Like most genres, the parody movie has a vast spectrum of quality. The best parody movies pick apart specific conventions from the movies that they're referencing. Oftentimes, the changes that they make to the established formula are relatively minor. These tweaks make the conventions of the genre feel totally ridiculous, though, and in doing so, they make it hard to watch any movies from that genre again. The best parody movies don't just make us laugh, they make us wonder why we ever watched movies from that genre in the first place.
Parody movies have something of a reputation for being dumb, but the best ones aren't. Instead, they take well-worn tropes and make them seem fresh. Even as they pay tribute to the movie genres they're making fun of, they can also have a lot of fun tearing them down. This happens to some movie genres more than others. Eventually, though, every genre will get one sort of parody or another.
Bohemian Rhapsody is living proof that musical biopics aren't dead, but Walk Hard definitely did a number on them. The movie is a direct parody of Walk the Line, but it manages to critique every movie ever made about a famous musician. It takes us through the early childhood tragedy, the lingering resentment, and the doubts of those around him.
Dewey also learns and performs music instantly, and broods constantly. He's the perfect musical parody. In skewering the musical biopic genre, Walk Hard reminded us how littered with cliches it always was. All that was needed was some slight tweaking to make this movie sing.
Airplane! was originally designed as a parody of the Airport movies, and other films from the late '70s. Although these movies have been largely forgotten, Airplane! has not. It tells the story of widespread illness on an airplane and the traumatized fighter pilot who is forced to land the plane safely.
Along the way, the film tells some of the best jokes ever recorded in cinema. Although it's been almost 40 years since the movie's release, Airplane! holds up in a way that many contemporary comedies don't. It's one of the funniest movies ever made, even though the disaster movies it's based on have long since vanished.
20th Century Fox
Mel Brooks is going to show up quite a bit on this list, and for good reason. He's probably this genre's one true master. In Young Frankenstein, Mel turned his eye to the story of Frankenstein and his monster. This is a great example of how little a premise needs to be tweaked to completely change the tone.
In many ways, Young Frankenstein is a conventional retelling of the Frankenstein story. The jokes it chooses to tell, though, are all totally original. It's a loving, silly parody of the monster movie, and it's one that's totally committed to the bit. It even has a legendary musical number.
Another Mel Brooks parody, Blazing Saddles helped redefine the western with a fairly simple premise. When a black sheriff comes to a white western town, he's forced to deal with racism from the people he's supposed to protect. This leads to some remarkable, daring comedy about the insidious ways that racism works.
Eventually, the whole thing becomes a meta-exercise in moviemaking. But first, Mel does an incredible job of pointing out the ways that race and racism have infected the western genre. There were plenty of westerns made after Blazing Saddles, but they were all a little more cautious about race than their predecessors had been.
The cast of Wet Hot American Summer is enough reason to watch it. It's a movie with tons of future comedy stars in it before they were stars. Everyone from Amy Poehler to Bradley Cooper to Paul Rudd shows up, and each one of them has at least one great moment.
The film tells the story of a group of teenagers on the last day of summer camp in 1981 and works as a spoof of many of the teen comedies that came out of the early 2000s. It's a sex comedy in which every actor is way too old for their role, and although it was a failure upon its release, it's developed a cult following in the years since.
Rock stars are often total idiots, and This is Spinal Tap knew that incredibly well. The film is a mockumentary about a fictional metal band filled with iconic, hilarious moments. It's meant to satirize the rock documentaries of the late '70s, which often had a very glowing opinion of the bands they followed.
For This is Spinal Tap, dozens of hours of footage were spliced together, in part because the movie was largely improvised. The improvised feel gives the movie a lived-in quality, even though it's about a fake band. Even so, the movie captures something essential about the stupidity at the heart of rock and roll.
This is a little-known parody movie that actually incorporates footage from the movies it's making fun of. It's a parody of the noir genre starring Steven Martin as a private detective. Steve's character is charged with solving a rather ludicrous crime. Along the way, he has discussions with characters from old noir films, including Notorious and The Big Sleep.
The fact that this film works at all is something of a miracle. It's not just a funny film, it's a film that gets funnier the more you know about noir films. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid works because it loves noir movies and knows how dumb they can be.
Spaceballs has only one mission: to take down Star Wars. Of all of Mel Brooks's films, Spaceballs is certainly the most direct in its parody. It's also one of the funniest. The film aligns fairly closely with the story of Star Wars, but everything is turned up to eleven.
Spaceballs also contains plenty of strange, somewhat random tangents so that it can make fun of as much science fiction as possible. Along the way, though, it also pays tribute to the movies it makes fun of and has plenty of time to let its talented cast shine. It's not a perfect movie, but man is it easy to watch.
This film is actually a parody of TV cop shows as much as any movie genre. It's based on a TV show about a Los Angeles police lieutenant starring Leslie Niesen, and its sense of humor is incredibly silly. The film is littered with slapstick gags and plenty of verbal puns. On paper, The Naked Gun seems like a stupid movie that would be very easy to throw together. In reality, though, this kind of film requires more thought than it might seem.
Although the TV show it was based on wasn't a hit, The Naked Gun was so successful that it spawned two sequels.
Scary Movie is probably the most famous parody movie franchise. It takes its inspiration from the horror genre, specifically the movies Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
The film was a smash hit upon its release and spawned four sequels. The movie's self-aware discussions of the horror genre, and ability to parody that genre were a hit with audiences. The fact that Scream, which itself parodied the horror genre, received the parody treatment speaks to the hunger for movies that send up and poke fun at the tropes of the horror genre. Sometimes, it's better to laugh than to be scared.
New Line Cinema
If you only watch James Bond movies, you might think that all British men are smooth, sexy, and suave. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is here to make fun of that notion. It tells the story of a British spy from the 1960s that's awoken from a cryogenic slumber in order to solve a case. In poking fun at James Bond, it suggests an alternate version of what a spy from the 1960s might look like.
The film spawned two sequels and launched Mike Meyers into superstardom. Although some of the film's humor hasn't aged all that well, it's hard to argue with the hilarious concept at its center.
There's plenty of serious movies and TV shows about zombies. They're often some of the scariest things to be found in the horror genre. When Edgar Wright decided to make a zombie movie, though, he thought he should take a different tone with the genre. Shaun of the Dead tells the story of a low-life guy who finds his purpose in the zombie apocalypse.
Along the way, plenty of hijinks ensue. Although Edgar is a funny filmmaker, he's also an incredibly dynamic and visual artist. One key scene near the film's end involves a zombie beat down set to music that makes the whole film worth watching on its own.
A parody of fantasy films when there weren't many to parody, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a hilarious, strange film. It tells the story of the knights of the round table... sort of. More than anything, the film is designed to get as many laughs as possible, and it achieves that goal quite well.
Every scene in this film has a wonderful joke at the heart of it. Whether it's the knight on the bridge who refuses to quit or the knights who use coconuts because they can't afford horses, the film is self-aware and brilliant from moment one. It's one of the earliest parody films on this list, and as such, it was a huge influence to everything that followed it.
Galaxy Quest isn't just a great parody film, it's a truly excellent movie. Telling the story of a group of actors who star on a Star Trek rip-off, the film follows them as they become part of an actual intergalactic adventure. The film works because it's so self-aware, and it's filled to the brim with jokes.
Although Galaxy Quest didn't kill sci-fi adventure films, it poked a very necessary hole in them. It was a reminder that science fiction is always silly, but it can sometimes be thrilling as well. The best parts of the genre know how and when to mix those two elements.
If Tropic Thunder is taking aim at any one genre, it's probably the prestige picture. The film follows a group of actors filming in the jungle and makes plenty of fun of their vanity. Director and star Ben Stiller does a great job getting at what makes acting such a silly profession.
There are elements that may not hold up to modern-day scrutiny. Robert Downey Jr. plays a white actor in black face, and the politics of that alone are enough for an entire essay. On the whole, though, the film is a perfect send-up of gritty men who try to make "serious" war movies.
MacGruber seemed like a total bomb when it was first released. It didn't play well with critics, and it wasn't a financial success either. The movie is a direct parody of MacGyver, but it works pretty well as a parody of action movies in general.
As action movies like The Fast and the Furious have become more and more ridiculous, MacGruber has proved more relevant than ever. Every genre needs a great send-up, and MacGruber gave the action genre the perfect tribute. It's a self-aware, hilarious comedy that commits so fully to the story its telling that many people thought it was bad when they first saw it. They know better now.
Hot Shots! is a relatively straight-forward parody film from 1991. The film's primary target is Top Gun, but it also features scenes from a variety of other contemporary films. Although most parody movies like this are riddled with dumb jokes, Hot Shots! understands the brotherhood sentimentality that it's parodying perfectly.
With a cast featuring Charlie Sheen and Cary Elwes, the movie is equal parts jokey comedy and tribute to Top Gun and movies like it. You can't make a great parody movie unless you love the movies you're parodying. In the case of Hot Shots!, it was clear that the creators made the movie out of love.