Given how parody thrived in the short films of the studio era, it is unsurprising that television sketch comedy has also specialized in creating short, pithy burlesques of popular films. Early examples include Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows (1950–1954) and, later, The Carol Burnett Show , (1967–1978) which produced brilliant parodies of familiar Hollywood films, with titles like "Went with the Wind," "Sunnyset Boulevard," and "Mildred Fierce." These were followed by Saturday Night Live (1975–), Second City Television (1976–1981), and In Living Color (1990–1994), among others. A training ground for comic writers and actors, sketch shows continue to employ parody as a staple element of their formats, often using guest stars to mock their own well-known work. This trend has helped speed up the process by which popular forms are broken down and ridiculed through imitation, and it has contributed to the increasingly widespread use of parody in recent film comedies, which nearly always cannibalize one or more other texts in creating their comic effects.
Former stand-up comic and television writer Mel Brooks (b. 1926) reinvented parody for a new era when Blazing Saddles (cowritten with Richard Pryor, among others) and Young Frankenstein were released, both in 1974. Brooks and his contemporaries abandoned the previous generation's tactic of dropping a comic figure into a conventional generic frame. Brooks essentially inverted the structure of Hope's The Paleface in his western spoof Blazing Saddles . The two protagonists of the latter film, Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid, are the film's most heroic, competent, and indeed sane characters in the midst of a western town populated by caricatures of western types (a lecherous and stupid governor, racist townsfolk, a monstrous thug, a lisping saloon singer). Brooks thereby rendered the western itself ridiculous in ways that previous parodies rarely aspired to or achieved.
After Mel Brooks's breakthrough films, a number of other filmmakers began turning out popular and significant parody features in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker wrote the cult classic Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), followed by the breakaway hit Airplane! , which layered on the gags at a breakneck speed, often punctuating a pseudoserious conversation in the foreground with a ludicrous sight gag in the background. The team of Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner followed up in 1984 with the pioneering mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap , which combined realistic cinéma vérité film technique with the outrageous story of an aging British rock band. These devastatingly funny films together helped reinvigorate American film comedy and established new traditions that would be highly influential in the years to come.
Commercial parody films from since the 1980s have been defined most clearly by a sense of anarchy—that anything may happen, or any object may enter the frame at any time. Genre still provides a general frame for most contemporary parodies, but lines, scenes, and sequences will notably abandon the source text in order to reference another film, or even an unrelated aspect of popular culture. For instance, in Scary Movie 2 (2001), one character tries to calm another by assuring her "Cindy, this is just some bones. Would you run from Calista Flockhart?" The information the spectator needs to make sense of this reference comes not from the horror genre the film spoofs, but rather from a television series. In Hot Shots: Part Deux (1993), a succession of paratroopers jumps out of a plane, each yelling "Geronimo!" as he begins his fall. Suddenly, an Indian chief leaps out of the plane, yelling "Me!" Contemporary parody has developed a kind of randomness, a narrative and stylistic spirit of anarchy. It is not uncommon for the source text to provide only the broadest outlines of a narrative, while the gags are drawn from other sources throughout popular culture.
Mel Brooks began his career doing stand-up in the Catskills, in upstate New York, where he befriended Sid Caesar, host of the TV series Your Show of Shows (1950–1954). The talented Brooks quickly moved into television writing, where he often worked on skits for Caesar that parodied popular genres of the day. Brooks first became famous for his "Two Thousand-Year-Old Man in the Year 2000" routine, a mock interview which he performed with Carl Reiner onstage, on a bestselling record, and on television. In 1964 he went on to cocreate (with Buck Henry) the popular television series Get Smart (1965–1970), a parody of the spy film genre filled with outrageous James Bond-style gadgets such as the famous "shoe phone."
After this distinguished television career, Brooks wrote and directed his first feature, The Producers , in 1968. The film toys outrageously with the limits of parody when the title characters stage a grotesque Broadway musical, Springtime for Hitler , hoping it will flop. The fictional show, which features swelling music and an earnest young chorus singing about the joys of the Third Reich, unexpectedly succeeds when audiences interpret it as a brilliant parody rather than a lousy romance. His later films drew from this pleasure in the grotesque and the absurd, relying on the juxtaposition between the earnest clichés of a source text and the juvenile irreverence of Brooks's humor. In Young Frankenstein (1974), the stuffy young Dr. Frankenstein sings "Puttin' on the Ritz" with his marginally articulate monster, while dancing a soft shoe. In History of the World: Part I (1981), the character Oedipus is greeted with the words "Hey Motherfucker!" The only line in Silent Movie (1976) is spoken by the famous mime Marcel Marceau. In Spaceballs (1987) the guru Yogurt takes time out from his mystical mission to explain how the film's real money is made through merchandising:" Spaceballs the lunch box, Spaceballs the breakfast cereal, Spaceballs the flamethrower."
Such moments have earned Brooks both avid fans and equally fierce detractors, particularly as his jokes became more repetitive and broader over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. He made several commercially unsuccessful attempts to branch out, notably in a remake of Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1983) in which he costarred with wife Anne Bancroft, and in the social problem comedy Life Stinks (1991). Though he hasn't directed a film since the moderately successful Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1995, Brooks has found phenomenal new success with a 2001 Broadway musical version of The Producers , for which he wrote the lyrics, music, and book. The recipient of a screenwriting Oscar ® for The Producers , as well as several Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys, Brooks is indisputably one of the most versatile and influential comic minds of his generation.
The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World: Part I (1981), To Be or Not to Be (1983), Spaceballs (1987), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
Brooks, Mel, with Ron Clark, Rudy DeLuca, and Barry Levinson. Silent Movie . New York: Ballantine Books, 1976.
Yacowar, Maurice. Method In Madness: The Comic Art of Mel Brooks . New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.
Parody films have become popular and conventional enough to spawn sequels: two Hot Shots films, three Naked Guns , three Austin Powers films, and four Scary
Movie s. In a kind of apt reversal of TV's tendency to spoof classic films, films are now parodying old television shows, with The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), Scooby Doo (2002), Starsky and Hutch (2004), and The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) in recent years. These films are mostly reviled by critics, and the predominance of parody in contemporary comedy has been received as evidence that filmmakers have run out of ideas or that studios find such films a safe investment.
A notable exception to this trend has been the many carefully crafted and often subtle mockumentaries that have found modest success in American theaters. Woody Allen (b. 1935) used the form quite broadly in his 1969 film Take the Money and Run , using a deep-voiced narrator to contrast the zaniness of his character's crime spree. But the versatile Allen then brought a new precision to the documentary parody with the very different Zelig (1983), a portrait of a mentally disturbed man in the roaring 1920s. This film recreates the look of old film clips and newsreels with remarkable technical precision. The film never blinks in its pretense that Leonard Zelig was a real historical figure, even recruiting noted real-life writers such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to give straight-faced commentary on Zelig's cultural import. A notable heir to this tradition is Christopher Guest, whose recent mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003) lovingly recreate the look of cinéma vérité documentary. Handheld cameras and improvisational acting from a talented ensemble cast create the impression of candor, a slice-of-life documentary. But the films profile characters involved in a peculiar undertaking (amateur talent shows, dog shows, and folk singing, respectively) who take their avocation far too seriously, revealing the outrageous idiosyncrasies of seemingly ordinary people.