In the summer of 1987, a comedy icon's latest film was unleashed upon the world. Loosely based on a popular story known the world over, this film was a witty, 80s satire; a send up. You couldn't turn on your television without seeing commercials, all of which promised huge laughs and racy humor. I saw it on opening day with my mother and sister, and aggressively hated it with such passion that I've refused to see it since.
The name of the film? ROXANNE, starting Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah.
Quite apart from the fact that it was one of those mis-marketed films that shows all the "funny" in the commercials (and failing to mention it's actually one of those putrid Dramedies in which a comedic actor attempts to "widen their range"), the real reason I hate ROXANNE is because it opened against SPACEBALLS; and as the result of a fucking coin flip, my sister was allowed to choose the film. I was a massive STAR WARS nerd. I loved Rick Moranis. I had to see this movie. Meanwhile, my sister saw the commercial for ROXANNE and thought it was funny that Steve Martin had a long nose. That was the sum total of her argument. Thus, I had to wait until the following week (and engage in quite a lot of begging and pouting) to get my Mom to take me to see the movie we ought to have seen the week before. To this day, I eye decisions made by coin toss warily.
SPACEBALLS works best when you're eleven years old, but whatever, I never grew up anyway, so it still makes me literally LOL. Mel Brooks was probably a few years too late for audiences to truly enjoy a STAR WARS parody, but while it was a slow burn at the box office, it became a certified classic once it hit HBO. My VHS copy was required inventory for sleepovers. In fact, that's probably how and why I secured most invitations.
Taking the same approach to his earlier genre send-ups (BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, et al.), Brooks took elements of the STAR WARS trilogy, mashed them together, and whipped up a remix including all the familiar beats and iconography. We had characters like Lonestarr (Bill Pullman), an amalgam of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo; his Chewbacca-like sidekick Barf (John Candy); Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), who listens to music through headphones that approximate Leia's cinnamon-bun hair; gold-plated droid Dot Matrix (Joan Rivers); and villains Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner). Brooks, as usual, appears in his film, this time as both Planet Spaceball President, Skroob, and the Schwartz-wielding mentor, Yogurt. It's like a MAD magazine satire, only more juvenile. That's not necessarily a bad thing unless you're trying to watch it with your girlfriend -- Brooks, in my experience, seems to be a lot like the Three Stooges: funny to guys, and only guys.
And it is funny. It's immensely quotable. I don't think there's a single human being -- and this includes the ladies -- who won't at least crack a smile during the infamous "comb the desert" bit. In terms of exploiting cultural differences, though, there's a lot of Jewish humor in there (a staple of Brooks's films), resulting in a number of groan-inducing jokes that were old when Brooks was young ("Funny, she doesn't look Druish!").
Yet for every bad gag (typically involving our mostly-unfunny heroes), you get a Dark Helmet scene. And Christ, Rick Moranis just owns this film. Along with Wyner, he takes ho-hum gags (like the dollying camera hitting him in the face and knocking him out), and forces you to laugh in spite of yourself. Then you get genuinely classic moments such as Helmet playing with his action figures, an updated "Who's On First?" routine involving Helmet watching a copy of the very movie he's in, and the immortal "ludicrous speed" sequence that can't be described without dramatically underselling it. Plus, Moranis gives us one of my personal favorite battle cries: "Keep firing, assholes!" I use this every chance I get, along with "Evil will always triumph because Good is dumb."
The stuff involving Pullman, Candy, Zuniga and Rivers is far more hit or miss; the downside to a movie like this is that unfunny people aren't funny, and the leads in both SPACEBALLS and Brooks's later groaners (ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, and the sad and utterly worthless DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT) are essentially cardboard cutouts. Candy gets some laughs ("Barfolomew!"), and Pullman makes a valiant effort, but Rivers just plays herself ("Can we talk?"), and Zuniga is a black hole of a personality regardless of what film she's in. Brooks himself has a tendency to grate rather than elevate when appearing onscreen -- we get it, dude, you're Jewish -- but the iconic "Moichandizing" bit that (deservedly) skewers Lucasfilm more than makes up for it.
If anything was genuinely surprising to me, it was the failure to produce the jokingly-promised SPACEBALLS 2: THE SEARCH FOR MORE MONEY.* The era of the Prequels seemed the perfect time. In fact, I was lobbying in editorials for the website I was then writing for, crying out for a re-release of SPACEBALLS with intentionally over-the-top CGI "enhancements." I figured that lampooning Millennium-era George Lucas via a "Special Edition" was how to do it.
A mercifully short-lived SPACEBALLS animated series appeared in the early-aughts, featuring soundalike actors trudging through parodies of HARRY POTTER (!) and LORD OF THE RINGS (?); and in the wake of THE FORCE AWAKENS, a live-action sequel was heavily rumored. Whether or not we get it, SPACEBALLS is a film that can be revisited indefinitely, and serves as a perfect epilogue to any Original Trilogy marathon once the liquor has been ingested and the tendency to laugh multiplied. Take a shot every time the word "asshole" is used during a certain scene, and you're good to go for the rest of the flick.
And that was it for awhile. The Marvel comic was cancelled, and the DROIDS and EWOKS cartoons had long-since died quiet deaths. The mid 90s also signaled the beginning of the end for print magazines. The death bell had been rung by this newish thing called "The Internet." Most of the sci-fi mags I read were UK imports, and they were already hard to find; now they were becoming less and less easily obtainable. It was a weird time: the internet was becoming a Thing that had fired its warning shots, but most people still didn't have online access except at school or certain libraries. I miss having to wait for my news to come bundled within the pages of SFX or Mark Altman's SCI-FI UNIVERSE, and discovering their coverage of niche items I needed to check out.
One such item was a film called TROOPS. It's STAR WARS '77 by way of COPS, told documentary-style from the perspective of the Black Sheep Squadron of stormtroopers sent down to Tatooine to find C-3P0 and R2-D2. Filmmaker Kevin Rubio's self-financed short became so popular, in fact, that it led to official acknowledgment from Lucasfilm, and subsequently went on to air on TV, as well as appearing in box sets for COPS and the STAR WARS trilogy. While HARDWARE WARS is indisputably the "original fan film," TROOPS is the first to launch a seemingly endless, diarrhetic flow of independently-made shorts and semi-features taking place within the STAR WARS universe.
Full disclosure: I generally dislike fan films. There, I said. I run the risk of alienating a number of friends and associates by writing those words, being that I belong to a network of filmmakers, some of whom make, made, or are attempting their own cinematic entries to popular franchises. It's not that I take issue with telling a story that takes place in someone els's sandbox -- in this case, the corporate machine of Disney and Lucasfilm -- but rather that 1) most fan films attempt to replicate the look, feel, and style of pre-existing material rather than creating one's own unique take of the subject; 2) it's virtually impossible to distribute or profit from these ventures, which are often costly due to their nature, necessitating special effects, sets, and costumes; and 3) they're easy clickbait that makes it harder for original storytellers to reach an audience. That last point is kind of selfish, I know, but there it is.
TROOPS succeeds because it's none of these things (except maybe #2). It's a strikingly clever take on a story we all know, and one that adds a new layer -- referential and winking, sly and good natured -- to the original STAR WARS. Remember Luke Skywalker buying the stolen droids, and then, after an argument with Uncle Owen, running off at dawn the next day in pursuit of a renegade R2-D2? He runs afoul of some Tusken Raiders, meets Ben Kenobi, and upon returning home, discovers first that the Imperial troops have murdered the Jawas who sold him the droids, and then that these same soldiers have torched both his homestead, as well as his aunt and uncle. It's the first step in Luke's "Hero's Journey": it's the transitional point that sets him on his quest to become a Jedi knight and learn the secrets of his father's life and death.
In TROOPS, we get the exact same events, minus the melodrama. We're out with the Black Sheep Squadron via documentary camera crew as they follow up on some orders that have come from their superiors. They're just working class schmoes without any sense of the wider story; completely oblivious, and simply carrying out their daily duties in what they consider "the ass-end of space." This dichotomy between the two narratives is both irreverent and enlightening. So when they end up crossing paths with the Jawas ("We know everybody out here. Everybody."), we see that their murder has absolutely nothing to do with Luke or R2-D2 or stolen plans or the Death Star whatsoever. It's the same scenario taken to the next logical step when our anti-heroes show up at the Lars homestead to answer a domestic disturbance call. They're not there for droids: they're there because Luke has run off, causing Beru to get drunk and scream at Owen that it's his fault for lying to Luke about his father and where he came from. It's like every bad episode of COPS you've ever seen, only now we learn that the epic path that Luke ultimately followed had less to do with prophecy or design than with the same day-to-day bullshit we all experience. It's destiny by way of bad, white trash behavior.
This short led to a whole slew of bad STAR WARS fan films, a few of which were clever (GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE), most of which were just cosplay masturbation, usually featuring Expanded Universe characters like Mara Jade or Grand Admiral Thrawn. Worse still were the "I'm Wearing A Jedi Bathrobe and Fighting My Friend At The Park Using This Computer Program That Lets Me Animate Lightsaber Blades That Dad Bought Me " shorts that followed in the wake of TROOPS' success (one of which took place here on Earth and acted as a contemporary sequel, and was called -- seriously -- THE FORCE AWAKENS). I watched way too many of these once I finally had cable internet and could instantly download shit I wished I hadn’t. TROOPS is the high point in this exercise, and the film was rightly recognized for being the instant classic that it is and was.
And speaking of “instant classics."
The year 2007 gave us two competing STAR WARS tributes to honor the film's thirtieth birthday: a stop-motion "theme episode" of ROBOT CHICKEN, and FAMILY GUY's hour-long recreation of the original 1977 film, cunningly titled BLUE HARVEST.
The shows are the brainchildren of Seth Green and Seth MacFarland, respectively, and the actors both appear as voice artists on one another's program. In spite of the shared talent, the shows are in general very, very different, and the STAR WARS episodes are prime examples of how to do satire right, and how to completely fuck it up.
First there's ROBOT CHICKEN. If you’ve not seen the program, it’s typically made up of potato chip-sized story bites, pop culture-oriented, and told through the use of GUMBY-style action figures and Claymation. Born of a highly popular standalone skit involving Emperor Palpatine taking a call from Darth Vader -- the latter stranded in his TIE Fighter after the battle of Yavin ("What the hell is an aluminum falcon???") -- the STAR WARS episode that premiered in 2007 was a series of unrelated shorts that lovingly skewered plot and character moments from all six of the films that had been made at that point.
There was rather pointed satire, like the vignette that features Vader revealing the secret of his parentage to a traumatized Luke ("That's impossible!"), followed by the fact that Leia was his sister ("That's...improbable!"), that the Ewoks would beat the Empire ("That's...highly unlikely."), that Vader himself built C-3P0 ("Wha --?"); ending with Luke walking offscreen upon learning about midichlorians ("Look, if you're not gonna take this seriously, I'm outta here.").
We learn the backstory of Ponda Baba's altercation with Obi-Wan that led to the loss of his arm (turns out Evazan was misinterpreting him intentionally); we witness Luke and Leia succumbing to their mutual attraction in spite of knowing their true relationship ("That was so wrong."); and we see that the Imperial Officers are all just pretending to be Force-choked by Vader in order to boost his self esteem. In what's the funniest bit, Vader acts out fanboy fantasy and murders Jar Jar Binks by throwing him out an airlock, only to have the Gungan return as a Force ghost to haunt him forever ("MESA SO SHINY, ANI!"). It's literally laugh-out-loud stuff.
In addition to the number of celebrity voice cameos, the fact that actual STAR WARS cast members leant their pipes to the production gave the ROBOT CHICKEN program a sense of integrity -- especially when one got the sense that certain participants (Mark Hamill, for instance) were getting the chance to say things they’d been grousing about for years, now for a wider audience. Nevertheless, any STAR WARS criticism was handled with love and respect, more akin to the ribbing of a Friar’s Club Roast than to a Red Letter Media review. On top of everything else, George Lucas got in on the action as well (!), playing himself, mobbed by mouth-breathing weirdos at a STAR WARS convention. If Lucas could laugh at his creation and the pop cultural phenomenon it had become, then it gave us all permission to join in without any lingering feelings of betrayal.
The enormous popularity of the STAR WARS special led to two more ROBOT CHICKEN episodes set in a galaxy far, far away. The second installment rivaled the first in laughs (Breckin Meyer's cocky Boba Fett is a highlight, and his recurring storyline involving the murder of Ewoks and his attempts to escape the Sarlaac pit are roaringly funny); the third began to feel a bit stale, overlong, and Seth MacFarland-heavy. Regardless, the ROBOT CHICKEN "trilogy" is essential viewing for anyone wading through all six films in the STAR WARS saga, as it mashes together both Prequel and Original Trilogy elements, often underlining the narrative silliness in both.
On the other end of the spectrum is FAMILY GUY. I’m just going to come right out and say it: I fucking hate FAMILY GUY. If ever there was a show that was clever and original until everyone began calling it “clever and original,” it’s this one. It’s one of those rare examples of a program that was too outside-of-the-box for mainstream audiences, and died a relatively quick death; only to rise, Phoenix-like, after it was rediscovered in reruns -- but now with a sense of arrogance, self-consciousness in its writing, and the same gags done, overdone, and redone with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Plus: Seth MacFarland is a smug douchebag in love with the sound of his own voice; the never-ending and achingly unfunny musical numbers featured on FAMILY GUY are a testament to the man’s fan-fueled egomania.
And that’s more or less a summary of BLUE HARVEST (named for the fake handle given to RETURN OF THE JEDI while the film was in production in order to ward off fans, the press, and business-related price hikes). It’s essentially STAR WARS retold using FAMILY GUY characters. QUESTION: Hey, Stewie’s a mad scientist character, right?** How funny would it be to make him Darth Vader? ANSWER: It isn’t.
That’s all it is: the entirety of STAR WARS with FAMILY GUY characters making FAMILY GUY gags instead of STAR WARS gags. Even as a “tribute,” the show remains obnoxiously self-referential. For example, the Obi-Wan Kenobi stand-in is a "character" (i.e., one joke told five hundred-times) named Mr. Herbert, whose sole function is to make creepy pedophile jokes related to Luke/Chris, many of which involve the phallic nature of lightsabers. We aren’t expected to laugh because of anything remotely related to STAR WARS; it’s just FAMILY GUY in a STAR WARS setting, which isn’t funny. The strength of the show (in its original run) was how it mocked the conventions of 80s American sitcoms; doing a STAR WARS-themed episode is just as howlingly awful as 80s American sitcoms that did theme episodes of their own. One could make the weak attempt to justify FAMILY GUY’s attempt to do this very thing, except that 1) it was never cited as a goal, and 2) it's a concept never once implemented into the "humor." Instead, it’s all just Peter Griffin in a Han Solo costume, substituting the word “penis-y” for “cocky,” surrounded by extended cutaways to rotoscoped shots of ships and planets from the 1977 film. And that’s it. That’s the whole fucking show.
I’ll concede that there were two genuine laughs: one involving Luke/Chris exclaiming “What the PHANTOM MENACE?” instead of “What the fuck?”; and a gag involving Danny Elfman taking over scoring duties for a dead John Williams. The rest made me want to find Superboy Prime and have him punch reality so the reverberation could remove Seth MacFarland from our corner of the multi-verse. It was even worse when one watched the special features on the DVD release, with MacFarland fawning over George Lucas in the most cringe-inducing fanboy interview of all time; and then again as we’re shown a table-read for the next SAR WARS installment, in which MacFarland’s army of sycophants laugh uproariously at every unfunny thing that comes out of that black hole in his face.
Apparently, I’m in the minority: BLUE HARVEST was such a hit that, as mentioned, it spawned an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK parody titled SOMETHING SOMETHING DARK SIDE*** and one for RETURN OF THE JEDI whose title I’ve forgotten and refuse to look up on IMDB out of pure spite.
ROBOT CHICKEN’s episodes derived their strength from the source: it was lampooning STAR WARS by taking the very themes and plot points we all discuss (and that we’ve been discussing here in this series all month), and allowing us a collective laugh. It’s made by fans, for fans. FAMILY GUY’s episodes were just Halloween dress-ups, and the opportunity to use licensed music and shots from the films. One feels relevant while the other feels masturbatory; and more to the point, one feels made for people who enjoy the films, while the other is made for people who don’t care. If you’re laughing at an old man in a Jedi bathrobe with a flaccid lightsaber, your sense of humor is different than mine. And that is why Evil will always triumph, because Good is dumb.
*I was similarly baffled that we also never got a sub-Zucker Brothers style BORED OF THE RINGS with Leslie Nielsen as Gandalf.
**Until the show came back in 2006 and suddenly decided that, instead of trying to find new ways to murder his mother, he’d be funnier “gay.” Fuck you, Seth MacFarland.
***Can someone please explain what this is in reference to, because years later, I still don’t know, and I hate that I don’t know.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)