequence where Drac is out in the daytime, and it was a genuinely funny performance from Nielsen. (I think the payoff end to it was also gross and funny, but i could be wrong.)

  16. I think a lot of the attraction with LIFE STINKS, for us left wing Europeans anyway, was the notion that you won’t get a decent society without distributing the wealth. And it has excavator action!

  17. To Be or Not to Be was also not strictly a parody of something else, tho it was a remake.

    I think the original Scary Movie doesn’t get enough credit for how effectively it combined two movie plots. Combining Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer really pointed out the absurdity of each plot. Of course that was the last time it was effective. Even Scary 2 couldn’t make it work.

  18. Sorry Mr. M, I guess I meant “recognizable” movie lol as they’d done ENTER THE DRAGON in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE but it was just part of that skit-filled entry. HOT SHOTS! really played up mimicking the look of TOP GUN in trailers whereas I doubt many would have thought ZERO HOUR when AIRPLANE! launched *cough*

    This was followed by the Wayans criss-crossing in DON’T BE A MENACE TO SOCIETY WHILE DRINKING JUICE IN THE HOOD and SCARY MOVIE. The latter was an awesome mashup as per Franchise Fred, but they dabbled successfully with the earlier HOOD movie parody of BOYZ N THE HOOD and MENACE II SOCIETY.

    I think those three, plus the RAMBO-themed advertising of HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX, showed a certain slice of “recognizable” movie being parodied and associated advertising to sell that versus the wretched DATE MOVIE and it’s ilk.

  19. Didn’t SPACEBALLS kinda do that first though? It was very clearly a STAR WARS parody, not a general sci-fi parody.

  20. With elements from ALIEN and some other sci fi movies, mind you.

  21. Thinking about it, Walk Hard is the best modern spoof movie. It’s more of a style parody of musical biopics but has recognizable Walk the Line/Ray elements. But it also manages to parody half a century of music and culture too, probably aided by the necessity to write original songs for it.

  22. “Thinking about it, Walk Hard is the best modern spoof movie”

    Agree! It deserves to be fished out of that giant crack it slipped into and re-introduced. If released at least a decade earlier when there was still a decent appetite for spoof movies, this could have done some serious numbers.

    Thankfully, the recognition of John C Reilly’s humongous talent ensures the man is never out of work.

  23. Are we counting Galaxy Quest as modern? Because that’s a spoof so good people like it as a legitimate story. But yeah, spoof movies, not exactly a crowded field. You’ve got Scary Movie and all the Movie Movies that came after, Wayans Brothers spoofs on this and that… okay, Austin Powers, also not really modern… I heard someone suggest once that spoof movies are a bit redundant these days, since your post-post-ironic Marvel movies and Star Treks and Star Warses are already lampooning themselves, however gently (Sulu leaves the parking brake on the Enterprise in the first Abrams Trek). So how different would ZAZ’s take on Thor really be from Thor: Ragnarok?

  24. That was an interesting issue with Scary Movie. Scream was already self-referential. I think combining the two plots was the answer to that conundrum. And remember they did have some Matrix and Sixth Sense random mentions too.

    The Galaxy Quest within Galaxy Quest is a spoof but I don’t think the whole movie is. It’s a comedic adventure that certainly has fun with the genre tropes.

    As modern I’d say of these 21st century, so Austin Powers is of the same decade as Hot Shots. It is a unique approach where you know what it’s satirizing but it’s not doing shot for shot scenes out of James Bond movies.

  25. I never experienced AUSTIN POWERS as in that same sub-genre of spoof as a ZAZ or SCARY MOVIE type of deal. The ZAZ spoofs in particular have a kind of frantic zaniness about them where they are driven almost entirely by a mix of sight gags, double entendres, topical references to contemporary political or pop culture events, very on-the-nose send-ups of specific iconic scenes or dialogue from other films, and puns. The other feature of the ZAZ-style spoof is that it is intentionally, immediately, and persistently untethered from any logic or coherent laws of time or normal physics. Finally, the lead characters in these films tend to be straight-men with deliberately under-developed personalities, inner life of character arcs. They are designed to be one-dimensional genre trope characters, who are most notable for an excessive seriousness that is completely at odds with their ridiculous circumstances. MEN IN TIGHTS and SCARY MOVIE and those other [INSERT GENRE HERE] MOVIE knock-offs are clearly trying to channel those same ingredients, and while you can those elements in other films (particularly Mel Brooks, here), ZAZ in my opinion essentially created a new sub-genre, that is now essentially dead as far as I can tell.

    Which is not to say that AUSTIN POWERS doesn’t have elements or influences from the ZAZ or Brooks parody film. It certainly has sight gags, a general spirit of throw-stuff-at-the-wall zaniness, and it does exist in a sort of heightened magical reality and has spoofy elements.

    However, I’d put AUSTIN POWERS in similar company to ACE VENTURA, UNDERCOVER BROTHER, and ANCHORMAN. This is the “mutually definining high-concept character and milieu” sub-genre. Each of these films exists in it own more-or-less-cohesive and somewhat fantastical world and/or have an implausibly strange and over-the-top, dances-to-his-own-drum type of lead character. These films are generally characterized by a cohesive overall milieu and texture that is not constantly being intruded upon with anacrhonisms and references to other movies or *contemporary* pop culture, or other sight gags and double entendres. Yes, there are existence proof elements like that to be found (e.g., the CRYING GAME reference), but when you watch ACE, or ANCHORMAN, or AUSTIN POWERS, you are pretty well-situated in a cohesive world that this character is the center of and that has a kind of life and logic all its own and that has its own distinctive appeal. The lead character really defines the film, and at least in the case of period-ish films like ANCHORMAN and AUSTIN, the lead and the period sort of embody and define each other. These films exist as more than a joke about other films or contemporary culture.

    Anyway, I definitely see Venn diagram overlap and family resemblances and mutual influences and whatnot, but these sorts of modern slaptsick spoof movies that were biggest in the late 80s through the 2000s (pretty much peinto the early 2010s

  26. Oops, disregard that last sentence.

  27. That sounds more like ZAZ as auteur fingerprint than a specific spoof subgenre. Maybe the genre just evolved through ZAZ the same way it evolved through Mel Brooks (was Get Smart the first example of this specific spoofery?).

  28. I assume BLACK DYNAMITE counts as a spoof, so that’s definitely my favorite modern one.

  29. I thought Angie Tribeca was a pretty good Police Squad! type spoof

  30. As I was writing that screed above it occurred to me that Mel Brooks deserves a lot of credit, but then I feel as though ZAZ really perfected it. But I don’t think it’s only them, becuase I think the NAKED GUN/HOT SHOTS ZAZ-verse is what inspired the initial non-ZAZ SCARY MOVIE films, as well as various others, like FATAL INSTINCT, WRONGFULLY ACCUSED, NATL LAMPOON’S LOADED WEAPON, SILENCE OF THE HAMS, DON’T BE A MENACE TO SOUTH CENTRAL, etc. And then it kind of comes full circle when ZAZ are brought into the SCARY MOVIE franchises, and then we see this whole [BLANK] MOVIE movie thing happen. So, I think it started as their particular lane, then it really did become a fairly vibrant sub-genre of its own in the 90s and early 2000s and then kind of petered out by the early 2010s.

    I kind of butchered it above, so, to restate, I think the defining features are:
    1. An emphasis on sight gags, puns and double-entendres, topical pop culture references, and explicit, on-the-nose film parodies
    2. No pretense of being grounded in a coherent world that adheres to a basic logic of time or space — the gags are the point, and they are constantly interrupting and disrupting the plot or the arcs, which are always tertiary to the string of gags
    3. Lead characters that are empty tropes by design (typically, it’s the generic serious, stoic, hard-boiled type)

    In contrast, the “high-concept comedy hero/milieu” film’s defining features are
    1. A very strange and charismatic high-concept lead character performed in an outsized, hammy way (Ace Ventura, Ron Burgundy, Austin Powers)
    2. A coherent, heightened reality film world that is itself a kind of character (e.g., Austin Powers’s 1960s hippie world, Burgundy’s 1970’s)
    3. A co-inhering quality among 1 and 2 — Austin Power’s is 60s free love man out of time, Burgundy is 70s insecure man’s man
    4. The character and his plight are central to the movie, which follows a more or less coherent and linear plot and arc. The film may be very broad and surreal, and it may have sight gags, but all of that serves 1-2, as opposed to 1-2 simply being a backdrop for a random assemblage of trending pop culture potpourri and explicit parody of scenes from other recent movies

  31. Yeah, I don’t want to split hairs too finely, but I think there is the ZAZ spoof that tends to be more topical, opportunistic, and of-the-moment, and where the characters are secondary to the gags and bits. Like, the particularly notable thing about a ZAZ film or is ilk (e.g., LOADED WEAPON), is how it’s constantly cutting to weird visual things that don’t belong in the frame. Like, Frank Drebin goes to the water cooler and then suddenly there’s T-pain dressed as a basketball referree, and Magic Johnson dribbles by but then has his ball stolen by Neo from the Matrix who passes it to Edward from Twilight — not that exact thing, but that kind of thing is happening in your ZAZ-style movies all the time. In that regard, I see BLACK DYNAMITE as closer to the second type of film I described above, where there’s definitely kind of a period / homage thing, but where BLACK DYNAMITE’s world is a more-or-less self-contained world, and you’re not going to see a Tekashi 6-9 suddently pop up for no good reason except for you to say, “Hey, it’s Tekashi!”

  32. Black Dynamite definitely counts and it’s easily neck and neck with Walk Hard. Unfortunately neither were big hits so the genre has sort of died. Angie Tribeca did it on tv but I couldn’t get into it.

  33. Count me as one of the “Part Deux is better crowd”. I just remember it taking bigger & more ridiculous swings and connecting more often, culminating with the “using a chicken as an arrow” gag. Of course, I haven’t seen it since it’s release so who knows what I’d think of it now. Honestly, the previously referenced gag is the ONLY specific gag I remembered from either of the Hot Shots! films (prior to reading this review obviously).

  34. Interesting thing about Black Dynamite was it was spoofing a decades old genre. Walk Hard was tackling the still recent spate of musician biopics. So Black Dynamite may actually be a modern day Blazing Saddles.

  35. Maybe I’m just easier on the earlier ones, but I always thought that was what ruined the spoof movies. AIRPLANE! and NAKED GUN have jokes that go all over the place, but they pretty much stick to the format of the chosen genre. The later ones started smooshing together a bunch of unrelated movie parodies and to me personally that’s cheap, shameful hackery. To be fair, I have never watched the entire genre of “NOT ANOTHER ______” and “_____ MOVIE,” but I get the impression they’re the final evolution of that embarrassing approach.

  36. Hot Shots! Part Deux. Officially the most violent movie ever made! Wasn’t the original Airplane! more a send up of the Airport series of disaster movies?

    Either way, the best of those kind of movies (Airplane, Naked Gun) take more a Marx brothers approach. Take a broadly recognisable plot and throw as many incidental jokes of every type at it as you can. It’s partly the overwhelming, scattergun effect that makes those funny rather than any specific element of parody.

  37. I remember Not Another Teen Movie being surprisingly solid–helps that it was parodying just teen movies, natch, and not everything in pop culture.

  38. It has some good gags, but at the end of the day it kind of *was* just another (late 90s\early 00s) teen movie.

  39. That’s solid as hell.

  40. This is what I get for trying to be a big man and show off with HTML.

    Janey: [talking about her dead mom] I remember it like it was yesterday, Christmas 1989, Dad had just gotten fired from the Zippo factory, Mom was still pulling in tricks to make ends meet, Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for “My Left Foot”, and all I wanted was one of those little Betsy Wetsy dolls.

    Jake: I remember those. Push her belly and she’d piss all over herself.

    Janey: She said she was going out to get my Dad a bottle of gin, but, I knew she was going to get me that present. It was raining really hard that night, the roads were… slippery.

    Jake: Janey… a car accident.

    Janey: No. Cancer.

  41. I’m surprised this crowd would forget the KICKBOXER parody in PART DEUX, where, instead of glue and glass, Topper dips his glove into chocolate syrup and then M&Ms at a snack bar before a big fight.

    The BLACK DYNAMITEs, and AUSTIN POWERSes, and ANCHORMANs certainly have a foot in spoof/parody, and BLACK DYNAMITE arguably is a true spoof/parody, though I see shades of difference b/t it and WALK HARD. BLACK DYNAMITE seems to have greater affection for the blaxploitation genre, and BLACK DYNAMITE is a pretty strong, cool character in his own right, and his world has a distinctive feel. WALK HARD seems a little more ZAZzed out in the sense that Dewey Cox is a bit of a generic cypher character, the film itself seems to have more snark and less affection toward the type of film being satirized, and I think there’s the topical element in that it seems to be directly inspired by the Johnny Cash biopic. You could rightly call BLACK DYNAMITE a “love letter” to the films and culture it satirizes, and I think Jai White would agree. And that film is a sort of worthy meta-contribution to the blaxploitation genre. I don’t think any of that holds for WALK HARD, which is more just making fun of the maudlin, cliched nature of biopics in general, 50s-60s musician biopics in particular (a small crop of them over the last 35 years), and WALK THE LINE very specifically. I still agree though that BLACK DYNAMITE and WALK HARD are pretty close on the continuum, but WALK HARD seems to blur more directly in the ZAZ style, and is kind of to boomer rock biopics what LOADED WEAPON is to 80s-90s action flicks (though WALK HARD is substantially better).

  42. That’s an interesting distinction. BLACK DYNAMITE makes you want to watch a bunch of blaxploitation, while WALK HARD ensures that you’ll never be able to take another musical biopic seriously as long as you live. The closest analog to BD would probably be YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, which, in my opinion, is more successful nowadays as a loving homage to Universal horror than as a satire of same, while WALK HARD is more AIRPLANE!: a spoof so pointed and pitiless that it seeks to functionally end the genre it parodies. If only WALK HARD had been as successful as AIRPLANE! We’d have been spared that whole BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY debacle.

  43. Yup, I’ll buy all that.

  44. It’s interesting that the ZAZ style of spoof is one of the few subgenres of 1980s cinema that has not gotten a revival. Is there something about it that makes it unique to its era and impossible to replicate?

    Skani, you might be on to something in your analysis that the ZAZ movies are about a blank, deadpan hero surrounded by random silliness, whereas later spoofs like AUSTIN POWERS have a more outrageous comedic hero in a more richly imagined world.

    Maybe the issue is that the ZAZ movies are subverting a type of bland 1950s/1960s Establishment seriousness that still held some sway back then, at the very least through television reruns. The joke of casting Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges was that audiences knew them as earnest leading men.

    But like those old-timey pulp heroes that Vern loves but ticket buyers avoid, maybe that culture is now too far in the past to resonate. Newer comedies are swinging for the fences with more edgy/alternative characters and jokes, and/or putting more effort into accurately capturing the look and tone of a particular genre.

    For example, GALAXY QUEST is clearly a STAR TREK parody/homage, but it develops its world and characters as believably as any other mainstream movie, it never breaks the fourth wall. There’s never the kind of joke where the camera hits something or the offscreen orchestra is revealed or a character talks to the audience. It doesn’t go against logic or physics any more than a standard sci-fi movie would.

    When BLACK DYNAMITE goes for jokes like a visible microphone or bad continuity, the joke is “this is something a bad movie from the era would actually do”. And in the DVD commentary track I recall them talking about trying to imagine the fictitious director of this 1970s movie – a Jewish guy who was a hippie and hung out with Black Panthers. And of course the trailer lists a bunch of fictitious celebrities – football player Ferrante Jones is Black Dynamite, etc.

    That’s a higher commitment to world-building compared to a ZAZ movie, which will always destroy its own reality for the sake of a throwaway gag.

    I wasn’t aware that HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX was a box office disappointment, but maybe that was the first sign that audiences were losing interest in the ZAZ style of spoof. And Roger Ebert’s review of MAFIA! (which I recently watched for the first time, and thought was hilarious) basically said that this kind of comedy doesn’t cut it any more now that we’ve seen THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (which was the big recent comedy at the time).

    Maybe the ZAZ / Mel Brooks style of comedy is just out of fashion. I’ve never watched any of the “____ MOVIE” style of spoof (except for the original SCARY MOVIE) but I have accepted the concensus viewpoint that they are terrible, without watching them to find out for myself. Maybe postmodernist film historians of the future will find something important in them, the same way that blaxploitation movies and 1950s sci-fi B movies became more iconic with time. Who knows.

  45. Curt, yes, of course, I’m onto something. This is me we’re talking about.

    I think you are right. There is always a tension between the approach of trying to segment these films into Platonic ideal types and the approach of viewing later films as building on and evolving from and being in conversation with the earlier films. I think it’s more like speciation and such — things evolve, mutate, go extinct, share family resemblances.

    For instance, starting with BILLY MADISON and HAPPY GILMORE, there was this absurdist / surrealist turn where you would have a film that was in many ways like a classic SNL star vehicle (a la Bill Murray or Chevy Chase), but then there would be this plentiful sprinkling of utterly bizarre stuff. I won’t bother you with too many examples, but, for instance, giant talking penguin, random extended Boy George dance sequence, abrupt musical number, go to your happy place dream sequence, a giant wooden artificial hand. We start to see that absurdist turn gather momentum with films like ALMOST HEROES, and then some of the frat pack stuff, like ANCHORMAN, DODGEBALL, and to some extent ZOOLANDER and STARSKY AND HUTCH. Each of these films exists in an extremely surreal world where deliberately hyperbolic and magical realism-y type of stuff is happening all over the place. This can be contrasted with more grounded, mainstream (non-surreal, non-absurdist) stuff, like MEET THE PARENTS, WEDDING CRASHERS, TOMMY BOY, ALONG CAME POLLY. These latter films star a lot of the same people, and they have their own zaniness or outsized characters, but they’re nowhere near the level of absurdity of a ZOOLANDER, DODGEBALL, or BILLY MADISON.

    The thing about the more evolutionary view is that, once these elements emerge and catch some traction, they become more of a part of the toolkit or palette. So, you might sprinkle in some elements of the absurd in an otherwise grounded comedy. And it’s always a conversation, where you can see early embers of ideas that probably influenced other folks who went bigger and broader. For instance, we see the obvious Mel Brooks influence on the ZAZ team. We see the “zippity doo-dah” magical realism moment from FLETCH LIVES (an otherwise pretty traditional Chase vehicle) as a fore-runner to the absurdity of later films. And so on.

  46. Curt, I want to also engage two of your specific points.

    First, “That’s a higher commitment to world-building compared to a ZAZ movie, which will always destroy its own reality for the sake of a throwaway gag.” Yes, absolutely, I think this is a key difference. AUSTIN POWERS, ANCHORMAN, and BLACK DYNAMITE are all interested in building and exploring specific worlds with strong lead anchor characters, and where the character and his world have this symbiotic quality — that character is of that world, belongs in that world, and is in some sene the pinnacle embodiment of that ideal. BLACK DYNAMITE is probably the only one that is a true spoof/parody. AUSTIN POWERS certainly has elements of being a James Bond or IN LIKE FLINT parody, but it’s such a ridiculous hippy goof character and product of Mike Myers’s imagination that I don’t think it’s the same thing as a Frank Drebin or a Topper Harley. Austin is really nothing like James Bond or Flint, so, he’s not a trope or direct parody character the same way Drebin or Harley is.

    And then there’s your other point, “But like those old-timey pulp heroes that Vern loves but ticket buyers avoid, maybe that culture is now too far in the past to resonate. Newer comedies are swinging for the fences with more edgy/alternative characters and jokes, and/or putting more effort into accurately capturing the look and tone of a particular genre.”

    Yes, I think this is right. I don’t think you can keep going back to that well. Frank Drebin is the perfect Joe Friday parody, but that’s been done. The goof of making fun of a strong, silent, toxic male leading man type is kind of a “been there, done that” 20-30 years ago thing by this point. We’re so meta- and so past that. There is also the element that the whole shtick and formula of AIRPLANE! is kind of played out, I think. There are some filmatic formulae that are just eternally rich and can be mined again and again and again. Like the western or the zombie film, you can keep using them as devices for exploring classic conflicts and arcs, and in the case of the zombie film, it’s highly adaptable and ripe for cross-fertilization. I think ZAZ themselves really ran out of steam after awhile, and the imitators (e.g., LOADED WEAPON) mostly suck. Even WALK HARD was only fine for me. It has some fun moments, and John C. Reilly is, of course, a national treasure, but I feel like that style of comedy has become kind of a self-parody — yup, got it, there’s somethign anachronistic or that doesn’t belong in this genre; yup, go it, they’re making fun of GHOST or WALK THE LINE. The ZAZ style sort of starts to look very sweaty as it tries to muster the same unhinged “look how zany this is!” energy of previous films, while only being a somewhat pale reflection. You see the same thing to some extent with absurdist sequels like ANCHORMAN 2 and ZOOLANDER 2, which are kind of like fat Elvis trying to squeeze into the old suit and perform the hits, but it all feels a little desperate and derivative (ANCHORMAN 2 is pretty decent, whereas I couldn’t even get more than 20 minutes into ZOOLANDER 2).

  47. Vern, I think Scary Movie 1 was the last movie to blend two plots for effective comedy. All the ____ Movies after are exactly what you describe, lazy collections of copied scenes. So it didn’t prove to be the savior of spoof movies.

    I think others tried to mimic the ZAZ style and no one could. They’re truly three of a kind.

  48. As I mentioned in the NG2.5 thread (and will be required to admit again when I’m going through the Albert Brooks process with Saint Peter) I was *hyped* for SCARY MOVIE 3, despite having not seen the first two at the time, when I saw it was bringing David Zucker, Leslie Nielsen and Charlie Sheen on board. And I enjoyed it and anticipated (to a slightly lesser extent) SCARY MOVIE 4 and all. A lot of people around my age will tell you the early-mid 00s were all about Gandalf, Frodo and Harry Potter, maybe Peter Parker too. For me it was all about President Baxter Harris.

  49. Skani, I’m glad we see eye to eye on this stuff for the most part, but I have to defend WALK HARD which I thought was very funny.

    I like that it drew attention to the cliches by saying them out loud (“This is the middle of my dark period!”), and I like that it used the story of Johnny Cash and/or Elvis as its core but then broadened it wildly to include other musicians of that era, to the point where the guy is trying to do some psychedelic experimental White Album stuff that no one understands.

    I don’t seem to hear much about THE BEN STILLER SHOW anymore, but I remember that being a big deal at the time in terms of how much effort it put into accurately recreating the forms of media it was parodying, compared to other television comedy of its time.

    Maybe that was the turning point. Later spoofs like WALK THE LINE or TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (a parody of Bruckheimer action films), even though they are mocking of their source genre, still care about accurately matching their style of cinematography, editing, music etc. LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA is another film with a similar attention to detail.

    So it seems like parodies can still work if you take the trouble to get the filmatism right, since doing so enhances the parody.

  50. (and by WALK THE LINE I obviously meant WALK HARD)

  51. Yeah, maybe they could make something work, like FAST AND FURIOUS films seem ripe for that kind of treatment. Anymore it’s hard for me to know whether a genre is played out or I’m just kind of personally done with it or bored with it, so, it might be another case of the latter here.

  52. Has anybody seen Scare Package? That one tries their hand at ZAZ style comedy in the format of an anthology film.

  53. Fred – I’ve never seen any of the SCARY MOVIEs, but isn’t it combining two plots from the same genre? I think that’s allowed. Though they maybe didn’t know enough about the genre to use more than two.

  54. Say what you want about the first SCARY MOVIE, but it stuck to its concept of making fun of teen slashers, with very few popcultural detours (like the killer revealing himself in a THE USUAL SUSPECTS reference). But in part 2 they really went completely random. In one scene you had scene from THE HAUNTING and then a second later it would turn into a spoof of an old Nike commercial, which turns into something from CHARLIE’S ANGELS. (I give part 2 credit for killing off the “Disabled character yells at everybody who tries to help him” trope though.)

    In general this seems to be a case with part 2s. For example the German movie DER WIXXER, which was a parody of the popular (over here) Edgar Wallace movies from the 60s went way overboard in part 2, suddenly losing focus and throwing spoofs of 24 or ringtone commercials in the mix.

  55. I would have to see them again (oh no!;) ), but while I remember SCARY MOVIE 2 being messier, the first did do an extended bit on the Budweiser commercials so it seemed to be one step on the ladder already.

    I will say, and can say with authority, that even SCARY MOVIE 5 is better than the DISASTER DATE WITH THE EPIC SPARTANS MOVIE series.

  56. Sternshein, like much these days, I watched parts of SCARE PACKAGE, but then ultimately ended up fast forwarding through a lot of it. The first vignette is pretty fun, but then the gag started to tire, at least for me.

  57. Pacman, but at least the Budweiser stuff was tied in with the SCREAM parody. (What if the killer calls and it turns into a WHASSUUUUUUUUUUP!?)

    BTW, has anybody seen ERIC BANA MOVIE? That one looked like fun.

  58. Ike Barinholtz as Pacman2.0

    August 1st, 2021 at 11:51 am

    Good point.

    I always thought the logical conclusion to Friedberg/Setzer’s masterplan was POSTER MOVIE, which would be a movie of no moving images, just a series of stills for each poster for a movie that was coming out that year, but altered so that either a) Carmen Electra and/or Tony Cox was in place of the main character, b) One of the main characters is breakdancing now, or c) both. I was thinking about 30 seconds per poster, but I’m flexible on that.

    My only real contribution to the disgraceful internet art of trolling was to post a super-pretentious “appraisal” of MEET THE SPARTANS on the IMDB message board. It always used to amuse me how you’d see obviously sarcastic reviews of films on there followed by pages and pages of “ha ha, this idiot thinks this is gud, go watch a real film like Darknite or Fite Club, not that ud understood them”. The first response I got was “if this is a joke, you’re a genius. If it’s real, kill yourself”. Everyone else saw through me :(

  59. Yes, that was my point. Scary Movie combined Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and it worked. Even the Scary Movie sequels didn’t work as well and none of the Friedberg/Seltzer’s did.

  60. “It’s interesting that the ZAZ style of spoof is one of the few subgenres of 1980s cinema that has not gotten a revival. Is there something about it that makes it unique to its era and impossible to replicate?”

    I think the internet could be part of why. When you’ve got hundreds of memes or TikTok videos or just people talking about, “hey, I noticed this funny thing about this movie/genre…” then it’s not really going to be fresh and funny to make an entire movie to spoof it.

  61. The best part of HOT SHOTS! for me is the sitting on a Chihuahua running gag. It’s so stupid and random it still gets me to this day.

  62. Maggie, I’d actually go further and say that’s an unexamined factor in the decline of comedy films in general in the last twelve years or so. Recently I was put into hysterics by a YouTube video which remixed a popular viral video with sound effects and music from DONKEY KONG COUNTRY, and I hadn’t even seen the original, I can only imagine how funny it must be to the kids who’ve grown up with YouTube and actually understand this stuff. Why would they go out of the way to watch a 135 minute movie of where Apatow4.0 tries to convince you that 10th Variation on the Theme of Seth Rogan is funny?

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