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Gag films and cornball comedy

Analise Lipari | Sunday, September 7, 2008

Unoriginal in more ways than one, “Disaster Movie” is the latest spawn of a genre with a lot of cinematic history: the gag film. Scene examines the history of the Hollywood gag film by ranking some of its best-known examples into three distinct categories. Good gag films deserve multiple viewings of a well-worn DVD. In-between gag films might garner a rental and an oversize bowl of popcorn on a Friday night. Bad gag films deserve to be incinerated and never seen again.

The Good

Airplane! (1980): Often seen as the granddaddy of all gag films, “Airplane!” is chock full of iconic film moments. Examples include seeing Barbara Billingsley, TV’s June Cleaver, translate jive-talkin’ with a white stewardess; a parody of the famed “Win one for the Gipper” speech, complete with the use of the Notre Dame Victory March; Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty’s “Saturday Night Fever” dance moves; and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as himself / co-pilot Robert Murdock.

Hot Shots (1991): With the tagline “The mother of all movies!” 1991’s “Hot Shots” is a high-aiming comedy. the film features future “Two and a Half Men” costars Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, along with Lloyd Bridges and “The Princess Bride” star Cary Elwes. “Hot Shots” is an “Airplane!” meets “Top Gun” spoof directed by Jim Abrahams, co-director of “Airplane!” The on-film saga of Topper Harley (Sheen), a pilot in the U.S. Navy, also includes a legendary scene featuring Saddam Hussein lounging by a pool.

The Naked Gun series (1988-1994): Based on the criminally cancelled “Police Squad!” series, “The Naked Gun” is Leslie Nielsen at his finest and most ridiculous. The first film details Sergeant Frank Drebin’s (Nielsen) quest to uncover an assassination plot against Queen Elizabeth II. Its sequels, 1991’s “The Naked Gun 2 1/2: the Smell of Fear” and 1994’s “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult,” follow Drebin through various screwball exploits. The Hollywood Reporter recently wrote that a fourth “Naked Gun” direct-to-video film is also in the works.

The In-Between

Kung Pow! Enter the Fist (2002): A parody of Hong Kong action cinema, “Kung Pow!” features a battle sequence between our protagonist, the Chosen One (Steve Oedekerk) and a fighting cow named Moon Yoo who uses her udders as battle gear.

Hot Rod (2007): While not exactly a gag film, Andy Samberg’s first attempt at headlining a movie makes use of different gag film techniques. Plus, fans of Samberg’s digital shorts on “Saturday Night Live” get their fill of the actor’s comedic stylings here.

Scary Movie 1 & 2 (2000-2001). The original “Scary Movie” was directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, and featured the tagline “No mercy. No shame. No sequel.” Ironically, the opposite has proven true, much to the chagrin of moviegoers. It’s also ironic that the main source of parody in “Scary Movie” is “Scream,” which itself was meant to riff on horror movie conventions. The original “Scary Movie” and its first sequel, “Scary Movie 2” (with the tagline “More merciless. More shameless. We lied”), are both worth a rental.

The Bad

Disaster Movie (2008): It seems odd that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer would bother parodying films like Adam Sandler’s “Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” Normally, successful films might deserve some good-natured ribbing, but “Zohan” was hardly worth its original on-screen appearance, let alone an allusive second. Add that to its ill-timed comedy in general, and you’ve got a recipe for little more than a waste of time.

Date Movie (2006): The creative team of Friedberg and Seltzer, who both cowrote the first “Scary Movie” film with four others, brought this gem to film audiences two years ago. Despite a highly respectable cast including Alyson Hannigan (“How I Met Your Mother”), Fred Willard, Eddie Griffin and Jennifer Coolidge, “Date Movie” was, much like those that came before and after it under the Friedberg-Seltzer masthead, an uneven collection of unfunny gags.

Meet the Spartans (2008): Much like its Friedberg-Seltzer brethren, but with a slightly different name, “Meet the Spartans” was mainly focused on parodying 2007’s “300.” With Carmen Electra playing a key role, an assessment of the quality of “Meet the Spartans” can likely go without discussion. Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are unable to escape the parody machine, but all three have been mocked more successfully elsewhere.

White Chicks (2004): Little needs to be said. Little can be said. Wrong, wrong, and painfully wrong.

Contact Analise Lipari at alipari@nd.edu