The Screwball Case of ZAZ Parodies With Moxie

Today we have a very special guest! She hosts the awesome podcast, Your Brain on Facts. Please welcome Moxie LaBouche! 


We want to thank Moxie for coming up with today’s topic, screwball comedy parodies (specifically of the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker variety.)

What makes a screwball comedy? Well, to get technical, screwball comedies began as a sub-genre of romantic comedy in the 1930’s. They were known as satire of the traditional love story and included classics like, “It Happened One Night” and “Bringing Up Baby.” The term has become a little more broad over time, and movies that we consider to be screwball comedies today might not focus specifically on a love story, but have elements that still turn the classic romance on its head. 

[Bonus fact: “It Happened One Night” shaped the character of Bugs Bunny.  Bugs’ mannerisms were partially inspired by a scene where Clark Gable’s fast-talking character snacks on carrots while leaning on a fence.  Tangent bonus: Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, hated carrots, but had to bite into and chew them during recordings.  He spat them out the instant he could.]

The movies we will talk about today are a great mix of screwball, parody, and satire. We picked a few films from the 80’s and 90’s, a time when parody film was at its peak. Two of them star Leslie Neilsen, a man that became synonymous with farce. But before we begin, let’s talk a little about the history of film parody and where these movies might’ve pulled their influence!The Case of the Film Parody 


The Great Train Robbery (1903)

  • Parody (or spoof) film is a genre of comedy that comically imitates another genre of film or specific films. 
    • The first known film that we now refer to as a spoof was the 1905 12 minute short film called The Little Train Robbery. 
      • It parodied the 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, a Thomas Edison production and a groundbreaking early film.
      • The music for the Little Train Robbery is more jovial, to give it an obvious cue that it was a spoof and not serious.
        • It was directed by Edwin Porter at Edison Studios and contained an all child cast. The short was meant to be a funny little take on outlaws robbing a locomotive.

The Little Train Robbery (1905) One of the first known spoofs.

  • Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator
    • For the next few decades, parody films were a common part of the comedy genre with entries like: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish(1916.) This was a Sherlock Holmes parody that focused on the detective’s drug addiction.
    • Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie, The Great Dictator, was a funny yet powerful critique of the Nazi regime. This film showed that parody films could cross the threshold into talking pictures, and it made audiences and critics take notice of how the genre could be used for social commentary
  • The Three Stooges
    • Although the Three Stooges are known mostly for slapstick, they used their shorts for parody as well. They actually spoofed Hitler before Charlie Chaplin! 
    • Both Chaplin and the Three Stooges’ spoofs showed the social impact that these movies can have.
    • The Stooges have had influences in many comedic films since, including the Naked Gun which we will talk about today! Their shorts also featured classic bits, puns, and visual gags similar to ones in Airplane, The Naked Gun, and Hot Shots!
  • [Bonus fact: Curly Howard was an avid dog-lover and regularly rescued dogs in the middle of filming days, bringing them onto the set with him–dogs he just met five minutes ago.]
    • The Marx Brothers
      • The Marx Brothers were known for humor that was intelligent and character driven, but they were also no strangers to visual gags!
      • In 1946 they spoofed wartime dramas with “A Night in Casablanca,” and of course their masterpiece “Duck Soup” was also an influential entry to the satire and parody genres [I have soooo many facts about the Marx Brothers.]
    • Carry On series 
      • One of the longest running and most successful series of parody films is the Carry On series from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.
      • This set of 31 British films were low-budget and often used common comedy tropes and slapstick humor.
      • They hold an important place in the history of parody because at their peak in the 1960s, they proved that the general public had an appetite for parody filmmaking. 
      • These films made fun of everything from the James Bond series, to the Elizabeth Taylor epic film Cleopatra. 
      • They had a low budget and never starred big names in acting, though there was a general troupe of actors that resurfaced in the movies. 
        • This is a common practice with comedy films in general! Think about Monty Python and National Lampoon, and the fact that so many spoof movies had Leslie Neilsen! 
    • In the 1970’s, audiences took even more notice of parody with the arrival of filmmaker Mel Brooks. Movies like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles showed that audiences would flock to see expertly acted films with clever screenplays, no matter how ridiculous the subject matter. These movies were silly–sure–but they were also respectable and sometimes lampooned taboo topics like racism and sexism. 
    • But in 1980, a disaster parody took flight and soared into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. It launched the comedic career of Leslie Neilsen and is considered to be one of the most quotable movies of all time. “Airplane!” performed an incredible feat–it transcended a subgenre of comedy and is considered by all counts a classic film in general. 

Comparison between Zero Hour! and Airplane!


  • Summary
    • When the passengers and crew board an airplane, they are incapacitated due to food poisoning. A former fighter pilot with a fear of flying and a drinking problem must land the plane with the help of a stewardess who also happens to be his ex. 
  • Although Airplane is a parody of the disaster movie genre as a whole, it’s specifically a parody of Zero Hour! (1957)
    • The team: Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker had worked together on “Kentucky Fried Movie” in 1977, which had several sketches parodying disaster and kung fu movies. It was based on a live show called, “Kentucky Fried Theater.” 
      • The story goes: while they were researching material for their show, they stumbled upon Zero Hour! and found it to be unintentionally hilarious
    • As audiences would soon realize, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker had a special kind of style. Instead of actors constantly doing and saying funny things, their films had actors performing mundane tasks while the world fell apart around them. 
  • Although assured that it would be legally ok to parody the film, ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker) wanted to make sure. In order to completely avoid a lawsuit they bought the remake rights for just $2500.
    • A lot of the basic plot dialogue is the same between the two movies.
    • One major difference, however, is that in Zero Hour he was chasing his son and estranged wife. In Airplane he follows his girlfriend.  
  • Airplane is what really skyrocketed Leslie Nielsen into comedic roles and sent him into The Naked Gun Series and more.
    • By the time he acted in Airplane, Nielsen had about 25 years of acting under his belt. But, this was indeed the first time he was cast in a comedy! 
    • Nielsen had been acting since the 1950’s and even appeared in the type of movies that Airplane! poked fun at. He appeared as a Captain in The Poseidon Adventure, a notable disaster movie, and he was known to play dramatic parts. So in a sense, he parodied himself! 
    • He continued to play both dramatic and comedic roles until the end of the 1980’s when he made the full switch to comedy. He was known for his expert timing and dry delivery.
    • In a tribute to Nielsen, David Zucker said “Offscreen, he wasn’t so much of a joke or storyteller but a chronic prankster. The stories are legend about the fart machine, which he kept hidden and sprang on any hapless stranger who approached him. He used it on set, on talk shows, anywhere he could find a victim. One time, at a press junket in Charlotte, I remember watching Leslie let loose with the device on a crowded elevator, the other occupants squirming up against the walls in an effort to distance themselves. And just like the scenes we put him in, he never broke character, never let on that he knew he was being funny.”
  • This movie had such a cultural significance that in 2010 it was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. 
  • The movie starred: 
    • Leslie Nielsen/ Dr. Rumack
    • Julie Hagerty/ Elaine Dickinson
    • Robert Hays/ Ted Striker
    • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/ Roger Murdock
    • Lloyd Bridges/ Steve McCroskey
    • Peter Graves/ Captain Clarence Oveur 
    • Robert Stack/ Captain Rex Kramer


  • Based on Police Squad, a short-lived TV series in 1982 which was done by the ZAZ Team.
    • The series only lasted 6 episodes and then was cancelled. Even though it was short lived it was nominated for 2 Emmy Awards. The year of the show is referenced in the movie when Drebin takes a jar of mayonnaise out of the fridge and it has an expiration date of June 1982.
    • The Naked Gun movie was a way to continue the series in a way. Leslie Nielsen comes back as the detective Frank Drebin.
      • Although originally they wanted to call the movie Police Squad, it was determined that the name too closely resembled another popular funny cop movie named Police Academy. Naked Gun was chosen out of about 20 names because they said it “promised so much more than it could possibly deliver.”
    • Summary
      • After the attempted murder of his fellow officer, Lietenant Frank Drebin must find out who was behind this attrocity. While trying to uncover who the attackers are he becomes suspicious of a well known businessman Vincent Ludwig. Ludwig, who is revealed to be a criminal mastermind, is planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II while she is set to visit Los Angeles, California. 
        • This makes it particularly amusing that in 2005 Leslie Nielsen performed in front of 13,000 people at the Saskatchewan Centennial Gala in Canada with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance. 
    • The movie, while written by the ZAZ team, was only directed by David Zuckerman. When asked about Nielsen’s acting he said that “There was no improvising on set. He (Nielsen) knew where the joke was and knew better than to mess with the style, try to wink or be funny. He absolutely trusted me and never tried to gild the lily. We purposely used straight actors in all roles and the humour came from behind the camera.”
    • This was the only film in the series where the current President of the time was not impersonated.
    • Spoilers, but this was one of three movies from 1988 that featured a steam roller running over the villain. The others were Who Framed Roger Rabbit and A Fish Called Wanda.
    • When Nielsen passed away in 2010 at 84 the Naked Gun theme song was played at his funeral where he was laid to rest in Fort Lauderdale.
    • [His headstone reads “Let ‘er rip!”  And yes, it’s a fart joke.  Other famous funny people who got the last word in include Jack Lemmon, whose marker merely says “Jack Lemmon in,” Rodney Dangerfield – “There goes the neighborhood,” and Irish comedian Spike Milligan – “I told you I was ill.”]
    • Starring
      • Leslie Nielsen/ Frank Drebin
      • Priscilla Presley/ Jane Spencer
      • OJ Simpson/ Nordberg
        • Susan Beaubian, who played his wife in this movie, would go on to star in the first installment of FX’s series American Crime Story from 2016 entitled The People v. O.J. Simpson. 
      • George Kennedy/ Captain Ed Hocken
      • Ricardo Montalbán/ Vincent Ludwig 
        • He was chosen for this role specifically because of how well he did as the villain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan from 1982.
      • Nancy March/ The Mayor
      • Jeannette Charles/ Queen Elizabeth II
        • She had been an impersonator of the Queen since 1971.
      • Weird Al Yankovic as himself
        • When the ZAZ team found out that Weird Al was obsessed with Police Squad they wrote a special scene just for him. While the movie was in theaters Al would bring dates with him to see it without revealing that he was in it. They would promptly freak out.
        • [Yankovic appeared in all three of the Naked Gun Films as himself in the first and third and as “police station thug” in the second movie.  Weird Al also sang the title song for Spy Hard which starred Leslie Nielsen.]


  • Before we get into our last movie, we want to quickly mention one more production by the Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker team. Although their style of comedy is considered ground-breaking, the team did not continue making movies long after Airplane!
    • Top Secret! 
      • Top Secret! was written and directed by the same ZAZ team behind Airplane! But the trio went their separate ways after this movie.
      • It was a spoof of WWII spy movies and the Elvis films of the 1950’s and 60’s. 
        • Elvis movies were referenced in the animated film Coco and spoofed by the 1960’s musical, “Bye Bye Birdie.” 
      • The film stars Val Kilmer as Nick Rivers, a rockstar that falls in love with a woman while performing in Germany and unwittingly becomes part of the French Resistance.
      • [The songs that Val Kilmer sings in the film are actually performed by Kilmer himself and were featured on the film’s soundtrack released in 1984 under Kilmer’s character’s name Nick Rivers.]
      • Although it made over 20 million dollars (twice it’s budget) the film was considered a flop and is a much lesser-known film in comparison to Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Roger Ebert said that the movie was vastly underrated. 
      • [In the restaurant scene, when Hillary places an order with the waiter in apparent German, she’s actually speaking in Yiddish for, roughly, “Go bash your head in.”  The waiter’s line translates to  the Yiddish curse “go take a s**t in the ocean”.]

HOT SHOTS (1991)

  • Hot Shots was the first solo director role for Jim Abrahams. It was co-written by Pat Proft who also penned the screenplay for Police Academy (and apparently the Star Wars Christmas special.) 
  • Hot Shots was able to take advantage of the now well established genre of the movie parody, and according to Den of Geek, the Hot Shots movies were the last great spoofs.
  • Summary
    • The story follows Topper Harley, a former pilot who left the air force because he couldn’t handle the pressure of living in his father’s shadow. But, the US brings him back for one last mission: to destroy Iraqi nuclear facilities. Among these challenges he must also face a rival pilot played by Carey Elwes. 
    • The movie was filmed during the gulf war, which reportedly made the cast and crew a little uneasy. Charlie Sheen reportedly said it was strange to be wearing a wardrobe that resembled what he was seeing on the covers of newspapers.
  • When taking a look at the cover it is overt that this movie is a parody of Top Gun.
    • While movies like Top Gun are allowed to use actual ships for filming, Hot Shots had to be inventive in order to make it look like  they were on a ship. An example of this is that they used a parking lot on a piece of land over a body of low water located in an old marine park in Palos Verdes, California. 
      • The cinematographer shot the boat at an angle to make it appear as if it were sitting on the water.
      • Another example of this is that there were many aircraft scenes taken and used from the 1991 movie Flight of the Intruder.
  • The character of Admiral Benson was originally offered to the one and only Leslie Nielsen but he reportedly told Abrahams that “I think I’ve done enough spoof movies with you.” The role was then given to Lloyd Bridges who had starred alongside Nielsen in Airplane! 
    • You remember, he was the man who picked the wrong week to quit smoking!
  • The film also parodies Dances With Wolves, which Abrahams saw while they were shooting. He came back to set and scrapped another prologue scene for one with Sheen living with Native Americans under the name, “Fluffy Bunny Feet” 
  • In the credits the laughs continue as Abrahams includes an unfinished brownie recipe and also suggestions on what to do after the movie. The suggestions are a nod to when the ZAZ team wrote for The Kentucky Fried Movie which also had suggestions on what to do after the movie.
  • Starring
    • Valeria Golino as Scarlett O’Hara, Lois Lane, and Ramada Thompson
    • Charlie Sheen as Superman, Rhett Butler, Lt. Sean Topper Harley
    • Lloyd Bridges as Admiral Thomas ‘Tug’ Benson
    • Cary Elwes as Lt. Kent Gregory
    • John Cryer as Jim ‘Wash Out’ Pfaffenbach
    • Ryan Stiles as ‘Mailman’ Farnham
    • Pat Proft as Lawrence Lipps and he also helped write the screenplay as well
  • Charlie Sheen, John Cryer, and Ryan Stiles would all be a part of the CBS show Two and a Half Men in 2003.
  • A reviewer named Widgett Walls said “Well, it’s not Airplane! but precious little is.”
  • On the set of Hot Shots! Jim Abrahams told Entertainment Weekly about his former collaborators: “I’m genuinely proud that we managed to go 20 years together and there were never any blowouts or drug rehabilitations. I count them among my best friends.” 
  • The writers, director, and cast all returned for Hot Shots Part Deux. While researching the movies it became very clear that many people prefer the second film! Maybe we should include it if we ever do a sequel to our sequels episode 😉 


  • Spy Hard (1996) which also starred Leslie Nielsen was written in part by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Since then they have done more parody movies. Do you remember them or like them? Probably not, because while most at least made their money back they pretty much are forgotten with only about 1 star reviews on IMDB.
    • Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, and Vampires Suck.
  • The Wayans Movies
    • The Wayans family is a comedy dynasty. Ever since Keenan Wayans created In Living Color, which starred other members of the family, the Wayans have made a lasting mark on the parody genre. 
    • Two of their most successful spoofs are: Don’t be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, and I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.
      • These films lampooned a series of Black coming-of-age films that take place in “the hood,” such as: Boyz n the Hood, South Central, and Menace to Society.
    • The Scary Movie Franchise is possibly their most prominent collection of movies in the mainstream. However, the Wayans family has also produced films like Dance Flick, A Haunted House, Fifty Shades of Black, and Blankman
  • Who is today’s equivalent to Leslie Neilson? 
    • Will Ferrell
      • Blades of Glory
      • Eurovision
    • Mike Meyers
      • Austin Powers
      • The Love Guru 

Judd Apatow is largely credited with giving new life to the R-rated comedy genre in the 21st century thanks to critical and commercial hits “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” But even though Apatow has found mainstream success with his films, he’s still very aware of just how far the comedy genre has fallen in Hollywood.  He believes the major studios are no longer “smart enough and funny enough” to make the kind of comedies that were once guaranteed blockbusters, such as Paramount Pictures’ “Airplane!”  Apatow explains:

“After the last writers’ strike, it felt like the studios decided not to develop movies. They used to buy a lot of scripts, and they had big teams of people giving notes, and they worked for years with people in collaboration on those scripts. I feel like the studios don’t buy as many scripts now. It used to be you’d open up Variety, and you’d see a movie studio had just bought a big high-concept comedy. Now it seems like they’d rather things come in packaged: a script, a cast, a director. As a result, a lot of great comedy writers are going to television instead of sitting at home and trying to write a script for a film, write the way I was.”

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