Airplane!

Parody films are ephemeral by nature. Take Fifty Shades Of Black, the Marlon Wayans Fifty Shades Of Grey parody that comes out this weekend: Based on its trailer, it’s practically guaranteed to feature at least one gag involving someone farting during sex. It’s also practically guaranteed to be forgotten before the next Fifty Shades Of Grey movie hits theaters. Even the most influential parodists of the 20th century, like Mel Brooks and the team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, have filmographies littered with spoofs that were outdated by the time they hit home video.

But a few select parodies manage to not only remain vital—and, therefore, funny—decades after their release; some have even outlasted the films they were parodying in the first place. (How many of the young people watching Airplane! for the first time in 2016 have any idea that the Airport movies even existed?) Timeless source material helps, of course—Star Wars jokes will land as well in 2016 as they did in 1987, for example, because Star Wars continues to assert an oversize influence over American pop culture—but the strength, and often silliness, of the jokes themselves, is what makes a parody last. Here are our picks, all at least a decade old, otherwise how would you know if they still hold up?

1. Airplane! (1980)

Writer-directors Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker (or ZAZ, as they came to be known) popularized a genre of film comedy with this still-hilarious parody of then-popular blockbuster disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and the Airport films. While this joke-a-second style spawned countless inferior imitations—including a ZAZ-less Airplane! sequel—that increasingly missed the point, the original still stands as a loony, pitch-perfect delight. Disgraced former fighter pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hayes) is drafted into landing a 707 after some bad fish knocks out the pilots while he’s pursuing his estranged girlfriend, stewardess Julie Hagerty. Apart from the ceaseless parade of gags and puns (with “shit hitting the fan” still every 10-year-old’s favorite), the real genius of Airplane! is how ZAZ instructed everyone to play the nonsense completely straight, drafting square-jawed squares Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and the revelatory Leslie Nielsen to seal the deal. Taking the bones of the script nearly verbatim from the equally square 1957 airborne disaster flick Zero Hour! only made the deadpan absurdity that much funnier. [Dennis Perkins]

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2. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Mel Brooks has called Young Frankenstein his finest film (if not necessarily his funniest), a claim that’s reinforced by its inclusion on countless “Best Comedies” lists and addition to the National Film Registry in 2003. The timeless nature of the monster-movie classics it parodies has helped the movie’s staying power, sure, but even if you’ve never seen either of James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, Young Frankenstein is hilarious. Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle steal every scene they’re in as Igor and The Monster—Boyle’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” number with Gene Wilder will go down as one of the greatest comedy musical numbers of all time. But the supporting players, like Cloris Leachman as the poker-faced Frau Blücher, are at the top of their game as well. And if mugging for the camera isn’t your thing, how about silly wordplay? Remember, it’s pronounced “Frahnk-ensteen.” [Katie Rife]

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3. Murder By Death (1976)

Although it’s flown under the radar for most of the 40 years that have passed since its original release, Murder By Death, a Neil Simon-scripted parody of Agatha Christie-style “country house” mysteries, has aged remarkably well. The plot centers around a collective of famous detectives—all of them parodies of well-known fictional sleuths—accepting a dinner invite from eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (played by eccentric author Truman Capote). Twain informs his guests that there will be a murder at midnight, and that whoever solves it will win a million dollars. The mystery, however, is less crucial to the film’s success than the comedy, which is driven by a true all-star cast: The investigators include Peter Falk as Sam Diamond (with Eileen Brennan as his able assistant, Tess Skeffington), David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston, Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles, James Coco as Milo Perrier, and Peter Sellers as Inspector Sidney Wang, with Alec Guinness as blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum and Nancy Walker as Yetta, the deaf-mute maid. Yes, it’s all very silly, but Murder By Death proves that silliness can stand the test of time. [Will Harris]

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4. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

There’s a reason why bands and musicians still relish beginning their shows with the phrase, “Hello, Cleveland!”: The influence of This Is Spinal Tap looms as large as the fictional band’s desired Stonehenge-sized stage décor. Thanks to slightly buffoonish U.K. rockers David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls, and Nigel Tufnel—played, respectively, by Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest—the film is a dead-on parody of both unintentionally hilarious music documentaries and ’70s rock star excess. This Is Spinal Tap’s attention to detail is on point, from the abundance of musician quirks (turning the amps up to 11, the phrase “none more black”), the clichéd musical evolution (from Beatles-loving lads to Ziggy Stardust acolytes), and the downright inane (debates about the differences between golf and miniature golf). But the obstacles faced by Spinal Tap are what make them relatable: Any touring band—or music fan—can identify with indignities like an unattended record store meet-and-greet, stage prop malfunctions, and the inability to find a stable drummer. [Annie Zaleski]

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5. The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

Although it was never released theatrically and proved to be a miserable ratings failure when it made its American television debut on NBC (it was the lowest-rated prime time program of the week), The Rutles is regularly ranked alongside This Is Spinal Tap as one of the greatest music mockumentaries of all time. A spot-on parody of The Beatles’ various transitions, The Rutles’ Eric Idle and Neil Innes were guaranteed a certain degree of timelessness by selecting the most popular band of all time to parody. But the music of The Rutles has gone a long way toward maintaining the film’s pop culture immortality. As such, the 1996 Innes-driven Rutles reunion album, Archaeology, is a must-own, whereas the film’s belated sequel, 2004’s The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch, is—in a word—not. [Will Harris]

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6. Top Secret! (1984)

In a 2014 interview with The A.V. Club, noted parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic called Top Secret! his “all-time favorite movie.” That seal of approval alone should indicate the quality of the film, which was produced by the superstar spoofing team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker (and, therefore, contains plenty of Airplane!-esque language and sight gags). But Top Secret!’s true genius stems from the deft way it simultaneously skewers two separate kinds of movies: Elvis Presley’s musicals and Cold War-era spy films. The results are both debonair and debauched. There’s the intro song, “Skeet Surfing,” a cheerful Beach Boys rip paired with plenty of beach carnage; troops pausing during an intense shoot-out for a choreographed tap dancing scene; and badass characters such as French Resistance member Chocolate Mousse, who’ll eat a smoking cigar without batting an eye. Still, Top Secret! wouldn’t hold together so well if it wasn’t for Val Kilmer, who made his film debut as handsome teen idol Nick Rivers. Not only does he ably channel Presley’s musical performances—see the “How Silly Can You Get/Spend This Night” gig—but he handles the absurdist war situations equally well. [Annie Zaleski]

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7. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Great parodies come from a place of love. From the vintage Universal logo that opens the film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid smartly attempts to recreate the look and feel of ’40s detective thrillers with Miklós Rózsa’s noir score and Michael Chapman’s straight-faced black-and-white photography. Steve Martin gives the audience plenty of The Jerk-style silliness in his performance, but it’s in displaying his acting chops that the character of Rigby Reardon comes to life. Plenty of the crew—including costume designer Edith Head—worked on the very films that Dead Men is parodying, rendering scenes that meld footage shot in 1981 with scenes from classic noir films relatively seamless. Dead Men’s technique of repurposing of old footage for comedic effect has been used many times since then—Muppet Babies, Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and, for better or worse, Forrest Gump comes to mind—and it’s far from the last time film noir was parodied on screen. But few are as successful as Carl Reiner’s film in evoking, and lovingly skewering, that particular time and place. [Mike Vanderbilt]

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8. Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Released amid the same heyday of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoofs—and boasting much of the same throw-everything-at-the-wall schtick—Johnny Dangerously uses classic ’30s gangster tropes as the rubric for its cartoonish gags. A working knowledge of James Cagney movies like Public Enemy might provide deeper appreciation of what director Amy Heckerling was parodying—and, according to her, definitely would have helped at the box office. Still, the film remains a cult favorite because it’s not overly beholden to referencing its source material, crafting its loony comedy out of original characters like Joe Piscopo’s psychotic hitman and Richard Dimitri’s English-mangling nightclub owner and their still eminently quotable lines. There’s also Michael Keaton in the full bloom of his early-’80s cocksure charm as Johnny, plus an incredible supporting cast that includes Griffin Dunne, Marilu Henner, Peter Boyle, Maureen Stapleton, and Danny DeVito, and a zippy theme song from “Weird Al” Yankovic. In short, you shouldn’t dismiss Johnny Dangerously. The public dismissed Johnny Dangerously once… once. [Sean O’Neal]

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9. Spaceballs (1987)

When Spaceballs was first released back in 1987, it was knocked in some corners not just for being lesser Mel Brooks, but for picking as its primary target a movie that was well past its cultural relevance. The original Star Wars was 10 years old at that point, after all. But while the late ’80s may have been a fallow point in our cultural obsession with that particular franchise, Star Wars proved resilient in the years that followed, and Spaceballs benefits from being the most extended and thorough parody of the biggest film series of all time. While it’s not the most nuanced spoof—it’s not nearly as lovingly detailed as Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, for example—the movie’s sophomoric attitude runs in perfect parallel with its subject. It’s a perfect starter spoof for kids who haven’t seen that many movies but know Star Wars by heart. For older fans, it contains several elements no longer available in abundance: Performances from the since-deceased John Candy and Joan Rivers, plus Rick Moranis, who is essentially retired, and an appealingly broad turn from Bill Pullman. The long-term success of Spaceballs also teaches a valuable lesson about currency: Robin Hood: Men In Tights arrived a mere two years after Prince Of Thieves stormed the box office, but is not nearly as beloved today. [Jesse Hassenger]

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10. The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad! (1988)

The police procedural is one of the sturdiest formats in all of television, so it’s not surprising that a parody of that format would go on to similar success. An extension of the short-lived Police Squad! television series, The Naked Gun is a dizzying rapid-fire sequence of verbal and visual gags, juvenile stupidity one moment and cutting wordplay the next. Its opening titles follow a squad car on the strangest route ever, an office break-in turns into a masterful disaster on every count, and the villain meets his end by being trampled in a parade. And in the center of it is Leslie Nielsen, taking his experience as a serious actor and converting it into the perfect straight man as Lt. Frank Drebin, who is unaware not only of the craziness surrounding him, but how much of it is his fault. It’s a film that demands multiple viewings, if only because there’s no way to catch every laugh the first time. [Les Chappell]

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11. I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)

Numerous blaxploitation films of the ’70s feature a protagonist who’s returned home to find his neighborhood in shambles.That’s the basic gist of Keenen Ivory Wayans’ blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka too, only the violence and drugs—sorry, gold chains—are even more over-the-top than in the movie’s source material. It’s not that Sucka’s particularly graphic, it’s more that Wayans plays his wholesomeness and naiveté to the hilt. This makes the explosions seem louder and his bared muscles seem more out of place, especially when compared to his innocent eyes and goofy mustache. Even his crew, played by real-life blaxploitation icons like Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, Antonio Fargas, and Isaac Hayes, have fish-out-of-water moments. In the case of Fargas (riffing on both Superfly and his role as Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch), that saying becomes literal when, after his aquarium platform shoes become too cumbersome to walk in, he has to smash them to get away from a jeering crowd. His goldfish—not to mention his pride—are killed in the process, showing that I’m Gonna Git You Sucka’s best jokes come from stripping badass characters of their badassery. [Dan Caffrey]

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12. Fear Of A Black Hat (1993)

Between Straight Outta Compton, Dope, and The Get Down, hip hop is in the grips of a good-old-days nostalgic phase, which makes writer-director Rusty Cundieff’s Fear Of A Black Hat feel fresh even though it came out back when Fetty Wap was just a gleam in his daddy’s eye. Cundieff stars as Ice Cold, leader of the controversial hip hop outfit N.W.H., short for Niggaz With Hats, an act of defiance based on the notion that African slaves were forced to toil hatless in the hot sun. The joke sounds like a non sequitur within the context of N.W.H’s real-life inspiration. But like the best spoofs, Fear synthesizes a ton of cultural references—hip-hop groups, tropes, and subgenres—into a satirical stew that barely hangs together as a story, but still works surprisingly well both as a barrage of gags and as a quick-and-dirty history of hip hop. [Joshua Alston]

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13. Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)

The first Hot Shots! movie was a fairly vanilla Top Gun spoof, even if it did have its moments (the funeral scene is stellar). But in Hot Shots! Part Deux, Charlie Sheen returns as the redoubtable Topper Harley and takes the silliness to a whole new level. In the sequel, Topper has become a Rambo-style recluse, living with a group of monks who have taken a supreme vow of celibacy like their fathers and their fathers before them. Then Richard Crenna, who played Col. Trautman in the Rambo movies, pulls Topper back in for a special assignment in the Middle East. On the surface, the Hot Shots! sequel can come off as dated, tied as it is to Cold War-era action movies and our first foray into Iraqi regime change (which has since become something of a national pastime). But the one-liners and gags are timeless, comparing favorably with even the best of Airplane!, an attribute that may have something to do with the peerless work of Airplane! vet Lloyd Bridges as an amazingly clueless President Tug Benson. His foreign policy goals, stated during a climatic lightsaber duel with Saddam Hussein, still ring true today: “We’ll settle this the old Navy way: first guy to die, loses!” [Drew Toal]

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14. Not Another Teen Movie (2001)

The ’00s saw a deluge of parody films after the success of Scary Movie. But why does Not Another Teen Movie work where, say, Meet The Spartans does not? Teen movies are universal and long-ranging, first of all. There’s a lot of material for the movie to touch on, from tropes with roots in John Hughes movies to then-current digs at movies like She’s All That and Varsity Blues. And instead of narrowly focusing on the current, Not Another Teen Movie focuses on what makes teen movies what they are. There’s the token black friend, the surprisingly deep football player, the nerdy girl who happens to be gorgeous once her glasses and overalls are removed. It also happens to be blessed with a great cast that went on to legit careers, from Chris Evans to Eric Christian Olsen to Josh Radnor, who shows up in a bit part. [Molly Eichel]

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15. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Although it barely made an impression when it was released in theaters in 2001, thanks to word of mouth and DVD sales, David Wain’s giddy, goofy parody of ’80s camp movies Wet Hot American Summer has already amassed a cult large enough to warrant a sequel series on Netflix. That’s due in part to its immense quotability—a pleasure that The A.V. Club, admittedly, indulges in from time to time—along with an ensemble cast stacked with future comedy superstars. But the film’s physical comedy works equally well—take the instant classic scene where Janeane Garofalo tells Paul Rudd to clean up his lunch tray, for example, or Christopher Meloni’s PDA with his beloved fridge. And that pitch-perfect parody of ’80s jock rock, “Higher And Higher,” which sounds like a Survivor B-side but was written specifically for the movie? Suddenly the cult makes perfect sense. [Katie Rife]

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16. Team America: World Police (2004)

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are often celebrated for their ruthless political satire, coupled with an enthusiastic commitment to obscenity. What’s just as impressive and far less acknowledged, however, is how skillful the South Park creators are at genre parody. Consider Team America: World Police. While the most popular bits in this feature-length puppet show are the broadest ones—the deliriously vulgar songs, the filthy sex scene, that moment when the main character just vomits for a couple minutes straight—the movie is maybe most successful as a spot-on spoof of the kind of jingoistic popcorn fare that Jerry Bruckheimer specializes in. Parker and Stone don’t just borrow the basic plot architecture of their targets, recycling story tropes from Top Gun and other machismo blockbusters. They also nail the look and sound of those movies, parroting their aesthetic choices with uncommon attention to detail (like that operatic swell of Hans Zimmer-style “Middle Eastern music” that accompanies the first appearance of a terrorist enemy). Of course, it’s possible that audiences may one day watch Team America and not recognize the clichés being skewered. They’ll probably still laugh at the puppet sex, though. [A.A. Dowd]

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