My first exposure to Spaceballs was as a kid of around six years old sitting on the family room floor. It was on that floor that I also watched my father watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Star Trek episode about tribbles, about how troublesome they were. On a similar floor in later years, I would come to watch my father watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Kung Pow, and a “Weird Al” Yankovic anthology. Spoofy things. Sci-fi things. In-joke things.
I say “I watched my father watch” deliberately, because I had no interest in these things.
They simply existed in the fabric of my mind because they existed in his. He shared them with me. For him, they were precious. For me, they were…I dunno what they were. Wallpaper. Yes — the equivalent of Mom’s Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By in the other room, which I remember nothing about but the theme songs (surely that is wallpaper for the ears).
The only stuff on TV I cared about and responded to (on brief occasion) was animation. My sibling and I literally only checked out Monty Python compilations from the library so we could skip to the brief, brief animated segments. The humor I responded to was on the gradient stretching from Spongebob Squarepants to Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo and that gradient did not include Animaniacs, which I guess I might point to as a cartoon I’d seen back then with an almost Brooksian sense of humor. (And it is a show which, even today, I barely care about…sorry.)
So now, a decade and a half after glancing at it from the corner of my little eye, with a somewhat different perspective on spoof movies and on comedy in general, I revisit the one, the only, the mighty…Spaceballs.
Spaceballs: Why Must I Talk About It?
Well, I’m glad you asked! Here’s where I introduce a new
monthly Quinlan Circle event: The DVD Challenge. Every month every once-in-a-while, I and my fellow Quinlanites (currently, that’s Thedude3445 and Jesse Pirnat ) will watch a movie and then discuss that movie. For me, that means blog posts…!
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We actually had two film recommenadations this month; the other was Fools Rush In, which I wouldn’t mind seeing in the future. We didn’t have tiebreaker votes either way, but I figured we should look at the Star Wars parody because QC still hasn’t stopped talking about Star Wars.
So that’s your explanation!
They’re The Spaceballs
I find it kinda funny, and kinda sad, that my childhood image of this movie is oddly expansive the way that patchy memories often are — like Lone Starr and Barf were crossing the universe as I watched (barely) on a galactic midnight. But then I play the movie in my tiny bachelor pad in the afternoon and I go, “Wow, is this kinda cheap?” (I can’t tell if the decision to make the sci-fi-fantasy people’s clothes medieval costumes is a strikingly original diversion from the parody source material, or a way to cut co– okay, it was definitely a way to cut costs.)
However, the film is not cheap. It’s just not an explosive massive Star War. It’s a small-scale story with a cast of dozens — and that ain’t a problem, it’s just not what my former self expected.
The story is that Not Han Solo (this dude named Lone Starr) and his friend Not Chewbacca (Barf the dog-man, or “mog”) must save Not Leia (Princess Vespa), Not C-3P0 (Dot Matrix), and their entire planet from the evil Not Vader (Dark Helmet), his second-in-command (Colonel Sanders), and a legion of evil called…the Spaceballs. Also, there are other characters, including a Yoda played by Mel Brooks (Yogurt) and a man played by Mel Brooks (President Skroob).
Before I go any further, let me give my critical assessment of the names of several characters:
Dot Matrix: Perfect
Barf: Basically Perfect
Yogurt: The Worst, And Therefore Best
Pizza the Hutt: Incredible For The Same Reasons
Dark Helmet: Cannot Ask for Better
President Skroob: More Than Sufficient
Lone Starr: Tolerable, Can’t Complain
Princess Vespa: Sure, It Works, But — And I Can’t Be The Only One Asking This — But Why Does She Not Drive A Vespa, I Mean, It’s In The Name. Wait, Was That Disconnect Intentional? If It Was Meant To Bother Me It’s Sure Fuckin’ Working (Where Is Princess Pinto)
Colonel Sanders: Too Easy. That’s What I Call Lowballing
As one can guess, this plot is merely a means to two ends: poking fun at Star Wars (and maybe a few other franchises along the way — I dig that mock-Ghostbusters theme), and delivering general silliness. It’s a fairly familiar setup to me. I’m not that well-traveled in the lands of cinema, but in the time since my childhood, I’ve seen Blazing Saddles with my entire eyes and National Lampoon’s Vacation with about 20% of one eye. I’ve also been on TVTropes and watched many, many white men on YouTube from ages 25-50 talk about movies — they seem to like it, or at least appreciate it. These filled a few of the gaps in my primordial memories. Thus, I already knew about the part where Yogurt shows off Spaceballs: The Comic, Spaceballs: The Cereal, and Spaceballs: The Flamethrower. I even knew about Spaceballs: The Toilet Paper. Seeing this onscreen was less “ha ha!” and more “oh, I recognize that.”
One would think that maybe the fresh jokes would hit harder (I mean, fresh to my dainty eyes), and they did, but not by a wide margin. I got a few gentle yuks in — Princess Vespa’s headphones, Dark Helmet’s action figures…
What I most appreciated were things that are both absurd and downplayed, like the fact that the Spaceballs home planet is just a bunch of balls and there’s a Capitol dome type of thing on a ball. And what about the backstory? I would’ve liked to be a fly on the wall when the minds behind this were hashing out ideas — I bet they were having a blast. This is a storm — perhaps not a perfect one — of laziness plus ingenuity. Think: what is the stupidest and simplest evil plan possible? A kidnapping? No…something far stupider. The Spaceballs need to steal…air. They don’t have enough air. Why? Because they, uh…squandered their air. How do they get more air? By vacuuming. They have a space vacuum — oh, no I’m not talking about “the vacuum of space,” I mean a literal vacuum, and no, it’s not some gadget, it’s just a really, really, really huge vacuum cleaner. And so on, until you’ve developed a full-fledged Spaceballs Extended Universe.
(…I mean, I’m hoping that it isn’t all a laborious joke about pants-contained testicles needing to be aired out — I’m sincerely hoping that this strange sentence is entirely from my own head. And I am too afraid to look it up.)
I discovered about two minutes into this film that it wasn’t the type of comedy for me. It was going to amuse me, at best. Every twenty minutes, something would come along to make me say, “Oh, I like how Dot Matrix has roller skates… Oh, Dark Helmet’s outfit would go well on an edgy anime girl…”
But I persevered, for your sakes.
Listen…my taste in comedy marks me as a product of my time. Despite not, like, hating it as a movie or anything, and not having a rough time with it, I would still hate to watch Spaceballs again. I wouldn’t mind watching Blazing Saddles again but that’s winning by a slim margin. But I would enjoy a re-watch of Airplane! and I think I know why: the flavor of absurdity.
Y’see, both Spaceballs and Airplane! have their ways of winking at the fourth wall. In Spaceballs, the characters actually find a videotape of their own movie, and there is, yes, a cute sequence where they watch themselves in real-time. The movie exists within the movie. The movie sells itself in the movie. It makes no sense in a self-consciously gleeful way. I take that as, in part, a celebration of film as a medium. It’s clear to me that Brooks and his colleagues love cinema, and by “it’s clear to me” I mean “I just kinda assume this based on glancing at his filmography, along with late-night Young Frankenstein airings.” It’s a movie. Why not play with that fact?
But my reaction to this play isn’t giddy delight. At its best, my reaction is surprise and, maybe, a smirk…but usually I just think, “Why do they look like tha– oh, they’re stunt doubles. I get it. Instead of the characters, they got their stunt doubles. I get it. They got their stunt doubles.” Then the characters say, “WE GOT THEIR STUNT DOUBLES!”
Yes, a HUGE part of this is just the aging of all comedy. I haven’t just seen most of these jokes explained before, I’ve seen them done before.
But that’s true for Airplane! too, and while I can’t say I love it (or that I hadn’t seen several jokes coming or referenced in YouTube videos by the aforementioned white guys), I was consistently gripped and intrigued. I think it’s the execution: mostly deadpan. And the film’s presentation: chillingly self-serious. And the fourth-wall winking: subtext rather than main-textual. (This might be a failed attempt at using impressive words.)
The serious characters are driving down the road in their shitty, not-really-there movie car, in front of obvious film stock. The obvious film stock then becomes more absurd in surprising ways. Simple setup, but it really gets me and has stuck with me. Meanwhile, in Spaceballs, we get something similar when the bad guys enter a wacky analogue to Star Wars‘s Warp Speed called Ludicrous Speed. The build-up is suitably serious (that is, unsuitably serious) and when they take off, it gets me to smirk: the space-warping effect I’m used to goes a notch or two too far into…something a little ludicrous.
The evil ship speeds ahead of the heroes, leaving a stream of…plaid! I thought, “Good one, movie!” But I was less impressed when we hung on Barf and Lone Starr’s faces as they said “……..they’ve gone to plaid!” and when the speed made Dark Helmet crash into the ship panel. I dunno, mate, I just thought they went too far on the less important elements of this joke. I would’ve liked even longer, wackier animation — in other words, a HUGE helping of absurdity rather than a few-second drizzle. But as you know, I did skip most of Monty Python.
So why did I say that my comic tastes here mark me as a product of my time? Well, because I’m reminded of Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! where one of the central jokes is the idea that its creators are incompetent. This is an obvious illusion — we know the creators set out to make absurd, slapdash-looking shit and in that way succeeded. But I fall for the fantasy every time and I laugh for days. It’s a fantasy that a lot of people don’t fall for, which is a difference in comedic sensibility.
I also think that my taste in puns has been affected by Tim and Eric and similar stuff. I favor Yogurt and Pizza the Hutt based on their “so bad it’s good” or “ironic” merits, but the irony curves back around into an honest laugh and earnest thoughts of “YOGURT, they really went with that, that’s brilliant.”
What I’m saying is that I can’t enjoy classic comedy films because I’m too far gone and so are millions of my Gen Z compatriots.
Spaceballs: The Conclusion: The Game
Aw, darn. What a disenchanting watch this was for me. I won’t even get this for my Hashtag Nostalgic video cabinet. That’s right: I would get “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but not this. I have no shame.
That’s just how it goes sometimes. I pick up old beloved classic Groundhog Day and I am over the moon; I pick up old beloved classic Ghostbusters and I am yawning. I pick up the Bravestarr movie and adore it, even though it’s legitimately not good; I pick up Spaceballs, which probably has more love and care and fun per square inch, and I do not care. I place it in the trash bin. Seconds later, legions of fans swarm the trash bin.
I cross the name off my list of Star Wars-related media to watch in my lifetime…never to return.
…..Nah, nah, I’ll go watch Young Frankenstein instead (which is on my list of movie monster-related media to watch in my lifetime).
Click here to read Thedude3445’s also-critical, also-surprised take on Spaceballs. For even more on TV and film, check out my thoughts on women in grossout comedy and on growing up with Harry Potter…then reading it for the first time in my twenties.