“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” is one of those clichéd quotes you usually hear from your mom, but also sometimes it’s true in movies. Parody has held a prevalent spot in Hollywood since Abbott and Costello crossovers, but it wasn’t really mastered until Mel Brooks came along and decided to try his hand at several different genres. In 1974, Mel Brooks made Blazing Saddles, which was a parody of western films, then followed it up with Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, and High Anxiety. Parodies allow you to look at a style or genre from a different viewpoint and often provide commentary on the original by way of comedy. Comedic parodies point out what may be so ridiculous about the original work and take it over the top and add absurdity to it.
Young Frankenstein parodies the 1930’s era horror movies made by Universal, specifically the Frankenstein films. One of the key characteristics to Young Frankenstein that sets it apart from other parodies is way the plot is set up. Instead of just making an exact replica of Frankenstein that uses comedy as commentary, Young Frankenstein continues the storyline that runs through the Frankenstein films and plays out almost like another sequel. In the film, Gene Wilder plays the grandson of the original’s Dr. Frankenstein, but he is embarrassed of his grandfather’s work and reputation. He inherits his grandfather’s castle and then is doomed to repeat the family experiments. Young Frankenstein plays with the relationships in the original films by having the same characters for the most part, but making the characters themselves absurd versions of themselves and changing the nature of the relationships the original established.
Parody films are usually characterized by taking another piece of work and copying some part of it, whether that be the style, relationships, or any other defining characteristic, so closely that it’s obvious where it derives from. The re-working of the style then allows the parody to run amok and have fun with the content. While Young Frankenstein looks like a serious Universal-era horror film in black-and-white, it’s juxtaposed with several jubilant musical moments, such as one where Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster perform the Broadway number,“Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Parody films have gained in popularity since the 1980s after Mel Brook’s success with his lot. There is a lot of crossover between absurdist comedy and parody, probably because the structure of parody is already set, so the film is really free to do whatever it wants, because its main purpose is to do something different than the original. The Naked Gun is one of the most notable and recognizable parodies that also ventured into the realm of the absurd. Most notably influenced by Young Frankenstein would be the entire Scary Movie franchise, which uses the same formula for parodying horror movies of a certain era, but Scary Movie moves on to more modern horror movies.
While not all parody films are created equal, their box office successes would make the audience believe otherwise. Mel Brooks’ parodies continue to be my favorite of the parody genre, because they work on so many levels. There are plenty of physical gags along with a brilliantly tight script, that like a lot of my favorite absurdist works, I can re-watch endlessly and find new jokes that I never noticed before. It seems that the modern parody has died out a little bit lately, since there hasn’t really been a successful one in a while. Parody can be a difficult genre to succeed in, because since the nature of the genre is essentially reworking something that’s already been done before, it can sometimes feel stale and unoriginal if you don’t nail it. I think that’s been the problem with parody in recent years, they’re almost becoming parodies of parodies instead of relying on quality material. We’ll just have to settle for Scary Movie 26: Electric Boo-galoo until someone steps up.
Jessica Dorrell is a graduate of the DCH improv program, and is currently enrolled in the sketch writing program. Her one wish is that some day she can have a Mogwai as a pet. You can see her perform every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the current Ewing show.