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There are many different types of comedy, from dark comedy to slapstick, but one subsection of humour that has remained at the forefront of the spectrum for decades is parody. Parody can be defined as “an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.” It can be seen across all forms of entertainment and media, from popular YouTubers riffing off chart topping songs to television sketch shows taking jabs at politicians and important figures. The movie industry is no stranger to this particular way of making people laugh with many features films dedicated solely to making fun of everything from famous actors to whole film genres.
Declaring any particular movie as the very first parody film is practically an impossible task, however one of the earliest examples of what would later become known as the “spoof genre” is The Little Train Robbery. This twelve minute feature is a parodic sequel to the iconic The Great Train Robbery, released in 1905 with an all child cast and a not so serious approach to the subject of bandits holding up a locomotive.
Though the genre would continue to grow steadily through the early twentieth century it wasn’t till 1940 when Charlie Chaplin released his landmark picture The Great Dictator that people really started to take notice of parody films. Chaplin’s first venture into the talkies, having previously only been involved in silent productions, the film is a biting critic of the Nazi reign and fascism in general. The Great Dictator perfectly encapsulated not only the comedic potential of parody but also how powerful a device it can be, the final speech of the film is as iconic as it is brilliant.
The late 1950s saw the beginning of one of the longest running, and most successful, parody franchise the infamous Carry On series. Anyone that has watched ITV3 during the daytime is sure to aware of this innuendo stuffed string of films ranging from poking fun at the James Bond franchise, historic epics such as Cleopatra and even elements of daily life such as visiting the hospital and go on holiday. When viewed through a modern lens the thirty one, yes 31, Carry On films are more groan worthy than humorous but they have an important place in the history of the parody genre as they proved that there was a large appetite for these sorts of films.
Fast forwarding a couple of decades it was the 1980s in which the parody genre reached its peak with a slew of genuinely hilarious films that were both wonderfully witty and brilliantly biting. Highlights include Clue, Evil Dead II, The Naked Gun, Spaceballs, The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap, which on a personal note is my favourite spoof movie ever made. One film in particular rose above the subsection to become an icon of not just the comedy genre but cinema in general, a little movie called Airplane! The Leslie Nielsen starring picture is a near shot-for-shot parody of cheesy B movie Zero Hour! and it’s one of the most quotable films of all time.
Unfortunately, as so often happens, what followed this immense high was the start of a serious decline for the parody genre. Though the 1990s did see some mediocre Naked Gun sequels and the start of the so-so Austin Powers franchise, 1994’s The Silence of the Hams was the canary in the coal mine of the true cinematic horrors that were about to follow, as the 21st century was rung in across the globe the parody genre was shifting away from thoughtful and well-constructed spoofing and into lazy and cynically made films created purely for profit.
The 2000s saw the beginning of the Scary Movie franchise, a series of five films dedicated to lambasting horror movies or really whatever films of the time are popular. The financial success of this series resulted in horror movies becoming the primary target for parody though 2006’s Date Movie would lead to a string of truly woeful genre spoofs, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, Vampires Suck and The Starving Games among others would follow over the next decade. If you’ve had to sit through any of those films just mentioned then you have my deepest sympathies. In the last fifteen years the parody genre has essentially devolved into tacky pun filled titles and painfully obvious jokes about pop culture, The 41-Year Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It, yes that’s actually a real film, being the perfect example of just far the parody genre has fallen.
That’s not to say there haven’t been any good spoof movies released over the last decade and a half. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are excellent examples of the genre spoof done right, they’re hilarious on their own but even better if you understand the references and inside jokes. Where the parody genre is really thriving however is on the small screen, television shows like Black Mirror, which is extremely dark satire at its very finest, and topical programmes like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which weaves a fine thread of parody throughout, show that there are still some people crafting smart and worthwhile parody.
Next month sees the release of Fifty Shades of Black, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what popular film it’s spoofing, displaying that when it comes to the silver screen the parody genre is still no closer to redemption as soulless cash ins are still being churned out with the sole aim of making a quick buck regardless of the quality of the final product, surely it can’t get any worse?