B-Movies Extended: How to Make a (Good) Spoof Movie

A Haunted House is pretty awful. William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I made that pretty clear on the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, wherein we both called the film “offensive” and “low.” The film is pretty puerile entertainment, and, despite a few chuckle-worthy moments (the scene where Marlon Wayans humps a teddy bear as kinda funny), it ultimately left a sour taste in both our mouths.

One point I brought up very briefly, however, was perhaps the most salient, and will be the jumping-off point for my proposed topic in this week’s installment of B-Movies Extended. I pointed out that A Haunted House, ostensibly a spoof of recent found-footage horror films like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism, doesn’t really spend too much time doing any actual lampooning. It recreates a few of those films’ more recognizable moments, but only periodically uses the known setups for actual spoofery; I did like when Mr. Wayans was dragged supernaturally out of his bedroom by an invisible force, only to reenter a moment later claiming how much fun he had, but that was a brief moment in an otherwise thuddingly obvious “joke” film that only took jabs at women and homosexuals (with alarming frequency, I might add).

A Haunted House had some wonderful potential. It could have been an actual parody of the found footage form.  Some of the jokes came close to actual lampoon, but the bulk of the film was just broad slapstick. Broad slapstick can, of course, be a magical thing, but it takes more skill than was presented in A Haunted House. I laughed openly at the recent film version of The Three Stooges (and, trust me, I was even more shocked than you are), but that was a film that elevated its slapstick pratfalls into a sublime form of dance. A Haunted House tips dangerously toward the trend of most recent spoof movies, in that that it seems fully content to merely make references to recent films, and leave it at that. The makers of films like Epic Movie, Superhero Movie, and Not Another Teen Movie seem to mistake the minor twinge of pop culture recognition for actual comedy. Indeed, many films and elements of popular culture, here in 2013, seem devoted to knowledge of previous pop culture icons. This is why remakes are so profitable, and the most successful feature films of the last several years are almost all based on well-known properties, novels, and comic books.

What happened to the spoof movie? They used to be my favorite form of comedy. Looking back over the 1970s and 1980s, you find a golden age of slapstick comedy unfolding. Mel Brooks was making films like Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs. David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker redefined comedy with films like Airplane! and Top Secret! and The Naked Gun. Monty Python was still making films. I would even include obscure cult spoofs like Dennis Dugan’s Brain Donors and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s UHF in with the greats for how much they make me giggle. Then, I suppose because they stopped being successful, spoof movies seemed to take a hiatus for much of the 1990s. You had your occasional Mafia! or Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but the wave had clearly broken, and audiences were more laser-focused on the gross-out comedies of the day like There’s Something About Mary and American Pie, whose stock in trade was more about shock and less about parody. When the spoof movie did make a resurgence (which started with Scary Movie in 2000), all of a sudden it seemed to suck a little more. Something was off. The anarchic cartoon spirit was gone. It’s like spoof comedies got mixed up with gross-out to create a mutant offspring that was neither one nor the other. “Funny” wasn’t the goal any longer. Now filmmakers seemed hellbent on merely proving that they could relate to their “hip” young audiences by parroting what had just been done in recent films and TV shows.

I can’t rightly explain why, but these films are all hits. Indeed, many audiences find flicks like A Haunted House to be immensely enjoyable, if the audience I saw it with was any indication; they hooted, laughed, stamped their feet, and openly yelled advice to the screen. I still hold that the film is pretty bad, and certainly not sophisticated, but I suppose it, like its Movie peers, has its audience.

So how does one make a good spoof movie? I would propose the following things to writer of parody:

Number one, parody is, no matter how many barf, booger, penis, and fart jokes you include, ultimately a kind of intelligent approach to popular culture. Parody should look at a piece of pop culture, and, using a gentle skewer, examine why that thing is popular, while simultaneously taking the air out of its tires. The function of proper parody is to make us look at a thing objectively. As a writer of parody, you also have to look at the thing objectively. Don’t just riff on it (although that can work), but kind of deconstruct it using barf, boogers, penises, and farts.

Number two, a parody should have, however subtle, a point of view on the material it is parodying. This is a hard thing to do. You should, essentially, have an agenda with each joke, but you shouldn’t necessarily let it be openly known what your agenda is. Tricky. To be a bit more explicit: when you choose to parody Paranormal Activity, you should have an opinion on Paranormal Activity. Do you love it or hate it? If you love it, then examine the sillier parts of it, and make fun of those little details. Acknowledge the weaknesses while still retaining your affection for the original. This is what a good stand-up comedian will do. Pointing out the goofy stuff in life, while still staying positive on it. On the other hand, if you hate Paranormal Activity, by all means, rip it to shreds… but (and this is a big but) don’t be hateful about it.

From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

I was of a strange mind about A Haunted House. On one hand, it’s a damned hateful movie. I expected the homophobia – as depressing as that statement is – but the film’s strange and oppressive attitude towards women, suggesting that they are themselves beasts from Hell, was also unnecessary, mean-spirited and backwards to the point of nearly playing in reverse. Then again, if you can look past the ugly thematic undercurrents (no easy task), I actually think that A Haunted House gets the “idea” of the spoof movie more or less right. It’s not as funny as it could have been, but it uses the found footage form – and the storytelling that usually springs from the genre – as a launching point for a mostly focused series of jokes based on the format. I can’t in good conscience celebrate this stupid movie, but I do think it’s worth looking at as a failed experiment, and not just a cautionary tale for comedy filmmakers.

As I said in my review, A Haunted House actually does look at the root of the found footage genre and base its comedy on actual observations, when it’s not resorting to fart jokes aplenty. The film emphasizes two things: first, the private lives of its characters, illuminated by the intimate found footage aesthetic, and second, the ways that appearing on camera affect our behaviors. Early in A Haunted House, Marlon Wayans is shocked by the amount of property his girlfriend, Essence Atkins, has brought into his house, accusing her of being a hoarder. You know, like on that show. (I forget what it’s called.) In any case, the found footage format gives way to a reality television format, as Atkins begins to look deep inside herself, like she was on the actual program and forced to be introspective, to decide what items she actually needs in her life. Later on, a friend’s wife (played by Alanna Ubach) uses the found footage aesthetic to go “girls gone wild” and take her top off, because that’s how some people react to being on camera. There’s an idea for comedy there. The fact that the movie isn’t actually funny doesn’t help, but I feel like A Haunted House at least hovers around the right idea for a proper spoof.

When you look at the “spoof” genre, there are a number of classics that come to mind, usually from the mind of Zucker, Abrahams and Abrahams, Mel Brooks or Monty Python. There are certain key similarities to their approaches, but first and foremost is the fact that they establish a broadly comic tone early on, and only take the story seriously long enough for a comic reversal to feel unexpected and, therefore, actually be funny. That’s why the gag Witney enjoys so much in A Haunted House works: Marlon Wayans is pulled by an unseen force, terrified, into the hallway. The scene wouldn’t be out of place in a real found footage horror movie. The follow-up, where he comes back into the room thinking the whole experience was “awesome,” is the reversal.

That’s how comedy works. That’s also where A Haunted House’s parody brethren, and often A Haunted House itself, falters. They establish a comic tone but stay manic throughout the entire film, overloading the motion picture experience with “comedy” but never pulling back far enough for that comedy to have a genuine impact. One of the few parody spoofs of the modern generation that actually worked, for the most part at least, was Not Another Teen Movie, which had enough of a story to make the film’s romantic climax feel vaguely plausible, at least until Molly Ringwald showed up and ripped the whole genre a new one, arguing that teen romance – by its nature – is ridiculous, since the love interests are still growing up and apart, and are probably destined to cheat on each other or at least realize they want something more out of a relationship down the line. It was a sobering moment that gave the film, dare I say it, an actual point: the teen romance and sex comedy genres are inherently flawed. But if the film didn’t take itself just seriously enough to feel like it was actually going for a maudlin ending in the first place, it wouldn’t have worked at all.

So I offer the parody genre a few rules of my own. Firstly, it has to be able to take itself seriously and, at least on the surface, and at least for a moment or two, play like the actual thing it’s satirizing. Otherwise they can’t actually parody or, god forbid, satirize the real thing. You need filmmakers with enough talent to at least approximate the original films or genre being spoofed, and not just able to put actors in front of the camera (and some of the modern spoof movies seem barely able to do that).

Secondly, it has to actually be funny. That means the filmmakers need to have a point of view coming across in every frame, and not be content to merely point-and-click their way through references to other films. The movie needs to be a portal into another universe, a funnier universe, where the characters don’t realize they’re in a comedy but do funny things anyway. Again, comedy is all about surprise, and surprise can only come from contrast. There’s a thin line to be walked here. A broad caricature can exist (remember Stephen Stucker in Airplaine? “Leon’s getting LAAAAAAAARGER.”), but they have to have a character. An actress who looks like Jennifer Lopez with a comical large butt doesn’t qualify. They have to have a function in the film and then be silly about it.

Third, and I guess this is the cardinal rule: your spoof has to be a real movie. It has to have a plot, even if it’s just a parody of a real movie, characters who take themselves seriously, and a reason to exist. Simply doing scenes the audience has seen before and adding farts or marijuana might get a cheap laugh or two, but your movie will be swiftly forgotten. That’s the real problem here. These movies are so cheap to produce that quality doesn’t matter. There’s no art to their craft, because they’re not real “movies” in any strict sense. They’re commodities. They’re court jesters in jingle bell outfits. You point and laugh at human beings screaming and farting for your amusement, sacrificing their dignity and yours in the process, and you pay for the privilege. That’s not comedy. That’s tragedy, because with just a tiny bit of extra effort, they could have made a movie that’s funny and actually worth making in the first place.

William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold are the co-hosts of CraveOnline's B-Movies Podcast and the co-stars of The Trailer HItch. Follow them on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani and @WitneySeibold.